I thought it would be intriguing to ask painters this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.
This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.
What is Painting?
Featuring Robert Stanley
What is painting? It’s about two things, at least. The two things are painting (as in the act of) and THE painting. Although THE painting is the last thing in terms of time, it inspires throughout the process of painting, sometimes from the very beginning. The process of painting is a contradiction by its nature: disciplined but messy. I have to get it right, and will work at it, dammit, until it is. Thus, the discipline. The messiness of the process involves the goal of the process, the finished painting itself. I don’t know exactly what I want the finished work to be; but, when I try this or that thing on the canvas, I know what I do not want. I move inevitably toward a final communication (the finished work), but I do not know what that finished work will look like.
The process itself is delicious. Although the goal is a finished painting, its making, including the climax of “it’s finished!”, is more important than the painting itself, its showing and sale. The built in stress is that the goal of completion is the driving force, yet as soon as the formal “goal” is achieved, the joy in the struggle of making ends.
One of the joys in painting is in the old saying, “The painting talks to me.” It does not really, of course. Even the things I learn (more in a minute about that) are only partially coming from the painting. My conscious or subconscious moved my brush. The result might be “Yech,” or it might be the surprise of something new that “works.” Such is how style evolves. Such, more importantly I think, if communicating to others is important, is how the painter’s ideas evolve. It is interesting that the discussions (brawls?) at The Cedar Tavern among those very painterly Abstract Expressionists were about ideas, not technique. (Irving Sandler, A Sweeper-Up After Artists)
Ideas and paint evolve together as I make a painting. The start is somewhere in a spectrum that ranges from “I’ve no idea what’s going to happen” to a strong idea of the major elements. In every instance, however, the actual putting down paint influences my spirit, the idea of the work, and the look of the paint, in a feedback process.
Perhaps a more accurate description than “feedback” would be “short circuit.” An event in my thinking, the look of the paint, my spirit can zap across to any other event, sparking another short circuit until the thoughts/strokes are burnt out. Then, it’s on to another area of interest. That area may change the previous area, which may spark another round of short circuits … and on and on. The painting is like a room full of ping pong balls set on mousetraps. Throw in a pin pong ball and balls start flying all over, as sprung traps throw more balls into the air to land on unsprung balls. If you were to look at a video of those traps going off in slow motion, you would see an approximation of how one action influences others. The painting is finished when everything affirms everything else, idea, techniques, composition—all match up well with each other. There are no more demanding “short circuits,” and each element, as in a choir, works with the others to produce thought and feeling.
Although the general development of each painting is the same, each does start at a unique spot on a spectrum that ranges from totally aimless to having a picture in mind.
My painting I Sat and Wept is an example of beginning in a totally aimless way, just because I felt it would be good to cleanse my mind. With a broad flat brush, loaded with thinned remnants of paint from my last work, I gestured grand, sweeping, unconscious strokes over the 48 x 36 inch canvas. To add to the accidents of the differing opacities, I then lowered the painting, placed plastic over its entire surface, and set it aside to dry.
The next day I removed the plastic and raised the work. There it was … disappointing. Although it was interesting in effects, I found nothing that grabbed me as a starting point to develop. The next semi-destructive step was to freely paint between all the strokes, generating the color directly from palette mixing. The color was made from cadmium red, cadmium yellow medium, and ochre because this combination seemed radically different from my starting point. That was “interesting,” but it looked like barely warmed over abstract expressionism, dynamic but shallow. Worse, it too gave me no particular interest, no starting point from which to grow.
I “erased” all the red-yellows with white strokes—on the computer. I used the computer because it would let me slap in some things which interested me quickly. After the white was in, I “saw” a man running towards me in the upper right, and found in my folder of art resources a hurrying woman, a poster of the 1911 Armory show, and a pair of feet sticking out over a balcony. These, for some reason, I both liked together and did not know how or why. I now had someplace to start working the work.
When I started painting the white on the actual canvas, I discovered that leaving traces of the previous red looked good for some reason. That color remnant gave me a direction for the piece: dynamics, in technique, and working up the running man and woman pedestrian. But when I worked that situation by emphasizing the man a bit and putting in the woman, it was like the air leaked from the balloon—didn’t move me at all.
“Dammit,” I thought, “more destruction is needed.” I then painted in a grid, in black. That looked worse. I turned the piece, making it vertical. Then suddenly, in a two-day flurry, it was finished. A multi-hued abstract flow took over the center, leaving only a trace of where the very transitory pedestrian woman had been, she now sideways in the current. While that flowing river of color strokes was still wet, I lightly brushed back into it some and sgraffito grid, causing order and chaos together. The top third was painted a deep black. Black has so many thoughts or feelings. This one, specially mixed without any real black paint, had the depth of space, too deep to know. It, too, had a bit of the grid in it, suggesting a possible linking of things after all.
Finally, the bottom third had a flow of its own. After semi-opaque white was freely brushed in, some of the calligraphic strokes and grid showed through, and I emphasized them slightly. Finally in that bottom third, I sketched and pasted some previous work: a print of my two cats from a drawing, a tree, car tracks in the snow (a favorite on a white background), a sketch of rocks transitioning into abstraction, and a chair—events in the pulse of life.
The title, I Sat and Wept, expanded the biblical cry, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” I sat and wept in awe at the world and its flow.
