Sep 17 2012
Alison and I just returned from a lovely 4-day weekend in Maine, where I attended a great little painting workshop with Henry Isaacs and Ashley Bryan. Henry is a landscape painter whose work I find absolutely stunning and inspiring. Ashley is inspiring to me both as a children’s book author/illustrator, a painter, and a radiant beacon of joy in the world. The workshop is organized and hosted by the Islesford Dock Gallery and Restaurant (Cynthia and Dan Lief are the wonderful proprietors). The gallery has excellent art, as I had seen on many previous visits to Islesford. The restaurant, as I discovered over the weekend, has really spectacular food — by any standard! We were fed so well I’d have to say the meals threatened to upstage the painting.
I will post a few of my paintings above the cut, and the rest below — along with a bunch of thoughts about painting that are bouncing around in my head.
Friday was a very foggy morning on the beach. Henry gave a great little demo and talk about seeing everything as solid, even the air, and treating it that way, rather than having a background with a subject in front of it. My first attempt at this was clumsy. I was using gouache, which is my favorite medium for landscape. It’s hard to cover a large surface with gouache though, and that caused some problems every time I tried to work larger than about 5×7″.
My second attempt used too complex a subject, and while I like this piece, it feels more like a drawing than a painting, and more like my habitual approach than what I was going for.
After that I did some pieces that caught parts of what I was after.
Friday afternoon I worked smaller and explored various pieces of the territory between realistic depiction and a more abstract or expressionistic approach.
This was my favorite in terms of what I was trying to explore, and was admired by Henry and a couple of the other painters:
On Saturday I started out loose and tried to stay that way. I used acrylics in the morning and gouache in the afternoon.
Alison also joined in, and did two paintings in acrylic. She struggled on the first one a bit, but had fun, and then did this second piece, which I think is extremely respectable, especially for only her second painting.
Sunday we just had a short time to paint from the dock. I don’t really like these pieces. I kept the paint-handling loose (maybe even too) loose, but was still basically trying to capture an optical composition. Also I didn’t let the paint get quite heavy enough on the surface.
On the plane home, I found myself compelled to make some small sketches in my sketchbook — sort of visual notes about some of these ideas and ways to treat mark-making and breaking up the picture plane.
I found myself thinking about the film Dream of Light, a documentary about realist painter Antonio López García attempts to paint a quince tree. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be available digitally, but it’s quite an interesting film. Garcia’s methods are incredibly rigid and precise, much the opposite of Henry and Ashley, but in his conversation with another artist he talks about a certain kind of fullness that must be brought to every observation, every mark or every part of the picture. Wikipedia quotes him as saying “the pictorial nucleus begins to grow and you work until the whole surface has an expressive intensity equivalent to what you have before you, converted into a pictorial reality.” If you understand the phrase “pictorial reality” more generally to mean that the picture has its own reality, rather than necessarily being pictorial in the sense of a reflection of optical reality, then I think this is consistent with Henry’s approach, and is perhaps fundamental to making a successful painting in any style.
I’ve been bouncing this around in my head, comparing it to ideas I have from zen and aikido. I may be straying from what Henry’s talking about, I don’t know, but I like the idea that it’s all about looking at the world non-materialistically — as we get away from mental constructions and Platonic ideal forms, we see reality as it is. This is necessary to draw accurately, since our idea of what a tree looks like is one of the first things that gets in our way of drawing a specific tree. Going further, we can say that all matter is just made of energy, particles and waves bouncing around and interacting. The “empty” air is full of this stuff just as “solid” objects are (and the latter are mostly made of empty space). It is the stuff of the waking dream we call our life. Seeing it all as equally full (or empty), and seeing the paint likewise, painting becomes much more like sculpture — building a thing out of stuff (the painting) that replicates some aspect of the experience we have when we look at other stuff (the subject).
Incidentally, in this view the word “abstract” is problematic. Replicating any aspect of the experience of observing is no more abstract than replicating the illusion of what we “see” (the scene/seen being an imposition of our understanding of forms on our visual field).
Anyway, I had a great time. I recommend coastal Maine and Acadia National Park. I recommend going to Northeast Harbor and getting on the mailboat out to Little Cranberry Island. I recommend while you are there you visit the Dock gallery and eat at the restaurant. And if you like to paint and/or eat, I recommend this workshop.