Friday, August 16, 2013

Hearing Paintings

You may be thinking I accidentally wrote “Hearing” instead of “Seeing” in the title. I did not.

We must listen to what pictures tell us.

Here is how I discovered this very strange truth:

Since I returned from Crested Butte, Colorado, several weeks ago, I have not felt like painting. I now have three unfinished pictures waiting for me to work on them, but I stay out of my studio.

I tell myself this happens to artists all the time. I am probably just tired. But I know the real reason is that I am out of ideas: I am not hearing what my pictures are trying to tell me. 

That’s right: the pictures hold the clue.

For example, I started a picture in mid-May at Red Clay Reservation, a private land trust near Hockessin, Delaware. I obtained special permission to work in the park and, when I started my picture, my subject looked like this:

I went to work. Then, as you who live in the mid-Atlantic area know, it started to rain. It rained and rained and rained, making June the wettest on record in the Philadelphia/Wilmington area: 10.55 inches. The rain turned the gravel path to the painting site a muddy mess. The grass grew as if on steroids, and the grounds keeper could not mow it because it was always wet.

Then it got hot. Very hot. This also prevented me from painting. In addition, I went on three trips during this time. By the time I returned to my subject in late July, it looked like this:

I felt stumped.

Then, as I took a long walk this morning on this unusually lovely day, I noticed the freshly cut grass in the golf course across the road. Here it is:

When I say “noticed,” what I really mean is that the strips and bands the lawnmower created in the grass said, “Use me.”

The “clue” arrived as an auditory message. It enabled me to know what I had to do with my unfinished picture: I had to accentuate the contrasting patterns in the color shapes. If you look closely at the photograph of my subject again, you will now clearly see these subtle patterns in the grassy background.
I call this “re-vision.” I am revising my “first draft.”

It now looks like this:

You may be thinking I had other options. Option 1: I could have waited until next May, when the conditions would have been the same as when I started the picture, and go back to finish it. That implies the “clues” are in the subject, and all I needed to do was go back to it as it was.

But the clues were never in the subject. You know by now that when an artist “subjects” the subject to an “interest,” everything changes. I may “feel” as though I am painting exactly what is in front of me, what anyone else looking at the same thing would see, but you and I know that is not the case. I see what I want to see.

Option 2: I could have used the subject as it now was, and re-painted my picture accordingly.

But that would imply I liked what I now had in front of me, and I saw possibilities in it. I did not. All I saw was a large mass of green. I could not “subject” what was now in front of me to an interest I did not have.

I will show it to you again. If I added a title to this photograph, it would be “Verde Tyrannis”: Tyranny of Green.

The picture I made before the rains came was a “first draft.” I had to understand what my “first draft” said. I had to let it tell me. Matisse described this endeavor as similar to a mother examining her newborn baby in the hopes of understanding it.

I received encouragement from another unexpected source.

Earlier this week, as I walked into my living room, I glanced at a painting I had made in Crested Butte, Colorado, three years ago. I smiled at it, saying, “You are a pretty picture of picturesque houses on a street in a mountain town.”

“Au contraire,” the picture answered. “I am a horizontal series of triangular color units dramatically contrasted to sinuously curving color units that recede in compressed space.” I stopped where I was. This was my picture. I made the thing. And, until that moment, I had no idea what it said.

Here is the picture right side up and upside down. You decide:

Colm Toibin, in “What is Real is Imagined,” said: “The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known. It persists because it is based on the power of cadence and rhythm in language and these are mysterious and hard to defeat and keep in their place. The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water… It is the shape of the story rather than the shape of life that dictates what is added and excised (New York Times, July 15, 2012, p. SR 5)

Toibin described the process of writing fiction. The same process occurs when I make pictures. Visual artists work from clues. The clue is real and imagined. Many artists need grounding in everyday visual experiences in order to establish a “here and now” visual shape. For visual artists, as you know, rather than cadence and rhythm in language, they use visual means: light, line, color, space, relationships, and rhythm, and create new subject matter every step of the way.

Toibin said it this way: “The story has a shape, and that comes first, and then the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched. Then the phrases and sentences begin, another day’s work. And if I am lucky, what comes into shape will, despite all the fragility and all the unease, seem more real and more true, be more affecting and enduring, than the news today, or the facts of the case…”

The chart I showed you in a previous post diagrams the process this way:

For the chart below, I changed “intent” to “clue.” “Clue” is closer to what happens both to the artist confronting a subject and us when we try to understand the aesthetic visual meaning in a picture. We see and, sometimes, hear clues. Those clues bring us closer to understanding the visual meaning the artist discovered and recorded in the picture.

The picture talks to us if we listen as well as look.

Have you “heard” a painting whisper a clue? I invite you to let me know. Either add your comment to the end of this post, or send it to me in an email: Marilyn’s email.


  1. Great post, Marilyn!

    Many times I've taken a break from writing because I was stumped, but soon overheard a few sentences from a stranger's conversation - almost as if the words were amplified - that practically wrote the passage for me. I call it being in "writer's mind," where even when I'm not actually writing, I'm highly attuned to anything that is related to what I'm working on. I love that state of being - it's exciting and inspiring to discover those clues and the richness they can contribute to the piece.

    Thank you!

    1. Thank you for responding, Amy. My process on this picture has verified a lot of what I learned from Violette de Mazia. Toibin's comment regarding the role of the story (we would call it the illustrative aspect, or the subject facts) coming first and "then the story and its shape need substance and nourishment from the haunting past, clear memories or incidents suddenly remembered or invented, erased or enriched" occurred as I worked to complete the picture. I hope to talk about that in my final post on this topic.