Las Meninas, another of my paintings, was different—the other end of the spectrum of my painting process. In these works, some idea of what’s going to be in the painting exists in my mind. Sometimes just one of the eventual three or four environments attracts me. That thing might come from what I’ve seen or sketched or painted before. At other times, rarely, even the placement of the objects is clear, or I work from a sketch or study. Always, however, the matrix of the work, the painterly ground (not just a “background”) that gave it a particular breath, comes only as I start painting.
With Las Meninas, I had the idea to “update” the great Velasquez painting Las Meninas. Even though the goal, my “picture” of the piece was more complete than it was with I Sat and Wept, the painting still spoke as I worked, leading me to new understandings. The ground evolved, the flow that was matrix for the events (which included the artist, a person swimming, a slight reflection of viewers, Johns’ Untitled 1992, and the expanding universe.)
After I laid in the ground, it looked so rich and subtle, a soft shimmer of slightly colored grays, that I began to think of ways to keep it rather than pursue new explorations. After more painting, that essence remained, but in a more engaging way.
As first laid in, the artist-self was almost off the edge, a corny idea. Then, I moved myself to be where Velasquez has put himself. He was right. Although right about the artist, Velazquez’ mirror and doorway were wrong for today. The mirrored viewers now became less defined, while the man pausing in the doorway of Velasquez’ work became a person swimming in a current.
I painted the artist more contemporary: exposed, alone, no hint of the stable social structure of Valesquez’ time. I made him more aggressive, almost a bullfighter, trying to pierce flow of our era and convey something of essential truth, something to hold on to.
At the same time, I was drawn into working with the previous study for it, this time as a computer print. Two days of interesting aggravation later, I completed the computer piece, called Meanders. The different media, paint and computer, “want” to communicate differently. Way back when, my essay “Computer, Just Another Medium,” was published in the New Art Examiner. Part of the saying “the painting (or computer) talks to you” comes from a deep experience of the medium, of how it best communicates to the viewer and pleases the artist in the making. For me, the computer is quick, so ideas flow more, and are more detached. Painting is slower, with more time for consideration, and is more tactile and auditory, the ideas more sensual for the viewer and for me. In both instances, I feel the need for a balance between the intellect and the senses; but that balance expresses itself differently in each. A Youtube video of my experience with the two media, “Fries or Mashed; Computer or Painting,” is available here, and on my website.
The painting itself is not just what the artist does. The painting is also about the people looking at it. I do not think the division between the categories of “artist” and “people” should be as opaque as it is today. The emphasis on using wealth and status instead of visual quality has come to alienate too many people. To declare visual standards as unimportant gives great and undue status to those who subjectively determine what is important. Thus is created a high priesthood speaking in tongues which the rich buy into and the rest cannot fathom. Appreciating the true, the good, and the beautiful, for thousands of years major ways of looking at art, is too often now considered out of touch. Out of touch—what irony! It is precisely visual sensations that make art special. Social commentary, installations, wealth, being in the know—all other considerations should revolve around the merit of the content and form: the truth, beauty, and the good of the work itself.
The fashionableness of being snide about Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, playing it safe with irony, and using only wealth and status as benchmarks is reversible. A real democracy of art would have a language and principles such as Beauty, Truth, composition, technique, color, space, edge, etc., that all could use to discuss. As Robert Motherwell said in the documentary Painters Painting, “I would not accept that there is a proletarian sexuality and a bourgeois sexuality, et cetera, in terms of the immediacy of the experience.” Also, as Einstein, or maybe Rutherford, or maybe Feynman said, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Whoever said it, I have experienced it, in Physics, Architecture, and Art. Explain at its deepest, no; but explain it enough for discussion and appreciation, yes.
Artists contribute ideas to the growth of human thought and feeling? Kandinsky pointed out, in The Spiritual in Art, that artists are people who have the time and inclination to discover new things, which then gradually filter into the general population. Many other cultures see artists as people who work at discovery of spirit or idea, for the benefit of the people. Good idea, I think.
In Las Meninas, I got a surprise, a gift. The first stroke was wetter than I had meant it. When the brush hit the canvas, a different “voice” spoke. The paint was thin enough to blend immediately under the brush, leaving some ochre, white, and red in the gray. Suddenly, the dynamic, churning, impasto flow I’d intended gave way to a faster, more subtle environment. This just seemed right, in physical feeling and in the idea of exploring how the river of time flows for all of us. As layer after layer built up, keeping alive the matrix of gray and adding in other hues on the brush, I would occasionally sgraffito back in with the brush handle tip—another flowing to add unknowableness. The quiet energy and pleasure of this was one of the joys of the work, along with creating a harmony between the flowing ground and the temporal incidents of painter, swimmer, universe.
Creating a harmony of idea and form, self and world, now and time, chaos and order is my joy. It is all the better that this harmony is often a vexing question. It certainly is good that making a painting is a way of discovering more about the world, a downright joy in its struggle, and its feel of drag, color connections, appearance of surprises, dismissal of time, somewhat like a good meal with great friends.
Robert Stanley, Las Meninas, acrylic on canvas, 48″ x 36″
Robert Stanley has been exhibiting art since 1973. His works evoke a disjointed world, yet connections between objects suggest calm mystery in the chaos of life. Robert has been written about in the Koehnline Museum of Art’s Artwalk at Oakton, 2001 International Digital Art Awards, L’Association Musee D’Art Contemporai’ Une Brève et Ample Énonciation, Chicago Tribune, and The New Art Examiner.
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