At WFC on Halloween weekend, I invited myself onto a panel titled Writers Who Paint. Karen Haber was the moderator, and she said sure!
Rudy Rucker and Greg Bear were on it, as well as two other writers, and I imagine Joe Haldeman was supposed to be on it, but he was unable to attend because of a two-month stay in the hospital. WFC was a last-minute thing for me, but I found that my two trips to CA last spring–one as one of four finalists for the Post of Professor of Creative Writing at UC Riverside, and the other as a Guest at the Eton Conference at UCR, had given me enough miles for one more free trip, during which I enriched the coffers of California by spending money.
Anyway, a few of the panelists mentioned that they thought of watercolor as an “unforgiving” and an “uncontrollable” medium. Both of which are precisely the reason I love watercolor, although neither is really true. Good paper can make “mistakes” less permanent, and part of the craft of this medium is learning when to control and when to allow “accidents,” which are controlled, actually.
The painted headers on my blog are fragments of some of my watercolors, snipped to a precise size to fit the rotating header coding specifics. When you get down to this small level, it all looks like it is uncontrolled, and yet I love the way the colors play off one another and how one transparent layer overlaps with another transparent layer to create a third color. (You can get a see a different header by refreshing your screen, btw; the other headers are my own photos, similarly clipped and precisely sized. I had many more in the que, but I think that I made a coding mistake that keeps the rest from rotating. If I ever come up for air, or want to lose a day, I’ll get back to making them work too.)
My control is huge. I choose which colors to use, whether I am doing wet-into-wet, wet-over-dry, the viscocity, granulation properties, even the boundaries of each segment, easily done by making sure the surrounding areas are dry, using masking or impermeable boundaries such as wax, and so on. I can do these things because I have been painting for several decades, albeit as an amateur. However, planning a watercolor is subtractive, rather than additive. You must decide which spaces to keep white, which spaces should remain and which to glaze or reglaze with successive tints, and so on. It’s pretty difficult to remove an entire painting from a piece of paper, even a good piece of paper, but there is always the other side. Oil/acrylic is more of an additive art. Successive layers can completely cover previous layers, so in that sense, watercolors could be said to be more difficult. Let me pull another artistic metaphor into this and say that beginning a watercolor reminds me of my piano teacher’s maxim that one must know the entire chord, in one’s body, arms, fingers, and let that energy descend to the keys not tentatively, but decisively and with great consciousness, and to maintain that awareness with each interaction with the keys of the piano. I do have a similar heightened awareness as I paint with watercolors. The act of painting, for me, is rhythmic. As is writing, whether via pen or keyboard.
Like every novel or story, each painting is a learning experience. The process of learning how to create a certain effect, how it fails in perhaps interesting or perhaps unpleasant ways, are what I love about both writing and painting. There are formulas to writing and to painting. I know I could make more money if I just tried to come up with a character and a more or less repeating plot that got people hooked and desirous of repeating the experience, much as I did as a reader when I was a kid with the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, and so on. A lot of readers crave predictability. I don’t blame them. People read for all kinds of reasons.
I buy the occasional watercolor magazine, and almost always the covers feature paintings of cut crystal, beautiful portraits, or photo-perfect scenes with nary a blur or a drip. They are technically perfect, breathtaking displays of mastery. It would be nice to do such things, I suppose, and I have, in the past, but it that is not the process my brain craves. I want sponteneity. I want to see one color run into another and see what happens, and deal with that: blot it, mute it, highlight it–whatever pleases me. I am master in this world.
I came to this way of painting gradually. When I began painting, I sketched, then inked the lines of the sketch, then filled in the colors, more or less, using the ink as a color as well, a color that I might touch with a drop of water and draw it from its previous boundaries. The physics and the chemistry of watercolor are also fascinating.
After a while, I saw my subjects not as drawings, not as lines containing color, but as color itself. I mastered painting with simply color, perhaps with a basic light pencil sketch beneath, but quite naturally became interested in the values inherent in the painting, the contrasts, the shadows and degrees of shadow-colors, and so on. I’d say that now I’m pretty abstract, as a painter.
Painting is a kinetic exercise for me. Brain, arm, hand. I become very involved; I stand, I sit, I allow my brain and hand to make decisions of which I am not consciously aware. I allow myself to be impulsive. I must begin with a physical model–a photo, or some sort of live or plein air experience, but at some point, just as with a work of fiction (which I want my painting to be–we have photography now to record things for real) the picture itself takes over, demands shaping, balance, retrofitting (if possible), to make itself, which is a collaboration between my “subconscious,” what I call Painting Woman (there is also the Writing Woman part of me) and the physical world.
Though we don’t like to believe so, our personalities and our perceptions are on some level fictional, the emotional reality we construct via the way our senses work and how that data interacts with what we have learned in the past.
Once I have finished a painting, it is an artifact. I can enjoy it, I can critique it, but the real thrill, for me, is in the creative process of interacting with paper and paint, mind and body. Writing is now a job, and I still feel that thrill, but it is somewhat mitigated by the necessity of production and contracts. I write, therefore I live; kind of on the level of eating, taking vitamins, sleeping: necessary to my survival and my sanity. Writing is still a surprise, a connection with some deep well, and sublime when it goes well. I love painting because it is still pure joy. If I took it to a professional level, all the angst would be there: I have three days to create this Perfect Painting of Cut Glass In Sunlight–a problem that I must solve, whether I still want to or not.
November 13, 2009 No Comments