On Transformation and Art
On Realism and Painting
On the Contemporary and the Transcendental
On Abstract Movement
On the Role of Sentiment
On Space and Place
On Simplification and the Use of Planes
On Forces in Drawing the Figure
On Understanding and Knowledge
The idea of transformation is central in Western literature and thought. It is important in our perception of the universe and is a central idea in art.
In pointillism and certain Impressionist paintings, the transformation is that the eye perceives little dots or patches of color at one distance and space, light, color, plane - the landscape - at another distance. This transformation is at the heart of the artistic process and the quality of the painting.
The answers in painting arise as a result of the painting process. This is the idea of the painting becoming.
The painting as becoming and changing gives the painting its vitality and life. You can't achieve it by painting "sketch-like". This has nothing to do with it. When we speak of the energy of the painting, this is a vulgar, trivialized version of a much more sophisticated idea. Energy is the life of the painting as it is becoming - a transformation from light to paint to color and back and forth. Paint as space, light, form, and color in flux turning into something is marvelous.
This is not an argument for being vague or not realistic. It requires a deeper looking than copying the ankle on a model. How this process functions in art is central to existence itself.
This way is not an easy routine. Routinizing makes painting into a mock battle and is always disastrous.
The ultimate dread is to paint just the notes to resolve it one way and reduce the anxiety so you will be happy. We don't want continuous anxiety. A sense of life and transformation will produce anxiety. We search for a resolution of forces in painting.
November 23, 1981
Painting is never a problem in simple rendering. There is a need for usurpation, a sense of paradox. Even if [a painting depicts] just a few objects, it must turn you around. You must not play fast and loose with the truth; you should search for it, but faithful rendering is not all that is involved.
[Commenting on his own painting "Nuts and Candies"] it must resolve itself in terms of "Why did I paint it?" That is always the question at the back of one's mind, not just "Isn't this exciting or beautiful?" It is not just that. If there is a paradox it is "What is it anyway?" I have tried to describe the space, the form, the surface, and the light meticulously. I want you to believe it is real - but the mystery is "What is it?", which is not something you ask if you don't believe it. To try to be an artist is to be sensitive to something that urgently must be said - a poetry of objects in their evocation - something one must feel in respect to painting.
Sisley said, "A landscape is a place you fall in love with."
Matisse quoted Rembrandt, "I have never painted anything but portraits" - old armors and old amours.
There are questions objects ask, and as you try to render the object to death the question flies. It is not technique; you may not understand what it is. Its evocation may not be fully explained.
There have to be as many questions as answers in the simplest kind of painting. Just propose the questions that things ask. Art is not meant to say, "This is a bottle; you can forget about me." Do not resolve the tension of what it is. One must pose the questions in a very persuasive way. Be very precise in what you suggest.
What is hard to get across is that persuasive realism is not just an accumulation of detail. A jump in thinking is necessary. There are limits to the uses of realism in art. One must be persuasive, not careless. You must exhaust probing for the veristic in art, but painting does not get better as it gets more detail. It may not even improve as you get more and more value [gradations] or more and more space. You need a jump for the mind and the heart of the viewer to take. Lay down a foundation and let the viewer make the jump. The jump has to be laid firmly on a foundation of something that is true.
Morandi would be no better if he painted details. This is not to mean that you can leave out everything. You search the painting. When something comes, don't shut the door to it. You can be persuaded by it even if you don't understand it.
March 18, 1983
To make a painting without objects is more challenging and ambitious for the viewer and [the] artist. A thing can be less identifiable and more descriptive. You need to make a jump with the eye and the mind to understand it.
An ellipsis is cultivated in painting. A jump is necessary as in a good joke. There is incisiveness and thrust in the elliptic condition. You can work on a painting and never get mundane. Matisse will work on a painting and keep it at a stage where it will stand or fall on this elliptic quality.
Think basically if possible. It is a difficult way to paint. The big elements must be incisive. Don't rush to detail to solve the problem. Paint slowly and broadly at the beginning stage, and you will achieve more, more quickly. Sustain the painting, but keep it significant and fundamental. Don't let it close up tight too soon. Don't drive the painting to meticulous realism. Monet, Manet, Vuillard, and Matisse are as literal as they can be, and to be more literal would be a grave error.
You are told in beginning painting [class] not to make things too particular. A painting can be a receptacle in generality which allows you to read more into it than what is there. If you are too particular in art you close off. The artist performs a balancing act, trying not to be too general to lose meaning, and not too particular, so the painting has the ability to stretch out. The problem in art is not technique or ability, but the ability to give the person a belief in the existence of itself. Philip Guston used to say that painting is a snare and a delusion. You paint all night and you hope when you wake up in the morning that the painting will be as absorbing as when you went to bed. It is hard to maintain a sense of urgent realism.
My work has a figurative commitment with this distinction - to state one thing and to be open enough to state more.
