All of these portraits are painted on the same kind of paper, Canson Mi-Teintes (19x25 inches). This paper is interesting because it has two sides and textures, which results in a different feel to the finished picture. The portraits on the left of my wife are on the textured side of the paper, which lends itself to build up of color in layers and an ethereal feel to fabrics like the one in her veil. My self portrait on the right is on the smooth side of the paper, which meant there was less tooth to layer colors.
Additionally the self portrait doesn't capitalize on the local color of the paper like the portrait of my wife does. The large texture of the paper shows through and can be used like an under-painting on a canvas. Painting my wife on blue paper would have created a very different effect than the burgundy I used.
The second key difference among the portraits is the background, which is included in the self portrait and not in the one on the far left (I also included the updated version, which does have a background of sorts and a smoother overall appearance. I wasn't settled with the version I initially posted). Exclusion of a background results in the figure "floating" a bit more, and tends to make me concentrate on the surface itself more than I would if I covered it up with marks like in my self portrait. I find it easier to enter into (experientially) a portrait that has utilized the whole surface. I'm much more likely to treat it as a world-in-itself when this is the case.
Finally, the portrait of my wife is from a photograph, which is not my preference when it comes to portraiture (that is photographs). My self portrait was made using a large mirror to see myself. The advantage of this over the photo is that I am able to see a greater amount of detail in my face than I can in the face of a picture on a computer screen. The subtleties of a face are many and they are obscured and lost in a digital image, especially if the file is small and you try to zoom in, resulting in pixelation. I don't mind using photos for landscapes, but with the human face it is easier to notice incongruities, as we find our faces and those of others very familiar.
Technical Note: Overall the Canson paper is ok for pastel, but my next portrait will definitely be on Sennelier pastel card, which has a more aggressive tooth, but smoother visual appearance, which I think will lend itself to communicating the texture of human skin more effectively.
Noise is often thought to be an auditory experience exclusively. But I think its helpful when considering a visual encounter to employ a sensory analogue for seeing. Noise is apparently derived from the Latin nausea, which itself doesn't require explanation, but which adds a rich nuance to my understanding. Bad art (qua Thomas Kinkade) makes the mistake of capitalizing on noise and distraction, constant sleight of hand, chromatic charlatanism. As though it beckons the viewer, "look here, now here, now here!" There is no rest for the viewer, no invitation to contemplate. Bad art is like advertising, it punches you in the nose and is obvious and beats you with banality. The only complexity employed is in its design to fool and manipulate you. It tells you how it should feel or what experience to have.
I think good art is suggestive of what we already know, it slows our attention and brings us face to face with ourselves and some aspect or the wholeness of our humanity. It is a reminder of our uniqueness as humans insofar as we are consciously endeavoring to create things and think, talk and feel about them. Good art reflects a far reaching intentionality of an artist who is creating out of care for culture and individuals. Pictures aren't necessarily created for something, for an end, as mere or even primarily utility (this point is articulated well by Makoto Fujimura). Good art is born out of love for something and especially others. This love takes on weakness, it under-girds, edifies.
I painted the flowers above for my wife. I was inspired by the work of Edouard Manet, who is one of the best painters of flowers I've seen. He didn't waste time bogged down in the details, though he was surely more aware of them than most. Manet taught me to focus on the essential as it relates to the whole. Painterly Parsimony would describe a quality in his work that I want in my own. Too much concentration with detail suggests an overwhelming concern with how the artist will be received, which I think is a disordering of priorities from the primary importance of how the picture will affect the viewer. The shift of concern is from outside to inside. From them to me. Detail fixation constitutes an evil species of worry, on elements that aren't essential, and that might end up detracting from the overall thrust of the picture. What I'm suggesting here is that we keep in view an Ocular Occam's razor.
There is a danger though...While it is important to focus and return to the big picture, the details cannot be ignored wholesale. They are after all the parts of the whole, and the whole is at least the sum of the parts. I observe that my own tendency is to forget/ignore certain particulars altogether, failing to consider whether or not their inclusion is necessary for success. I might have for instance, simply blocked in the large shape of the roses in a single color, without any attention to the internal complex and delicate folding that characterizes a rose. This would have saved me time and I could have "finished" the picture faster, but the effect would have been diminished. Appropriate attention to detail often sacrifices efficiency and expedience to include those marks and visual cues that will invite the viewer into a particular experience, one ultimately constructed for them and their care.
In college I did a series of drawings/art-works that relied heavily on processes out of my control. I did things like freeze ice-cubes with ink in them, then let them melt on paper, leaving marks behind, or drip ink in front of a fan to be blown onto paper. In doing this I introduced a greater degree of mediation into the process, removing myself to a greater extent. I couldn't be as sure of the outcome, which bred uncertainty and excitement in me. Unfortunately I no longer have any of these works.
With the recent snow, I wanted to revisit the above-mentioned art making strategy. I used the process of melting or fusion as the primary means, coupled with gravity and capillary action, to move pigment and dyes around the surface of the paper and canvas I used. The consistency of snow will almost certainly produce different results than something like a cube of ice, in virtue of its voids and grain size. Snow has a unique porosity to it after sitting on the ground for a day and night and I wanted to incorporate this quality into the work. Snow isn't readily available year round so the pieces are unique in another way, namely the timing of their production. These pictures are constrained in ways by the seasons, temperature and moisture levels that art-works produced indoors aren't. Leaving them outside overnight meant that if the wind blew, a piece of canvas could be carried away and lost, and one was. This wasn't an issue with the paper though, as I taped it down.
