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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Six

September 25, 2013

4 August 2013

We were now in our sixth sitting of my portrait and getting into a routine; move the kitchen table, find where to place my chair, put up the easel and start the painting along with the conversation. “Stephen, where do you usually paint?” I asked “I have a studio in Fredericton and I go there every day to work,” he said, “and I take Echo (his dog) with me.” “I thought that you worked in your house (in Nashwaak Village, a very small town a few kilometres from Fredericton),” I said. “I have, but I need to get out of the house.” “I thought you were a hermit?” “Yes and no, but I like painting in my Fredericton studio. I need a lot of variety in my life.”

artist toolsStephen paints, seated, with his palette in his lap for the small oil sketch he is doing now, and quite close to me. The paints are arranged on the edge of the palette in a circle from lights to darks and he mixes his colours in the middle of the palette. His medium, walnut oil, is in a small jar or tin cup. “I do love the smell of the paint. It brings back the smell of my studio and the classroom,” I said. “I think that it is only a smell that painters can appreciate,” he said. Painting is a very tactile experience for the artist–the feel of the brush against the canvas, the flow of the paint and, of course, the smell. I can tell that Stephen enjoys the act of painting, through his eyes, looking at both me and the painting, and the way that he uses his hands. There is a magic that only the artist can feel as they work. It is a different kind of magic that a viewer gets from a painting, or any art of work, but magic nonetheless.

“I wish that I had more skill,” Stephen said. “I think you have skill in spades, so why do you say that?” I said. “You can never have enough skill and sometimes I wish I just had more of it. It would make life a whole lot easier,” he said. “There is more to art than skill,” I added. “Like what?” “I know it when I see it. It is what makes art, art.” That less than helpful comment just added to the confusion. We had been talking for weeks about what makes something art much less great art. “It really boils down to content,” Stephen said. “Really?, And what do you mean by content?” “Content, in the end, dictates form,” he answered. “I think that we are talking about different things. You can paint a picture of a flower or a person, they are both content,”I said. “I am talking more about reading content,” he said. “And how does one read content?” “I am looking for the intention of the artist. Two paintings can have the same subject yet one can be great art and the other banal. It’s all in the intention,” he said. “Are you talking about brush work?” “It’s more than that. It’s everything and nothing. It’s is where the end is more than the sum totals of the parts.”

“You know, there are high points and low points to painting and I am not sure where I am now,” he said remarking on my portrait. “How about the middle?” I asked. “I know what I am doing is valid,” he said. “I have no doubt about your validity, but I have problems with some things which pass themselves off as art,” I said. “Yes,” he said, “most of my art heroes are from the 19th. Century and before.” “I don’t think that it all goes back to realism. There are some 20th. Century artists I like. It is about, as you said, intention,” I said, “Good painting is timeless. Good painting has been done, is being done and will, in the future, be done.” “Sometimes the first stroke of the brush on the canvas leads to the divine path,” Stephen said, “but, mostly painting is just hard work.” I got his point as I have often watched him work up a sweat over the past two weeks as he painted my portrait.VH 4 Aug

Art is hard work and I get annoyed when people dismiss art, particularly realism, as mere skill or the result of some God given talent. The good artists I know, of all stripes, work their butts offs and most have spent years getting to a point where they occasionally produce something fine. This I know from my own failures. It is a revelation to sit for Stephen and watch art come about, come alive. He starts with a blank canvas, a blank piece of paper and, foremost, an idea. I sit and provide the subject. Mine is the far easier task. Composition is a task for an artist looking at a blank canvas. Where to start, where to put the first mark. When, as an artist, I looked at a blank canvas, I saw the painting before I picked up my brush and started to paint. The painting was there, it was just a matter of putting it down. In reality it wasn’t that simple and the finished painting was always quite different than the one I had in my head at the outset. My vision was, of course, always better than the finished product. It is the same with Stephen; he has some idea what the painting will look like before he starts. “The problem is a matter of scale,” he said, “how it’s going to fit.” His painting of me was coming to life somewhat like a photograph in a tray of developer (for those of you who can remember that process), from a blank sheet to a completed image, only much slower. “I need to stop, have a cup of coffee and regroup,” he said.

“I need to do another drawing or two,” he said, as we were drinking our coffee, “and think about another oil sketch.” I could see how deeply Stephen was immersing himself in this project. He really wanted to capture me in paint and I certainly wanted to see my image played out. It’s all about time, I thought. I have been doing self-portraits over the years starting with drawings and paintings and now digital photographs not because I am in love with myself, but to gage the aging process which scares the Hell out of me. Stephen’s painting, or paintings, of me are very different than the daily digital photograph I take of myself. Mine are 1/60th of a second snapshots and his are observations of me over many hours and days. His is art, mine is record keeping. There is much more of me in his painting than in my photographs.

VH sketchBack in position, Stephen takes up his sketchbook and pencil and proceed rapidly to draw my face. “It’s all in the drawing,” he said. “I like to work from drawings as it gives me different information than painting from life.” I understand where he is coming from as black and white drawings reduces things, images, to values of light and dark. It can also simplify the image into visual essentials. His drawings of me contain basic information that can be transferred to the paintings. “I should draw more,” he says, “I really like drawing.” I remarked that old master drawings really turned my crank, “Look at Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt–their drawings say it all,” I said. “Yes, it really reveals their hand, doesn’t?” he said.

“Do you have any idea where all of this going?” I said. “What are we shooting for? One big honking picture?” I continued. “I haven’t a clue. Good art, I hope,” Stephen said. At the start, I had hoped to record the painting of a portrait with words and photographs, but it was becoming something much more, a record of the artistic process at work. A painting is, in the end, the product of a process in time that becomes a moment in time. Stephen’s portraits of me will be a record of both of us over the summer of 2013. “Why do you paint Stephen?” I said. A dumb question, but I asked it nevertheless. “There is nothing else I can do,” was his obvious answer, but what he does do, is something that very few us of can do, and that is create out of imagination and talent, art.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, 23 September, 2013.

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