[Commenting on his own painting "Pelikan Bottle of Ink"] This Pelikan bottle of ink is loaded with meaning, a haunting image. I kept looking at it, an obsessive image, like a de Chirico desolate landscape. In a still life the fact that the object stays still is important. The Italian word for still life is natura morta. A still life should have all of the hypnotic dread of a good funeral. Otherwise, you are just playing games.
April 25, 1983
The Impressionists said they were a prism recording their reactions to things. They were touched by the light and could only account for what struck their eyes. There were limits to knowing. If you assume that posture artistically and intellectually, it will force you to paint more sensitively. It is more work to do away with things. You don't want [your painting] to disintegrate into a mess, so you are more careful.
To be lost in the painting, in purely descriptive painting, is an immersion into space and form and color which transcends the naming of the thing. The painting is more than the sum of its parts. You cannot account for your reaction in terms of its parts.
August 11, 1981
Henri Matisse, having worked with divisionist technique, knows how color-light works. In divisionist technique there is a scanning, an absence of plastic "making" (or forming), a sense of liberation. In understanding color, light, and space, we are willing to tolerate the absence of things. We cease to question what something is, or how you define it, or even if it is really there. The painting becomes essentially a recording of reaction. Instead of making, you are reacting.
To see, to record, one accepts and deals with relativism. Nothing is real, or at least one is unable to probate it. All you can do is record your sensations. It is the beginning of wisdom in painting.
(Baudelaire said of Boudin's painting, "You can almost tell what time of day it was.")
This thought process relieves you of meticulous rendering. You may not understand the painting but you can't dismiss it either. There is a fundamental validity behind such radical painting. It comes from real sensation and real seeing - as in Monet's haystacks.
Ortega y Gasset said we proceed from painting a thing we all know to assuming that what is out there is unknowable. All that is real is my reaction.
March 8, 1983
What makes a painting worth looking at and worth doing? It is the energy, the anxiety, the presence of the artist reacting to what he sees. To paint according to formula, to make pretty pictures, becomes boring to both the artist and the viewer. One must have the energy of reaction.
If the light obscures the form, don't draw the form. React like a child. Do not paint what you do not immediately react to. When you know what to say, problems of how to say it disappear. Constable said, "I can paint anywhere I understand." The painting will inform you as you inform it. You paint through the prism of your sensibility. You must think with paint.
August 10, 1981
The mimetic in art is very important, the ability to convey an experience which can be perceived as universal. Without art we would feel isolated in the experience of life. Great art will express these experiences and exalt them, will take the edge off of them.
A great orchestra conductor is not only conducting the orchestral players in Beethoven, etc., he is conducting us, as the artist conducts us by his brush stroke.
Each generation must have art that makes their experiences in life universal, their own art created by and relevant to their generation. It is not enough to have Euripides, Beethoven, Balzac, etc., but their own artists. And when a society loses its serious artists who freely speak and communicate universal experiences to the people, it dries up and becomes hollow.
Hopper achieves a transformation, giving a transcendent importance and a sentiment to the American landscape that perhaps it doesn't deserve. If you can't deal with sentiment in the landscape or in the interior, you can't deal with your own time.
The problem of time in art is a problem not easily solved. As soon as you put a house, an auto, a train in a landscape, then time becomes a very important issue. A Rock Creek Park landscape could be a Claude, but you put in a bridge or a lamp post and it becomes an urban landscape.
A most difficult problem in art is to make the contemporary transcendental. Painting tells a story. That is the most direct expression of what it must do. Landscape painting does this and must do it in the most subtle way. Cezanne's statement "to repaint Poussin from nature", given a broad meaning, suggests not just an emulation of compositional elements, but a deep, profound mystery or moment - not just neoclassicism; but the heart of the impulse hearkens back to see the enigma, the force, the weight in contemporary terms; [to see] the world as it really is is the central problem - to see the world in a Parisian apartment as in a Matisse or Vuillard interior.
September 29, 1983
In the 1950's and 60's, [younger] Abstract Expressionist artists imitated Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Hans Hoffman. Often their work was not good. They came into painting entranced by the current. Their work had no visual memory. Kline had painted from life; de Kooning was an academician at age eighteen studying at the Dutch Academy.
But an Ellsworth Kelly type said he didn't have to get rid of the figurative image. It was never a problem. He [had] never learned it. But that is a problem in itself. There is nothing to overcome. Not having a visual memory, not having a past is a great problem. It is hard to build on no past. We go to the past [and commune with] with ancestral voices. One needs years of involvement in painting that which has happened.
We are attracted to the art of our time initially; then we become absorbed in the watershed [events] of our culture. There will always be a bouncing back and forth, a tension, always that pull from past to modern. De Kooning said that the Assyrian Hittite free-standing figure was his favorite. Phil Guston was sustained by Piero della Francesca.
