Artist’s block

I was reading the latest book review written by on a book by Flaherty on writer’s block. It got me thinking about the philosophy I operate with when this happens to me as an artist.

When I’m in painting mode, that first brush stroke on a blank canvas is sometimes daunting. During a long (and recent) period that has lasted a good 6 years now, with little time to paint, I’ve done what I call “keeping my hand in” or “keeping my skills up”. The images are mundane landscapes, vases of flowers or a singleton, etc. At least my hands keep using the brush and my eye/hand coordination is forced to work.
Even so, when I was working almost full time at my more thoughtful, experimental imagery, I had times when nothing flowed, inspiration had gone on holiday. It’s the time between series – the “what next?” time.
It used to produce a large amount of uncomfortable frustration. Eventually, though, I saw a pattern in my way of working.
It was akin to the seeding/growing/harvesting/laying fallow progression of agriculture; only here the “seeding” was the researching, reading, gathering imagery, and thinking about it all to come by a worthy idea. The “growing” part used that material to explore possibilities, fooling around with sketches and minor works to grapple with the ideas.
The “harvesting” was the period of putting some mature imagery to canvas – a series of valid images that work together and that have some meaningful, coherent shape. This stage usually just hums along; I’m eager to get stuff down on paper or on canvas. I can’t work fast enough for the contingent ideas bombarding me. All the previous stages are bearing fruit. And then whammo! it stops. There is nothing more to be said in that vein, or it reduces to a trickle. A work or two may generate later, but I don’t inhale without exhaling.
I’ve learned to respect the “laying fallow” time of creativity. I still feel the frustration, but I remind myself that, like fields, the mind has to regain the substance that it consumed in the making of the previous spurt of creative activity.
I can change the crop I’m trying to get out of it . For instance, I can switch to writing or music. I can recharge the nutrients with music, reading, gallery going, taking a course from a colleague who will seed a new idea, or go walking on the Eastside, the docks, construction sites or down to the shoreline .
Eventually, one day, the thought processes start focusing on one general area of interest, and then, it’s back to the “Seeding” stage of things.
It works for me. It keeps me off Prozac.

More specifically, when I tackle a new canvas, there is some housekeeping to do that generally gets me over the first difficulties of putting brush to canvas.

Firstly, most pre-stretched canvases come primed, but the priming of these is seldom the thickness of priming I would like for my artwork. Just the fact of having a paintbrush in my hand and globbing it up with a thick swath of gesso to spread around is a good starting point. Swishing this around to make the texture – smooth, filled with purposeful brushing strokes or highly and randomly textured – is a pleasant start to get the springy feel of the canvas and to feel the heft of the brush in my hand. That first act of painting white on white is inspiring in itself.

While this first protective layer is drying and I am washing the fast drying white out of the bristles, I’m already thinking what might be a good undertone to build the image on. For blue skies, I like to put a thin layer of warm yellow cadmium or yellow ochre. It warms up the whole painting, and if, later on, there are spaces between my brush strokes, it is warmth that glows through, not brittle white. Some painters like to start with a drawing in burnt sienna; some swear by red. But I avoid red, ever since I realized that all the pigments that painters use are simply chemicals and some react with others to make a) noxious byproducts in the form of gas or 2) react badly with the next layer of paint. If I want that reddish tone, then I prefer the burnt sienna.

In early times of oil painting, vermillion and other reds reacted badly with other pigments and always had to be separated from touching them with a separating layer of varnish. Vermillion is made of mercuric sulphide and occurs naturally in the mineral called cinnabar. In early times, it was more expensive than gold and therefore used very sparingly in paintings. A painter needed a wealthy patron to be able to afford such a luxury.

Back to the canvas…

I’ve now painted one layer of gesso and one layer of underpainting and I make sure they are good and dry before I go on to the next stage.

If I’m unsure of my drawing, I will sometimes sketch in everything with a thin wash of a contrasting colour to my underpainting. For instance, where I need to mass in the sky, I’ll choose a light wash of cerulean blue diluted with turpentine (or water, if I’m using acrylics) which I’m going to use in greater amounts later for the final colour. It contrasts well with the yellow ground. Or, on the yellow ochre, now is the time that I will use a thin wash of burnt sienna to sketch in a figure and the major parts of the composition.

All of that is just housekeeping. If I don’t like what I’ve done, it’s easy to wipe it away with a lint-free cloth. It’s so thin a layer that if I want to paint over it, it will disappear or become part of the richness of layers of build-up. If, by this time, I’m dissatisfied with what I’ve done, I just walk away. I get a cup of coffee and go read a book, or do some real housekeeping. By the time ten minutes or half an hour has gone by, or even a whole day, the painting takes on a different look. I’ve forgotten the frustration of trying to set out my image. I can see what’s good more clearly and the mistakes are more evident – the arm that is too long or the leg at an impossible angle, or the head that is too small for the body, or one shoulder wider than the other… It’s time to check the flow of the work, the way the eye comes in from the left, the way focal points of colour will draw the eye around the image, the negative spaces, the balance of light and dark.

But the important thing is, I’m no longer dealing with a blank canvas. The work is already started.

And that’s a fine thing for an artist to say, who hasn’t painted a serious painting for two years! I just better get some housekeeping done and get the easel out, don’t you think?

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