Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Rational control and intuitive flow

Summary: Painting is a combination of chess and making breakfast. Combining the two requires some dancing. Robots can’t dance. And the next time you’re in front of your easel, try actually listening to your painting instead of always talking over it. Feedback and response is a good thing. 

Robert Genn (1936-2014) was a well-known Canadian painter and author of the Painter's Keys web site which he started in 1998. The site mails out a twice-weekly newsletter, and is currently run by Robert’s daughter Sara. You can sign up for free at The Painter's Keys. Following is an excerpt from a letter titled “The Intuitive Flow” originally published by Robert Genn on February 11, 2000.

“To what degree do we pay attention to our progress and to what degree do we just let it flow? My observation has been that there are times to give thought and other times when thought may be dangerous. Most of us have noticed how too much thinking can lead to poor or contrived work. Many of my outright failures have occurred when I wanted so badly to succeed, brought every brain cell to bear and fell down miserably. It makes you realize that something other than the cerebral cortex is necessary. Consider the centipede. If this lowly being paused for only a moment to determine which foot to move forward next, it would undoubtedly stumble. The centipede has rhythm and flow in its hundred legs precisely because it does not have to think about it. Consider this the next time you move the instruments of your art. At what point in the act of art does a natural power or a mysterious intuition seem to guide and generate excellence?

"Among the artists I know, admire and compete with, I've noticed the following: They understand the basics. They train themselves. They perfect the details and trivialities of what they do. They master their stances and their strategies. Then they put their heads down, close out the crowd and let it flow.

"Balancing your calculating brain and your intuitive flow is an easy dream and a difficult task. I think it's one of the true miracles.” (Robert Genn)

In September of 2016 Uri Bram posted an article titled “The Limits of Formal Learning, or Why Robots Can’t Dance.” He interviewed David Chapman, one of the first researchers to apply the mathematics of computational complexity theory to robot planning. Chapman suggested AI researchers address the challenge of teaching a robot to dance. “Dancing,” Chapman said, “was an important model because there’s no goal to be achieved. You can’t win or lose. It’s not a problem to be solved… Dancing is paradigmatically a process of interaction.”

Since most AI research revolves around task-oriented problems, ones with definite goals and a rigid structure, teaching a robot to dance would present unique problems. Chapman emphasized development over learning. Learning implies completion while development is an “ongoing, open-ended process. There is no final exam in dancing, after which you stop learning.”

One could argue the successful use of formal reasoning in areas such as science, engineering and mathematics has placed too much emphasis on logic-based, linear thinking and overlooked all the information being processed and working in the background. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out, routine practical activities, such as making breakfast, are skills that do not seem to involve formal rationality. Our ability to engage in formal reasoning seems more likely to rely on our ability to engage in practical, informal, and embodied activities. He suggested most of life is unlike chess, and more like breakfast.

Heidegger’s observation on chess and breakfast is similar to Annie Dillard’s explanation of the mind/body  dilemma.  “The mind wants to live forever, or to learn a very good reason why not. The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy. The dear, stupid body is as easily satisfied as a spaniel. And, incredibly, the simple spaniel can lure the brawling mind to its dish. It is everlastingly funny that the proud, metaphysically ambitious, clamoring mind will hush if you give it an egg.”

Somewhere between chess and breakfast, the innate movements of the centipede Genn mentioned and Chapman’s robot is a place where it is possible to exceed our own expectations.

In the book “The Wayward Gate” Philip Slater  wrote, "Imagine life as a complicated dance. When we're thoroughly "into" the dance we don't have to analyze it in order to participate in a creative and harmonious way, no matter how rapid and intricate it becomes. But occasionally we're distracted, get self-conscious, lose confidence, trip, collide with someone, get out of synchrony with the rest. At such times we may mentally step out of the situation, look around, and try to figure out where the dance is going and where we fit in. Like children jumping rope, we adjust our timing for a few turns and then, when we're back in tune, leap in and again relinquish rational control in favor of a more instinctive kind of coordination.”

Slater went on to say rational control is a necessary device and useful for restoring balance, but destructive when we become dependent on the illusion of control. “I said rational control was a way of getting back in the dance when we’d lost our footing. But sometimes we get dazzled by the intricacy of the dance and forget about getting back in.” The need to understand the whole dance, not just our part in it, leads us to want control, to “reproduce it, mechanize it, and make sure we never lose our place again."

