Monday, January 13, 2014

The Request: Seeking Inspiration

"The Request" by Jim Carpenter, Acrylic on Paper, 22" x 30"

Accepting The Challenge: Seeking Inspiration

All right, I did take a week off from the challenge. I needed to breathe, and when I decided to come back to this I did actually feel a bit of that "Just DO it, Jim" kind of determination.  

One of the challenges in this challenge - as I've defined it for myself - is deciding which unfinished paintings to finish off.  The piece of paper I decided to work with is one that I have a long history with.  It is a full sheet of Arches Rough watercolor paper that I stained with orange and turquoise acrylic inks about 3 years ago.  I loved it so much - or maybe I loved its potential so much - that I wouldn't touch it.   Eventually I coated it with acrylic medium so I could preserve what was there, and would be able to return to it should I ever need to. I never needed to. I painted over this sheet of paper twice. It was an abstract landscape for a few days and then I somewhat mindlessly painted over it all completely - had a lot of fun and ended up with what you see here. And this is where my painting began today. 

I flipped it sideways and began to carve out my painting.

Finding Inspiration: First, Take A Deep Breath

c.1300, "immediate influence of God or a god," especially that under which the holy books were written, from Old French inspiracion "inhaling, breathing in; inspiration," from Late Latin inspirationem (nominative inspiratio), noun of action from past participle stem of Latin inspirare "inspire, inflame, blow into," from in- "in" (see in- (2)) + spirare "to breathe" (see spirit). Literal sense "act of inhaling" attested in English from 1560s. Meaning "one who inspires others" is attested by 1867. - Online Etymology Dictionary

Breathe!  That's literally what "inspiration" means!  This serves as a reminder that when the restrictions seem overwhelming, breath. In-spire! How interesting that the painting I came back to the challenge with ended up reminding me of what it means to seek inspiration and where one might find it: in the multitude of those who have gone before us. Masters, philosophers, artisans, scholars, priests and sages and healers, they are always present, at the ready to inspire us with their marks and the thoughts they have left behind.  

The turning point for finishing the painting came when I decided to add the color to the cape in the central figure.  I thought I was taking a risk by adding the red and giving him such strong focus, but when I did that everything else in the painting - including all of the other figures - became an environment and set up the story.  That one decision made the difference.  Suddenly the purpose of all the other figures became clear, as did his. 

I love it when that happens!  

Monday, January 6, 2014

Making Art: The Unavoidable Risk

"Onward" by Jim Carpenter, Watercolor and Acrylic on Paper, 22" x 30"

"What am I afraid of? It's only a piece of paper!" 

We hear so often that it is essential to take risks in art making, and yet I never really had anyone tell me what the risks are.  That is, except for the young theatre director who told me that the improv she was having her actors do was intended to make them feel so totally foolish that they would get used to the fear of looking foolish.  I concluded that the risk in art was that you could end up looking like a fool. Since then I've added: fear of being wrong, fear of not conforming, fear of being an outlier, fear of being rejected, fear of failure, and last but not least, the ever awful fear of ruining a $3.50 sheet of watercolor paper.  

Authenticity: Inevitable Risk 

Once I stopped painting pots of flowers and started to paint from a more intuitive place, I began to deal with the risks of authentic self-expression.  I see enough of the images that I carve out of the paint to see a theme, and to see what are becoming almost stock images that appear over and over again in a similar stage setting.  In this painting, "Onward," there is the familiar figure in the robe, the light shining from some other source, a sense of movement toward or focus on or of being transfixed by the light, figures in the light, in front of the light, out of the light.  

I don't want to explain the figures. I choose not to try to explain what these images might mean to me.  I want them to remain a visual metaphor, one unlimited and undefined by words.  And besides, isn't it risk enough just to present the images?  

