It’s a chilly afternoon at the pond, where I am beginning my eighth month of work. A gunshot rings out from somewhere across the stands of bay and fir to the northeast of where I sit. A dense flock of small black birds bursts out of the tree before me and takes to the sky. Their reflection passes across the water like a dust cloud and is gone. I become aware that I hadn’t even assigned meaning to all the tiny black shapes in the tangle of branches but had been intent on painting them nonetheless. Their sudden absence completely changes the “surface” of the bare tree which responds by seeming to blush a deep coral at the edges. Without the birds the tree looks like a blurry smudge, the color of smoke. I’m also startled by the shot, excited, exasperated, compelled to follow the changes before me, to reach for the new effect. Possessed, I flip my brush around and start scratching into the surface of my painting, making the texture of branches. The color turns to mud. I grab my palette knife and scrape much of it away. Then, loading a small hair brush with a dusty violet color, I start to draw small structures, but soon my eyes are lost in the blur of branches and I shift to painting larger blocky shapes instead. How should I do this? My cheeks flush with the cold wind.
As a painter of Nature, I often spend time looking at three dimensional (3D) space and translating it to an image with two dimensions (2D). But that’s not the whole story. A painting is both an image and an object. Oil painters often use the unctuous buttery quality of the medium to build up, layer and sculpt the surfaces of paintings even as they compose and realize their images. So when challenged by the task of painting both a 2D image and at the same time creating a 3D object, how does one proceed? How will the landscape of my paintings surface be related to the landscape I am observing?
The way artists paint is often referred to as a “style” or technique. Some artists have a “signature style” that doesn’t vary much from painting to painting, subject to subject. You can always tell a painting was painted by them. For me, style is a choice driven by the dynamic relationships I have with my surroundings, and with myself.
It amazes me that the simple act of putting paint down on a surface turns out to be so complex and variable. The surface can be a sanctuary or a battlefield, a field of contemplation or struggle. Come close to the surface of a painting and you will find another landscape there unfolding before your eyes. The surface has its own topography, hills and valleys, gorges and plateaus. If I look closely at the surface, I find a record of every move I have made.
My style is an echo of what is running through my mind and heart and how my nervous system is responding to my view. When I see Nature in terms of shapes, I express that by drawing and the surface becomes an accumulated collection of lines, contours and boundaries. Other times I am focused on the leaves that flutter in the wind and my arm vibrates with my eyes as I make dots and dashes, marks that dart around and dance across my canvas. When I paint still water, my brush wants to just glide across the surface, leaving the paint continuous and smooth. Every time I pick up a brush, I am aware that there are a thousand different ways to paint. Which brushes do I choose? The fine ones or the rough ones? The scratchy ones or the stubby ones? Styles are like worldviews, they are approaches, languages, like the different ways that we make food or music. They are rooted as much in socialization, culture and training as in temperament and taste. Styles express a painter’s values: formal accuracy, color, the pure sensuality of paint itself. Style reveals if I am thinking about the painting more as a window or as an object, a medicine bundle of assembled truths from my experience.
I don’t think the quality of a painting is strictly about style, just as one can say that poetry is not strictly about language…a poem can be translated, and a subject can be well painted in any style. Yet there is something interesting there to consider, flavors, subtle qualities, the sensuality, speed and volume of the strokes, nuance of textures, all are part of the work of art.
Now a sliver of glimmering light falls across the shadow side of the water. I chase it with a thick impasto trying to lay the paint down with just the same attitude honoring the seventeenth century adage “light equals paint.” My brush reaches the shore and encounters the upright ridges of paint that are there, sharp little blades of grass. Tiny bits of light get caught on the slope and spring to life. These dots and dashes of color, gobs and daubs and drips, each represents a thing in my landscape even as they form an enchanted landscape all their own.