For a while now, I have been thinking about getting out of my journal and doing something a little more ambitious: a real painting. I tend to work very spontaneously and unpremeditated usually; maybe it was working on the HOW cover that prompted to try a piece that would take time and planning, something with some meaning beyond the quotidian that usually lies at the heart of my art-making.
I decided to work from a photograph, something I could study over a long period and that wouldn’t change. I felt that my art should somehow come from the sort of experience I have most, the sort of activity that takes up an awful lot of people’s times and yet is not dealt much with in art. So I searched for photographs people had taken during meetings and posted on the Internet. Eventually I collected a dozen or so high-res images which I narrowed down to an initial candidate.
Over three days, I drew from large black & white and color prints of the photograph, slowly and carefully drawing the contours of every person and object in the scene using a dip pen and waterproof Higgins ink. Then I slowly layered on watercolors. I finished the painting in a burst of activity, after waking up very inspired at 5 a.m. one day the sun had just finished rising when I took a break, sipped a cup of tea and examined my work.
What a turd!
The colors were garish — the dominant hues were drawn from the tacky corporate meeting room decor: a bright teal, a red-violet and some patches of cad orange. The drawing, which I had excused in the initial phase because it was pure line with no shading, lacked any character or point of view, like a cheap coloring book. The composition was mawkish and lead the eye nowhere.
As a final desperate effort, I took the painting intro the kitchen and ran it under the tap for a few minutes. The only color that remained was what pigment had dyed deep into the 140 lb. watercolor paper. It had an interesting pastel effect but was still a turd, a runny one.
I have been thinking about this experience over the three days since the final disaster and I am very happy. I learned so much. I’d violated almost every lesson I have picked up over the last decade and, in doing so, reinforced them to myself:
I drew something I have no connection to. I used a photo I hadn’t taken of a scene I’ve never experienced nor cared about. I couldn’t find any meaning in it because it had none for me. No meaning, no feeling.
I was being pretentious. I tried to make some sort of snarky statement about modern life or work or the human condition like some latter-day Brueghel or Courbet and discovered I had nothing but cynicism to express, hardly the basis for interesting art.
I set out to make something not for its own sake but to hang on the wall somewhere. My art is about what I am living through, a way of seeing deeper in to the moment; the art itself is a by-product of the process. That’s why illustration projects are such a different experience for me. The only assignments I would really, really love to do would ones that sent me somewhere and just asked me to record my experiences.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but enjoy the process. There was something quite soothing about working my way through all the details of the image, sort of like doing a crossword or needle point.
And it showed me that, if I want to, I should do another longer range drawing like this but do it from life, of something I care about and derive meaning from.
The best experiments can be failures.
Like my beard, which I shaved off this morning.