Palm and Live Oaks, Florida. Watercolor on Arches cold press, 9" x 12".
During the past few days I've been working on this watercolor painting, a further exploration of the palms I sketched while in Florida. I spent some time looking at John Singer Sargent's wonderful paintings of that same place, and gleaned a lot from studying his paintings of palmettos and reading the technical notes on his work in the catalog from the recent show in Brooklyn/Boston. Still, we have to forge our own way, and in subsequent paintings I plan to let go even more.
In this one, I'm happy about the way the light comes through the leaves, and especially with the suggestion of Spanish moss hanging from the branches: that's just wiping through wet paint with the side of my hand.
We were in northern Florida for the past few days for a funeral and a time of family gathering; J.'s uncle (the brother of his father) lives there and is very elderly, so we were happy to be able to stay on an extra day and visit with him. There's a lot that I don't like about Florida, but I'm crazy about the plantlife.
There wasn't a lot of time to sketch but I managed to do a few. We were staying on land near a river, with many huge live oak trees festooned with Spanish moss, whose swaying softness was punctuated by the spiky leaves of palm trees. I found it very difficult indeed to capture the essense of the overgrown tropical wildness. It would take a lot of practice and trial and error with different media to find ways that satisfy me, and I thought back to Winslow Homer's and John Singer Sargeant's tropical watercolors with even greater admiration.
During different times of the day, the moss and the leaves were backlit, or in direct sunlight. Along the great old branches of the live oaks were colonies of ferns and other plants, living high in the canopy where they could catch and retain moisture and the additional sunlight they needed to thrive.
Fantastic, brightly-colored flowers bloomed below, and vines scrambled over walls and fences and other plants with a rampant vigor unknown to northern gardens.
Tiny lizards whose feet made a thin clattering sound scuttled ahead of my hand on wooden railings, mosquitoes and ants feasted on my exposed ankles, and feral cats lurked under trees weighted with ripening grapefruit and lemons.
Time-lost decay and feverish growth coexist there, in the moist heat that slows my feet while quickening my pulse. I sat on the glassed-in porch of the old house watching the moss sway in the breeze, while cracking fresh pecans and picking out the nutmeats, wondering how different I would have been if I had grown up in such a place. I'm fascinated by the tropics but it's an attraction tempered by awareness of violent weather, unfamiliar insects and serpents, disease and fungus, the unpredictable sea, and an aversion to heat-induced torpor; I'm so much more comfortable with rocks, snow, mountains and forests, and extreme cold. Still, I'd like to spend more time exploring these places with my camera and my paints, preferably with a guide who knows far more than I do and could keep me out of trouble.
Boulder, Stream, and Mossy Rocks. Acrylic on gessoed paper, 10" x 9".
Over the past few days I've finally had time to do a little artwork, inspired by our recent stay in the mountains. This isn't a literal interpretation but it gets across the feeling of a particular spot. I'd like to do some more explorations of this composition, maybe using different media. I was fascinated by the huge glacial erratics in the middle of the woods -- poised so precariously, it seemed, but actually very solidly positioned right where they've been since the glaciers retreated -- in contrast to the flowing stream, but the forms had their own abstract interest that I've only begun to explore here.
Below, a few preliminary stages in the progress of this painting.
It's been a long, hard week, full of dismaying world news and, here at home, a lot of work and looming deadlines. I've had my nose to the grindstone for much of it. I used to have a lot of resistance to doing my professional work; I thought that all I wanted to do was have more free time to paint or write. When I did get some free time, I often made excuses instead of actually using it well. Somewhere along the line I saw this pattern and my attitude changed. I'm really glad it did, because resisting what you need to do, and have to do, makes it ten times harder to get it done, and to do a good job besides.
Then, there are a lot of reasons why we resist what we say we want to do the most, or manage to make it into agony rather than pleasure.
Dave Bonta recently pointed me to a terrific essay by writer/philosopher Will Buckingham, "The Pleasure and Difficulty of Writing." In it, Buckingham takes exception to Hemingway's famous quote about writing being nothing but "sitting down at a typewriter and bleeding." He writes:
"But difficulty is not something in itself that we should shun, and neither is difficulty something that people in general do tend to shun. The world is full of people doing difficult things. It’s astonishing. The prevailing orthodoxy that people are, at root, lazy — as if human beings are little Aristotelian universes, and need some kind of outside prompting, some primum mobile, to get things going — is simply nonsense. Sometimes, to be sure, people are doing difficult things out of necessity; but very often, people are doing difficult things because difficulty can be fun."
