Coming to Terms with Motion and Stillness in Painting

Still Life with Skull and Bottles, oil in linen, 1989
I’ve been away from my subject for a whole week, down in Southern California. I return to the misty morning and a great blue heron takes wing and flies away as I approach the pond. The golden willow tree is covered in new leaves, in fact abundant new growth is everywhere. Most of the warm tones, the red of the twigs, the tips of coral and salmon and the strange violets, are gone. The tree, slope and oaks behind are now green. Again my view is all new.

I begin what will be my suite of April paintings, excited to follow the changes, aware that May and the end of my project is quickly approaching.

My trip to San Diego was in part to clean out my old studio, a garage in my family’s house. Many of the paintings that I have there are well over 25 years old. At that time in my life I had just returned from Italy and was painting still life paintings like the image on this post. I set up my studio as a highly controlled North light environment. Everything was designed for stillness and consistency in accordance with the ancient principles and techniques I learned in Italy. I showed and sold most of the meticulous still lives of that period but a handful are still left and, seeing them again, they look frozen to me. There is a certain beauty about them but also an earie breathless silence. This is especially true in contrast to my living, breathing, pulsing scene at the pond.

I remember so well painting in that garage/studio; the stillness, the uniformity of the Northern exposure, the high window with the 45 degree slope of light, just as Leonardo Da Vinci specified. Everything was controlled and unchanging. For some reason I was interested most in found inanimate objects that were stable, not fruit or flowers so much but skulls and jars and bottles and stones and bits of tapestry. If I could make things in Nature still enough, they would look like paintings even before I painted them.

It seemed like I had endless, un-pressured time to paint, even if I was painting a commission. My subject would not ripen or rot or turn colors or change form. There was no wind or sun or changing shadows to deal with. I could spend hours painting the stem of a bottle or the grain of a piece of wood. When I left and returned, everything was always just as I left it. In retrospect, I see that somehow this mimicked the sense of time my 25 year old self had; no hurry, no scarcity, hours and days and weeks and years filled my basket. And I barely noticed myself or my friends changing. I knew my life would all be there again tomorrow, just like the still life awaiting me in the studio.

But now the scene before me never looks like a painting, it’s a quickly moving picture. Everything seems to be changing all the time, even in a day, from morning to afternoon. It feels like yesterday that the buds started swelling and tomorrow the leaves will be turning orange and falling. I am easily disoriented when a hot afternoon in late February feels like early July.

Just as the stillness of my still lives supported that sense of time I had when I was younger, so the rush of change around me supports the sense that I have now: that everything is fleeting and changing, that nothing is still. If I want to paint something in Nature, honestly and directly, I must accept my limitations. I must run forward and seize the moment. I must do it all now, for as imperfect and clumsy as my painting may be, I know I only get one chance. Nothing lasts for long.

As I stood in the now-empty garage it occurred to me that making Nature “still” was about control, even oppression, or assertion of our power to hold back the tides of time. My still life paintings appeared to be a kind of celebration of victory over change, the very change I now study and try to portray.

I wonder about this shift, over almost three decades, from painting what appears to be still to painting what is in motion. Some spiritual practices suggest we can find the truth by focusing on the unchanging, permanent and eternal. I find myself trying to get at the truth of things by focusing on the changing, dynamic processes of Nature. Am I barking up the wrong tree? Or is change the one great constant and by focusing on change I am in fact focusing on the eternal and unchanging? I’m led to more questions and yet another paradox.

14 thoughts on “Coming to Terms with Motion and Stillness in Painting

  1. Thanks Adam. Yet again I get to know you better through your brilliant writing and recollections – you as a 25 year old artist freezing time and now as a mature artist capturing the changes in time. Love it! Keep it going – and can’t wait for some new perspectives of the pond. Thank you!


  2. Thank you Adam for writing so eloquently and openly of your journey and bringing us along.. Can’t wait to see these paintings in person!


