Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Five

September 18, 2013

1 August 2013

VH_01AUG2013“My summer is not going to plan,” Stephen said, “I was going to do drawings and small paintings of the marsh, but now I am doing this”, referring to painting my portrait. “Actually, aren’t you doing both,” I said. “I am, but I am spending a lot of time painting you; not that I am complaining.” Stephen was looking at me while he was putting paint on his palette and figuring out which brushes he was going to use. “You know, I really didn’t know anything about art history until I came to Mount A (Mount Allison University),” he said. “I hope that we set you straight. What did you learn?” “Well, I figured out that I didn’t like (Marcel) Duchamp very much.” “You are in good company, Ad Reinhard (American Minimalist painter) famously said: ‘I have never approved or liked anything about Marcel Duchamp. You have to choose between Duchamp and Mondrian’,” I said. ( Lucy R. Lippard, Ad Reinhard, Harry N Abrams, New York, 1981, p.195,) I doubt that Stephen would have chosen Mondrian, but he clearly did not like Duchamp’s attempt to throw a monkey wrench into the values of traditional art.

“Easel painting has survived Duchamp, you know,” I continued, “and he certainly knew how to have fun and make a name for himself.” By this time, Stephen was painting and paying attention to what he was doing. “Let me repeat myself, art is all about intention,” he said. “And by intention you mean serious, don’t you?” “Yes, art is serious stuff.” “It may be, but art is all over the board these days and has been for some time,” I said. “But, much of it is not very good,” He said and I would have a hard time arguing his point. “Good and bad are rather subjective, but I would like to think I bring at least some objectivity to the table. To my mind, there is the beautiful and that is a quality that can be observed,” I said. “Yes, I like your idea of the separation of art (beauty) from life,” he said. Now we were into a subject that could occupy the rest of the afternoon.

Duchamp_Fountaine_wikipedia“The idea of anti-art goes back at least a hundred years. Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel was done in 1913 and the urinal (Fountain) in 1917. Things haven’t been the same since,” I said, “and in between those dates you had Dada.” Clearly, Stephen wasn’t cheered by my art history lesson. “Why?” he said. “There was the little matter of World War I, which screwed up everything including art,” I answered. “There was still beautiful and wonderful art being done after the war. Matisse for instance,” he said. “Granted,” I said, “everything did not go down the tubes but, art was changed forever.” Stephen was painting while he pondered the idea of anti-art. “History is a real pain in the ass. It seems to repeat itself with some regularity like some never ending circle,” I said and I was beginning to depress myself. “Art reflects it’s own time, it cannot help it. There can be no real Futurism. It is just that most people live in the past. It’s more comfortable,” I added. “And these are dangerous times,” Stephen said, “with the world at our fingertips via the Internet. It makes it difficult for reflection.” “Good God, yes, I have thousands of books I have collected over the past half a century and now everything is a click away,” I said. “I still like books,” he said. “And real paintings,” I added.

Surely, I thought we were two old guys too technologically savvy for our own good. Here I was sitting for a traditional oil portrait by first rate figurative artist and we both had iPhones at our sides, indeed, we would use them to settle arguments we had about artists and dates. It was too damn easy. “I have artists friends in Fredericton who don’t use this stuff at all and seem to be happy about it,” he said. “Yes, me too and just isn’t an age thing. There are people a lot younger than me who get by just fine without all this stuff. Hell, I am seventy-five and I keep running out and buying new toys.” The discussion was somewhat idiotic as we were using my blog and all sorts of social media to record this project and our conversation, but I have never claimed to rational.

“The more I am into this project the more I see how difficult it is going to be,” Stephen said. “It’s going to take more than one oil sketch.” I didn’t know if the difficulty was my ugly puss or the act of painting. I was hoping that it was the later. “What’s the problem?” I asked. “Just getting it right,” he replied. When I looked at what he had completed thus far, I thought that he had done a good job of catching my likeness. “I am going to have to do some more drawing as well,” he said. “What do you mean by right?” I said. “I know it when I see it,” he said. I told him that I know when a painting that was done by someone other than myself was ‘right‘ and that I was surer about that than I was about my own art. “Right is when everything comes together,” he said. “Surely, everything cannot be together. Is there not always something more that can be done?” I said. “Of course, nothing is ever perfect,” he said, “but close is pretty good.” “I knew a painter, John Hultberg, who was a teacher of mine, whose dealer would go to his studio and take his paintings away from him, right from the easel still wet, because he never thought that his paintings were finished,” I said. “I can identify with that. Maybe, I need somebody to tell when something is finished.”

The question of the completion of an art work is something that has haunted artists for centuries. Painting, particularly oil painting, is too bloody fluid. The paint dries slow and invites messing about. X-rays of old masters show all sorts of changes under progressive layers of paint. I had been talking to Stephen since he came to Sackville and about how a painting always calls for another painting. After all, if an artist ever did complete the perfect art work, why would want to do another one and risk failure? John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice, says something to the effect that every great work of art has an element of imperfection. I think it is that imperfection that drives artists, including Stephen, to keep banging away in the studio.

“I am certainly glad that you have good coffee here,” he said, “it keeps me going.” I took that as a hint to brew us each an Americano and that a short break was in order. “This painting is really hard work,” he said taking the cup in hand. “If you think it is hard for you, think of me, I have to stay awake and ask semi-intelligent questions,” I said. “All those years that I taught figure drawing and painting, I never thought how hard it was for models to hold a pose and they were naked, to boot.” I asked him how he thought the painting was going. “Not bad, but there is still quite away to go,” he replied. “I can always tell you when I think it is finished,” I said. “I don’t think so, but let’s do another bit before it gets too dark to paint.”

stephen scott artist“We should think what we are going to do with all this stuff (the drawings and paintings) when we are done. I think that it might make a nice little exhibition,” I said, back in position for the painting. “Where?” Stephen said. “I would like something in a civic gallery, but a high quality commercial gallery would work as well,” I said. “Look we will have a finished large portrait along with the drawings and oil sketches that proceed it and all of the conversation about the process along the way,” I continued. “You are assuming that everything is going to work out. What happens if the painting is a flop?” he said. “That’s not going to happen. You are really good painter and the world needs a good picture of me.” We left it at that for the afternoon.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, 15 September, 2013.


  1. You were right. I loved it.

    • They are going to get even better.

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