Thursday, November 5, 2009

Styrofoam Hawk

The little table lifted up from under her hands and went flying right into the other painter working next to her. A dust devil had come up the slope and ploughed into the folding table where she was trying to simply mix paints to match more or less the colors she saw out there in the deep, falling space - an impossible grey green, or is it mauve? – and place it simply on her panel. And then it was all in the air.

I saw none of this. I heard the commotion but was staring over the other side to the eastward unattainable space where pale-as-death alkali deserts float in a periwinkle haze.

I watched as her Styrofoam sandwich box lifted itself into the air, following the lines I’d seen traced by Northern Harrier after Northern Harrier, up one side of the steep mountain and out over the other slope as though 9,960 feet of altitude meant nothing at all. The Styrofoam box was likewise a member of natural aviator species rising with perfect ease, flapping gently the two sides of the box, always cupped-side-up, circling and soaring above the hard world.

It’s almost impossible to paint the transparent blue distance with accuracy and feeling. “Wouldn’t it be easier from a photo?” someone suggested. Accuracy, maybe, but not truth or feeling. So, what would be real? Once, the legend goes, Pablo Picasso was riding on a train and the man sitting next to him, realizing the world’s most famous artist was within earshot, began arguing with him about realism v. abstraction. Picasso asked for an example of realism. The man pulled from his billfold a photo. “This is real! This is my wife!” After a while Picasso returned the photo, saying, “She’s rather small. And flat.”

For generations now, those of us in the industrial world are conditioned to flattened images presented on paper or billboards or screens. We are tempted to take that which is represented in these media as real or realistic. Even most of our viewing of two-dimensional and three-dimensional art is through reproduction. We are used to viewing art, not where the artwork is, but wherever we are, in magazines or books or calendars or posters or coffee mugs. Even time-based art is experienced through the filter of electronic media, radio or television. These are all filters that interfere with experience. Or better, the experience is of a reproduction, in a place other than where the original lives, not the original.

If you are a painter, here is an experiment: try painting an original painting from a photo of a favorite spot. Then, when satisfied with your effort, take the trouble to go to that spot, and paint it from observation. Load your paints into your car or bicycle or train or bus, or carry your gear on your own legs. Experience the journey, the weather, the time it takes, the boredom, the anticipation, the hunger pangs, the lunch en route, the sheer pleasure of being alive and able, the pains and inconveniences, the mosquitoes, the cold, the heat. Get there. Look. Look some more. Feel the breeze. What’s the sun going to do? What is the color in that corner of the water? What pigments would convey it? What brushstroke?

Check in on your time, your materials, your ego, your gumption.

Begin. Absorb yourself in the work of attention and perception and action. Mixing color. Placing. Scraping. Changing. The birds sing. The rain starts, then stops. Your palette becomes unworkable; these colors are not what I see out there. Maybe that won’t matter. You chase colors. You chase the shadows as they move. A breeze moves the trees and you see something in the shadow, which is now alive and spacious because it is moving. A squirrel leaps the branches. An osprey wheels the invisible gyres of space. A fish jumps and the silver rings repeat until they connect the two shores and the wind-made texture on the water scrapes over them and it’s all quite impossible to capture.

“You cannot control. Only catch,” said Tsung Tsai[1]

You paint anyway. It’s never perfect, but something of the wind and the temperature and the space in that shadow find their way into the painting on the panel. When you look at it, it feels like you were there, no matter the outcome.


Eventually the Styrofoam bird landed in the rocks and in that instant was litter. With life (wind) spreading its wings it was beautiful, white against the deep blue. Now, it was a line of dead white in a wide world of active color.

To paint the world around with √©lan one has to be in life. Full engagement. Like the sign says for the raffle, “Must be present to win.”



These oil paintings were done recently en plein air.




[1]Chan monk in George Crane’s wonderful book Bones of the Master.