As I made these pictures, which took on a nebulous almost stellar quality, I thought about the degree of my intervention in processes already in action. The snow was already melting, gravity was and is always pulling, the canvas possesses a certain inherent affinity for water. Then I come along and configured certain initial conditions and arrangements so that a causal chain was set into motion, the results of which I could only vaguely anticipate. This process prompted me to think about the fact that so much art is not different in kind as it is in degree from other art.
There are certainly unknowns associated with even the commonest processes, such as drawing with charcoal. I don't know when and if the compressed carbon will break or if the tape holding down the paper will shift and come undone when I'm erasing, I have to develop an intuition through re-visiting the experience over and over. Surely if I let enough snow melt with colors on enough occasions I would also develop an intuition for that process, producing more predictable results. I wouldn't say that developing an intuition, to an increasingly greater degree, would constitute bringing a process under my control. Rather cultivating an intuition results in a fuller participating with the forces already at work in the creation of something new.
When I make art, I almost always anticipate responses to it, this work being no exception. I could imagine someone saying something like "my child could do that," and in fact have heard this response to many pieces of abstract art in the past. In general I find that the aversion many people have toward abstract art is a product of unfamiliarity and fear of difference. I had the same aversion when I was younger and as I painted more I found a familiarity with the discipline's "vocabulary" growing inside me. Along with this emerged an acceptance of the fact that I couldn't always articulate (with words) the experience of a painting. So I've decided that in the future when someone suggests an "abstract" art work could be produced by his child I will say, "Of course! he is an artist too!" The sooner we develop the capacity to traffic in the inexpressible the better.
I'm interested in how others work. That is, where they work, how their space shapes and is shaped by their work. This is where, during the last several snow days, I've spent lots of time working. Work is strewn/placed around the room as a result of my current lack of storage solutions (given the delicate nature of the art surfaces) or the mere fact that I enjoy my own paintings and drawings. They continually work on me, and offer reflective episodes. Different views afford different opportunities to be re-inspired, or invitations to revisit a topic/subject or approach in whatever I'm working on. A work space should be inviting but separate, welcoming to collaboration, focused and concentrated. Dense with possibility. What do you make/create? Where is this space? What is it like?
Nephew or niece, I cannot yet say,
this life grows and glows, will soon crawl & play.
The value inherent is-has-will exceed measure,
no point of non-life, your mother's great pleasure.
What days lie ahead in rearing this child,
we will soon see played out, for hours and miles.
Your uncle John loves you, dear sweet unborn one,
And so did you Father from when you'd begun.
The books behind me
included I see,
A look in the mirror
Is it now clearer?
My setting requires not,
that my garb inspire thought,
if the shirt here
enfolding my arms,
blocks out winter's cold, its temperature harm,
Late nights do isolate my vision,
carved out there in char, spacial revision.
Shaping again, draw and configure,
The onset of sleep, taxing my vigour.
Draw more now draw more,
my hand pulls me fore,
Fighting a battle-against-paper my sword-
-is the carbon enfolded-in-the arranger-of-word,
my grip persisting to finish my chore,
Draw the eyes, they were last, looking-in-carbon lore.
Grasping, with Acuity
Sharpness in mind, a grasping defined
the focus of hand demarcated by line,
Tactile precision a reflection of vision
which gestures do we use for spatial derision?
Bring marks to a focus to tell of the locus
of your hand's design, your hocus, your pocus,
The spell that you cast with symbols, your past,
their weight, time now stained, enduring, will last.
Today, my friend "Brother James" came over and we printed some shirts. We've both been interested in comic art since childhood and it continues to be a strong shared interest of ours. Something we like to do when we get together is discuss how to take comic-art to another level or put a new spin on something that's been around for years. This could manifest itself in making a painting from a printed comic-book image, or using a watercolor image as source material for a pastel drawing. In this case I adapted an image printed commercially onto a shirt (that I found online) for the silk-screen printing I'm set up for, which is very basic.
Screen-printing is a fun and fast paced process, filled with unknowns, which makes for an exciting time. Its hard to know for instance if ink is building up somewhere you can't see, ready to blob out and surprise you with a mark you didn't intend. It was nice to have James around as my extra set of hands; I would pull the squeegee and lift the screen, and he would set the prints aside and hold the screen for each print. He and I hadn't really worked in tandem like that on a common task and at that pace since we worked at the Mad Batter together years ago. During that time I learned more about cooking from James than I did in most of my other food-service experience. I was also reminded today of the rhythms of work and how they work themselves out during the experience. Its easy enough to start a task with a grand design in mind, but when the rubber hits the screen and the ink's-a-slidin', the process quickly lets you know how its going to be. Jumping into the process shows you were mistaken in your first impression and that you must adapt to the pressure of the situation. In this case the ink was flowing and drying, so we couldn't stop and have a long conversation about how to best navigate the process. We had to be flexible and know how to read each other in the moment, not an easy task, but made easier by working with a great friend who knows you well.
As an artist, its rewarding to share methods and techniques with other artists (James included). By doing this sort of activity together with a friend I am hopefully opening up expressive avenues to someone who might not have utilized a particular medium before. One of the great things about being in friendship or community with others is the chance to share experiences, skills and life in general, resulting in all parties involved living in a more fulfilling way. When I find things that enliven and enrich me, I want to share them with the important people in my life. Today was no exception.
J0hn Hunter Speier
Recent work, and explorations of techniques, aesthetics and poetics.