"My wish to understand . . . comes from my particular place in the dance – nine thousand and thirty-third whirler from the left, spinning on one of those bumpy places that make people lurch every so often. Lurching gives me a desire to grasp that the dance as a whole doesn’t share. The most grandiose, ‘objective’ theory in the world, in other words, is just a complicated personal effort to find one’s own place in the dance.  . . . Of course, from another point of view even lurching is just part of the dance, and so is stepping outside the dance, and so is trying to analyze and control the dance . . . They’re all just dances . . . and you’re just dancing.”



Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fractals, chaos and Mancini's graticola


In 1999 physicist Richard Taylor claimed Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings were not just splattered paint, but excellent examples of fractal patterns. His research even led him to construct a “Pollockizer,” a container suspended on a string that would fling paint onto a canvas. The Pollockizer could be adjusted to fling paint in either a chaotic or a regular pattern creating either fractal or nonfractal patterns. Taylor was so confident of his method of categorizing Pollock paintings by their fractal patterns, he claimed he could date and verify their authenticity by analyzing the paintings’ fractal dimensions. He also ventured into art criticism by describing the drip paintings as "nature on a piece of canvas."

“The spontaneous complexity generated in self-organizing (fractal) systems  makes a tree more beautiful than a telephone pole.” (New Scientist, 1989)

In order to understand fractals we need to grasp the dynamics of a chaotic system. A system is defined as chaotic when it becomes impossible to know where it will be or what it will be next. A dynamic, chaotic system is nonlinear whereas a linear system is logical, incremental and predictable.

A dynamic system is one whose state changes over time. It is complex and subject to internal and external influences and can change radically through its feedback. These systems do not operate in isolation; everything influences, or can influence, everything else. Since the variables can be unknown and many, it is very difficult to discern the patterns of a chaotic system. 

Chaos theory evolved to describe the motion and actions of natural, open-ended dynamic systems. Fractal geometry became the standard for describing the patterns these chaotic processes leave behind.

 “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel
 in a straight line.”  Benoit Mandlebrot

Fractal geometry is completely different from the smooth, simplified and idealized shapes of Euclidean geometry – the circle, square, sphere and cube. These shapes not only dominated mathematics since Euclid’s time, but also were a dominant part of modeling figures and landscape in art. 

Fractal patterns, on the other hand, are varied and endlessly complex. In the 1970s IBM researcher Benoit Mandlebrot invented this new geometry and called it “fractal” to suggest fractured or uneven shapes. A branch with small twigs can look like a larger branch, which looks similar to the whole tree. The jagged surface of a rock can resemble an entire mountain. Snowflakes are the fractal result of a chaotic process combined with the six-fold symmetry of crystals.

It is interesting to note the impact of the number-crunching capabilities of computers in the evolution of fractal geometry and in the understanding of fractal patterns. It is a reminder of the impact paint tubes had on the Impressionists.  Artists were finally able to haul their paints out of the studio and into the streets and fields, and thus began a revolutionary change in art and perception.

Fast forward several years after the original fractal analysis of Pollock’s drip paintings and the claim of using fractals was tested by other researchers and supposedly failed. That study claimed the debate was over. The lead author Katherine Jones-Smith concluded, “No information about artistic authenticity can be gleaned about fractal analysis.” Others claimed flaws in the new study debunking the original study.


Willem de Kooning's Woman 1950 and Untitled 1983
The use of fractal analysis in art appeared again in 2016, however,  when yet another researcher claimed abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning’s cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s disease was detected in his brushstrokes. Alex Forsythe of the University of Liverpool used fractal analysis to determine whether there was a relationship between the fractal complexity in a painting and the brain activity of its artist. According to her study, the works of Monet, Picasso and Chagall, none of whom suffered any neurodegenerative disorder, showed increasing fractal complexity over time. The work of de Kooning, however, at about the age of 40, showed a noticeable decline in fractal complexity.

Of course, this research provoked mixed reactions. Taylor (from the original Pollock study) described the work as a “magnificent demonstration of art and science coming together.” Others were not as magnanimous, calling the research “complete and utter nonsense.” While some continue to agree with the fractal analysis of paintings, others deny it. Sounds like science to me. The research will undoubtedly continue to bump along, not necessarily in a linear fashion, but perhaps more chaotically and more irregularly, somewhat like a pattern of feedback and response.


