Saturday, May 1, 2010

Painting is Work/Learn'd Astronomer

Looking down the curve of the river, from the spot where I always go to paint, I tried to describe to a friend what it is that I see when i paint that scene, how i look for some lines, or the simple shapes, and a few colors, and as i hear myself talking, it occurs to me how mundane it must sound, really, the reality of it, the just sitting and trying to get it on to a board. It seems like there should be a more enchanting process, or spiritual connection, that happens in the process, instead of just getting the paint to be in the right place and in the right tone.

The painting shown here was from this spot, apparently done in acrylic in the rain, as i can see the streaks of rain where it took off the paint. I've painted this scene lots of times. Fifty times?

There's the curve of the river, a few trees, and the way the river turns in the distance and beckons, and there's the clouds far away, and those overhead, and there's the best part of painting a river, and the most important, and that is the river itself, and the way the shadows of the trees lay on it, and how lights break into the pattern, and the sky appears in unexpected ways. If one gets any of that even partly right, then, for me, a good painting starts to happen. But it sounds so mundane when verbalized.

What is harder to explain is the feeling for the actual paint, the materials, the way it goes on, and the way it mixes, and the accidental nature of it, and how the marks and lines and blots of color and tone eventually become a metaphor- is that the right word?- for the reality, but an imperfect metaphor, and how seeing this later, on a wall or back at the studio, can be a happy thing. When it works, of course.

Above all this mostly has to do with the "quality of light", and if there is the feeling of light in the painting, which is the magical weird thing that I can't really account for, as if the whole is sometimes greater than the parts that you put into a painting.

Of course too, there is the poetry of it, the seeing something beyond what is there, or hoping to see it, and the opening up of awareness to the landscape by having seen it transcribed in a painting, and having cared about it and looked for the parts that resound with you. Cezanne called this his motif, in his case, the slanty mountain he played on as a kid with Zola. I find the river compelling.

Though oddly, I don't think that to best enjoy it a landscape, you would paint it, you'd contemplate it maybe, meditate on it. Painting is work, its a tough sell to say that it is meditation, its maybe concentration, but its also an act of doing something, like fidgeting, a nervous energy in front of ..what? The world?

They say, and maybe it was Mark Twain who said it, that when Mark Twain learned to read the river like a captain, that he lost the ability to see the river as a thing of beauty and mystery. True or not true?

They also say, and I can't say who as i totally forget, that we see the landscape as we've been taught to see it by landscape painters. Well, maybe photographers and movie makers, and poets too, but that they come first, do their thing, and then the rest of us sensitive souls see the corn field and the black crow, like Van Gogh, or the sky in a swirl of color and light like a Turner painting, or a misty river with droopy willows like Monet- and i think there is some truth to this. I know it to be true as a painter, that it is a struggle to find one's own motif and voice, and to know what is unique about it, and easy to find elements that have already been mapped out by previous explorers.

Walt Whitman, on this very topic, wrote "When I hear the learn'd Astronomer/When the (something) and figures were ranged in columns before me, to add and (subtract?)/When the (something) and (something) were ..." oh I forget how the poem goes, but the point is he hears a science guy lecture, gets sick of it in his soul, and tired, and glides out into the misty night air, and hangs out with the real stars, and contemplates their beauty and mystery there, on his own. This, I assume, is a comment by the poet on how too much information can suck the life out something, that as humans we can talk to much about the divine, and thereby miss it, though also a comment on how he couldn't apparently enjoy a good science lecture like other people (there was much applause). Or maybe he didn't like hanging out with a lot of other people to talk about this sort of thing, and needed his alone time- I can get that. He obviously thought that he might like it, as he went there in the first place. In any case, similar to the Twain thought, of how what we know of what we see affects our appreciation, and that too much knowing can kill other kinds of knowing.

In painting, I find, that there is both the Learn'd Astronomer in it, and the restless loner poet, both are ways we get to connect what's inside, with what's outside.