This week, painter John Stephenson shares about his artistic process and the challenges and triumphs that go along with being an artist.
As a painter I have often been focused on the what I see “out there” or some inner vision, and I have overlooked the materials, the physical elements, involved in creating a visual work. The physical elements have a life of their own when you are creating something—materials like pigments, solvents and mediums,clay and glazes, yarns, etc. There are a host of tools: brushes, knives, rollers, and some such as crayons or pencils which have their own demands and quirkiness. The combination of materials and tools make the process interesting and often unpredictable.
Part of the process is having some vision of a final product or a creation that is new and unique. This is part of the value and aura of the handmade article, something that is different from other handmade items and different from the machine made. When I start to paint I have some idea, a glimpse or maybe a real inspiration that excites me. However, in the end the process of creation has its own path and where I end up and where I decide it is “finished” is not to be predicted the way a technological process may be. Sometimes I am surprised and excited by what occurs and sometimes I am very disappointed and even depressed by what hours or days of work has not accomplished. I just have learned to accept that this is the way trying to create something new works.
I recently read parts of a book recommended at a Sitka Center workshop. It gave me a different perspective on what I am doing as a painter; in many ways it relates to any artisan working with materials and tools. The book is by painter James Elkins, called What Painting Is. It is hard to summarize what Elkins says, but in essence he sees a core aspect of painting as trying to understand and gain some mastery over substances. This involves taking materials to see what they do in various combinations of colors, viscosity, smeared and scraped, heated and cooled, shaped with various tools from brushes and knives to torches and chisels. He suggests experimenting and playing with materials to see what becomes of the myriad textures, colors, forms, and spatial relationships without much benefit of systematic technology or science. As the the alchemists were looking for real gold, the artist is looking for the "gold," and it is a shot-in-the-dark guesswork process.
In discussing Monet’s work, he says no book or science can get down to what is happening with his process because it is working with substances and not scientific abstractions and formulas. Formulas don`t help much because “every act of mixing has to start from scratch, resulting in a batch that is infinitesimally different from every other. A painter knows it by intuition--that is, by the memory of successful mixtures, by the look of the painting, by the scratchiness of the canvas's warp and woof, by the age of the paints, by the degree of fraying in the brush. It can just barely be taught, and it can never be written down”. That means taking a chance on what can happen that is great, or falls flat, when part of us wants it to come out “right” and not quite like other work. He reflects, “Long years spent in the studio can make a person into a treasury of nearly incommunicable knowledge about the powderyness of pastels, or the woody feel of different marbles, or the infinitesimally different iridescences of ceramic glazes. That kind of knowledge is very hard to pass on and it is certainly not expressed well in books on artist's techniques.”
My guess is that painting comes down to learning by doing and experiencing the mysterious play of materials and substances again and again. I have come to respect the reality and demands of the painting materials and tools I work with aside from any story or statement or illusion I want to create.
*See and purchase John's Stephenson's paintings in person at Artistic Portland! We open our doors at 318 SW Taylor Street on June 1st.*