Focus on the subject, not the painting.
These are the words I taped to my easel today. I have not touched a brush in 4 months - four months - so I needed to bring some guidance into the studio with me.
Those three points were things I have thought a lot about. The break from painting and the focus on drawing this past fall gave me time to get some distance and think about what I need to work on in the paintings.
I have had an over-heavy hand. Especially when I start to get anxious about how the painting is going, I start to apply more and more pressure on the brush. Sargent told a student that the bristles of the brush should never touch the canvas, that there should always be a layer of paint between them.
Another thing I do is labor a painting. I put down paint in haste and spend stroke after stroke "correcting". I was so struck when I saw paintings by Seaton at Arcadia gallery in New York last summer. The reproductions don't show it well, but every mark is distinct. Nothing is blended, each stroke is left to be what it is. Too many brushstrokes in a painting ruin the painterly quality.
Focus on the subject
When a painting is going badly, I find myself looking at the painting a lot more than my subject. Juliette's painting workshop this summer taught me to spend a LOT of time looking at the subject. Slowing down and looking is a natural state for an artist - it's only when I get anxious and "in my head" that I only pay attention to the painting. Attention on the end result is disaster for a painting. A painting is only the evidence left behind after careful looking. I need to focus on the process, not the result.
Even with all this, I needed one more thing to take into the studio with me, one of my favorite quotes:
It is a tremendous act of violence to begin anything. I am not able to begin. I simply skip what should be the beginning.
-- Rainer Maria Rilke
When I found this quote a few years ago I felt such relief to hear the poet capture how I feel about beginnings. It's not enough to say I am often afraid to begin... it actually does feel violent.
So I promised myself all I had to do was get into the studio and make a few monochromatic marks. I wouldn't even attempt color. Just get some paint on the canvas!
Armed with all this I stepped into my chilly little studio, turned on the space heater, and started prying the lids off jars and paint tubes stuck shut for months. I poked around for a while, tidying up, tuning my radio to the classical station, straightening all the still life objects on my shelves, tracking down the good roll of extra-sticky masking tape I keep losing. I found a million things to do but finally my gessoed panel was mounted, my still life set up, blobs of raw umber, ultramarine blue, and white were on my palette, and my favorite set of brushes laid out.
And really, I had a great time. I love to paint! The results aren't really worth posting, just a tiny brown painting of a pitcher, but I just loved feeling the paint again. And I think I made some of my best marks yet - a light touch is the way to go.