Writing a blog is every bit as risk-taking as painting if you are going to be authentic and publish it on the Internet.  I write because it is in the writing that I discover the lesson that creative experience holds for me.  And I write the blog to build fortitude in taking ownership of my work and the themes that are reflected in it.  Might it also encourage a reader to explore the benefits of writing a blog which serves as a tool for self-reflection and illumination?

Onward: To Turn Toward

This painting was started over a year ago, when I was exploring returning to watercolor and applying some of the techniques I use when painting with acrylic. Eventually I added acrylic to the watercolor painting before abandoning it to the "unfinished" pile. Here is what it looked like when I returned to it.

In my "finishing" I wanted to put the emphasis on the tall central figure, and take the emphasis off of all of the other figures.  I grayed-down the gold and warmed up the gray, darkened the darks and lightened the light around the central figure.  I also covered the other figures with an opaque acrylic wash.  

As I took each step I could see the other figures losing their pull, becoming secondary characters for the moment, and allowing the story to be focused primarily on the figure in the robe.  However,  the other figures are an essential element in the composition and the narrative, the role of each suggested by their posture, their placement, and their substance.  

"Onward," which comes from the Old English root "weard" meaning to "turn toward," seemed a proper title even before I looked up its etymological meaning. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Creating Narrative Through Composition

"The Gathering" by Jim Carpenter, Acrylic on Crescent Board, 12" x 20"

When Icons Aren't Enough

Some of these figures are beginning to feel like old friends. I've seen them before in my other paintings. Thus the title, "The Gathering."  

When I began this painting I imagined the figures were long-buried icons being uncovered.  I used various gel mediums, including crackle paste, to get the effects of ancient crumbling walls and plaster. This is the painting I started with - the one of the 30 that I said I was going to "finish" in this 30 day challenge.  

So when I picked the painting up again I began to work on fleshing out the figures.  I added combinations of metallic gold and bronze and quinacridone gold. 

Eventually I found that having the figures on the wall as adornment simply wasn't enough to satisfy me. I wanted to put the figures into an environment in order to create narrative.  I wondered if the original artist put them in an environment.  I thought: "Well when the artist painted this on the ancient wall did he have them in a scene or were they just icons on a gilt wall?"  

Yes, I know that sounds a bit crazy, but remember I was "a theatre person" for a good number of decades. Stanislavsky rules! Creating characters and back history and putting yourself in the situation of the character are second nature to theatre people. Still, sometimes it's important for me to remember that I really am the painter of my paintings!  I'm the decider.

The Environment and Narrative

The environment does not have to be literal. It can be figurative - simple - abstract space.  Where the figures are placed in that space and how they are positioned is what creates story. 

I put figures in an environment in order to create narrative, and as you can see, I also take figures out to help the story along. Taking out one figure created a large space between the first figure and the second, adding weight to both.  

Although we don't have a lot of details, a story is there for the telling.  You can imagine that the figure on the left is benevolent, judging by the tilt of the head, and by its being positioned on the left side of the paper. There seems to be a conversation of sorts going on between the two figures on the right. But it is the central figure who is the strongest - that is, the central figure takes the most focus. Although it would seem that all of the figures are engaged in their own activity, it is the figure who is closest to the viewer, closest to the center, and with his full back to us who catches our attention - because of where he is and how he is positioned in the space in relationship to the other figures.  With his back to us he generates additional wonder and mystery.  

PS. I had a few good laughs at myself while writing this blog post. I had not really thought about how I slip into theatrical modes of thinking when I paint. Stanislavsky would be proud of my liberal use of "what if."  

Friday, January 3, 2014

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions: The Creative Process

"On The Cusp" by Jim Carpenter, Acrylic on Crescent Board, 20" x 9.5"

Finding Your Way: The Creative Process

Whenever we create we make countless numbers of decisions.  Some, I am quite certain, are so instinctive that we are not fully aware of making them. Others are not so instinctive and require a bit of wrestling.  And then there are others that are what we might call the "ah ha" moments, when suddenly we make a decision and everything falls into place.  That is what this painting is all about.