Learning to persevere in any creative pursuit is really the key, I think. In painting and writing I may get started fine, with enthusiasm and inspiration, but eventually I often find myself in a thicket -- some sort of difficulty, maybe like the middle game in chess -- and have to find my way out. I've come not to dread this, but to expect it. Sometimes it means putting the work aside for a bit, sometimes not -- but working through that sense of being lost and uncertain is actually the most satisfying part of the whole endeavor.
It can be hard to learn this on your own, and it seems to me it's where a lot of talented and enthusiastic people eventually lose their enthusiasm and may even quit. It helps a lot if students are exposed to an older mentor at some point. You can't teach patience and determination and self-motivation, but a mentor can encourage and share her experience, and model his way of working -- and maybe offer a few key words that will be remembered down the road. A focus on the "tragically struggling artist" may be romantic, or have entertainment value, or be part of someone's attempt to build an artistic identity, but as Will says, it's a pretty destructive image for talented young writers or artists of any kind, who need the tools to shape and live a whole long life, enduring the inevitable ups and downs in as healthy a way as possible.
I live with someone whose ability to keep at it, without drama or complaint, has taught me a lot. When I asked J. what taught him to persevere toward his goals in the face of difficulty, he immediately answered "sports." My dad would no doubt say the same thing: he's still playing competitive table tennis and working on his golf game at age 89, and often tells me about the subtle things he discovers and then practices in order to improve -- in spite of the aches and pains of his aging body. J.'s father, who lived to 99, was still reading and reciting Arabic poetry and discovering new insights and pleasures in it at the very end of his life. My painting mentor went to the studio every day, well into his late 80s, and told me he felt he was "just learning to paint."
For me, as a young person, it was several things: learning to play instruments; a summer course at a college when I was 16 where we had to show up and paint for four hours every single day regardless of how we were feeling; and studying ancient Greek in university -- something that was hard and demanding for three long years; I wasn't even particularly good at it but I thought it was a magical, fantastic thing to do. Forty years later I find that same passion and joy of learning in many areas of my life. Mistakes and failures are inevitable, but the more you persevere, the more you see that they're an intrinsic part of the learning process, and so you actually begin to appreciate your failures too. In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki suggested that the difficulties in contemplative practice are like weeds, and that we can grow to love them as much as the flowers: he wrote "a weed is a treasure." It shifted my perspective a lot when I was able to see that.
Do you agree that difficulty can be fun? What helped you learn that, and how do you encourage yourself to keep going when you run into difficulties in a project? Do you continue to have mentors/friends, or belong to a writers' group or other collective gathering of like-minded people? Do your online friendships figure into this equation? They (including you readers!) are certainly important for me.
Family Coffee Pot and a Fossil (Thinking of Gaza). 9 1/2" x 8 3/4" . Acrylic on paper, July 14, 2014.
Richard Rohr's meditation this morning contained a lot of wisdom. Being a Franciscan, he was talking about how Jesus embodied this way of "being peace," but I've taken the liberty of removing the Christian language, hoping everyone can find the truth in these words without being turned off. What he says is certainly true for me, and my experience. And I appreciate that he states that this is work -- a lifetime of work and practice for most of us.
"Negativity unites most people far more quickly than love. The ego moves forward by contraction, self-protection, and refusal, by saying no. The soul, however, does not proceed by contraction but by expansion. It moves forward not by exclusion, but by inclusion and by saying yes...There is really no other way to save us from ourselves, and from each other, until we are saved from our need to fear and hate.
Conscious love is the totally enlightened, and often entirely nonsensical way out of this universal pattern. Love has to be worked toward, received, and enjoyed, first of all, by facing our preference for fear and hate. But remember, we gather around the negative space quickly, while we “fall into” love rather slowly, and only with lots of practice at falling.
This is exactly what contemplative practice helps us to do. Meditation is refusing to project our anxieties elsewhere, and learning to hold and face them within ourselves and within God."