April 8, 1981
Philip Guston sustained himself in the cauldron of the contemporary art scene. He forever clutched to himself Piero della Francesca like a talisman - the elevated purpose of the High Renaissance. In the process of trying to be unique, there is much to be said for pinning up a Piero around you as an antidote.
September 29, 1982
All painters are like the monster [Antaeus] who wrestled with Hercules; every time the monster touched the earth he got stronger. Hercules had to strangle the monster in mid-air. One cannot linger in the past but must go forward and go back, go forward and touch the earth at the same time. We can't exist on past art or on imported art. The artistic burden as William Blake said is "to rebuild Jerusalem in England's Promised Land."
I used to ask myself, "Is my style consistent, personal, unique? Is it new enough?" I haven't asked myself that for the last fifteen years. The work seems evocative of something I know but forgot, something remembered that doesn't yet exist - an ancestral voice. There is a tension and a tug between the familiar and the new.
March 21, 1983
Matisse's great achievement was to propose a 1925 Parisian apartment as a plausible, persuasive context for a work of art; perhaps the only artistic problem worth a damn. Along with a simple acceptance of what exists is the crushing problem of achieving transcendence - a prophetic quality out of the real.
In the end, as artists, we must do [this] for our own time - if only for a half-eaten apple - for our own time [we must] make the subject transcendentally beautiful and prophetic. To achieve this prophetic distillation, find the importance in this time and place and space. The Nabis do it well. Morandi's metaphysical period prepared him for cups and saucers because he understood the essential purpose of painting.
*** ON ABSTRACT MOVEMENT ***
September 29, 1982
Karl Knaths' work has been described as a "flirtation with abstraction". Is "semi-abstraction" like "semi-virgin"? It is all right. The tension between the formal and the real is a condition one may want. There is something to be said for a kind of dualism in painting.
Euripides creates a lifelike dialogue then the chorus involves you in the event. It is how art works. The formal, elegiac, metered cadence of the chorus removes you from the horror of reality. It doesn't just interrupt the realism; it seems beautiful in contrast to the reality, although it is not so beautiful in itself. In Macbeth the interruption of low humor and trivial jokes [juxtaposed] against the dreadful events of the play seem hilarious.
Movement is one of the most beautiful ideas in art. It permits communication, communion, between the viewer and the elements in the painting. The elements work with each other (toward each other and against each other) to create the beauty of movement. The model is standing in the middle of the room - So what? It is stillborn, nothing. Movement allows the possibility of historia, the concept expressed in Alberti's treatise On Painting. To perfect it, one must learn how people react, show force, fear, etc.
Alberti says there are all kinds of painting, but the greatest achievement has to do with historia, a tale, not quite a history, a myth, or a fiction, but historia. Alberti speaks repeatedly about a problem central to painting: the sense of a frieze - a main plane reading across.
[D'Arista's sculpture teacher in NYC, 1943] spoke of a frieze in art. He said, "All good painting finds its archetype in the Acropolis." And he drew a diagram. The longer a frieze goes on, the more you can begin to see forces interacting in a symphonic, melodic line, a sustained movement across the painting.
We see the seminal artist Cezanne coming out of the tradition going back to the Acropolis. Even in a Cezanne still life, the true meaning is in terms of the interaction of forces. The nineteenth century French painter Puvis de Chavannes saw historia as symbolically expressing creation and all of mankind interacting to some monistic end. Monotheism sees a cosmological meaning to existence, sees the cosmos as a unit. All forces working in the world conspire in the only valid way possible, to move to a higher form.
Abstract forms pushing against each other can be seen as the ultimate artistic statement, a metaphor for everything that happens. In the clockwork school of composition, like wheels of a watch, forces and energies push against each other. A cosmological distillation of forces must take place. This is not to say that anything reading across is wonderful, but one needs movement across, forces in opposition.
A simple drawing can have a symphonic quality. Understand the figure as weight-counterweight. If the figure thrusts one way, there must be a weight thrusting the other way, not one unrelated lunge. When the figure is seen dynamically, it is a microcosm of the whole universe. Emphasize one direction against the other - the resolution of the [synergy] of forces - whether the model is standing up or sitting down. March, 1984
In drapery there are vectors, areas of weight and gravity, forces, counterforces, energy, and directional movements - just like Caravaggio's figures pushing against each other to express movement, to raise the cross. The drapery is alive. Think of it as alive with its weights, tensions, forces, and directional planes.
[Painting exercise given to the class.]
Paint the same shape five times at least, and use variations if you like. The shapes must function as planes indicating space. The plane is the basic sentence of painting. The division of the rectangle into weighted planes constitutes sentences. If you don't have this planar arrangement, the possibility for statement becomes remote.
The need for a division into planes in figurative art is emphasized by a need for it in abstract art. [Guston expletive, "It looks abstract" - a negative value.]
Take a shape, a thematic statement. Evolve variations, echoes, and return to the original shape - a richly satisfying thing to do, amazing in fact. Do not become too preoccupied with small shapes, but see the big shapes as relatable.
There is a need for movement and energy. You want the objects to move, not just float.
We worship movement and energy. Nothing is possible without them. Energy is the essence of things, of existence. We celebrate it in painting, and when we lose it we mourn it. To paint natura morta - we pay a price for that achievements of mankind take place in terms of vast numbers of people moving together. In painting it is the essence of the Renaissance achievement.
We feel a kinship in this work [Caravaggio's Deposition] with that kind of idea. We scarcely know what the painting is about, but we know it is human interaction. One needs four or five or six people for a deposition, then mourning becomes meaningful. These painters take the great theme of humanity mourning, as yesterday .. [Helene Herzbrun died March 14, 1984. The American University Art Department presented a memorial exhibition of her late collages in April. He refers to having observed the joint effort of faculty and friends preparing the announcements of this show for mailing.] These people in the office stuffing envelopes are distinguished members of the faculty. They are participating in an event; they are mourning. It is inadequate for the occasion, but it is all we are reduced to.
This theme of mourning an important tragedy [implies that] more than one person will participate. There is a sense of more than one [person] in these abstractions [class exercises]. Unlike still life, there is an interaction of personages and it stirs you deeply. One is overwhelmed with its emotional existence, or at least electrified.
Movement with development is mystical - Hegelian - the implication (in the exercise) is development. Movement by itself isn't development, but variations imply development. When movement is chaotic it is mindless. It is nothing idea of development, as in a theme in music. One begins to infer rather weighty spiritual values to movement and ordered development.
Abstract painting is an interesting laboratory for visual painting solutions. What does this exercise mean? What is the nature of the problem? Should we destroy reality to reach transcendence? Should we go to pure geometry?
A myth is never a fabrication. It opens up a way of thinking that cannot be understood in any logical way.
Caravaggio's painting of the Magdalene - as you look at the painting, a voluptuous young woman in her sexual prime would just look like a voluptuous nude, except that there is a halo over her head, and that makes it approachable as subject matter. A vial of perfume, a silk cloth - is it Magdalene or a sixteenth or seventeenth century young woman? Caravaggio never tells you. All his people are in costume. He takes them out of a time frame, [they are not of] his or any other time.
The whole equivocal, ambiguous, sanctioned, unsanctioned sexuality emerges. In art it is possible to face these ambiguities, paradoxes, and unstated values with pleasure, interest, and not embarrassment. The function of a myth is to help us avoid a society - as in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter - [which is overwhelmed by] guilt. We have this painting, the only permissible way to confront this issue in a restricted culture like that in seventeenth century southern Italy. The exegesis is not complete. Why does this painting hold you?
Among the equivocal works of Caravaggio is The Conversion of Saint Paul. If the painting were not titled, what would it mean? It has something to do with religion, but God knows what. It appears to have something to do with horses.
But Alberti says it doesn't matter. It is historia.
If you understand that as you pass Caravaggio, you won't feel uncomfortable with the equivocal meanings of your abstract paintings.
March 30, 1984
The communion of one gesture against another gesture is a metaphor for all of humanity.
The Surrender at Breda, a great painting by Velasquez - at the core is the detail of the Spanish general receiving the keys to the city from the Dutch general [who begins to bow in] a gesture of reconciliation and surrender. The Spanish general reaches over to console the man. He is not reaching for the keys. [In this way] Velasquez chooses to characterize the event and its aftermath. [Similarly] the Iliad is about reconciliation - the wrath of Achilles and his remorse at the end. Priam is embraced by Achilles. They cry over the horror of what has happened - the awesome, terrible, magnificent idea of consolation.
Velasquez - it is his understanding of the human condition that makes the painting unique, not just artistry, but a spiritual, religious event. The figures in the foreground press against the picture plane and circle around a hierarchical, important event, maintaining at the same time a breathtaking frieze. The whole background is treated like a gigantic tapestry. The progression of space is there and not there - more like a tapestry than a landscape. The solution is orthodox and breathtakingly simple. A communion of purpose and existence is expressed in the fusion of gestures and energies.
The metaphor is more elevated and less explicit in a Cezanne still life. We can understand Cezanne's still life paintings by looking at his early bacchanalia. to do Poussin over from nature, to create forces, energies, cosmic implications of humanity gesturing in a landscape. It was Cezanne's intention to do this in a still life as well.
Eventually, if you are to be an artist, you must recognize that common humanity is demanded of you.
The model can prance around the studio all day long, but you won't get as much of a sense of the gesture as you would with one figure pushing against another figure. You can measure the force of one model pushing against another. Measuring the energy, the force, in a clockwork composition becomes a cognitive experience.
Really understand force and energy in terms of balance and counterbalance as in Caravaggio. Rodin had models move in slow motion dances around the studio and he observed the dynamics of [their movements]. Muybridge photographs were used by Thomas Eakens [in] the same way. A group of figures interacting is more interesting than a figure and furniture - [both] spatially and psychologically. It is not just the forces of one area and one direction against another, but the group dynamic - an aspect beyond the formal. It is more humanistic. like Mr. [Jack] Boul's cows - there is something comforting in their bodies huddled together, and so it is with people.
*** ON THE ROLE OF SENTIMENT ***
It is really the sentiment which must motivate art and drawing in particular. Done prematurely, this can be harmful. The subjective element is more suitable for advanced graduate drawing.
A deeply felt, however obscure, reaction is not something you can articulate verbally. It is an extension of caricature. Having learned to draw well, there is a need to express. There is a relationship between correctness and expression. You must be motivated by an expressive quality. You will never blunder on it, but it is an essential feature of art. An obsession with how you say it can be counterproductive, although [fully developed] skills and how you say it is related to what you say. Expressive needs will call into play everything you know about drawing. You will only say easy things if you don't have skills.
Humor for aesthetic distance permits you to say certain things you would not say if you were being serious.
One must react to certain poses. What is the significance of the pose? Submit your skills to a larger purpose, to an ultimate purpose. As Philip Guston said, it is finally the sentiment of Eakins's work that distinguishes him as an artist. The quality of going past the clothes, beyond the skin, down to the muscles, to the bones is there - an inward journey - but that is important in all art. It is his getting at the essential sentiment that distinguishes him and Edward Hopper as well. In fact, it may be the only thing that Hopper has going for him.
*** ON SPACE AND PLACE ***
March 21, 1983
A room should have a sense of what happens when you open the door - the smell of it, the feel of it. Can you walk from here to there?
React to the particulars one by one so the painting will tell you the answer, and you don't tell the painting the answer. The painting, like a mathematical equation, is not simply there to express what you know is out there. It is there to help you know. The painting helps you come to the answer.
The problems in space and place are not to be dealt with routinely. The painting will tell you when the table has the likeness, the presence, the force that the painting needs.
October 7, 1983
The particular can be very beautiful in art as well as the general. Strength is greatly admired in art and in life, but we can't spend our entire lives with a thrill-a-minute. So we must at times slow down and see the wart on the sitter's nose. You must be able to shift gears; that's what makes a car go. When you find yourself doing all kinds of dynamic, strong, powerful, slashing works one after the other, you may need to slow down and be more particular and sensitive. If you want the viewer to slow down, you must slow down. [From a story about Philip Guston looking at a portfolio of gesture drawings one after another - hundreds of drawings ] Guston - "I said to that damn girl, 'If you can't spend more than a minute on these drawings, why should we?'"
To stop in this meaningless life and world to give importance to the particular is a very beautiful thing in art.
We see around us banal, third rate, hack portraits skillfully done. These portraits trivialize the people they set out to describe; [they] turn them into lollipops. Lapels fit like gloves; there is a glint on the collar one beautiful delectation after another candy, candy, and dessert.
Commissioned portraits may be skillful, but it is not a question of skill. Victor Herbert may be as knowledgeable as Wagner or Schubert but even Puccini is more serious. Herbert proposes just excitement and delectation, the pleasure principle. It is important for artists to use the pleasure principle with great discretion, not as an end in itself. Entertainment can't go beyond a certain point.
Technique is important. Virtuosity is important. Skill, artistry, mastery together with great purpose is art.
Juxtapose an ugly experience with sudden delectation. Make it crazy, dirty, muddy and make the viewer like it as Giacometti does. Matisse and Rembrandt can paint a crazy old man, but you like it.
October 7, 1982
Deep within our culture, a naοve honesty is a positive virtue. We see it in the paintings of Cezanne and Matisse. To solve the painting as plausibly as possible [would cause one to] yawn. Attention is attracted when you must look again, harder. Easy solutions may harm the painting. If the painting is too docile, too correct, too plausible, no one will look at it. Make it a little crazy. A conventional solution for its own sake is not a good idea.
There should be no sense of the mechanical in painting. Correctness isn't the issue. Just be correct enough to recognize the space, etc.
De Chirico asked, "What are we without enigmas?" Philip Guston worked on a painting for two years and couldn't get it right. Then he solved it and ripped it up and disposed of it when it became delimited. A painting with ambiguities and paradoxes may be more satisfying than any of the other paintings one does.
July 30, 1984
The exercises I give can teach you to deal with the structure, but how much to simplify and how much to be anecdotal, how far to carry these qualities in either direction, I can't teach you that.
Matisse in his drawing would be a master of the structure, the diagrammatics, and then he would put in a hair bow, the little stripes or dots on something. As Degas said, that was half the fun. And fun is something that the artist, the musician, the dancer is allowed to get into.
November 22, 1984
Matisse may well be the twentieth century's greatest painter of the nude.
[Comparing a Matisse odalisque with a Corot figure ] Consider these two paintings. Work against them. Notice the continuity of the figure with the chair as one unit on the one hand and the explicitness in the other areas on the other hand.
A repetitive series of arabesques and flowers cools off the figure. The odalisque, the Arab world concubine, has strong emotional tensions, but the flowers allow you to look at it with equanimity and pleasure. It ceases to be hot. A very attractive figure is not the point. Corot and Matisse allow us to look at the figure with grace and poise.
The things around the figure are terribly important. One doesn't want to rivet on just the figure. Clutter is part of the anecdote. Vuillard paints an aristocrat and puts everything in. It is important for him not to propose the aging princess as too important.
Simplification may be good, and Matisse may be simple, but those flowers are important.
In my own work, I am confronted with the same kinds of problems that you face. I do a blind contour. I touch the planes and try to understand how the planes work. I refuse to disinherit the space complexity. As soon as I name the object, a pitcher, etc., I can't touch it. I reject it; I can no longer observe it. I never ask you to say, "Isn't that a beautiful pitcher?" It becomes vulgar and ingratiating and silly.
Be absorbing, gripping. Paint the planes of space and color. There is something more absorbing in creation than a cheap pitcher.
In contour drawing you are touching the object; you are pushing into space; you are not on the flat surface. Touch the object that you are drawing. This is a difficult thing to understand. It is easily overlooked and discarded when one ceases doing the exercise. Reach into the page as though it were a three-dimensional window. If you draw that way, you will begin to paint that way and you won't even know it. You will paint "on the plane." If you lose this, you lose the space and the tactile experience.
Annie's [Anna Otchin's] painting is not beautiful. This is not Sugarloaf Mountain. This is a dirty, cluttered up, lousy room. It is not a nice setup. Observe it carefully and dispassionately. You may try to embellish it. This is a mistake.
Annie - she rejoices in almost nothing. She makes no effort to make it look nice. See sequentially. Have the nerve to paint badly if you wish. You paint it, you hate it, and you gradually accept it. It is a wonderful thing to do this. It is the only way to approach it. How the hell would you make it look nice? It is not Cartier's window. It is a wreck. If you try to embellish it, it will destroy you. Observe without evaluating what you have done or what is there. See what is interesting and paint it dispassionately. Don't look and say, "That is not good. I hate it. How interesting is this?" You want to end it and try to make it beautiful. Accept it as magnificent in its ugliness and as totally absorbing. As soon as you think about what is attractive you will wreck the painting.
You may make choices. That is one thing. Accept that fact that making beautiful things is not an issue. What is an issue is making something more absorbing. Approach it as a series of truthful colors in space.
March 21, 1983
If you don't feel your space as you make it, it can be a very lonely walk. Each incident must be understood in its own terms as we take one step in front of the other. If you feel [the touch of your brush stroke] as space, you will never quarrel with [your pictorial space] as a whole. The pictorial incident must have meaning. Kandinsky - "Space is a context for experience."
Paint the interior the way you paint a landscape. Paint shapes of light and dark, not objects. Paint an area the way you would paint a line of trees, then pull out the shapes of a plane. You don't want to recognize objects as this point, but recognize the space.
Can an interior be thought of as a landscape? Yes. Where landscape traditions were strong, the painting in general was most vigorous, because landscape gives a basic understanding of painting as space and light. It promotes a most adventurous painting.
July 1, 1983
You can paint volumes in space, and you can paint just space, but you can't paint just volumes and get away with it. Ortega y Gasset [claimed that] Velasquez anticipated Impressionism because he painted a space, a box, a volume, and the figures are a part of it - not more important than the space.
Hollowing out the block with the painting of forms, but not defining the forms too much, is just beautiful. The space is made by value, color, etc., not [by] definite form[s]. The objects are not making the space as objects; they hollow out the block. So think of a concavity and paint that.
[Referring to a student's painting ] What are you trying to do here? The problem is not to paint all of the objects meticulously. The interior space is a problem particularly. One doesn't see that many interiors. Degas, Vermeer, Matisse and Vuillard treat objects as part of a landscape. You can't paint a landscape tree by tree, branch by branch. You must treat it by color and space.
Vuillard takes almost a fish-eye view of a room. Think of areas of light and planes in space. Think of objects scarcely at all. If you paint it object by object, you may lose the sense of the room.
Matisse seems almost primitive because of the juxtaposition of explicit things - things with a landscape space. Matisse achieved a naοve quality in a sophisticated way.
The planes are more important than the things. Treat the whole interior as though it were a vast apple. Treat it with planes of color. Instead of being a volume, it is a penetration, if you see it as a big apple.
The space in between may be more important than the object. Matisse's and Cezanne's greatest still lifes work as landscapes. This is a reverse of painting one thing on a table. Instead you treat the whole thing.
Space is everything, and light articulates the space.
We are most sensitive to the human head. But one would hope to be as sensitive to a room. Make an interior a portrait. Matisse quotes Rembrandt, "I have never painted anything but portraits" - old armors and old amours.
How resourceful can you be when you know why you are doing something? Why accentuate something? Your role is not just to replicate. Rembrandt and Matisse say only what needs to be said. Tell what is salient and try to express it forcibly.
Look very hard at the sitter. Look at the whole picture with an imaginative exercise of the kind as to what needs to be seen. Realize and generate a kind of rhythm [both] in the head and [in] how the person holds himself. A formal rhythm to the hair must be looked at carefully. See the relationship between the absurd angles of the lapels and the hair.
You may approach it as a caricature. It is very easy to do. But just laughing isn't the issue. You must find the fundamental seriousness in art, a divine spark.
Van Gogh said he saw eternity in the eyes of the postman and he put blue behind him. What is the character of a room? Vuillard captures that as surely as the character of a face - saturnine, sober, indifferent to niceties. Treat it that way. Understand space imaginatively, as part of the painting. See in the space itself an expressive statement. Pull out the salient features just as you would with the head.
August 11, 1985
The reduction principle is a basic tenet of Western thought. Out of reduction a greater richness will result. Pythagoras said, "Everything is possible out of reduction." A stringed instrument has five strings rather than twenty-five. From those five strings all musical possibilities occur. Emile Bernard [stated], "A move toward simplification is a move toward emphasis."
August 13, 1985
Simplification can be used to make an effect more thrilling, to elicit certain effects at the expense of others. It may lead to a stronger statement, but it should not lead to a mechanical, anti-sensory painting, or it is highly suspect.
To tell too much in a painting or drawing is like telling nothing. Conciseness is as useful in drawing and painting as in speaking and telling an anecdote - an economy of what is necessary. There is a reversal that takes place in this kind of drawing. You make a jump with your mind as to what is there as you look. You stare at a person. What is there? What will the drawing look like? What will you concern yourself with? This can be dangerous. You don't want preconceived ideas. Painting is like an algebraic equation; [you] use techniques to find the answer. Notation helps to find the solution. In art you are astonished at your answer, astonished at what you find out about the person. Art may become a cognitive experience.
[On reducing the figure to 90 degree and 45 degree angles.] Pure angles allow you to understand something about force and energy which you couldn't understand if the figure were more natural or real. [Employing] angles [is] a good way of asserting ideas about the pressures, tensions, and weight of the figure.
There is something important and mystically beautiful about straight lines. These [student] drawings tell something about the figure I never knew before. It is like religion - a Neo-Platonic awe. When you do any kind of drawing, something you find out or know can be close to a religious experience.
The reductive process of [finding] planes is not just a cold calculation, not just a tool, but a process by which the painting gains force. Formal discipline and organization are not anti-expressive. They can turn prose into poetry. What is the relationship between tools and what needs to be done?
July 16, 1980
A plane has energy. The plane comes before the object in painting. A series of color planes create tension and pressure.
July 21, 1980
Of all the planes that make space, the planes that you can scarcely see are the most important. The planes which give the best volume move away the fastest and imply the deepest space. See [such a plane], however thin and small it is, for it will make the space. It will give you more space than chopping up all kinds of other planes. Pay careful attention to the light in this respect. It can be extraordinarily useful in drawing, in giving you volume.
February 3, 1984
Planar development is one of the oldest ideas in painting. Rembrandt achieved a likeness with his rigorous treatment of the head as planes. You can almost pick out the shapes. He does not soften; his portraits are as blocked in at the end as at the beginning. The interior shapes are more important than the exterior shapes. Rembrandt achieves this and the portrait doesn't lose the likeness. It looks like a head.
Don't slur and soften the planes, but rejoice in the "blocking in". The planes are the words in art. Don't slur the language in an effort to make it more fluent. Vulgarized painting is the equivalent of pidgin English. Don't prematurely string words together to make a sentence. Make the energies and directions of the planes more important than the unorganized silhouette of the head. The pedigree of Cubism is apparent in Picasso's early work which often stems from the traditions in painting.
Finish the painting in terms of what is essential. Reassert the energy of the interior planes, not blurring but going back to what was done in the first place. Don't make an eye, but cut in and out with planes. Reassert the common value, the direction, the force, and the place of the planes. Paint with touched brush strokes; blending doesn't work. Mix [the paint] on the palette and put it down [on the canvas]. You don't blend and get a stronger painting. Three hundreds years of painting scream, "Don't Blend!"
February 27, 1984
Foreshortened planes are wonderful planes and hard to find. A foreshortened plane is the plane that goes away from you so that you can't see the whole of it. The more pronounced the movement in depth is, the more space it makes. The plane moving back quickly can make ten miles of space. The degree of foreshortening makes the plane less and less visible and more and more interesting. A big easy-to-see plane may not make any space, and the one you can hardly see is the one you need. Foreshortened planes make so much space with so little dirt.
One sees the easel in a room with the model. Finding the foreshortened plane, the side of the wood, will tell you the perspective of the room - everything. One doesn't need a checkerboard floor like a Memling. You can have a plane diminish to a vanishing point. Degas will stroke in a two vanishing point perspective on the front of a head. You will get perspective up, down, etc., if you do a foreshortened plane the correct way. Vermeer will paint a foreshortened plane on a table top; a plane on a bowl, a book, a chair will give space and you can get rid of a complicated floor. The ellipse around the neck in a Rembrandt or Velasquez will make space. Painters will cheat, will move over to see the foreshortened plane if necessary.
*** ON FORCES IN DRAWING THE FIGURE ***
July 23, 1983
In contour drawing, the line emerges as a path. The line as a path is an important concept. [The line functions] not merely as a border, but it leads the eye. You must function as Virgil to my Dante. The artist must lead the viewer from Hades to Purgatory to Earth to Heaven.
The idea of forces in opposition may be thought of as you work on contour. The idea of forces in opposition must be central in doing gesture drawing. [You] stand by virtue of forces and counterforces, one in opposition to another, or you will fall.
The human body can be seen in Platonic or Neo-Platonic terms as a model for the entire universe and all things in the universe.
When drawing gesture, don't worry particularly about the anatomy, but more about the forces, one against the other. Never is a gesture a movement in one direction. Always there will be force and counterforce.
When the figure bends forward the tension is in the front stomach muscles that are folded like an accordion, more than in the stretched back. Muscles are like strings. All they can do is expand or contract, get skinnier or fatter, like a pulley system.
Space in a painting must function the same way that forces work in creating the figure. If something pushes forward, an equalizing force must push back. October 1983
Gesture has to do with the energy and unity of the drawing. The gesture announces the unity of the figure as doing something and the sense of it as having life. The drawing must have that kind of life. You can tell if it is alive. One person doing something coherently. You must get that first. The sense of the pose must be there, not just scribbling but the real likeness that a more finished drawing may not have. Absolute coordination is required to do something. Look for that.
Recognize the coherence of the pose. What is he up to? Give the hierarchical coordination of the parts to the whole. Even in a mundane study this comes into the drawing. The flow of the thing and what it is doing guarantees the authenticity and vitality of the figure - a beautiful thing, a likeness of life itself. If you can get gesture, but make it more profound than the gesture - that is what you are after. Architecture [anatomy] should not prevent you from realizing the gestural meaning.
Finding energy in a pose that is not inherently energetic is very important.
*** ON SCALE ***
June 25, 1982
Aileen's [Aileen Lederman's] painting of bottles is very small. You want to ignore it but you can't. You can't dismiss it. It is a reversal. That which is small becomes important. Its smallness is central to the idea. The objects are unimportant - a dusty saltshaker, a bottle of paint medium. The painting is about the beauty of light as a force hitting things, passing through them and around them not Napoleon crossing the ocean a large subject and a large painting - in that there is some vulgarity. Can it be in the history of painting that a painter of small things is as important as one of heroic proportions? Yes.
August 3, 1982
The intimacy of a small painting may be hard to put in a large canvas. The small size makes it intimate because it makes you think you are up close to the thing - not just the relationship between the picture plane and the object but between you and the object. This is true of Vuillard and other painters who work in that scale. To make contact both psychologically and physically by "touching" the object with the brush is to say, "This is important." to stand or fall in a small area.
*** ON UNDERSTANDING AND KNOWLEDGE ***
August 1, 1985
Why is contour so effective in the hands of a great draftsman? A line is a path. All we require of a line is that it behave correctly as a path, not simply as a limit. The line as a path is the beginning of wisdom, a hand you give to the viewer. The line is a hand that guides the viewer through the drawing. The line has an imperative of its own. It is a good path or a bad path.
Understand the skeleton so the viewer will understand the drawing. What is structurally related and what sinks into what. Paint what you know is there [even] if you don't see it. Drawing is not pure dumb seeing. In blind contour use what you must have and what is there.
The issue of understanding is encapsulated by the clothed figure. There is a tension between the misleading line of the drape and interpreting it correctly. In the nude, obvious points and decisive shifts in the direction of the torso will determine how you will draw her. But the clothed figure presents a problem in interpretation. There is an artistic and technical problem as the clothes shift one way and the figure shifts in another direction. We see in the newspapers a kind of fashion art which is vulgar and superficial. But to interpret what you see in terms of the dynamics of the figure is an important and crushing problem.
Understand what you see up there. Do not just reproduce. In the pure act of understanding there is a kind of ecstasy. If you understand it, the viewer will understand. This is not all there is to painting and drawing, but the act of understanding will give you a kind of passion, a religious experience. You will get to be a better person. You will begin to develop a deep sense of pleasure from the idea of knowing and learning.