Art / essay

Notes to the Ether: On Painting

Take two pills and call me in the morning. Instructions from a doctor or pharmacist or the musings of an artist? No prescription exists that can sweeten the labor of painting. Indeed, it is work, regardless of the satisfaction derived from the process and the final outcome. Painting has steps. Those steps, when deliberate and thoughtful, offer the best chance of success. Yet just as with art itself, those steps can not be laid down as if they were the Ten Commandments, in spite of what the art professor or historian decrees.

Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

Drawing by Leonardo da Vinci

Given a particular technique, the process of painting can be set down clearly with general steps. For instance, say one wants to emulate the technique of many artists such as Da Vinci during the Renaissance. One may start with a cartoon after doing various drawn studies of figures and other objects. Once satisfied with a final drawing of the composition, one begins with a monochrome underpainting that will place the composition on the surface and provide the basis for applying layers of transparent color. At any time during this process, changes are made, sometimes significant changes. The monochrome underpainting not only provides a blueprint for the remaining work, but also furnishes a unification of the color scheme.

Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo Da Vinci

Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo Da Vinci


St. Jerome by Leonardo Da Vinci

St. Jerome by Leonardo Da Vinci

The nature of oil paint allows for the build up of layers of paint that can provoke images that seem to exist in real space, as three dimensional figures. The final step might include the application of a varnish that brings the images to tangible believability.

Unfinished Portrait of George Washington, Gilbert Stuart

Unfinished Portrait of George Washington, Gilbert Stuart

Obviously, there are many other techniques and variations on techniques depending on the media and support used.

What of the mental and psychological steps needed for producing a picture? Doing a picture is more than just the physical act. Richard Diebenkorn wrote of ten considerations when painting:

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued – except as a stimulus for further moves.

3. DO search.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.

5. Don’t “discover” a subject – of any kind.

6. Somehow don’t be bored but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

Interior with View of Buildings, Richard Diebenkorn

Interior with View of Buildings, Richard Diebenkorn

Would one expect that these various notes to float around Diebenkorn’s mind as he painted? Probably not, but sometimes agonies written down lead to inspirations on canvas. Thoughtfulness, in spite of what many abstract expressionists say, leads to better results. (And, no, I don’t think that much brain power was used by Jackson Pollock. That’s another subject for another day.)

Julia Cameron writes on

“Creativity involves process, and process involves change. The truism we often hear is that we often resist change because change is difficult or change is painful.

“This is not quite accurate. It is the resistance to change that is difficult or painful. In the same way, it is the resistance to our creativity that causes us to equate it with suffering.”

The process of painting involves the personal relationship the artist has with the world. In order to relate to others this relationship, the artist requires a language. That language must be sophisticated while maintaining expression. An object devoid of artistic language is not art and is useless. A stupid artist belches forth stupidity. A deranged one, at least, will throw before us things that might have a value because they are unusual and can change the way we look at the world. Without a process, there is no art.











[1] La Scapigliata by Leonardo da Vinci



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s