Dance Steps in Painting

I'm visiting some older paintings this month. The Philadelphia painter Josephy Sweeney inspired me to get my old 35mm slides digitally scanned, suggesting I try one of the commercially available scanning services  (as it's a nasty time consuming job). Just got back the first batch of scans and they're sending me back in time. 

Two of images caught my eye, above a vine charcoal drawing from of the tree outside my studio window just after a heavy snow, and below a 44 x 55" oil, a studio painting done from a smaller plein air study from a field north of Houston, Texas.

I grew up in a family with good people in it but with some real peculiarities- nobody was into music. I don't think I ever heard my parents so much as turn on the radio. Time passes, things change. Years later I find myself a painter. And I even like to dance.

Humans everywhere invented a culture of dancing even before they came up with written language. Buried in our shared psyche must be some wiring that connects moving our bodies with the movement of our emotions. 

The drawing at the top of the page is in its way a dance lesson. You know when something you're looking at strikes a chord within you, and so it was with this tree. This drawing is about the physical act of a painter swinging his arm to describe the heavy snow pulling downward against the springy branches of a large pine tree. Telling about a swirling descent into what...a change in mood, getting to the bottom of a question, memories of the past? And the way the drawing twists and bends as it moves your eye downwards is part of the story. 

Below is very different picture. I was down in East Texas for one of my exhibitions at Meredith Long & Co. in Houston. Naturally I took my paints and spent a few days exploring. Down there they have a variety of pine that's taller and more spindly than the northerly evergreens I'm used to. Their trunks bear only a few branches, and those seem to cluster just at their very tops. Otherwise your eye is uninterrupted  as it follows their gesture upwards. At first they look like pure vertical columns, but then you notice they bend in subtle arcs like the delicate bones of a bird's wing. 

Walking under these trees felt a little like entering a Renaissance cathedral where all the architecture's lines force your eye to ascend to the barrel vaulted ceiling. So I did a painting about those rhythms of  pines that were so good at pulling my eyes up to the heavens. A totally different kind of movement than the snowy drawing above and it stirred up in me a very different set of feelings. While I'm not a religious person, I decided a perfect title for the oil was Cathedral.

Sometimes in the studio I like to blast my music. More often I work in silence these days. Maybe that's because as I paint I'm struggling to hear something else. Painting has a long tradition of moving to its own unique music-  paintings are recordings of how the artist's brush taps, sweeps, swells, diminishes  Go to a museum and look for awhile- you realize it's like an grand old dancehall that never really stays quiet or still.


  1. President Ulysses S Grant said he only knew two tunes, one was Yankee Doodle and the other wasn't.

  2. The area where I live in northeast Texas is called the Piney Woods- tall stands of loblolly and long leaf pines are everywhere, both of which were present where I grew up in north Florida. So, they are a favorite motif of mine, and I am pleased to see they captured your heart too.

  3. Deborah, where on earth did they come up with the name "loblolly"?.

  4. Hi Philip. Here's an excerpt from a tree book I have.

    The Loblolly is native to the east coast of North America from New Jersey to Florida and Texas. As such, it has a long history with the pioneers and is known by several other names, among them Rosemary, Old Field, Bull, Indian and Longstraw. In the South, the name Loblolly means a depression, and as the tree was originally observed growing in river bottoms, that is where it acquired its principal name. It has a tendency to take over abandoned areas, thus the name Old-Field; it is extremely aromatic, which is where "Rosemary" came from; and it is blessed with extremely large trunks, suggesting the name "Bull."

    And here's a link to a video about loblolly's in east Texas

  5. Deborah, thanks for the loblolly stories. My tree knowledge just took a big jump forward.

  6. Interesting post Philip. I was too embarassed
    to dance, yet I have great rythem of movement.
    As kids we used to walk the train tracks,and would see how far & fast we could on the rails.
    Today those tracks have been removed.
    Same as music. I loved to blast my tunes. I felt it was supposed to be loud. Some tunes, the louder the better!
    Today, my tunes sit quietly in the corner. I listen to music as a treat at the end of the week.
    I now want to focus in on painting, and what it
    can do to express those thoughts and feeling I
    Wouldn't it be cool if there was a way to paint so the viewers would dance and sing when they saw it!(ha)

  7. Bill, I think in an inner way, viewers really do dance and sing a bit when they see art they really respond to. For me there's a real quiet music to say a good Winslow Homer painting. Maybe that's what I'll title my new show, "Quiet Music".


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