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Getting Past the Beginning

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

Last night, I started throwing paint on a new canvas - and have been afraid to go look at it today. Now that I am starting Year 3 of the Great Artistic Experiment (GAE), the process of painting has become both easier and harder. Easier because I have all of my materials and tools and I can just flit down to my studio/laundry room and start up without any preface. Harder because, as I will relate, my expectations continue to rise and my self-critique gets more skilled at the critiquing part. Here’s my conundrum:

After spending time laying out my composition, choosing a palette of bright acrylic colors (do I ever do anything else?), and thinking about where I am going to go with this work, I set to the task. As I recently returned from Antarctica, I am using that experience to capture some of what was visually impressive for me and to experiment with a less robust palette. Blues. Purples. Whites. Grays. Ochres. Muted, quiet, but expressive. I am down to my last few canvases (more are on the way) so I chose a nice 18 x 24 horizontal layout.

The subject is Spigot Peak. I woke up one morning, the first clear day we had in Antarctica, and standing on the topmost deck I was overwhelmed by this mountain. Rising up from the very edge of the Gerlache Strait, Spigot Peak commands the entire view. A rock, feathered with snow, standing in relative isolation among glaciers, snow-saturated neighbors, and an iceberg-laden waterway. It demands attention. In response, I took dozens of photographs from all sides, in differing lights and with different foci. There was no question that I would eventually want to paint the mountain.

"Simplon Pass, 1911" John Singer Sargent. oil on canvas

Compositionally, a mounded rock does not make the most appealing subject. I have recently seen the John Singer Sargent show in DC, and I have absolutely loved his treatment of a pass in Switzerland. Using oils, he integrates a large range of colors - purples, reds, ochres - to give a sloping pass veritable life. I have examined this painting in person, I have painted various versions of it in gouache - I want to be able to do something close to this. So when I saw Spigot Peak, with iron-tinged rocks peeking out through the blacks and browns, with the sharp contrast of dark with light, with the absolute clarity of air, I wanted to paint this.

Here is my conundrum. My first draft, included here, made my happy. Too happy. A quick sketch with some bold strokes gave this rock a life that I hadn’t expected. A normal approach would be to slowly build my color shapes and then become increasingly daring as I reach the end of the work. Lively paintings are my dream - I want to create the same tingle in others I feel when I look at Van Gogh, for example, when I can almost taste the colors or a Diebenkorn, whose angular color shapes make my hair stand on end.

So here I am with a barely started canvas, with a lot of work yet to do, but strangely feeling that I reached the first moment of contentment. What I don’t want to do is methodically flatten out the excitement I feel when I look at this image by overpainting. But since the work cannot be considered done - I want a finished piece that someone, perhaps, might want to have in our shared experience - I have to either tread cautiously (leading to boredom) or boldly shatter what I have (leaving me heartbroken).

I know I will have to get up, move away from this keyboard, and carefully sidle up to the draft and make a stab at moving beyond where it is. Before I do that, however, I might just look at it a little while longer and hold onto the memory of the journey. There is joy in knowing that I can like my own work and, I hope, challenge myself in getting more proficient, more interesting in the outcome. Now I just have to get past the beginning.

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