James Elkins on painting

“Recently, some art historians have become more interested in what paint can say. They suggest that since art history and criticism are so adept at thinking about what paint represents (that is, the stories and subjects, and the artists and their patrons), then it should also be possible to write something about the paint itself. What kinds of problems, and what kinds of meanings, happen in the paint? Or as one historian puts it, What is thinking in painting, as opposed to thinking about painting? These are important questions, and they are very hard to answer using the language of art history.”

“To a nonpainter, oil paint is uninteresting and faintly unpleasant. To a painter, it is the life’s blood: a substance so utterly entrancing, infuriating, and ravishingly beautiful that it makes it worthwhile to go back into the studio every morning, year after year, for an entire lifetime . . . Any history of painting that does not take that obsession seriously is incomplete.”

“Painting is an unspoken and largely uncognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colors and the artist responds in moods.”

“Painters can sense those motions in the paint even before they notice what the paintings are about.”

These excerpts are from What Painting Is, by James Elkins, who was an artist before pursuing art history. I’m fascinated with his takes on art, imagery and seeing, so expect more posts!

Gillian Ayres

Today, a fellow artist told me about Gillian Ayres. I had never heard of her, so I looked her up. In the 4 seconds it took me to conduct a Google image search, I knew I had discovered a new source of inspiration.

Dance of the Ludi Magni, Oil on canvas, 1984.

I mean, just look at this painting. It’s a riot of color. It’s wonderfully lawless. It gives off tremendous energy.

Ayres died in 2018 and here are some great clips from her obituary in the NYT.

The physicality of making art, in this case the wet, goopy nature of paint and how it interacts with brushes, palette knives and canvas – is something that gets little to no press from art critics. Yet, for Ayres (and me!) it is very appealing aspect of painting.

I also love that Ayres wasn’t precious about her work. Sue Hubbard, a friend of the artist, tells this story from when she visited Ayres in Italy:

“She was always enormously generous, and I left Rome carrying a painting fresh from the studio which, in those days before security checks, I carried onto the plane still wet. When I got it home, I realised I’d pressed my thumb into a layer of thick turquoise paint. I rang Gillian appalled. Oh, don’t worry, she said, in that unpretentious way of hers, just squash it over. I did, and in so doing, went down to the next layer of pink paint. Of course, these many years later it has dried. My thumbprint now a part of its history.”

What “monopainting” is

I started painting in college. I was a creative writing major who discovered late in my college career that my childhood tendency to draw tanks and spaceships was hinting at a deep desire to make art. What I learned, thanks to my mentor Dale Johnson, was to paint landscapes on canvas. I still love juicy, painterly landscapes. George Bellows, Chaim Soutine, Claude Monet (his later stuff is like painting porn to me) and Joaquín Sorolla are just some of the people whose work can give me goosebumps.

Despite my love for landscapes, in my own work I find myself returning to a strange mix of direct painting and monoprinting, which I call “monopainting” (see my monopaintings). I’m sure it’s already a thing, and I could look it up if I bothered.

Typically, I will begin a painting by painting directly on the paper, making random blocks of color in a rather lawless and intuitive fashion. Oddly enough, the compositions at this point end up looking like landscapes. Often, I lay this base color at the end of an evening’s session with whatever leftover paint I have (I hate to waste paint!). At the next evening’s session, I come back to that “canvas” with no idea what I had been thinking the night before. Which makes me perfectly happy to negate the initial image and begin overpainting using type blocks or by painting on smaller pieces of paper and transferring the paint to the canvas using my hand, a brayer or the back of a brush. I continue that process until I’m either stymied and abandon the piece, or I feel that I’ve wrestled the composition into something that I can live with. That’s the process in a nutshell.

The monoprinting process depends on these bad boys: scraps of grocery bag paper. I paint a shape onto them, flip them over and use my hand, a brayer or the back of a brush to transfer the paint onto the “canvas.” Repeat 1,000 times and you might have a painting at the end of it!

Here’s what’s interesting about monopainting: you’re only barely in control. Sure, you mix the paints and make attempts at creating shapes by painting onto the type blocks or paper scraps. But the application of the paint is imprecise. Not all the paint adheres to the canvas. Nice passages are created and then accidentally erased with the next layer.

With this process, I’d say the formula is:

  • 50% randomness
  • 30% unforced errors
  • 10% skill
  • 10% luck

I frequently get the opposite shape I intended because I didn’t properly reverse the image when I painted it onto the scrap. I don’t always modulate the colors well, which results in some unfortunate juxtapositions of color. In almost every painting, I paint myself into a corner (which is to say that I end up with an ugly composition or imbalance of colors that will require a radical intervention to correct). But that’s also part of the process.

The whole effort can be described in two parts: you create trouble and then try to extricate yourself from it. Which mirrors the writing process. You’re never really able to look at a plan and then head straight for the endpoint. There is always wandering, trials and errors and dead ends. You often end up in a bad place. It’s always darkest before dawn. And hopefully, you’re able to kill your darlings and launch a bold intervention that brings the piece back from the brink.

Occasionally, I pull a rabbit out of the hat. The mistakes might align to produce something that holds. I’ll let readers judge which of the pieces on this site are successful. I’ll tell you right now that most of them are not. But that’s ok. I told myself that in starting this blog I would just post the work, regardless of how imperfect a piece might be. I see more value in sharing it all, rather than posting only the best pieces and giving the impression that I’m batting 1000.