Now that the winter is here, it seems there is more to paint, even though there is less in front of me. The lush curtain of leaves is gone and the willow tree is bare.
The branches show themselves intricate and complex, the tips salmon colored, crimson and cadmium yellow deep, set against a screen of green coastal live oaks. Where they catch the light, they flash white as bones as though illuminated from within. I find myself pausing to study them. As I set to painting, I reach for a small fine brush, put down a mark and stand back. If a branch is not in just the right place, to my eye, I notice I’m unsettled in my body. I’m not happy with the brush stroke but perhaps I can leave it that way anyhow. Why not? That branch could be as I have painted it. It could have grown there like that for any number of reasons. It could have been broken by an animal when it was small and grown up deformed. I tell myself: a branch is a branch, right? But still somehow I am unsettled, so I scrape away the line and try again. I seem to need to get it “right”, or to at least try to get it right, and I notice how much I am thinking.
This is my first winter painting in this series with the leaves gone and something is distinctly different about my process. The tree’s branches seem to demand a whole other kind of attention than a leafy tree. Like a skeleton, the branches seem more important, specified, permanent. The branches appear to be the fact of the matter. Next to the branches, leaves seem like dancers, butterflies, little clouds that randomly come and go and change with the wind. They seem so light, so fragile, almost cosmetic, frivolous. I find the branches to be weighty and serious and filled with information while the leaves are filled with air and poetry.
I recall that when I painted the leaves, the activity was more physical than intellectual, a brushstroke here and there, a few shapes and colors that represent my feelings, and a painting of leaves can be finished. Staring at the tangle of branches, I would find myself sharpening my pencil, taking a deep breath and beginning a careful analysis, like the solving of a complex math problem. But of course the leaves are just as complex as the branches, perhaps more so. This must be about a shift within me.
What is going on here? Am I experiencing myself on two different channels, approaches or lenses? The distinction between quality and quantity comes to mind as a possible way to characterize these channels. This distinction is sometimes described as the difference between art and science or the two halves of the brain. In both cases, I begin with observation, both of my subject and of myself. But I am finding that from there, there are different ways that I process my observations as I craft a work of art. The view of bare branches triggers my intellect, my rational mind, and I thirst for information, details and quantities. Formal accuracy seems important and this value drives many of my choices while painting including the size of my brush and the speed of my stroke. The leafy tree dancing in the breeze seems to orient me more to my heart or spirit, I sense and feel the qualities of my subject. In this case, I am more attuned to color and gesture, the fleeting impression, the way I feel. In this “mode,” if I capture the flavor and feeling I don’t mind a bit if the drawing is inaccurate, that seems entirely beside the point!
As I reflect on the way I treat the branches and the way I treat the leaves, I see how clearly my values, my opinions, and my ideas about both make me treat each in a different way. Do most painters experience this? How many modes or channels are there? I wonder if I can control what source I paint from? Different subjects seem to have the power to change my “channels,” can I also do it by choice? I imagine this phenomenon is very complex and also involves the depth of intimacy of my relationship to the subject. I’ll watch this closely as I paint my way through the winter and soon welcome the leaves as they return.