For once, I used the best hours of my morning to paint today instead of getting lost in my computer and work responsibilities. J.'s parents brought this coffee pot with them when they immigrated to the United States in the mid-1940s. The fossil shell reminded me of the Sea of Galilee, and the "living stones" - a phrase used by Palestinian Christians to describe themselves; a diminishing remnant of two thousand years of Christian presence in Palestine.
Delphinium petals and a fossil, acrylic on paper, 6" x 3"
Once again, this is part of a larger painting, but when I got out the cropping corners, this is the part that I liked - partly because I'm partial to that fossil, but also because the composition and colors just work better. In the full version below, I think the leaves on the left side are too fussy and the daisies feel a little too literal - in this style of painting simple shapes are required, and a lot of attention to positive/negative balance. I do like the stiles of the chairback, though.
The national holiday up here, of course, is July 1, Canada Day, but for me the Fourth of July will always mean parades, cookouts, bonfires, and fireworks, American-style. We've been in the studio all day but are about ready to go home, have a drink, watch some soccer, and maybe fire up the seldom-used grill.
Bougainvilla, hexagonal tile and chased copper bowl. Pen on paper, 9" x 12".
I've been wanting to buy a bougainvilla for years but they're a) expensive and b) hard to grow and winter-over in the north. Mexico City put me over the top, though, so when I saw some first-year seedling plants thsi spring at one of the flower kiosks near a metro station, I picked one up...and once you pick up the pot, you're done for. The proprietor was knowledgeable and I asked him some questions about wintering the plant over - he said he and his partner do it every year, and so long as there's enough sun and you don't over-water, it will be OK. What the hell, I figured -- this wasn't a $40 hanging basket. I've had good luck with lantanas at our studio, where the winter light is quite strong and constant and I can keep a good eye on the plants - I cut them back pretty ruthlessly when they get leggy and pale, and they come back every year. Have any of you tried this with a bougainvilla?
Anyway, I want to paint it before I put it in its permanent pot, so today it got sketched. The flower bracts are strange, kind of like poinsettias, very much like a different kind of leaf - and they are an odd shape - a set of three petals that almost form a cube or square. Like a dog that has to circle around its tail three times before lying down, I seem to have to study plants by drawing them before I can do anything else, certainly not the simplification that will be necessary here. Of course the color is the main thing, but I like the plant's sturdy gangliness too.
My father-in-law's birthday was a few days ago, and I've been thinking about him -- he would have been 105. Through his stories, bougainvilla also makes me think of the Middle East, so I added a chased copper bowl that is part of a set from J.'s family, and am thinking about some other characters who could play a part in a still life. The bowl worked a whole lot better when I turned it upside down.
Jonathan with a bougainvilla in all its glory, at the Shrine of the Virgin of Guadelupe, Mexico City.
Lemon Lily and Lupine, approx 6"x 9", acrylic on paper.
I've been staring at a vase of flowers for several days - it had the aforementioned two types of flowers in it but also some ornamental clover on thin red stalks, and some bright green peony leaves. I couldn't take my eyes off the combination of that intense red and green, for which the lemon-yellow lily and purple lupine seemed like perfect foils. I wasn't sure what to do with it, but yesterday I picked a similar bouquet at the garden and took it up to the studio. The light there was very different, much more diffuse and softer, and the colors didn't have the same jolt, but when I viewed the bouquet from above, I saw more possibilities. So I decided to try to simplify it within a fairly abstract setting, and this was the result. I started with the "chair" on which the flowers were resting - my original intention was for it to be dark, with this reddish-brown underpainting, but I liked the color and everything else sort of evolved from there.
The reason I mentioned "via negativa" is that the process seemed so subtractive. During the painting I simplified the leaves a great deal and painted the lupines with a sort of shorthand. That was only possible because of the previous, detailed drawings I had done, during which the forms had become kind of imprinted in my head. It fascinates me how "line" becomes "form;" there's some sort of subtle shift in the brain that allows all that detail to be distilled and reduced to its essence.
By the same token, while I'm still far from feeling really comfortable with acrylics, all the paintings over the past few weeks helped me in this one. It's very different for me to work with opaque media (except for oils, whose unique challenges and advantages do not include working quickly in layers) -- and I'm finding that it opens up a lot of possibilities.
Anyway, I hope to be able to build on what happened here.