Unlearning a Bad Lesson from the Past

Searching through my flat file drawers for another drawing this week, I ran across an early drawing I made, Edward Hopper's Kitchen, vine charcoal, 8 x 10", 2002. This is the tiny table and chairs Hopper sat at to eat his meals in his S.Truro, Massachusetts studio.  It's funny as Hopper was 6'5" tall and the idea of him squeezing his lanky frame into this tiny space makes me laugh. The kitchen is so small that to get this view I had to back up and set up my French easel in the adjoining bedroom. Hopper was a guy who put painting first, and when he designed his Cape Cod studio he lavishly devoted most of the space to his painting room. The rest of the studio makes you wonder if it wasn't designed as a doll house.

Long ago when I was just starting to learn to paint at Oberlin College, I shared a studio space with another student who was a year ahead of me. She was energetic and articulate and loved abstract expressionist painting. She insisted  "you have to discover the painting with paint!" Planning ahead with a preparatory drawing she explained would drain the life out of the final painting. This sounded good to me (though the fact I hadn't yet done the hard work of learning to draw might have made her argument one I wanted to believe). Anyway for many years I soldiered on with my painting without ever a hint of a preparatory drawing. I wasn't going to let drawing make me too conservative.

Here is a new painting drying in my studio, Adirondack Forest, oil on panel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2012. It's based on the drawing below begun last fall on Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. This vine charcoal drawing has been living in my studio ever since and I had been tuning it this way and that for several months until I was satisfied.

For many years I worked primarily outdoors. It was great. My work started and ended in oil paint. And the paintings I was making were pretty naturalistic- faithful to many of the lovely smaller details of what I was looking at. It worked well because I always chose my subjects only after much searching around. You have to be a connoisseur of possible sources.

But the wheel turns for all of us. I found myself wanting to put a little distance between myself and the original source. There is a remarkable power to the best of the natural world- it can dazzle us and we're smart to let it.

The problem is nature is too powerful- she can take you over as you're trying to paint her. I'm reminded sometimes of the reply of some famous mountain climber to the question of why he climbed some major peak- "because it was there." He was talking about mountains of course, but landscape painters always tackle huge and imposing spaces too. That's what moves us.

Nowadays I draw outdoors instead of paint. I find vine charcoal drawing lets me immerse myself in the drama of the natural world without getting lost in it. Partly it's that vine charcoal doesn't stick to the paper but smears and slides all over the place like you're on the world's slipperiest ice rink. It pushes you to think in terms of patches of tones  and gradations instead little lines describing details. And there's the act of translating the world of color into back and white. It sets up right away in your head the idea of eliminating most of what you're seeing before you.

The oil version of Adirondack Forest is quite different than the charcoal that preceded it.  Having a black and white drawing to paint from seems to loosen the mental reins I put on myself. It makes me more playful and adventurous, willing to try things out just to see if they'll work. For example, I don't think I'd have tried any greens in the sky had I been working in oils outdoors. The charcoal drawing frankly addressed the trees and I spent most of my time telling their story. As I worked with the oils however the sky started asserting itself more than the bank of trees. I've learned to let these things happen. The irony is I find I'm more radical as a painter if I have done a preparatory drawing. Funny how things come full circle.


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