Feel free to be amused by the craziness of my method of "not-knowing" what I am going to paint in advance, and the predicaments I find myself in, especially when trying to meet a deadline.  I specifically chose to "finish" unfinished painting as my goal for this 30 in 30 challenge, which I am realizing may actually make the challenge greater. After all, there is a reason why many of these paintings have been left unfinished.  

Here is the image I started with. I liked the start because of the surface of the board, which was created using gel medium. I also liked the feeling of the two dominant figures. Still, the rest of the painting eluded me.  When I started working on it again,  my first thought was to put the figures in some kind of environment.  

At first I thought this painting was going to be about the relationship between the figure on the left to the more spiritual figure on the right. I began to create and environment - I added the dark shape on the left against a light shape suggesting sky, and I added a horizon line.

I decided to take out the vague figure on the far right and just work with the three figures. But I was still not happy with the environment, and the more I worked with it the more I felt that the environment was too literal for these figures. I needed to go for something more metaphorical.

I decided that the the figure on the right was the figure that the story was all about. The other figures could be placed in the gold and the main figure could be on the edge of the light, in transition.  And that was when I realized there was a relationship between this painting and "The Moment Before Tomorrow."

This seems to be a familiar metaphor for me: that of being on the cusp of something - being in transition - being on the edge of a transformative moment.  Perhaps I had some deep sense that was where this painting was headed from the very beginning, but it is more likely that my focus yesterday on "The Moment Before Tomorrow" influenced the outcome of this painting.  Still, it took hours though for the image to materialize.  It is still a surprising re-turn to the same metaphor - the same imagery - and it still fascinates me.  That's why I paint.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Moment Before Tomorrow and Another [30 Day] Challenge

"The Moment Before Tomorrow" by Jim Carpenter, Acrylic on Paper, 15" x 22"

A New Beginning: A 30 Day Challenge

Today I am agreeing - apparently along with another 259 artists - to another of artist Leslie Saeta's 30 day challenges.  I jumped on this bandwagon because I really enjoyed the challenge back in September 2013, and I am hoping that a second round of this will lead to a consistent practice of blogging and painting.  That I enjoy both painting and blogging ought to be enough of an incentive, but facing a challenge and doing it with a great league of artists is a whole lot of fun.  

I am not one who knocks out a painting a day, starting from scratch. In the September 2013 challenge I decided to take the many "starts" I had lying around the studio, and finish them. And once again, I am going to adjust the rules some. For this challenge, my goal is to "complete" 30 paintings in the month of January.  I generally work on a painting for days, often days spread out over months. That is, I may start a painting and have it nearly finished and then leave it for weeks - months -  before I return to it and finish it.  I surely have 30 "not-finished paintings" lying around this studio, and it is time to address them.  I may be working with some paintings that are almost finished. 

The Moment Before Tomorrow: Just Sign It

Signing a painting is a ritual. When I sign it, I am saying that the painting is finished.

Confession: I didn't paint this painting today. I just finished it by signing it. 

And that is one reason why I chose "The Moment Before Tomorrow" as my first painting for 2014.  First,  it only needed to be signed, and I thought it would make a point that the artist's signature is the finishing mark.  Second, it would let me off easy on January 1, and I think today is still a holiday.  The real and greater challenge starts tomorrow for me.  Today is the day before tomorrow, the day before my challenge begins, and I want to pause for a moment before I enter fully the new year.  

I think that the painting is also a good choice for the first day of a new year.  The central figure is in a place of transition.  Again a figure that is paused in the present, in between but moving on - leaving something behind and looking at something ahead.  Among other things I think the image and all of its parts contribute to a metaphor about meeting life's challenges, the moments of discovery, the decision-making, and the fortitude to take action.  

It's an ancient story, isn't it? 

Happy New Year, 2014!  

See... I just signed it.