My Blog About Art

The Spiritual Landscape April 25, 2016 11:09

For the past couple of years, I've been trying to figure out how I can combine my interests in landscape and in magic/spirituality. Ever since I was a child, I've believed that spiritual energy underlies everything and that sometimes we can actually perceive it. I've wanted my art to be a help in revealing that hidden, spiritual aspect of our world.

The thing is that I haven't really known how to go about doing that. I thought that abstract art was a better genre for this task because it has a history of a concern with the relationship between art and spirituality or the spiritual since day one. And I do feel like I have captured some aspects of spiritual energy in my abstract art. 

But I also very much enjoy landscape painting. Part of the reason why is because when I am out in real landscape, I feel a much stronger contact with that underlying spiritual force than when I am, for instance, in the house. It feels like there is so much more to perceive out there. And of course, there is a lot more life.

I just couldn't see, though, how I could combine the kind of love of pattern that is often a part of my abstract paintings with landscape painting.Abstract painting has allowed me to engage in a process I call "letting it arise," where I try to go with the flow of what I am painting, try to let whatever contact I have with the spirit world come out in imagery. This has been very satisfying for me and I think has produced some good art. But I didn't see how I could do this with landscape painting. I figured I would just keep landscape and abstraction separate and try to portray the spiritual aspect of landscape by employing things like mist or focusing on clouds or water, which seem sort of inherently spiritual. But it still felt like there was an inconvenient wall between my landscape painting and my abstract painting. What to do. I decided I would just let it lie and focus on technique for a year and hope it would sort itself out. 

I didn't have to wait a year for that to start happening. One day I stopped at Montour Falls, a small waterfall nearby with a pool of water at the bottom, and took a bunch of reference photos. These would go towards learning how to paint water, since that's a landscape topic I really get into. A few months later I decided it was time to use those photos to paint a pool. So I began working on that, painting for the first time on a heavily gessoed canvas, a support I'd not used before.

That support turned out to be exactly what I had been looking for in terms of texture and just the feel. So I painted happily along.

I got all the rocks at the bottom of the pool painted--way more rocks than actually exist--and I liked how the colors were progressing. I had to redo the rocks because as is often a problem I have, I didn't give them enough contrast. But finally I had that part done and could go on to paint the water's surface.

Before I did that, I looked at what I had so far. I liked how it was coming. But honestly I could see nothing more in it than pleasantness. That might be enough for some people, but it's not enough for me in my own painting, especially when I have spent as long as I had spent already on that one. It's not that I believe a painting should involve suffering (and anyway, I'd already suffered painting all those rocks, lol). But I do think that for me, a painting has to be more than a nice bunch of colors and shapes. It has to reveal that hidden world as much as possible, and to do that, I have to reach deep into myself. If I just stay on the surface of myself and focus on technique, then those paintings feel like just work and they don't satisfy my soul. My soul starves with that, and for me, that is not art. That is just paint on a piece of fabric. I want more.

I thought about how I might indicate the spiritual or magical aspect of this image.  I decided to incorporate some of the patterns that bubble up when I am painting abstractly. These things always pop up for me, often triggered by faint cues in the texture of the paint and the support itself. I feel like that texture is almost like the half-heard vowels of someone speaking from that other world. My job is to fill out those words as best I can.

With this painting of the rocks, I thought about the idea of traces of previous or even hidden knowledge, of other cultures, other people, maybe even other beings, who might have written on those rocks or embedded in them something important to them. I wanted that writing to be a blend of something done deliberately and something that occurred naturally through maybe fossils or wear on the rocks. I wanted the figures I put on the rocks to cause the viewer to wonder if they were naturally made or not. I started painting.

It took me a long time to put those symbols or marks on the rocks, and it was much more difficult than when I do an abstract painting. I need to work on letting the images arise in landscape painting the way I do with abstraction. I need to allow myself to open up and put these images onto a landscape painting, to show them as fitting into that landscape. This is a beginning.

I did a brief study of ripples on an unfinished painting and then put them on this one, and I was done. 

