Why do I paint?

 

Mirka 8-18 watercolor pencilI did a portrait sketch of Mirka, a friend visiting from Berlin; and she asked me why I paint. It has taken me a while to articulate why I paint, but I believe that I do it in order to witness, just to witness the world and the life we live. It is not to pontificate or criticize or propagandize, but to simply record what is not being seen.

This may seem to be redundant: in the age of the iPhone, everything must be recorded, mustn’t it? But the reality is that much is ignored: the musicians and the homeless in the street; the beauty of weeds; the majesty of the trees that tower over our neighborhoods. We don’t really see what the city looks like as a whole, as we experience it in disjunctive pieces: destinations like our home or shops; or liminal spaces like bus interiors and metro stations; or our personal home. We also rarely look for any length of time at anything: neither people’s faces, nor their bodies, nor Nature in any of her manifestations in the city (nor, for that matter, paintings!) .

So there are many subjects that a figurative painter such as myself has available to her; and for a viewer, the focus of a painter’s work appears to be the subject: peonies, portraits, landscapes. But for me, as for many painters I believe, the subject is just one aspect of the painting, just the hook on which equally important concerns are hung. Degas’ ballerinas, Daumier’s laundresses, Bonnard’s dining room tables, or Rembrandt’s self portraits are just the way to open the conversation around what painting can do and how a painter can express herself. And this is the second reason that I paint: it is to witness the act itself as it leaves a record of what was seen and felt.

I was an abstract artist at one point in my life, but infinite variety of forms, color, surface, and subjects in the world drove me back into figurative art. For instance, peonies are beautiful in the manner in which they move through space, react to light, and present structures (the seed pods, variously shaped specimens from single to bomb, buds, etc.) slightly weird and always interesting. Faces are wonderful and difficult as structure, surface, and expression; painting a portrait is rather like a complex juggling act with a critical audience (the sitter)! And people in groups in a landscape almost impossible to capture as the complexity of interrelationships reaches a critical level!

Painting for me is comprised of two necessary components: skill and risk, neither of which alone is sufficient. Most figurative paintings that pass as art today are skillful copies of photographs. They are D.O.A. You can feel that nothing was at stake for the artist, and I can’t imagine anything more boring than spending hours copying a photograph! But it is very hard to move beyond the comfort of skills well honed, and this is where risk is so important. It is, I suppose, the final reason I paint: for the excitement of trying something new, and accepting the risk of failure.

 

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