My high school art teacher, Mr. Lyness, used to say: “Never ask an artist: ‘What is it?’”
That’s because “it” is a painting, sculpture or collage, never a teacup, mountain top or bowl of cherries.
I’ve come to appreciate this advice in two ways.
First, I use it as an excuse to ignore some small drawing glitches in my otherwise wild, colorful and imaginative paintings. No, I’m not going point out such glitches. You’ll have to find them yourselves.
But more important, I’ve learned that sometimes it’s best if you don’t even ask YOURSELF “what is it?” Some of my best work comes from brushing on the color and light without thinking about what specific thing I am painting.
Most artists who work from photos know the “turn it upside down” trick. You can fool your mental editor into just painting colors and shapes and, often, come up with a better image if you paint upside down.
But now I know you can go even deeper into “unknowing.” I painted this Paris bistro interior from a photo taken at dinner on New Year’s Eve 2000. It was taken “available light” (not much) and after several “coups de champagne.” The photo is quite blurry and has been dismissed by more rational beings as useless.
But I held on to that photo. In some way it captures the moment better than a crisper photo could.
When I started this painting, I realized it was difficult to figure out exactly what was going on in the photo. Were those tables? Was that a reflection? Balloon or lighting fixture? Waiter or furniture?
But then I let go of all those questions and the striving for definition and started to paint just what I saw. It was magical. Emerging from a jumble of brushstrokes, colors, light and dark was a picture, which was specific enough to be interesting. Or more like specific enough to be understood and unspecific enough to be interesting.
I don’t completely understand how paintings sometimes can emerge, unforeseen, from the canvas. It happened again last week when I was painting a market scene reflected in a large window. Brush, brush, brush. And there it was.
I don’t understand, but I have faith in the process. And I’m sure it’s another of those things about which I should never ask: What is it?
Maybe that’s even the real lesson Mr. Lyness meant us to learn. Now I’ve got it…40 years later, but never too late.