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.

When the print hits the fan

Acrylic on paper, 1988

This is one of my earliest attempts at constructing paintings using wood block type. I was still in college and somehow got my hands on a bunch of wooden sans serif type blocks (probably used for making posters). My process was to paint onto the type pieces and then stamp them onto the paper. I do recall thinking of this as cheeky and entertaining, but not serious art. Little did I know that the idea of painting like this would get under my skin.

Hawthorne on painting

It’s a thin book that I picked up who knows where. Hawthorne on Painting (google books) is comprised of the collected notes of students of Charles Webster Hawthorne, a painter of some renown at the turn of the previous century.

Hawthorne’s instructions were intended for beginning students, but they’re quite applicable to a modern artist. I discovered the book just as I was looking for a way to re-approach painting as a working stiff with only a couple hours available on occasional nights. I wanted to make art, but I didn’t feel I had the time or energy to be an “artist.”

Hawthorne liberated me by giving me permission to start paintings – without the burden of finishing them.

Thanks to Hawthorne, especially to his instructions below, I developed a personal approach to painting that has served me well ever since. I view any given painting session as just that – a single moment in time, unconnected to other moments. Within each painting session, I try not to have any interest in the end result. Whatever I produce in that session is what I get. Any painting that results is not the object of the session, but an artifact – evidence of the state of flow, or, the state of frustration that I experienced.