In my last post
I wrote about shape and its importance in my recent work. But the painting above (36"x48", as yet untitled, oil and mixed media) which I just finished, is about the least shape-ly one I have done in a while! It's atmospheric, shimmery, undefined, with the emphasis on layers of subtle color. It might seem a strange follow up to what I was excited about just a few weeks ago.
But like a lot of artists I almost always have more than one direction evident in my work at any one time. Working back and forth between a paintings that is unfocused and ethereal and one with bold dark shapes, I find my awareness heightened--so that I make the surface colors and textures in the "shape" paintings more subtle, and in the more atmospheric paintings I see soft color/shapes emerging.
Having several approaches going at once also works for me because I see the core ideas they share. In my recent work, both the strong shapes and the softer paintings relate to my time in Ireland and to various aspects of the land there, the soft, textural boglands and the strong shapes of the sea cliffs. As these exist in juxtaposition in the landscape, so do they in my studio. I also have some work going that is quite minimal, mostly white, as in this recent 40"x30" (as yet untitled) painting:
Working in mostly white with emphasis on physical textures has been an ongoing interest for the past five years--it is a longstanding investigation that I keep returning to .These paintings are to me about solitude, quiet, and aging. And so they seem related to almost any other work I am exploring, because these are big, underlying themes that encompass many experiences.
Of course the work of any one artist is connected on some level--all made by the same person at the very least, and very often underlying themes and ideas can be discerned. But how much and what kind of variety to aim for in the studio can also be a challenging issue. As an instructor I work with many artists who are on the path to finding a personal style, and who struggle with (to quote the singer Joni Mitchell) "the crazy you get from too much choice." Especially with process-oriented methods, such as I teach with cold wax medium, the possibilities inherent in the materials and techniques can easily pull an artist in so many directions that there is little to show who the artist is and what characterizes his or her work.
I often tell my students that their art work is their lifetime research project into what is meaningful to them and how that may best be expressed in communication with the viewer. The beginning stage of producing one-off paintings with little connection to one another is important--experimenting, learning to understanding the materials. But to follow the research analogy, this stage tends to be a little like surfing the internet, browsing around with whatever catches your interest. Which is fun, and can lead to new ideas, and be a jumping off point--but it isn't usually great for gaining in-depth understanding. For that, obviously you need to stick to a main idea and make dedicated searches, print out and study certain pages, make notes--and meanwhile, not be too distracted by YouTube videos or Facebook notifications.
To conduct research via your own art work, what helps a lot of people is to focus down, to set parameters, create in series with defined boundaries, and in the beginning take one step at a time. Until the focus begins to come naturally, it may need to be imposed.
But alongside that serious and dedicated research, a little browsing is also a good thing! By that I mean, find ways to play and experiment off to the side--do quick works on paper, make monotypes, take photos, write in stream-of-consciousness style--whatever is stimulating to your art brain and heart. These kind of activities allow your intuition and spontaneity to flourish and are important to sustaining your energy for the deeper and more focused work.
If you are struggling on this path, know that with dedication to studio practice, there will come a time when your core of meaning has grown strong and solid. Explorations can freely sprout in various directions, simultaneously or in succession, and there will always be connecting ideas.