  3. Everything you’ve written about in your blog has resonated with me. I love your paintings, your writings and your process. Thank you for sharing.


  4. So beautiful. I totally relate to everything you are saying about the perception of time changing so drastically in mid-life. It’s like we are leaves and can actually feel the colors turning on our skin, it’s moving so much more quickly. I am also glad you had that sense of endlessness and spaciousness, as well as the training in Italy, as those paintings are so incredible. I love remembering that studio, you painting in it, sometimes I would play new songs while you painted. It seemed like we had forever. The paintings from the pond are just as beautiful, deeper because of the intensity of the eternal now. You are doing it all exactly as you should my friend.


  5. Adam, It was so good to see you after all these years! Profound you wax you do. It is a rapidly moving object this life and as we age, as has been noted oft before, it speeds up. As 70 moves closer I find that I am attempting to get as much as I can done before my exit, while still keeping enough space between projects to keep the making of the work interesting and yes, Fun. Happy we are to have one of those paintings of a young man who now ages.


  6. Adam, what you say at the end of your post (I would call it an essay!) is – to me- the essence of life (and therefore also of the arts):

    Or is change the one great constant and by focusing on change I am in fact focusing on the eternal and unchanging?

    We find this wisdom also very much in Eastern Art, Japan, for example. Our Western world tends to fear the change as a principle, it seems. It has something threatening at times, unless one dives as deeply as you do. I think you can exchange the question mark for an exclamation mark… There is so much beauty in this insight.


    1. Thank you for your comment Claudia
      I think much of our fear of change is generated by our passion for acquisition, all sorts of possession are threatened by change and for so many in the west to be without possession ( and therefore attachment) is considered the lowest form of poverty. Big subjects no? I hope your little dog is better, and send my love


  7. I loved this inquiry of time, and your relationship to it as a young man. It makes me wonder how old you were when the still lifes began to move? Was your sense of time shifting in your life as the pears began to float? Was something breaking up in your life like ice calving of a glacier?


  8. Well Adam, I loved the paintings — maybe just after the still, still life period — when you objects floating in the air: potatoes, fruit and they seemed to me to break the rigidity you remember. They never felt static to me, and I loved the whimsy that broke through gravity (in both senses of that word.) Thanks for your ongoing often illustrated thoughts; I look forward to them. Here’s a poem hot off the (what?) computer screen.

    xo Judy


    she hangs


    drywall & cement

    floor & painted wall

    inside her tangled mess


    belly up & naked

    private parts


    her crimson birthmark

    calls out

    her name

    I wonder if she’s weary

    her day filled


    fetching a silk taste

    a fly-by

    caught in a cycle spinning


    I scoop lint

    from the dryer weather

    strip a leaky window

    quotidian comforts

    kill what’s precious

    both of us

    intimate assassins


    to cover

    death’s dark cheek

    his scratch & stubble

    the ink-black

    deep in the iris of his eye

    Judith Pacht


  9. Hey Adam,
    I was just talking to Robert and I was waxing on about your blog….
    You know the rest….Just a friendly nudge to print and send copies to Robert.😁
    I have wanted to discuss it with him but it sounds like you have been busy and unable to send as of yet.
    Hope your well,

    Date: Thu, 31 Mar 2016 18:49:08 +0000


  10. Hi Adam,
    Reading your blog tuned me into a current process that I’ve got going on, cognizant that I have more time in back of me than I do going forward. Striving 20’s, 30’s, 40’s behind me, I find that I am happily reverting to childhood pursuits of listening to birds, watching leaves shake in the wind and looking closely at flowers (while I’m not being a “responsible” adult). Part of my “reversion” is painting as part of my play process, not that in play there isn’t struggle, pain or confusion but the miracle of turning a flat white surface and blobs of goo is the best part of play. Turning nothing into something. Turning something alive into something expressive.

    Glad you decided to go down the path of blogging. It’s good to read you.
    See you at Esalen on the 24th.



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