Mancini’s Graticola

Antonio Mancini (1852-1930) was an Italian artist whom John Singer Sargent once referred to as “the greatest living painter.” Mancini’s life was marked by mental instability and poverty. Frequently destitute and often dependent on others, he suffered from both extreme shyness and paranoid outbursts. A representative of one of his patrons once found him in a cold empty studio wearing a flannel shirt, several vests, six pairs of pants held up with a rope, and a greasy overcoat. When he ran out of canvas he would often paint and write on the walls.

About 1883 Mancini began using what he called a “graticola” meaning grating or gridiron. The graticola was a wooden frame crisscrossed with strings. One was placed in front of the model and another directly in front of the canvas. He worked at a great distance from the canvas, running forward to push and twist the paint, carefully and precisely, behind the grid. Many of his paintings show the imprint of the graticola in the paint. In later paintings he also began inserting materials such as glass, pieces of metal, bits of paint tubes, and even wallpaper into the paint.

While Mancini’s graticola was similar to a traditional transfer grid, using both horizontal and vertical lines, what is often overlooked is the importance of the diagonal lines. Horizontals and verticals are extremely rigid and static, but they do allow for a basic pattern of reference to the exterior dimensions of the canvas. The diagonals, however, are making connections based on angles of form and triangles of description. They connect one part of the image to another. As marks of reference they serve to delineate the space of the canvas in a more complex and dynamic way.  Many have questioned Mancini’s need for the graticola, but he was adamant about how important it was to him. It’s possible the frame of reference it gave him allowed a more frenzied and chaotic paint application which became more and more apparent in his later paintings.


Antonio Mancini paintings (clockwise starting top left) The Saltimbanco 1877-78, Young Shepherd 1883,
Sylvia Hunter 1901-02, Lady in Red c.1926

Books on fractals that are not all about math:
An Eye for Fractals by Michael McGuire
Fractals The Patterns of Chaos by John Briggs

Saturday, December 31, 2016

10 favorite things


1. TURPENOID NATURAL: I couldn't do without this brush cleaner. I'm not great at cleaning my brushes regularly but all I have to do is put disgusting and hard brushes to soak and then wash up with soap and water.
2. ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL: Another cleaning trick that helps keep the studio a little nicer. I keep a spray bottle of the stuff handy for cleaning the palette and anything else that needs it such as the phone, garbage can and even the wood floor.
3. LAVA SOAP: This is my go-to soap in the studio - great for hands, brushes and getting paint out of clothes.
4. VIEW TO THE NORTH FROM STUDIO: I think I can see Canada from the studio.
5. WIND-UP TOYS: These usually live on the model stand where they have lots of room to move around.
6. BOB THE BEAR: Bob guards the entrance to my studio - a mascot I inherited from my artist friend Sheila Rieman.
7. SUMMER NIGHTS ON THE LAKE: I can see part of the lake from my studio (along with Canada) but there is nothing better than watching the sunset from the boat.
8. CABINET FOR PAINT TUBES: I found this in a California equestrian center gift shop while teaching a workshop for Disney Imagineering. The drawers are a perfect size for holding paint tubes.
9. MOTION SENSOR GARBAGE CAN: All I have to do is get my hand near this thing and it opens automatically. Life is good.
10. NUTCRACKER & PAINT TUBE WRINGER: The nutcracker is perfect for opening a tube lid that's stuck and the wringer has been keeping my paint tubes under control for more years than I care to count.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Anderson posts - the really short versions

Wondering what you may have missed or interested in reminding yourself what you may have already read? Well, here it is – a very brief summary of previous posts. And a thought for the coming New Year – let’s all try for more poetry and music in our painting.

Myths and realities of creating a painting
Myth: There is a list of rules to follow. Most so-called rules are suggestions. They are not written in stone and what works for one person may not work for the next. Question everything.
Myth: Paint what you see. Kernel of truth and can be helpful. Unfortunately we don’t necessarily see everything and just because we see something doesn’t mean we should paint it. Question what you see and, for heaven’s sake, edit.
Myth: What we think we see is the whole truth. This is another seeing problem. If you want to see more information, you need to look for more information.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/08/myths-and-realities-of-creating-painting.html

Rendering vs. creating
Does the process of managing a painting interfere with the journey of creating a painting? Creating a painting is the selective and interpretive use of information. Embrace the opportunity of seeing a painting as an illusion or interpretation of reality instead of a re-creation.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/09/rendering-vs-creating.html

More myths and realities
One of the biggest myths is that painting is all about skill, a craft to be mastered with long and arduous study. The reality is painting is a combination of skill and creativity. Painting requires certain skill sets which can be learned with time and practice, but creative painting also requires that artists explore the boundaries of their perceptions.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/10/more-myths-and-realities.html

Is it a door or a doorway?
Ever forget what you went into a room for? Event boundaries are transition areas (such as walking through a door from one room to another) where the brain files away information in preparation for new information. I think too many hard edges, especially when starting a painting, create event boundaries and prevent artists from connecting the visual information into one coherent whole.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/10/is-it-door-or-doorway.html

The quack in the grass
Visual experience is more than our eyes sending signals of contrast and color to our brains. What we see is a combination of what we know and what we expect to see. It is our past and present, our memories and our sense of space and place.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-quack-in-grass.html

The problem with edges
Seeing is visual processing, not just image transmission. The problem with edges has to do with how the brain processes visual information. Our visual system is wired to see the most obvious changes and to filter out extraneous information not considered as necessary. We are more likely to see information that separates one object from another than we are to see the information that connects things.  Edges are not arbitrary, and edge variety is not just a device used by artists to suggest three dimensions. Edges, lost and found or hard and soft, define our three-dimensional reality.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-problem-with-edges.html

Garbage in, garbage out
Listening to someone talking on a cell phone is annoying. Why? Because it is difficult to process incomplete information and information that doesn’t make sense. We are wired to make sense of the world – to recognize patterns and organize information. Painting also requires pattern and organization, but organization doesn’t begin and end with the placement of objects. Finding patterns and organizing information in a painting is dependent on value, shapes, and color.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/12/garbage-in-garbage-out.html

A Christmas story
A true story about a horse sculpture, a Christmas tree, two deer, and the magic of Christmas.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2014/12/a-christmas-story.html

Why naming the “thing” can be a problem
Vision is a process, not a picture. When we name the thing, we are compromising the integrity of the visual information. We are more likely to see what we think we know and what we expect to see. We are less likely to see specific and accurate visual attributes, such as shape, color, value, and edges.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/01/why-naming-thing-can-be-problem.html

Everything you need to know about painting
A workshop handout I have been using for many years - short and easy to remember.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/01/everything-you-need-to-know-about.html

Anderson workshop – a short version
An insightful and humorous poem written about one of my workshops.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/03/anderson-workshop-in-brief.html

Something about color
Isaac Newton separated sunlight into wavelengths of light with a prism and demonstrated color is a property of light. The wavelength of visible light has a pattern of color ranging from violet to red. The colors do not jump around at random. Just as value has a pattern, so does color. Color temperature (warmer-cooler colors) is a relative value, never an absolute value, and color can change with changes in light. Identifying the light source as either warmer or cooler will simplify the visual information and help the painter observe and mix colors.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/03/something-about-color.html

Do you see blue like I see blue?
It is quite likely we don’t see color the same. Experiments have shown that if we have a name for a color, we may see it in a different way. Naming and seeing are connected and what we see changes according to whether or not the language centers of the brain are activated.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/05/do-you-see-blue-like-i-see-blue.html

Disney meets Sorolla
A brief explanation of color temperature and how to see warmer-cooler colors.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/07/disney-meets-sorolla.html

The creativity crisis
American creativity scores are declining. Recent research shows how children have become “less perceptive and less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things.” The ability to find abstractions, unseen patterns and alternative meanings is dependent on using both convergent and divergent thinking. Unfortunately, it is easier and more comfortable to deal with what we already know (and think we see).
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/08/the-creativity-crisis.html

Four ridiculously simple ways to improve your painting
Stop and look. Stand comfortably with a good view and remember to step back. Squint! And don’t forget to mind your brushes.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/10/four-ridiculously-simply-ways-to.html

Color constancy and why some of the science is wrong
Color constancy is a feature of color perception that ensures the color of an object will remain relatively constant under varying illumination. Some neuroscientists claim we are incapable of bypassing this basic function of visual processing. It is apparent, however, that artists have learned to evaluate color information in a way that can more accurately process the quality and type of the light and perceive the ensuing changes in the colors of objects and shadows.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2015/12/color-constancy-and-why-some-of-science.html

Where’s all the art and other interesting stuff
Most museums consider archiving, storage, and conservation to be their primary purpose. Only a tiny fraction of art is actually available for people to view and enjoy. Also, do people who grow up in the arctic see better in the dark? Well, yes, so read this to find out how and why. Let’s also explore nature’s fractal patterns and discuss “how real is reality?”
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2016/01/wheres-all-art-and-other-interesting.html

Intuition is just another form of pattern recognition
Intuition is not magic. It is not some mystical sixth sense. And it is not the opposite of rational thinking. Intuition is pattern recognition outside the normal range of conscious thought. We have a tendency to favor language based, rational thought and relegate intuition to the hinterlands of unexplained phenomena. In painting, if we insist on describing objects by name, we are more likely to favor fidelity to perceived realism and not to interpretation. In order to foster a different path of pattern recognition, it’s necessary to describe the information in a new way.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2016/07/intuition-is-just-another-form-of.html

Do facts matter or is truth just another possibility?
Why do we accept dogma for truth and is there value in trying to understand new information? Our color primary system of red, blue and yellow predates modern scientific color theory. The more accurate primaries for subtractive color are magenta, cyan, and yellow. This might not be important for many painters, but for anyone using a limited palette, the updated primary colors make far more sense and allows for a wider range of color mixtures. And on another note, let’s explore our misleading world map and other misperceptions such as the fact you really are not life-size when viewing yourself in a mirror.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2016/09/do-facts-matter-or-is-truth-just.html

A win for visual truth
Interesting that shortly after I wrote the previous post about the inaccuracies of our world map, I came across an article about a designer who created a solution to this problem: triangles. Hajime Narukawa was able to preserve the proportions of water and land by dividing the globe into triangles, projecting them onto a tetrahedron and then unfolding the tetrahedron into a rectangle.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2016/11/a-win-for-visual-truth.html

Color: fact, fiction and perception
Another attempt to try and break down color information and explain color temperature.  This is difficult since how we see color is dependent on science, perception and psychology.  Important: The illustration of the wavelengths of light is not a scale of color temperature. How we interpret colors as warmer or cooler is not based on science, but on perception and psychology. Color temperature is never an absolute value, as in warm or cool, but always comparative, e.g. warmer, cooler. The sun is not really yellow and our perception of color as a circular, continuous spectrum is just that – a perception.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2016/11/color-fact-fiction-and-perception.html

Lunch with the Mad Hatter
A friend’s very insightful and hilarious rendition of a particularly challenging portrait commission.
http://carolynandersonartist.blogspot.com/2016/11/lunch-with-mad-hatter.html

Monday, November 21, 2016

The myth of mastery

“I’m still afflicted with the malady of research. I don’t like what I do, and I paint it out, and paint it out again. I hope that this mania will come to an end. . . I’m involved in lots of things and not one of them is finished. I wipe out, I start over, I think the year will go by without one canvas . . . I want to find what I am looking for before giving up. Let me look, I have gone too deeply into the series of experiments to give up without regret . . ."
Pierre-August Renoir      

Art is not an endgame. There are no goal posts. Art is a journey. The myth of mastery implies knowledge and craft with a beginning and an end. The idea of mastery places too much emphasis on craft and not enough emphasis on creativity and expression.

Art is nothing if not an exploration of life and living – how we think, how we feel and how we see. Art is not just what we see in front of us. It is not just the present, but a reflection of what came before and what is yet to come. A painting of a tree in winter bears witness to a season, but it is just as much a testament to the brilliant fall color that was, and the new life the coming spring will bring. Art is a reflection of the past and present and a promise for the future. It is what we have learned, what we can learn and the possibility of learning more.

Art is a reflection of life and life is not static. While we may want the world to be linear and absolute, it is, in fact, arbitrary and complex. Our need to order and categorize is more likely to be based on a desire for control than on a want to understand.
  
The image of a painting has to live and breathe. It needs to imply possibility, wonder and awe. It needs to foster reflection and self-reflection. Art is an inspiration, not just a career. There are no answers, only more solutions.

“If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it.
 Uncertainty is the salt of life.”
 Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

In order to better understand art as a journey, we need to acknowledge and understand the pattern of art throughout history. The history of art is a testament to change. This record of change is one of perception, not just change in technique and skill. The Greeks said that to marvel is the beginning of knowledge and where we cease to marvel we may be in danger of ceasing to know.

The great art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote extensively on the pattern of change in art through the centuries.He noted how the Egyptians did not render in three dimensions but instead relied on what they knew rather than what they saw. "Greek and Roman art breathed life into these schematic forms; medieval art used them in turn for telling the sacred story, Chinese art for contemplation. Neither was urging the artist to ‘paint what he saw’. This idea dawned only during the age of the Renaissance . . . but every generation discovered that there were still . . . strongholds of conventions which made artists apply forms they had learned rather than paint what they really saw. 

The Impressionists "proposed to make a clean sweep of all these conventions . . ." They challenged the rules of academic painting and claimed their paintings were more 'scientifically accurate.' As Gombrich pointed out, however, their claim was only partly true. He wrote, "We have come to realize more and more that we can never neatly separate what we see from what we know."

“In fact, as soon as we start to take a pencil and draw, the whole idea of surrendering passively to what is called our sense impressions becomes really an absurdity. If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression? "It is not the ‘innocent eye’. . . that can achieve this match but only the inquiring mind that knows how to probe the ambiguities of vision.” (Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich)

Good art is not done by how an artist sees,
 but by how an artist chooses to see.

If we lose the drive to question and explore, not just what we do, but how we do it, then we run the risk of becoming secondhand hacks only capable of copying someone else’s idea of art.

While skill and knowledge are important in any endeavor, the idea of mastery in art implies a skill set to be acquired and a path to be followed. For many this path becomes one of fidelity to the latest vagaries of the art market and the most popular trend in art. The parameters of acceptability narrow and the range of expression becomes limited. Too many artists get lured into the idea of picture-making and neglect the search for creativity and expression. When we choose the path of conformity and ignore our personal search for visual meaning, we negate the very idea of what art is and what art can be.

I am reminded of the struggles of so many artists who worked long and hard, not to master a skill set, but in a  personal search for visual expression.

Claude Monet wrote, “I’m hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects (grain stacks), but at this time of year the sun sets so fast that it’s impossible to keep up with it… I’m getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I’m looking for: ‘instaneity’, the ‘envelope’, above all, the same light spread over everything, and more than ever I’m disgusted by easy things that come in one go.”  

Claude Monet 


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Lunch with the Mad Hatter

A friend and fellow artist (who will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) agreed to let me share the following texts about a particularly challenging painting commission. The insights, observations and comments turned this misadventure into a hilarious ride through the dark side of portrait painting. And for the record, no, I do not paint commissions. See postscript for why not.


Monday, March 14
Well, here’s how my lady painting turned out. Most of the family members are happy. I think it could be better/looser/more interesting, but I have no idea how to balance that with the family’s wishes. Not even sure where I could take it at this point, so, I’m done. The Grand Dame of the family has not weighed in. I don’t really care though.

Now I’m going to go read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”

Tuesday, March 15
Well, woke up to a list of things that the Grand Dame of the family wants me to change in the painting. Wider neck, add more wrinkles . . . (seriously??) . . .  lower the eyebrows . . . They are actually higher and even more arched, but I just eliminated them a bit and left the rest to the imagination. Sigh. I worked on it all day because one daughter has driven over from out of state and I’ve got a command invitation to the home of the person in the painting tomorrow. Not that the daughter loves the work, but she wants me to watch her and get a good understanding of her facial expressions. Shit, I don’t have time for this. This is a good likeness. Her children, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and friends far and wide saw the painting on FB, with no indication of who it was, everyone recognized her instantly.

To top it off, when the daughter called to tell me to be at the lady’s home at 2 p.m. it was like an inquisition. “What does your husband do? Where did you grow up” What did your father do?” I wondered if she was going to tell me to bring my tax returns for the last 10 years. I was a bit evasive . . . none of that is her damned business. Sheesh.

