Last week I chatted about Jane, who had trouble embracing “complete abstraction.” By contrast, Bill was already painting fully abstractly when he called me.
In his case, he wanted to move away from full abstraction but didn’t know why he wanted to make that move and didn’t know in what direction he wanted to move. He only knew, as he put it, that “my paintings aren’t testing me and, bottom line, they feel too easy.”
Ten minutes into the session Bill revealed what was on his mind.
“I love the figure. But I came to painting without a lot of drawing training—it wasn’t emphasized where I went to school and something in me was happy to skip applying myself to the basics of drawing. So I don’t trust my basic drawing skills.”
“You would do figurative abstraction if you trusted yourself to draw well?”
“Not if I trusted myself to draw well. If I actually drew well.”
“So you need to practice your drawing so as to move in the direction you want to move with your painting?”
After a moment Bill said, “That’s what I’ve known all along. For twenty years. I’ve just never said it or heard it said with enough clarity or simplicity that I could actually hear it.”
I waited. “Is there more?”
“I think there is.” He hesitated. “It has something to do with ‘lifelike’ or ‘lively’ or some word that I can’t really grasp. I’ve always been afraid that if I did figurative abstraction, and even if the drawing was sound, the painting wouldn’t come alive. The figure would be dead. Cartoon-ish and dead. The cartoon-ish part is probably the ‘drawing poorly’ fear. But the ‘dead’ part is something else—a deeper fear.”
“I think that now we’re in the territory of simply having to try,” I said.
“Meaning that you’re predicting a lifeless painting with nothing to go on. You haven’t tried. You can’t know. And you probably don’t even know what the issue really is. Maybe it’s the fear that you have to get closer to realism to produce the figures that your heart is wanting to create, which brings up the drawing issue even more strongly. Maybe it’s the fear that no figurative painting can do what you dream of it doing, that the genre is intrinsically limited. But it’s idle to try to guess what the fear actually might be. You have to give figurative abstraction enough of a chance that you learn by painting and by looking at your paintings. Isn’t that right?”
“It is.” After a moment he continued, “What about the drawing part? Should I draw for two years and get my chops and only then start on the figurative paintings or can I practice my drawing and also start on the paintings?”
“What do you think?”
“I think that I don’t want to wait two years but I will if that’s what’s right.” He thought. “I think I should devote myself to drawing for a couple of weeks and see where I am. At the same time, I want to think about what the ‘dead figure’ problem is all about, what I’ll really worrying about. I think that’s my agenda for the next two weeks.”
“Bill, that is a complete, beautiful plan.”
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