Friday, June 13, 2008

Finding A Way

(from the top)
Princess of Edo -
oil on board, 14" x 16" (circa 1994)
Martina & The Artist's Way - oil on board, 12" x 16". (2002)

There's 8 years between these paintings! A lot happened in that time, and a lot has happened since. On a personal level, there's too much to tell, and anyway, that's not germane to this blog. Artistically, there's a lot to tell, too - but I want to focus on the biggest changes.

After graduating from the School of Visual Arts, my intention was to hit the NYC pavement as hard as I could with my student portfolio. I acted far more confident than I truly was, but this was to my benefit when I got face time with art directors (which was always a difficult prospect to arrange). Very slowly, I built a professional portfolio, but I sort of plateaued at a level that was dissatisfying to me, both artistically and financially. Truly, I was getting bored with the painting process.

And 'process' is all it was: My mentor in the final 2 years of school was a great proponent of efficient process. And, I must say, it's a method that works incredibly well. It really informs you on a highly technical level, steeping you in the understanding of the "how" of painting. In so many art schools, this is a rare thing, so I must look back on this as an incredible benefit to my future as a competent artist. But, even though these skill-building processes were necessary and beneficial, I (nor any of my fellow students, for that matter) was not ever told that these things were not the be-all/end-all of painting. What I failed to see, being so young and impressionable, was that this method was just a template for future experimentation and growth as a painter.

What made it harder for me to see beyond process was the fact that I apprenticed with my mentor for an additional year after graduation. At the time, he never veered beyond the process, fully comfortable with executing everything with precision planning. Nothing was ever left to chance. All color values were pre-tubed. Photo reference was projected into place. The gray glass palette was gridded in order to place the predetermined color values in their proper order (1-9, lightest to darkest). There was a brush holder labeled for 4 tiers of 9 brushes, each one for one value only; you laid in paint one color at a time. He was certainly no hypocrite - he practiced exactly what he preached. Therefore, this is what I thought true painting was. He was successful, so why not imitate him as closely as possible? If only someone could have told me that this was a dead-end path. He never did - it was sort of to his benefit that I didn't know. But things like this were never discussed, anyway. But, I can't blame anyone but myself for hyping what I'd learned beyond what it really meant.

Yes, this uber-logical approach to painting began to wear on me. It was no fun. So I stopped for 6 months. I worked in various environments, from bookstores to vineyards, but I missed the creative part of me. I started up again, but this time, I kept my pre-tubed values (I still have a lot of those tubes!) in the drawer, and mixed color on the fly doing little still-life setups. I found that I knew all my values cold without the aid of grid, chart or premixed color. The thing that caused me a bit of smiling chagrin is the realization that I had always known these things ever since I'd completed my official course of study. I was just using the process as a crutch. It was a comfort zone I was too naive (and maybe afraid) to break from. With new confidence, I revamped my portfolio and got into a solid agency who repped me for the next 7 years.

Then my illustration career ended. I was disenchanted with the choices my agent was making for me. I had also just moved to Maine, and was inspired by Wyeth country and the eternally lingering aura of the Hudson River School painters who so loved Acadia and the Maine coast. This heralded my embarking on a career as a fine artist. I also had no idea what this meant or what to do. I floundered for a while. I became an elite athlete (road cycling), but not a better painter. I had no true focus.

Then a couple of things happened. I realized that I was still relying on photo reference too much, so I attended a few local life drawing sessions. It was a little sad to see how rusty I had become in this department, so I decided to re-immerse myself in the difficult task of figurative work. The models I worked with had a big impact on my work, but none greater than Martina. She was a beautiful and vital German woman with an artistic eye of her own. We became close friends, mostly because she was so sharp and saw right through my rationalizing about my lack of artistic focus, and I knew she saw it. I never had known anyone so direct, and it was refreshing. Of course, she was not American, so there you go. She was a muse for me in a difficult artistic period.

At this time, I became aware of Bo Bartlett's (see link to the right) work through Jamie Wyeth's suggestion (yes, I knew Jamie - or, at least, he would talk with me when I saw him on Main Street in Rockland: "You're that young illustrator fella," he'd say). At the time, his website held a link to Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way. Curious, I checked it out and eventually bought the book. Skeptical, I tried it, and I was hooked. The serendipity that is part of the process came into full form when Martina called me one morning and told me of a new artist's residency that had one spot left for a Maine artist. I called the director of the residency, met with her to show my work, and that was it - I was in. For 6 weeks I painted at the Robert MacNamara residency, and there I immersed myself in plein air, painting outdoors whenever possible. I had never learned how to do this, and finally I had the time to teach myself. It was a huge step for me. All the facets of painting were beginning to come together.

Of course, I am still learning. A four-year stint of teaching at the BFA level taught me that painting is an eternal process. For example, even the recent Utah trip was a huge painting lesson for me. I want more. I need more. My day job as a corporate illustrator shows me how stagnant art can be if it's just rehashing what is deemed successful (by "successful," I mean the bottom line of the spreadsheet). At the end of the day, I sometimes feel beaten down by the incessant banality. But it is within my power to get past it. I may sound arrogant when I say that I am beyond it - but if I didn't believe that, all would seem kind of hopeless.

If I have learned anything from my experiences to this point it is this: Nothing is fixed - true art is fluid. I await with great hope the next opportunity. And as I wait, I will keep painting in preparation.


Diana Gibson said...

Awesome! Such candor! Some of the passages I read made me smile because I could easily identify with what you were expressing. :) I am very anxious to see your self-portrait!

Martha Miller said...

Hi Rob

I'm glad for you that you have been able to take that big leap past your mentor. So many artists stay in the comfort zone of familiarity and it can be, as you say, a stultifying dead end. But listen - there are SO FEW artists who can draw and paint like you do! (I've heard a few MECA graduates from the painting department complain that they didn't learn the nuts and bolts of painting...)
Give yourself a heap of credit!!You have this remarkable foundation that is going to serve you well - you can fly any which way, now!!! Being as skilled as you are and seeing the gorgeous polished results of your labor I'm sure was extremely seductive for you when you were younger. Good for you for having the guts and courage to move out of that safe zone! If you need a cheerleader, I'm out here!
Yay, rah!

takinanap said...

i usually don't read long detailed blog entries, but i find myself reading this one over and over again. good food for thought!