I give up. Someone hand me a white flag to wave! I can’t get any closer to a likeness unless I add more harsh lines and shadows.

So I’m hoping tomorrow is better. But tomorrow I must attend the inquisition, so . . . who knows how that will be. I think the old gal and I are both being yanked around by a bunch of surly siblings. I’ll try to be kind, for the sake of the older lady, but I may not stay long. As I understand it, the old gal is in a tizzy that I’m coming over. Insists on having her hair done, but is concerned that her pin curls will be wound too tight. I think it’s her offspring that are wound too tight!

Wednesday, March 16 – 10:14 a.m.
They want me to paint 10 more “just like it” for the children and grandchildren.

Now they want me to leave the wet painting at a family member’s house so the extended family, kids and grandkids can see it. It told them it has cadmium in it . . . so that’s a no.

Word to the wise: Never do commissions!!

2:13 p.m.
Inquisition over. Now just need to paint new nose, eyes, mouth. Daughter wants the features to be momma’s as they were when the daughter was little. Daughter also said, “We all just love that photo we gave you to paint from, except we think she looks tired so her face isn’t animated” My challenge is to paint the momma as her many offspring imagine her. The mother, subject of painting, was an absolute delight. Loved her!

9:58 p.m.
Sooooooo, I just got a message from the daughter. She has sent me a bunch of photos and wants me to paint the right eye from one photo, the left eye from another photo, the nose from yet another one AND wants me to put the mouth together with the bits and pieces of several mouths in several photos. All of the photos are taken in different lighting, from different angles and from different decades. I have done my best, with PLENTY of words in my sentences, to explain that it isn’t possible to arrive at one cohesive facial expression this way. H.O.L.Y. C.O.W. this gal is nuts. It is absolutely comical at this point.

My husband wins the prize for the best remark! “SEND HER A PAINTING OF MRS. POTATO HEAD!!!” he said as he rolled on freaking floor laughing.

Now, more wine. I deserve it.

Thursday, March 17
Other than a lot of “fraudulent” stuff on the painting, and the fact that it is so stinking over-rendered, I’m having a hard time figuring out how to bring the likeness to what they want. They want something that doesn’t look like her – they each want their romanticized notion of the never-aging mother . . . but an image that they recognize as “just like” what each sees in the photo. Yet none of them see the same thing.

I must have fallen down the rabbit hole. Preparing for lunch with the Mad Hatter.

She finally sent me a thumbs up and a smiley face. Maybe the odyssey has ended. Maybe it’s tea time for Alice.

Saturday, March 19
BTW, the people I’m doing this painting for want all the brothers, sisters and spouses to have an appointment to “preview and critique”. Shoot me now.

Finished. They can have it or not, but I’m moving on to more interesting work.

Sunday, March 20
Interesting. I’m getting FB friend requests from ALL of the extended family members of the “portrait lady’. Feeling creeped upon! I think they are wanting to the see the painting and my FB page isn’t public - only friends can see it.

Monday, March 21
Well, this morning I got an email from the family. They are thinking that they would rather have the charcoal drawing that I did earlier. When they first saw it, they hated it because it had been drawn from a photo that no one liked. Now that they are not crazy about the painting, they have come to like the drawing. I know it is just because they’ve kind of camped with that image for a while and are accustomed to it.  It’s on newsprint and I’m worried it won’t hold up.

Sheesh . . . family just sent another photo reference. I am so done.

Monday, April 5
I heard from the Grand Dame and the Brassy Little Sister. They think they “might” like the painting if I repaint the face in different shades and put the mouth back like I had it in the first place. (This makes me want to choose really novel different shades, just sayin’.)

There are so many layers on that painting that it begs to be considered sculpture at this point. Really . . . the burn pile might be the best answer. I could start over . . . but I won’t. Maybe I died and this is purgatory.



Postscript: The family finally decided they loved, loved the painting and purchased both the painting and the drawing. This was definitely a win for persistence and endurance on the artist’s part.

The reason I don’t paint commissions: The answer is fairly straight-forward and also explains one of the main differences between fine art and illustration.  Painting commissions (and illustrations) are controlled by someone else’s expectations and requirements – not the artist’s. I have a hard enough time trying to avoid regurgitating someone else’ idea of what a painting is or should be. I do, however, respect and admire those artists who take on the challenge.