Photo Credit: Jennie
"Artists' studios and scientists' laboratories
, with a large numbers of
projects going on at once, in various stages of incompletion.
Both require specialized tools, and the results are
to interpretation. What artists and scientists have
in common is the ability to live in an open-ended
state of interpretation and reinterpretation of the
products of our work."
Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your
Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.
Plume Books, 2007, page 5.
A New Tool for Reflecting on Artmaking
When I returned to practicing art after a 36 year hiatus, I knew
it would be important to keep track of my progress. In 1998, when
I would set up my easel and lay out my paints in the back hall
under the skylight, I did not know how long I could or would keep
In the opening quotation, Levitin discusses the common ground
shared by artists and scientists. In 1998, the research scientist
side of me that was nurtured in graduate school became part of
my artist's regimen. Keeping a visual record of my work seemed
like the right thing to do. Why? Looking at several "specimens"
could teach me about my work: patterns of success/failure, style
shifts, subject preferences. I let each painting talk to me in
as objective a way as possible. After all, it was my work, so
reflecting on it certainly was not easy or value-free. I had to
try and be as honest and critical as I would be with others' work
when I was reviewing my slides. Keeping a record of my work is
a way of taking myself seriously as an artist. If I do not, why
should anyone else?
Fast forward to October of this year. I saw an advertisement
for a digital film scanner and finally decided to invest in one.
I am aware of the digital revolution, even though I am suspicious
of it. For years, I simply loaded my slides into a carousel or
a viewer and have been instantly gratified to see my paintings
(if the bulb hasn't burned out). It seems like a simple technology.
But it has become impossible to get my slides processed locally
(instant gratification at work again), so warming to the digital
scanner was inevitable.
My new tool for reflection arrived, and I embarked on an obsessive
project that took me about three weeks. Every available minute,
I scanned slides of my paintings. When the scanner did not give
me a sharp or color-true image, I turned to photographs and my
printer's scanner. Images were sent into folders created on a
memory stick purchased for the occasion.
As the last eleven years flashed before me, I knew I had to write
about the experience. I jotted constantly over the three weeks.
Here are a few things that emerged.
To scan or not to scan - a quick count of my slides totaled
over 350 possible images! Could I or should I leave any out
of my oeuvre? I decided that I should consider it, at least
for the purposes of this project. I was overwhelmed at the
beginning because I was working on a lot of other projects,
too. For starters, I decided to leave out my sets of Artist's
Trading Cards (a Google-worthy term, if you are unfamiliar
with what they are). I also left out a series of small collages
I made from works on paper that failed overall, but had some
interesting passages. I was left with over 300 images.
Practically speaking, I have become a much better slide-taker-photographer
of my work. Early slides show too many paintings that I did
level or that were not flat against a surface. Experience
counts here. I had to a lot to learn.
I noticed that some years, I destroyed more work than I kept.
When I finish a piece, it is necessary that I love it. That
honeymoon period will not last. While I may not destroy it
immediately, if I think it is a failure, I reuse the canvas
or board for another painting. Sometimes, I even paint over
the newer image. I like the textures caused by the one or
two failed paintings. If it is a work on paper, I tear it
apart for a collage. It is common practice among artists.
Restorers using x-rays frequently find entire paintings underneath.
I wish I could remember who said this about the writing process
(probably Donald M. Murray): "You have to write badly
to write well." This certainly applies to all artmaking.
I think this is why so many people decide not to make art.
Failure is not fun, but it is instructive. Most people want
to feel good about what they create. Frequently, the feel-good
thing has to do with relying on others' opinions about their
work. So, they stop before they really begin the journey of
I noticed that I was first obsessed by faces and figures,
then places. Lots of imaginary people, as well as real ones,
emerged in my work. When I moved into landscapes, they became
more and more abstract. That's where I am now: abstract, stylized
landscapes with animal and figurative references.
I know now why I continued to paint after such a long period
of looking (museums, galleries) without painting. During the
late nineties, I did some VERY strong work. My technique may
have improved over these eleven years, but some of my earliest
work could not be improved. My distorted self-portrait, "Today,"
is a masterpiece. Those who know me will find that last statement
uncharacteristically immodest, but if I can identify my weaker
work, I had better be able to pick out my strongest.
I surprised myself with the number of series I have done:
self-portraits, landscape mosaics, environments, homages,
reciprocal painting/poems, pulse triptychs, rocks and sun
effects. As of last week's painting, I think I am beginning
another series: grotesque figures.
Seeing my artistic life flash before me brought back memories:
my first painting in 1998 was "River Arno, Florence,"
inspired by a trip taken while I was still teaching and living
a very different life. I look at "The Harbor" and
remember that I was in the middle of painting it when I learned
I had cancer. I returned to my easel determined to "make
this the most beautiful painting I have ever made." I
see at "September 11, 2001" and relive that experience.
A new tool, like the slide scanner, was useful on many levels
because I looked beyond its original function. What tools help
you to move further along in your artmaking journey? Contact me: