I’ve started dabbling with painting. Sometimes I copy paintings and sometimes I paint from life. This week’s work has reminded me how much it takes to develop a way of seeing.
This apple painting is a copy (unfortunately, I don’t know who the painter is.)
If I’d put an apple on my kitchen table and tried to paint it, I doubt I would have used the dark shadows and background that make the colours of the apple so vibrant. I used the painter’s understanding of composition, tonal values and colour.
When I paint from life, I have a hard time figuring all those things out. And brush strokes. I don’t know which brushes to use, how wet or dry they need to be, how to make the transition between shadow and light and between one colour and another, and all kinds of other things.
There’s an endless amount of stuff to learn about technique and materials. But for me the most important thing is developing a way of seeing.
A couple of years ago, the city delivered a couple of composting bins – green bins – to my building. Until then I’d only been recycling paper, glass and plastic. But once I started using the green bins, my garbage shrank a lot. I was putting out about one small grocery-store bag a month and working on cutting that down to half.
It was all going well until I started working on an art installation.
The project was to make public payphones more visible and useful. Yanis, a fellow artist, and I decorated all of the Bell payphones in the neighbourhood and added lists of free 1-800 numbers to important social services inside.
We did a test phone to see how the materials we chose would hold up:
Outdoor art installations have to withstand brutal exposure to weather – which often means using materials that don’t break down.We used adhesive wallpaper, which we cut to size and painted. The panels held up to ice, rain and blistering sun, and they were removable – all requirements. So we went ahead and, over the course of a year, covered 17 phone booths – and generated a lot more garbage than my target of one small bag every couple of months. It was an eye-opener.
Now I’m thinking about changing the way I work, and how I explore my themes. Maybe I’ll work with ephemera – with materials that breakdown, dissolve and wash away. These are early days and I still have a a lot of thinking to do about this. And especially a lot of research into materials (it’s amazing how many things I’ve used in the past have been toxic and totally environmentally unfriendly).
I did find some really delightful work of an artist who has environmental impact on her radar: Ruby Silvious. In one of her projects, Tea, she paints on used tea bags.
A year ago, I picked up a pencil and started learning how to draw, first with basic exercises, then copying pictures from books. I try to draw something every day – even if it’s just a doodle. It’s been good – peaceful, actually. My head is quiet when I draw.
Eventually, I want to be able to render subjects accurately. Not because I see myself working in a realistic style, but so that I have some techniques under my belt when I start exploring how I see the world.
My eye is already looking ahead at the work of artists whose way of seeing appeals to me. Joan Eardley (1921 – 1963) is one of those painters. Her landscapes are luminous and sparse and filled with energy.
I like it when I find small handwritten signs or hand-drawn images in unexpected public spaces. I don’t have any photos to share at the moment, so this might seem like a bit of a false opening. I do have recent pics of pigeons and various other city critters, dead and alive. But today I don’t feel like thinking about the existence of urban wildlife (which seems brutal, impersonal and lonely – okay, perhaps I’m projecting a bit) so I’m posting about beautiful things, big and small, that artists around the world create in urban and private spaces.
I was astounded the first time I saw Japanese photographer Sohei Nishino’s large-scale montages of cities around the world. According to his website, he walks around on foot for a few months in each city taking hundreds – possibly thousands – of photographs “with film”. He ends up with what to me would be a paralyzingly big pile of print images which he assembles (using his memories of each city) into “Diorama Maps”. It’s worth enlarging his images to see the details in each city.
While she was alive, Vivian Maier kept her work hidden from the public eye. According to John Maloof’s blog Vivian Maier – Her discovered work, Maier’s photographs were discovered at an auction in Chicago some time after she died.