Originally published in my December 2015 issue of Off the Easel
…or the story of how one painting was indeed ugly, but one I rather liked. The biggest benefits of taking those weekend workshops last month were less tangible, however.
If you read my post last month, It’s OK to Make Some Ugly Paintings: the Importance of Artistic Exploration, I was prepared to make some not-quite masterpieces, but to learn from playing.
As I am referencing the adjective, to describe art as “ugly” is in the critical eye of the artist as creator, rather than the opinion of another viewer. If the artist fell short of his or her intentions, that artist might call their attempt ugly.
Art is, if nothing else, subjective.
My article sparked wonderful comments from some of my Twitter followers. My favorite came from fellow artist Karin Feickert, who wrote: “I love ugly or non-standard beauty.” As artist Alice Neel said:
“Nobody knows what makes good art. As an artist, when it happens, you’re grateful, and then you get on with it.”
Open to new creative experiences and prepared for ugly, I took two workshops that weekend. Making my choices carefully, I had selected topics that I thought would inform future paintings. I came to each class prepared with reference photographs, and can safely say that at least the end result pictured above turned out to be a proper study for the ultimate piece. But that wasn’t the true benefit of the weekend.
The first workshop was a full seven hour day on Water: Reflections and Translucence with David Dunlop. His impressive knowledge base in both art history and the Old Masters’ methods, as well as the science of seeing and perception, really gave my experience depth.
I found what David shared to both echo and augment my personal exploration of Old Masters’ techniques and my theories on how to paint faster, but still have a believable or “realistic” looking end result. One such Old Master technique is to use transparent colors within your dark values so as to give them depth, and save your opaque pigments later for the light.
David stressed “following the paint” rather than the reference photograph, and utilizing a “process of reduction and simplification” so as to exploit the brain’s physiological tendency to make sense out of what he called the “tableaux of confusion”. In other words, just as my brain easily sees animals in cloud formations, the brain has a tendency to make sense out of textured chaos. Such visual cacophony as you would find in grass or, say, the weathered texture of two life-sized standing stones awaiting completion in my studio, ahem, your mind wants to make sense from that visual information. In this way, the viewer’s brain does part of my job for me.
This was great news. Perhaps Edgar Degas was alluding to this phenomenon when he said:
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
The other grand pearl of wisdom that David rolled out that I immediately put in my basket was to remove stress for maximum creativity. Apparently, he explained, we have better access to subliminal memory when we are relaxed.
When David mentioned this, I immediately thought of one of my favorite Yogi brand tea tag quotes that inspired my blog post, A Relaxed Mind is a Creative Mind. If we learned nothing else in the workshop, David said, he wanted us to remember to take a deep breath before beginning a painting session.
Whereas David’s workshop was perhaps more cerebral, Linda Kemp’s three hour acrylic workshop on The Painted Nest was unapologetically my playtime.
In the workshop description, Linda’s techniques of concentrating on the negative spaces — she referred to them as “captured negatives” — seemed to be in tandem with my own way of thinking while I paint. She also uses glazes masterfully to push areas back in order to bring other shapes forward.
However, trying to replicate her fabulous splishy-splash method of creating an underpainting structure that she had demonstrated step-by-step with both ease and bravado had me feeling quite like Jackson Pollock — and having a great deal of fun in the process.
There was a bit of a “re-learning curve” for me, as I had not used acrylics at any great length since my college days when I switched to oil. Somewhere between a desire to improve my unfinished, ugly duckling end result from this workshop, and thinking that the faster drying time of acrylics would make them an ideal medium for future studies, I left the trade show with a sack of tubes under my arm.
I confess, I feel the pull to improve on the ugly painting, but upon examination, I find that this drive isn’t just habitual. I don’t feel the urge to make a would-be masterpiece out of it, but rather, I feel I have more to learn from the process.
Coming Full Circle. Writing a blog is not unlike journaling. Just as it is helpful to read back over old personal journal entries to discover connections — what Oprah Winfrey memorably calls the “ah ha moments” — apparently, it’s not a bad idea to review your other writings periodically.
As I recently uploaded my previous blog posts to their new home on my website, I found it extraordinary how entries tied into my article from last month about artistic experimentation, and the very concepts David Dunlop was touting in his reflections workshop.
If you will forgive me for quoting myself, in my post Seeking “whelment,” I share:
“Forgetting that it is about painting ‘the masses, the whole’ as one of the Old Masters said is admittedly one of my heavy things to put down. Why not let the viewer’s brain and eye fill in some of the blanks? There is no need to paint every blade of grass when the viewer could perceive the holistic massed texture of the grass instead….
“Johannes Vermeer painted in this manner — his clean style is what I love about his paintings. Everything you need is there; the extraneous is omitted. He may have only completed 35 attributed paintings in his short 43 years, but visually, Vermeer had no weights around his ankles.”
And from my post, Taming the Inner Critic:
“My studio neighbor recently attended a week-long art workshop. Last night he showed me the results — he’d gotten four new pieces done, and was now applying the concepts in the studio to another new piece. Taking this time away from the large painting he’d been working on for awhile helped him to open a new creative door, as he put it. In his new pieces, I saw an awakening of some dynamic visual breakthroughs. My friend’s inspiration, kindled from working quickly and with freedom during this workshop, was infectious.
“So instead of worrying about what we have to DO, why not just BE, and have fun with it? Let’s all create something experimental, unexpected, and freeing, and in releasing our Inner Critic’s expectation that everything has to be a just-so Masterpiece, who knows? You just might create one.”
David was fearless as he demonstrated his techniques in a variety of painting media. As he said in the workshop, “Embrace the accident — there are no wrong notes. It’s what you do next.”
I am eager to see what comes next.
All the best, and Namaste,
David Dunlop is the host of a national Emmy Award-winning series on PBS, writes an art blog, and offers an instructional DVD series. For more about David, visit: http://daviddunlop.com/ and also look for his presentations on You Tube.
Linda Kemp has published several titles for North Light books, and has been featured in various arts publications. Look for Linda on You Tube, and visit her website: http://www.lindakemp.com/
Above: Workshop painting:
Experimental Study for Reflection
November 13, 2015
oil on gessobord coated with polymer gloss varnish
©2015 Amy Funderburk
All Rights Reserved
Madron Holy Well, Madron, West Penwith, Cornwall, England