I feel like I've taken a big step with this painting. Even though it was not a seamless incorporation, and even though I must work on allowing more images to bubble up during landscape painting, and even though I've still got lots of technique to learn, I feel like this painting is a distillation of what I have been trying to do all along. The incorporation of these patterns into my landscapes allows me to combine my interest in landscape with my interest in the supernatural. It allows me to portray those two things in unity instead of in two separate paintings. And it makes my painting uniquely mine, which is always good in art. 

So even though the painting is not as good as I would like it to be, I am pleased with it. It is the signpost to a different path, one that I expect to be very productive and satisfying for me--and I hope for my viewers as well. 


Letting Images Arise: Automatism December 28, 2015 18:25 1 Comment

For years, I began a painting with a drawing. Often, these drawings were quite detailed, especially during the period when I was doing a lot of botanical art. The resulting work was Realist and quite tight. I thought this tightness was just part of my nature as an artist. I was wrong.

When I began experimenting with acrylics, two things happened: my underdrawings became simpler and my painting style looser. Because of the use of white pigment in acrylic painting, which is generally forbidden in watercolor, and because it's possible to paint over acrylic without concern about lifting what is beneath it, I became more relaxed about painting. I even tried different brushes. I'd always used expensive sable rounds, but I tried synthetics and other shapes and loved them.

Mandrakes in SpringOne day I was playing with a filbert brush. I enjoyed the root-like shapes it could make and decided to do a painting without any drawing at all first. I really liked the results and experimented more and more until finally I abandoned Realism for abstraction. Slippery slope. :)

As far as abstraction went, I did a lot of stuff that was simply pattern. I found I had a fascination with ripples, waves, striations, and cavities--all sorts of patterns found in the natural world.

Elemental Water I by Harold RothBecause I didn't have the right audience for this sort of work, I didn't get the responses I had expected. I lost confidence and went back to more typical (and perhaps bit boring) Realist stuff. I did my best to convince myself that it was okay for me to do this, even though I never felt any sort of gut challenge in doing a Realist still life or landscape like I did with an abstract. I do love real and painted landscapes, though, and so do lots of other people. So...

But I could not stop envisioning abstract shapes and forms. How to focus what was coming out on the support? How to make it more than a mere pattern? I thought about how I often work with tarot. I ask a question but simply let the cards tell me whatever it is I need to know..

Water WitchWith painting, this meant that I allowed the image to arise as I painted. I hoped that if I were open to a connection with the spirit world while I painted and at the same time tried to focus on a particular concept (like spirits of Mars or Water magic), that whatever came out on the paper would simply take the form most appropriate for that energy or work and for me. A meeting up or coming together of a magical current and my consciousness and my skill or lack of it as a painter.

This was a bit scary, since I feared that this method might be skating quite close to the bullshit area. Many of you out there are aware of the snobbishness often focused on abstraction ("people paint abstractly because they don't know how to draw/a monkey/toddler could do that"). I've run into quite a bit of this on art forums, which is the main reason why I don't participate in them anymore. Even though I reject such a perspective, I didn't want to be a bullshit artist either.

Despite my fears about possible bullshittery and worries about inadequacy, I kept on. The more practice I got painting in this way, the better I felt it working. It was like a groove being worn in ice or stone that could channel a greater and more focused flow the more it was delineated. And I felt that my painting improved. I had better use of color and saw my composition improving. I thought I had simply discovered this approach on account of my long association with magic.

Then I ran across a discussion of automatism in Surrealism, an art movement I know little about. I was familiar with automatism from spiritualism, where mediums might use it to channel communications from the dead (automatic writing, for instance). The Surrealists took up this technique, but instead of channeling the dead, they channeled their own subconscious. As Andre Breton wrote, "‘Pure psychic automatism is the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns." And artist whose work I'd had on my wishlist for a long time, Ithell Colquhuon, was a magician as well as an artist, and she used automatism a lot in her work.

I wouldn't consider myself a Surrealist, but I intend to make further use of automatism in my painting, drawing on the astral or spiritual (or woo) instead of the subconscious. It was wonderful to find out there was plenty of historical precedent for this.