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.