Secrets of A Modern Painter
Secrets of A Modern Painter

Get Emotional

Dusk Light, 30 x 30, Acrylic on Canvas
You must feel what you are creating, the physicality of the work,  pour yourself into the container. What is on the surface is an illusion; it is within the vibration of color, the bending of space and time - your fluctuation of anxiety and calm - that will resonate with others. It is the energy of a creator, or channel of creative energies - whatever your preference is.

Great musicians memorize the music and spend their time interpreting it on their instrument - but they have already played the piece hundreds of times in their mind. The experience of performance is an emotional experience - that is what we hear and feel - it is not a struggle with their instruments or medium, it is not a questioning and hesitant series of statements.

Engage in a sense of mastery by making strong and deliberate marks on your canvas -  be bold and decisive, even if that mark will be painted over, get in the habit of saying each thing with such confidence and commitment as to convince us that it is that mark and only that mark that you wish to make.

But above and beyond the technical choices, tap into your feelings and allow them to impress themselves into the paint, do not hold back and be caught up in the hard cold world of facts and rules.

Use any means to get at your emotions - don't think you need to just face the canvas and call them forth on your own.

Movies, television, music, poetry, fiction, looking through old photos, riding the bus, people watching, whatever you have at your disposal - sometimes they are great for inspiring a new subject, but any of these can trigger emotions, some stronger than others. Whether they make you laugh or cry, get angry or peaceful, ride the wave and get your emotions flowing - forget about technique when you step up to paint, don't make choices, allow the choices to be made as a consequence of your emotional state and creative flow.

That's not to say that if you watched a tragic scene from a movie then you would paint a tragic painting - that isn't the point - the point is to feel deeply and experience that and other deep emotions while you are painting. The push and pull of light and dark forces will reveal an honest beauty through their struggle on the canvas and be far more profound than a one dimensional single statement piece.

Don't just play the notes - play the music.

Focused Improvisation

Wet Streets, 30 x 48, Acrylic on Canvas
Tuning an instrument also tunes the body and mind, and leads to a more sensitive and harmonious relationship with color and composition. I think it's integral to my development as a painter that I grew up improvising on the piano and over the years I have played many instruments.  More than once in my life an accomplished classical pianist has heard me play and said they could not play freely without sheet music and have no idea how they would do it. Because they have always worked within a set system, always after something that is 'right' and 'finished', deciding instead to just sit at the piano and play seemed scary, if not impossible, to them.

Focused improvisation is free painting within parameters - you set various controls and move freely in other aspects of the work. You may set as a parameter a definite subject, limited set of colors or values, and even the time spent on the work. Once the parameters are set, allow yourself to be completely free with the other aspects of the work. This often works best if only one or two aspects are allowed to be free and if you put some limitations on those as well; while this may seem contradictory, the idea is to be highly focused on selected aspects of improvisation - that way you can really tune into and process the experience.

If you have trouble letting go and taking chances, listen to your thought process and every time you find yourself following a pattern - doing what you would normally do - try to find what would be opposite or contrary to the standard reaction. Use focussed improvisation to hone in on the elements or techniques you use that are not working, or limited in their effectiveness.

Use outside stimuli to affect your energies and content: for example, when I am painting clouds and rain in the studio I often play the sounds of a rainstorm for hours on end behind whatever music I am listening to. Often, I get so lost in the painting I believe it is actually raining, and when I stop I am surprised it isn't.

Just like in improvisational music you can't just play anything you want and hope it works - it needs to be connected somehow to what else is being played at the moment, what came before, and what may come after. If played in the correct time and related correctly, it may be true that there are no wrong notes - dissonance may be created, but if it is resolved over time it will probably work.

Just like ear training is important, being able to play with others, process your reactions and hear the possiblities of what they may do next, you must really be able to pay attention to what is actually happening on the canvas, not just what you think is happening. It's like your mind is you playing, and what is happening on the canvas with color, value, composition, etc...are the other musicians in the room - you have to pay very close attention to keep rhythym, but once you feel it, hopefully, you're caught up in the flow and everything seems natural.
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