Friday, May 2, 2008

How to Start a Painting?

"These Five Words in my Mind"
Polymer on Canvas, 60 x 50 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2008

“The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be towards clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer.”

--Mark Rothko

I though this was a fitting quote for the above painting—and relates back to my own experience lately. As you know, I have making a radical change in my painting style over the last few months, and I have been getting a lot of questions as to “why”? The short answer can be found in the above quote—in that I felt a real need to simplify my work and eliminate the obstacles between what I was trying to say in my paintings—and to send that idea more directly to the observer.

The above painting, “These Five Words in my Mind” was motivated by a very simple idea that I had been thinking about for a few months—that is, how do words and colors relate? And could you make a painting that had the effect of words—in terms of evoking a response of the observer? And how could you change the colors and shapes to change the meaning and sensation of a painting?

Let me explain. Let’s say you have five words. There are a lot of different things you can say with those five words. Change one word, and you can chance the entire meaning of what you are saying. Take, for example, the two phrases, “I would hate to love you”, and “I would love to hate you”. These phrase contain the same six words—but you immediately feel different depending on which one is said. In a way, color is the same way. You can make a lot of different paintings with a set of five colors—and if you change one color, the entire sensation will also change. Of course, most paintings have dozens or thousands of colors—but do they need all of them? Which ones are important to send the meaning? And which ones will change the meaning of the painting—these are the questions I was asking myself when I thinking about the above painting.

For this painting, I purposely chose five colors you would probably never see reflected in water—and except the blue—would not likely make anybody think “water”. Then I tried to make a painting that said “water” on one hand through the subject matter—but in a very minimal way. In fact, the main purpose was to combine five colors into a certain sensation—that is to send a sensation through a certain color “note” or harmony. Also, I used shapes moving from larger to smaller (and hard edge to soft) to give the painting a sense of moving back in space—so that the five colors soon become “color”, “space”, and “sensation” all at the same time-(by combining in your eye)—just like a certain phrase would (or even five music notes) do as they are uttered or played. You cannot hear the individual words or notes—only feel the sensation. I know it probably all sounds pretty crazy—but that is what I was thinking about before I started this painting and while I was painting it—the sensation of five words running around my head.

Okay, so how does this relate to the subject of this post? Well, I have been thinking a lot about how paintings communicate and what that means for how artists might approach their paintings. One of the things I think is important is that an artist at least be clear about the motivation for painting before moving to the easel. I have heard instructors say that you must “have one idea” or that you should “focus on the main idea of the painting” while you paint. I have known that to be true based on my own experience. When I start to paint with one idea in mind (say, capturing the feeling of a sunset) and then start focusing on something else half way through (such as the the color of the mountains)—it is more than likely going to led to a bad painting. The fact is, that a successful paintings are those that deliver a clear message to the observer—as simply as possible. If the artist is not clear—how can he/she expect the observer to see it clearly?

So what does this mean for starting a painting? Well, obviously, I think the first step is to make sure you know what you want to say before you start a painting. That is, do you want to say something about something you are seeing, feeling, or something that pleases you visually? Keep that idea in your mind as you plan and work on the painting. Make it as simple as possible. My experience is this simple approach will lead to better outcomes. Successful paintings require a lot of pre-meditation. Many painters and students focus so much on the mechanics of painting—color mixing and drawing—they forget about the “why”.

So next time you are about to start a painting. Take a few moments to think about why you have chosen the subject. Ask some hard questions about what attracts you to that subject or landscape. Really work through your motivation for starting a painting—before you start mixing colors and drawing on the canvas—and stick with this idea throughout. Try to get that idea onto the canvas. When you step back from the canvas, ask yourself not if looks like the subject matter—but if it feels like it. Not if the drawing is good, but if the sensation is good. Does the figure feel like it is standing? Not is the gesture correct, but does it feel correct? Why is this important—because when the observer sees your work—this is what he/she will feel right away more than any amount of good drawing or careful color mixing. The idea or message of a painting comes to the viewer in one quick moment as a feeling (like five spoken words)—and so you need to be sure that you are communicating and assessing your paintings at that level.

Okay, I know this is a bit touchy feely for some of you. But I hope you got something out if it.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist.