Archive for the ‘Stephen Paints a Picture’ Category

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Stephen Paints a Picture – Part Fifteen

November 27, 2013

27 August 2013

stephen scott toolsOnly yesterday, Stephen Scott was at my house working on my portrait and now he was back starting from where he had left off. “I really doubt that I can get this done in the time I have left,” he said. “We had this conversation yesterday,” I replied, “we’ll just have to do what we can.” I told him that I had a call from Will Forrestall (a former student of mine, along with Stephen, and also a painter) asking me to write a forward to a booklet on an exhibition at The Yellow Box Gallery in Fredericton of Stephen’s paintings done last summer in Newfoundland. “Yes, I spent five weeks around Port aux Basque painting a series of small landscapes. Bad beer, great people. The paintings are all on my website. I was to do the same sort of thing this summer around Sackville until we started this.” “You sure can’t tell what fate is going to drop into your hands, can you?” I said. The reality was that if I hadn’t by chance dropped into Ducky’s that first day Stephen was in town that lead to dinner and a conversation, we wouldn’t be sitting here doing this now.

He was busy painting again, looking intently in my direction.

“Next place I would like to paint is Ireland, but I would have to find the money or some sort of fellowship, hopefully both,” he said.

“Where there is a will there is a way. Must be something out there. The Irish like artists. They have great tax laws for artists. You would have to remember to bring a shit load of green paint.”

“There is always the hope factor. Give it your best shot and hope for the best,” he said.

“You’ve done pretty well with the hope factor. You’ve managed to travel and paint in some interesting places.”

Yes, but there are a lot of places I haven’t been and would like to be.”

“Listen, you’re going to make good art wherever you are. It’s about the artist, not the place.”

I thought I would throw a little art quiz at Stephen; “There is an artist that I haven’t talked about, that I like. Have you ever heard of Larry Rivers?” “Sure, great draughtsman.” “I think he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Loved his take on George Washington a crossing the Delaware,” I said. “He was a Pop artist with a real talent in drawing and painting,” he added. We have spent a lion’s share of our time over the summer talking about what is and isn’t talent in painting both past and present. Art, history and criticism is full of loaded words and talent is one of them. It’s a minefield that blows up in your face more often than not, but both of us appear not afraid of blundering ahead regardless of our wounds.

“There’s a lot of history around painting and there’s more history to come. It’s not dead yet.” Stephen said.

“I sort of place what I call modern painting, to around the time of Giotto. Late 13th century, early 14th century,” I said.

“There was stuff before that.”

“Yes, but that’s where I would put the start of what we recognize as painting today—signed work by an individual and an individual who people, important people, saw as a genius or at least as important.”

“It’s back to the bit about the painting as an object, an object of value, isn’t it?” he said.

“It’s hard to get away from the idea about the stuff on walls. Windows of illusion to another world.”

“Illusion is the ticket and that’s what makes painting so important. It gives us a world that only exist is our imagination,” he said.

“Books and music can do the same thing. It’s all about stuff in our heads.” I added.

“Don’t you think there are important differences between painting, music and literature?”

“Yes, painting, in some ways is more real; at least realistic painting is. It’s taking something we know, something we see and putting it into another reality, three into two dimensions.”

“That’s going way back, to Greek philosophy, Plato” Stephen said.

“Right, but it doesn’t make it less valid. The bloody Greeks were on to something.”

“People have always had the need to make things, to interpret their reality. It goes back to somebody in a cave with a burnt stick in their hand trying to figure out what the fuck was going on in their world,” he said.

“And, we have yet to figure it out and, by the way, how’s the painting going? Am I looking good?”

VH 27AugHe stopped painting, I put on the coffee machine and had a look at what he was doing. “Is this picture any better than the last one?” I asked. “It’s not about better. It’s different. I think it’s better. Hopefully everything is adding up for the final portrait, but only time will tell.” Stephen was looking at the project from many viewpoints, many directions. There were drawings, oil sketches and, most of all, time, the luxury of time, to put things together in his head. Thus far we have had fifteen sessions of two or more hours each over a period of forty days since July the eightieth. To my mind, the art process is additive. You need time for things to sink in, for ideas to mature. When I tried to teach life drawing in a summer course over six weeks rather than over two terms of thirteen weeks each, the results were nowhere as good. The students needed the the year to get the information in their heads. That’s not to say that a quick thirty second drawing can not be better than a laborious three hour drawing. It’s the training and practice that lead up over the years to the ability to make a masterful thirty second drawing.

“I don’t know what keeps me going,” Stephen said.

“Perhaps, you can’t do anything else. I do what I do as it’s sign that I am alive and you do much more than me.”

“Does that mean that I’m more alive than you?”

“Many more people are more alive than me and many people, you included, have more talent than me.”

“It’s all about living in the now,” he said.

“Really? Do we have any choice?”

“No, because, even if you try to live in the past, you are stuck doing it in the present.”

“Sure, and the future is fucking impossible because we haven’t a clue what’s going to happen. So we might as well stick with the now.”

Stephen was trying to come to a conclusion to the afternoon’s work, “It’s not a carrot and stick for me,” he said, “I am driven from the rear, by art history, by all of those artists from the past.” His point is well taken, there is always the burden of the past. Artists who ignore art history are doing so at their peril. They may think that they are original, but, in fact, all art is a variation on a theme and that theme is art, itself. Of course, there is always ignorance and that’s a quality that many artists, past and present, possess. “The sooner you stop, the sooner we can get to the bar and have a drink before dinner,” I said. “If you put it that way,” he said putting his brush aside.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, November 25, 2013.

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Stephen Paints a Picture – Part Fourteen

November 20, 2013

26 August 2013

“I think I’m going to stay a couple of extra weeks in Sackville, if I can find another place to stay. I really need more time to work on this project,” Stephen Scott told me soon after he came to my place to continue painting my portrait. “Guess you will need it,” I replied, “but the students are starting to filter back into town. I might be able to get up to Fredericton, but I sure as hell couldn’t do it every two days.” “We’ll just have to see how much more I can finish,” he said. He had with him a new small canvas that already had an image on it based on earlier drawings.

stephen paints 26 AugAfter I sat down to pose, Stephen began to block in colour on the new canvas. It was a dark day, but we needed to get on with the project regardless of the weather, so he had set up a flood light bounced off the ceiling. “I really don’t like using artificial light, but I don’t have a choice.” “Yes, you do have to be careful with the colour balance, don’t you?” I remembered that I replaced all the lighting in my studio with daylight balanced lights because I was tired of painting at night and returning to the studio the next day and finding the colour all wrong, but we did not have that luxury painting in my kitchen and we would have to wing it.

“When I go back (to Fredericton) I think my working methods will have to be adjusted,” he said.

“How so?”

“I really have come to understand this summer how important drawing is to my painting.”

“You’re right; if you can’t draw, you can’t do dick as an artist.”

“Another thing, there’s a certain aspect of resolution I require and that comes from drawing,” he added.

“Are you talking about control or detail?”

“A bit about both. That’s why I like studio painting say as compared to plein air painting for its control.”

“But you do both remarkably well.”

“I don’t know about that, but they both have their points. In the end, it’s all about producing paintings.”

All summer I have been ruminating about art with Stephen, really a conversation between two cranky old men, but in an attempt to outflank him with my obtuse wisdom, I have been rereading a number of old books on art history, theory and criticism. Last night I was thumbing through an old paperback of Herbert Read’s 1931 The Meaning of Art (The cover price was $1.45, so it should give you some idea when I bought it) and a thought suddenly came to me: “Stephen, I figured it out. You know, there are no aesthetics, at least classical aesthetics, in most Postmodern art there is only content and that’s what makes it so fucking difficult to talk about anything else,” I said. “And where did you come up with that idea?” “Reading Herbert Read last night,” I replied. “You do have a point, if you can’t talk about beauty and skill, you are pretty much left with content.”

“All those old guys writing about art, Read, Kenneth Clark, John Canaday and the like, had vast knowledge of art history which made their art criticism interesting,” I said.

“I think the people reading their stuff as well had a sense of history, art and otherwise,” he said

“It’s not that Read said modern art lacked aesthetics. Lots of modern art is all about beauty, art for arts sake. Postmodern art was forty or more years down the road when he wrote The Meaning of Art, but I just couldn’t imagine him writing in the same terms about Jeff Koons,” I said.

“Right, art was still pretty much elitist in 1930 even if there was Dada, Cubism and the beginnings of Surrealism by then,” he said

“I would venture that art is still elitist and, if anything, more elitist than it was in 1930. Most people are just puzzled by Postmodern art.”

“Yet, people are dumping big bucks on the stuff as we speak,” Stephen said.

“There are very many reasons for that and most of it as nothing to do with art and anyway the people spending the big bucks are not most people, they are the one percent or, more likely, the one percent of the one percent.”

“It’s all very depressing, let talk about something more cheerful like is it supposed to be sunny tomorrow?” he said, all the while still painting my portrait.

virgil and sophiePerhaps, I thought, we should talk about food, wine and the women we had loved, but I was not sure that we should go there, particularly, about the women as I am past my prime, but I still have a keen interest in eating and drinking. “Should we go out tonight or should we throw something together here?” I said. “Doesn’t matter to me, but your wine is better than what we would get out.” he said. He did have a point. “OK, you and Sophie come over later and I will cook something.”

“You know, I loved Freud’s portrait of Bacon. I wonder why he never finished it?” Stephen said.

“It may have happened around the time of their falling out,” I said.

“Right, it’s really hard to imagine those two massive egos getting along without ending up in drunken fist fight.”

“I think that happened on more than one occasion.”

“You can see their rough edges in their paintings, it’s all there, he said.

“There is a lot of rough painting by painters who have less than perfect personalities,” I said.

“Speaking of rough, Van Gogh sets my teeth on edge. His paintings are remarkable not to mention his drawing,” he added.

Stephen had stopped painting and was finishing a cup of, now cold, espresso that I had made earlier, “Painting is like staining wood, about surface,” he said.

“When I think about staining, I think about a flat smooth surface and that’s certainly not your painting, at least the ones you have done of me.”

“Sometimes the paint gets in the way,” he replied.

“But you’ve told me before that it’s all about the paint. I’m confused.”

“Art, and making art is confusing,” he said.

Yes, I thought, the making of art is in the moment. It’s when the brush touches the canvas. It is in that split second when decisions are made. It’s about everything and nothing. Stephen has, over this summer, made me think about the creative process. It’s something that I should have been doing all along and haven’t.VH 26Aug

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Tuesday, November 19, 2013.

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Stephen Paints a Picture – Part Thirteen

November 13, 2013

23 August 2013

“Harold put your last blog post on his site. He called it Portrait of a Conversation. Cool,” Stephen Scott remarked first thing as he returned to my place to continue painting my portrait.

“Yeah, I saw it. The more the merrier. We want people to see what we’re doing. That’s the point,” I replied.

Stephen and I have been talking all summer about finding different ways to promote art to a wider public using the web. “There has to be something akin to a virtual art fair of high quality art controlled by the artists themselves online,” he said. “I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t found it yet. Most of what I’m finding is crap,” I said. “Perhaps, we should be the ones to do it,” he said. “Listen, I don’t know my ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to using the net. I think we would make a regal mess of it.” “OK, let’s just keep it in mind and, in the meantime, I’ll keep painting.”

Yesterday, Stephen had only drawn and today, it was back to painting. “I didn’t realise how much drawing is the key to what I am doing. It’s a whole lot better when you know where you’re going,” he said. There was a lot of truth in what he was saying as drawing is a major way of thinking and problem solving for painters. The act of drawing is very different than that of painting. You use your hand differently in each, but what is more important is that you use your mind differently. I find drawing, in a way, a more direct method means of expression than painting, but it is hard to think of one without the other. I tend to think of drawing as line and painting as mass. In any case, Stephen had yesterday’s drawings taped to the wall where he could see them as he sat down to paint.

“It’s amazing how many sketches you can get doing a painting—they really pile up,” he said.

“The devil is in the details. I think you find something different every time that we get together. It’s either that or I am a damn difficult subject.”

“I have had worse, but, then again, I have had prettier subjects.”

“Ah, there is a beauty to my soul that’s difficult to capture in paint.”

“It’s what’s in the core of the work that counts,” he countered.

“Well, there is the bit about rotten to the core.”

“Just sit still for a minute. I am trying to figure something out.”

In truth, he was paying more attention to the painting than he was to me which makes sense as the painting makes its own demands on an artist. Stuff like what to do with the background or the highlights. “I have been putting it on all wrong,” he mumbled. “And, what do you mean by that?”

“I am not sure what I mean. One way or the other it’s going to be a damn fine work.”

portrait 23AugI wasn’t sure if he was talking about this sketch or the final painting, but I was quite happy with everything that he had accomplished to this point and I wasn’t about to push the point. I decided to change the subject. “I’m reading a book on the New York art scene from the ‘50s to the ‘70s and it’s making the point that it’s the galleries, both commercial and non-commercial, who set the trends in art and not the artists. It’s the cart leading the horse. A good case is how Pop Art took over from Abstract Expressionism in the early ‘60s.”

“And how did that happen?” Stephen asked.

“The commercial galleries needed a way to make more money and the shine was off Abstract Expressionism. Pop came along at the right time, around 62. ‘Old’ masters like De Kooning found themselves replaced by young pups like Warhol. Pretty much all about money, but what happened then was that places like the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney starting showing Pop artists right out of college like they were part of history.”

“That stuff is still going on. The civic galleries in this country and the States are still trying to be at the forefront of the avant-garde. Stuff like mine has a hard time finding a place in civic galleries. My shit is too retro for their tastes.”

“We critics have a lot to answer for. We are always trying to set the agenda rather than leaving it to the artists. We’re too smart for our own good.”

“You said it, I didn’t, but there are good galleries and good writers.”

“I guess, I’ve always liked places like the Met, the Frick or the Louvre. Nice quiet places filled with art by dead people. Mind you, they are too full of people these days for to my liking,” I said.

“It’s those damn blockbuster shows. You literally can’t see the forest for the trees,” Stephen complained.

“Some of those shows are pretty good. You just need a press pass and get there for the preview.”

“Stop showing off.”

VH 23AugJust then, there was a knock at the door. It was my friend Meredith Fisher. “I invited Meredith over to take some pictures of us working using one my cameras of us working,” I said. Although I have been taking pictures all along of progress of Stephen’s work and some of him painting, I have not been able to get an overall view of the both of us together. “When she’s finished, we can all take a coffee break and I can have peek at where you’re going with the painting.” Several photographs later, Meredith stopped as did Stephen. “So what do you think of the picture, Meredie?” I asked. “I think it’s wonderful. He has made it look like you,” she said. “I think that is the idea,” I replied. “Enough,” Stephen injected, “where’s my coffee?”

After Meredith left and we were back to painting, Stephen remarked, “I’m a fly by the seat of my pants type of painter. I’m going through a whole lot of white.” Actually, he goes through quite a bit of paint in general and the sketches are beginning to take on an almost three dimensional effect that really does not show up in photographs of the works. He was bashing away on the canvas with a rather large brush. “I consider the size of the brush I need, then increase it.” “Well, it does look like fun,” I said. “It is. Black can get you a ravishing blue.” “I think you are out of your mind on that one,” I answered.

“It’s Friday and you know what that means, don’t you?” I said.

“What?”

“Lobster and a good white wine.”

lobster dinnerEvery Friday night over a six week period I had a deal to get five pounds of live lobster right off the boat and have a friend cook it for me. It had become a regular event for Stephen; Sophie, his wife, and me. It was a great way to end a week. “Let go over to Meredith’s with the lobster and she’ll throw together a salad or two and dessert,” I said. “That does sound like a plan,” he answered. “Yes, and we can continue to solve the problems of the art world with our witty conversation and it does work better after we have had a couple bottles of wine,” I said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, November 11, 2013

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twelve

November 6, 2013

22 August 2013

“Jesus, Stephen, I’ve just been reading about art fairs. You know like Toronto and Art Basel. Scares the hell out of me,” I said, “What do you think?” “A lot of horse shit, if you ask me. More about hype than art. Dealers flogging their fashionable artists to people who are clueless,” he said. “Clueless, but with money,” I said. Stephen Scott had been painting my portrait now for over a month and we were into our twelfth setting. We had been kicking around conversation about art both during and between sitting at dinner, lunches and countless cups of coffee. Both of us have put a lot of time into the art game and, if nothing more, we had our opinions.

1VH22AUG“I’ve decided to draw today. I can get a lot of information for the paintings from drawing,” he said. “Before photography, that’s what painters had to rely on. A lot of their subjects didn’t have the time to sit while they completed a picture,” I said, “Let me show you a drawing by van Eyck that he did for a portrait of a Cardinal Albergati.” I went downstairs to my office and returned with a book. “Take a look at this. It’s a silverpoint and here is the painting that resulted,” I said. “Bloody amazing, but that’s not the kind of drawing I do,” he said. “Eyck is sort of in a class by himself. Proves my point that progress in art is bunk,” I replied. Stephen started a pencil drawing in a sketchbook. “I’ll do a couple smaller drawings first and move to something larger in a bit,” he said.

“Back to the subject of art fairs. It’s a whole new way of marketing art and it’s leaving a lot’s of people out,” I said.

“Like me. You know there’s is no middle. It’s all high end or crap,” he said.

“The middle class is down the tubes and with it a whole art market. I read where high-end auction houses are starting their own art galleries in New York and London,” I said.

“No shit! That should leave the high end galleries quaking in their boots.”

“Ya, a lot of big galleries are following the small galleries and going out of business. It’s all about big, and I do mean big, money. The bubble’s got to burst,” I said.

“It can’t be too soon. Perhaps the hyper-rich should go back to collecting tulip bulbs,” he said.

“No kidding, I just saw an auction estimate for a Jeff Koons’s balloon dog sculpture from Christie’s for 35 to 55 million bucks,” I said.

“What?”

“Well at least it’s orange and ten foot long,” I added.

“Somehow I doubt that people four hundred years hence will be looking at the Koons with the same reverence that we have today for Michelangelo’s David,” he said.

“Only if we have a new religion that worships dachshunds,” I said.

Stephen had started a larger drawing mounted on a board. “In the end, I’ll likely transfer a drawing to a larger painting by either tracing or bouncing,” he said. “That’s a rather old fashioned way to go isn’t it?” I said. “Sure, but I’ve got more control that way. Drawing is a prelude to painting,” he said.

We talked a lot about drawing over the summer. Drawing is somehow the key to everything; it is a way of visually talking. Sometimes during our conversations we would doodle or make small sketches to emphasize a point and that’s just a way that artists talk to one another. I would crudely draw something for Stephen, sometimes upside down for me and right side up for him, if he was sitting across the table from me, and exclaim, see! and usually he did.

“Drawing is a love affair to the painting,” he said.

“Affairs are sometimes very messy,” I said.

“Where is life without love?”

“Pretty much nowhere,” I said.

“Making art is very close to sex and that’s the great thing about being a painter. There are very few jobs that have that direct sensual experience,” he said.

2VH22AUG“It’s pretty impossible to explain to someone who has not had the experience themselves, how it feels to paint, to make art of any kind, to have the words come, to realise the music in your head. It’s the opening of the door to the cosmos.” I said.

“It was Graham Sutherland who really got me interested in drawing. I remember seeing his stuff at the Beaverbrook when I was a kid,” Stephen said. “Yes, they have some great drawings of his, particularly the Churchill studies. The hand drawings are really nice,” I said. We continued to talk about the importance of drawing and that somehow the craft has been largely lost. “It’s about the hand,” I said, “ There are a lot of good forgeries of paintings from all ages around, but not so much of drawings. It’s just so damn hard to capture the artist’s hand.” “I noted that too. Perhaps it’s just not as profitable as forging painting. The big money is in painting and a passable forgery of a painting is easier to do than an old master drawing,” he said. “It can be done if you have the right old paper, the right drawing materials and fake an anonymous artist, but it seems like a lot work for little return,” I said.

“I am not really interested in sculpture, but I like Henry Moore’s drawings. He did some really nice ones during World War II,” he said.

“I can deal with sculpture. I like Moore’s classical pieces, but sculpture does tend to get in your way when you are trying to look at paintings,” I said

“It’s because sculpture deals with actual space while painting’s space is an illusion,” he said.

“Some, including Plato, would say that was a bad thing,” I said.

“But they would be wrong. Illusion is a wonderful thing,” he countered.

“I’m more often delusional and I’m not sure how wonderful that is, but I can put that off to old age and creeping senility,” I said. “Well, I can certainly agree with the senility part. The good thing about senility is that there are lots of things that are best forgotten,” he said.

3VH22AUGThe afternoon, along with the light, was drawing to a close. Stephen was trying to finish as much as he could before it became too dark to draw. “Drawing is the rehearsal and painting is the performance,” he said. “Ah, the play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the viewer,” I said, loosely misquoting Hamlet. “You know, I am not getting any younger and there is a lot more art I want to do before I pack it in,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about that, you have got a lot of juice left in you,” I said. “There is never enough time to do what you have to do,” he said. “Look at this way, when you’re dead, you’re past worrying. Your art is going to be around a lot longer than either of us,” I said. “I want to paint tomorrow. Are you up to it?” “Certainly,” I said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Tuesday, November 5, 2013.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Eleven

October 30, 2013

19 August 2012

stephen scott 19Aug“Did you check out Stuckism on the web last night?” I asked Stephen Scott as soon as he stepped into the house.

“Sure did. Strange stuff, but when you boil it down, I guess we are both Stuckists,” he said.

I had told him to take a look at the movement the night before because I thought he would find it interesting after all our talk about the Young British Artists movement. The term Stuckism comes from a remark made by Tracey Emin, a member of the Young British Artists, to her then boyfriend, Billy Childish, about the art that he was doing, in her words, was so “stuck, stuck, stuck” in the past. The relationship failed, but the term lived on as Stuckism complete with a manifesto and followers all over the world as an anti-anti-art movement. The artists in the movement wanted a return to figurative art and away from the conceptual art that seemed to be in control of British art at the time (1998/99). They went so far as to picket the Turner Prize every time it was awarded.

“I thought that you would find it funny. Too bad that most of the Stuckists painters I could find suck, but their hearts are in the right place,” I said.
“Yes, and interestingly enough, I couldn’t find any Canadian artists on the list of members,” he said.

“Perhaps, it’s time for us to form a Canadian chapter,” I said.

“Well let’s get started,” Stephen said, trying to get everything in place for painting while trying to avoid my dogs who always want to be in the centre of things. “I think you know my thoughts on chaos and art.” I said as I assumed my pose for his painting, “ Did I ever talk to you about Morse Peckham’s book, Man’s Rage for Chaos? I think you would find it an interesting read.” “No, I don’t think that you did.” Stephen pointed his brush at me and used it to direct my head at the angle he wanted.

“Well, Peckham maintains, and I agree, that art, or at least progress in art, is not about order, but the reverse and that art moves ahead through disorder and chaos.”

“That very well might be true, but there is a case to be made for order within a work of art.”

“I was thinking more of changes in the direction of the history of art like where in hell did Cubism or Dada come from.”

“Surely, actual history rather than art history had something to do with it. World War I and psychoanalysis really fucked things up,” he said.
“Of course, they did, but I think you can see chaos in art throughout history. It’s not that I don’t like order, only that I have a hard time with progress.”

VH 19Aug“I think that there is a lot of chaos in this damn picture,” he said, “it’s fighting me all the way.” I asked him what he meant by fight. “At the moment the colour is rather dull. It should sing.” “Like the fat lady?” I said. “Sometimes working with a limited palette is a bit of a challenge, but I like the natural colours I use,” he said. “The singing bit is all about local colour (the contrast between one colour with another) isn’t it? I asked. “Sure, that’s why the background in a portrait is important. A dark background will make the colours in the face pop out.” He was working on the left side of face which was the darker side as I was lit from the right. “The paint is what it is all about. You are just an excuse to paint,” he said. “I hope you don’t say that to all your sitters especially those who are paying you,” I said, but I knew where he was coming from. The act of painting is rather like being a child in a sandbox; it’s all very tactile.

“How do you know when to move from a study to a finished work or even when a study is finished?” I said. “It just looks right. Some elements have come together and you know it’s time to move on.” I made us both a cup of coffee and took at a look at what he was doing. “Are you going to go back to the first painting and try to finish it,” I said. “Likely, but I might move to another oil sketch instead. There is never enough time for anything.” “What is it that you are looking for in this painting that wasn’t in the last one?” I asked Stephen. “Don’t really know, perhaps it has something to do with composition or focus,” he said. “Every mark means something and every mark in every picture is different,” I said. “You can’t really think about it. I just have to force myself to work every day. If I thought about it too much, I would end up stopping,” he said.

Stephen’s advice was wise, as I do tend to think too much which inevitably gets me in trouble. “I guess you’re right, if I stuck more to my brush and less about getting everything right, I would still be painting,” I said. “No, I still want to get things right, but if you just keep doing it somethings are bound to come out right,” he said.

“I sometimes feel that I’m walking on the edge of a razor blade with death on one side and life on the other towards an inevitable oblivion,” I said.

“Now that’s morbid.”

“No, I’m just pissed off that I have wasted away my life and you, on the other hand, at least have a body of work.”

“What do you mean? Your taught all your life. Tons of students and then there is all your writing,” he said

virgil 19Aug“I’m not sure to what end and, in the last fifteen years of my life, I’ve been a small-town politician. It’s only now that I am trying to re-invent myself and I don’t have another fifteen years. Shit, I’ll be ninety. Most people at ninety are dead.”

“You should really stop feeling sorry for yourself, get off your ass and just write,” he said.

We were now back painting.

“You know,” he said, “painting is a healthy way to express unhealthy feelings.”

“Yes, Lucian Freud certainly had that down to a science,” I said. “You can say almost anything in painting and get away with it,” he said.
We were back on a favourite subject. What art allows us to say that cannot be done by other means; the so-called artistic licence.

“Art is a therapeutic tool tool, an emotional experience and the tool is in the making,” he said.

“I thought you said that this was fun?” I said.

“It is, but it’s lots of things, all at the same time.”

“Isn’t the process more important than the product for you?” I said.

“Certainly, definitely.”

“Well most viewers could care less about process. They are generally looking for a pretty picture or some kind of experience that comes from contact with a finished art work,” I said.

“There is the big difference between the maker and the viewer,” he said.

“Mind you, the viewer can make up their mind about a painting in a second while the artist can take weeks to finish the same painting. Hardly fair is it?” I said.

“The term ‘finished’ is a problem and perhaps we should bring today’s session to a finish. I could use a drink,” he said, getting in the last word.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, October 28, 2013.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Ten

October 23, 2013

17 August 2013

Stephen Scott came to my house after the Sackville Farmers Market, an event which happens every Saturday morning, where we had already had coffee and had talked for a hour or so about art and what we were doing. “Remember, I said that I did like (Mark) Rothko,” were the first words out of his mouth as he sat down at my kitchen table. “Yes, of course, and I do as well. He made beautiful objects,” I said. “He does, and his paintings show signs of a lot of physical work which I like,” he said. “I think that are many non-realist artists that we could both agree made great paintings,” I said. “One modernist painter whose work I think is a load of horse shit is Barnett Newman,” Stephen said. “Are you talking about Voice of Fire. The painting at the National Gallery?” I said. “Yes.” “I don’t know about that, I think some of them, Voice included, are rather beautiful to look at,” I said. “We can agree to disagree,” he said.Voice_of_Fire_photo

“Let’s get down to business. It’s mid-August and I only have a place to stay in Sackville until the end of month. I am not sure that I can finish by then,” he said. We were looking to have a large portrait at the end of the project and the oil sketches and drawings were the lead up to it. “We will just have to increase our settings,” I said. Now that we had two oil sketches going, we could alternate them, giving one a chance to dry a bit while he worked on the other. We moved the kitchen table out of the way, arranged the chairs and his painting gear and sat down to work. “I could work on a single subject for a year,” He said. “If you did, it should be something more interesting than me.” But, the thought of sticking to something, anything, has its rewards in painting as it allows for the development of a complex idea. So, I asked him about change for change sake. “The idea of radical change is a bit of illusion, isn’t it?” he said. “Like Rothko?” I said. “Yes, Rothko stuck to things.”

“Did I ever tell you about the time I met Rothko?” I said. “I did talk to you about my teacher, John Hultberg, and his trouble finishing paintings. Well, he had moved back to New York from San Francisco and I happened to visit New York and John must have been 66, and he took me to the Cedar Bar for a drink and who should drop by, but Rothko. It turns out that John and Mark were old friends. Boy, I thought, here I am with two famous artists in a famous bar and I am part of the conversation. I wish that it had turned out better as both of them drank like fish and I matched them drink for drink only they were a lot better drinkers than me. Don’t remember a thing, only that Mark was wearing a long overcoat and a black hat. Once again, history had passed me by.”

“It is interesting.” he said, “We certainly miss opportunities, don’t we.” “I am afraid that when the train of history comes into the station, that I won’t be on the platform,” I said. “I am not sure that I will ever be part art history. I am not in the right place nor the right time,” he said. While he continued to paint, we talked about art history and why some art, regardless of quality, becomes famous while other stuff never get recognition or slips from favour. “It is that old chestnut that the victors write the history and the victor, at least today, is big, big money,” I said. “Of course, you are right and there is not a chance in hell of that changing, but my problem is that I could never play the game that is today’s big art. The kind of stuff that is in Venice or wins the Turner Prize,” Stephen said. “Don’t be too put out. You can still put food on the table with your painting and you can look at yourself in the mirror,” I said.

“What’s that we are listening to?”, he asked. “Sounds like Handel to me, let me have a look.” I said peering at readout on my streaming radio, “Yes, Rinaldo, one of his operas.” “I like it. Something nice about music like that,” he said. “You know, we are really trapped in the past,” I said. “There is other music I like. How about Frank Zappa?” he said. “Good thought, Zappa, besides being crazy, wrote some quite credible classical music that is being played today by major orchestras.” Stephen had a pencil in his hand. He was using it like a stylus to make lines in the thick wet paint on the canvas. “Interesting technique. I like the way that you use anything at hand,” I said. “Anything that works is OK with me,” he said. “I used to use my hands a lot, my palm, my fingers to blend the paint. Not a good idea considering what’s in oil paint,” I said. “You are right about that, but I get enough paint on myself without finger painting.” “The messy part is the fun part of oil painting,” I said. “One can’t get enough wet into wet,” Stephen added.

brushes etc“I think that painting is taking over,” he said while still looking intently at me. “Does that mean that I can sit back and relax?” I asked. “No, but we could stop and have a coffee and look things over,” he said. There is point in most paintings where the real action is in the painting rather than the subject. Where one stroke of the brush calls for another and you attempt to bring it all together. I think that you have to be an artist to understand what Stephen means by ‘taking over’. A finished painting is a finished painting and how the artist got to that point is mostly invisible to the viewer. “Sometimes painting is just work,” he said. “All work and no play makes Stephen a dull boy,” I said, “We had better find something exciting for you to do.” “Painting is exciting enough for me, only that it is hard to get it right,” he said.

Still over coffee, I said, “Stephen, does Postmodern art have values that trump beauty?” “Don’t know about trump, but beauty is notably lacking in a lot postmodern stuff,” he said. “You are still producing wall art which is passé in many peoples eyes,” I said. “Well, people can have a choice between looking at a wall or looking at art on a wall.” “Sometimes when I go into an artists run gallery or civic gallery and I am faced with the usual, a pile of rope on the floor, crap leaning the walls or just an empty space, all usually accompanied by long statements by the artists or curators, I am at a loss for words, so I just make nice,” I said. “It rather reminds me of going to church,” he said. “Seriously, Stephen, we are missing something. All those people in black can’t be wrong all the time,” I said. “It’s a game mostly for the young, but it goes back a long time, to Duchamp and before. Old farts, like us, are just reactionaries,” Stephen said. “I was at a major opening recently where all of the remarks were about how young all the artists and all the curators who picked them were and how fresh and original the works in the exhibition were although it looked like the same old shit to me that I have been seeing in exhibitions over the last fifty years. I thought I should just lie down and die on the spot,” I said.

“Well, before you drop dead, let’s get a hour’s painting in,” Stephen said.VH 17 Aug

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, 20 October, 2013.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Nine

October 16, 2013

15 August 2013

pallette 15Aug“You’re right,” Stephen Scott, told me as he came into the house, “Sophie (his wife), is my muse. She is always there when I need her.” Muse and Musae were a major subject of our last sitting of three days ago. “Of course, who else would it be?” I said. Without telling him, I thought how lucky he was to have his own muse. Someone whose very presence gives him reason to work. Changing the subject, I asked, “Where do you think (Lucian) Freud would start each session.” “He picked up where he had left off.” “And, in your case, where would that be?” By this time he had started to sit down and paint my portrait, once again. “With the bridge of the nose,” he said. “Why there?” “It’s sort of the closest point of the picture; if you think about it spatially.” It is interesting that painters think about their paintings in three dimensions while they are reducing them to two dimensions. Of course, if a painter is working from a photograph, the reduction has already been done.

I brought this point up with Stephen and it was a subject we had been talking about for weeks. “I have never liked photo realism. They look like painted photographs,” he said. “And, so they are,” I replied. “You are speaking against some sacred cows in Canadian art like Mary Pratt. People like her work,” I continued. “Yes, I know, but I find the photo realist stuff, just too slick,” he said. “Part of the problem, in working from life, is that your subjects just don’t cooperate. Like me, I move and the light is always changing,” I said. “That’s what makes it interesting. It goes back to the struggle thing,” he said. Making a good painting is a fight and Stephen is a fighter. He held the brush in front of him to get a good handle on the angle of my face. “Bring your chin up a bit and tilt your head a bit to the left,” he said. “You know, I still have to write while you are painting.” I said. “Yes, I know, I just want to get the pose in my head.” That’s the way it works, I thought; you have to have an idea what you want the painting to look like as compared to the reality that you are faced with. “The painting is starting to come to life,” Stephen said.

“I am stuck in the middle of a never, never land. A fully aware romantic realist painter left out of the mainstream,” he said.
“Do you mean Toronto?”
“Not really, there is a mainstream everywhere and I am not in it.”
“Even Fredericton?” I said.
“There is no critical analysis in Fredericton,” Stephen said.
“Do you mean press? As far as I know, the only arts stuff in the province in the press is the Salon section in the Telegraph Journal in Saint John.”
“No, it is more than that. There is just not the critical mass of people in a place like New Brunswick for an active art scene,” he said.
“Then why do you stay here? I said.
“As I have said before, there is a sense of place and even though I travel a lot, I feel I belong here,” he said. This I understand. I grew up in large cities, in different countries, yet I feel comfortable in a small Maritime town even though it lacks many features I crave. It is, as Stephen said, a never, never land.

“You did go to Montreal for a couple of years to take that art therapy course at Concordia,” I said. “Yes, I figured that I needed a way to make a living as I wasn’t making much money from painting.” “What happened?” “When I finished I found out that I could not do both, art therapy and painting. So, in the end, I returned to full time painting. I guess painting is in my blood,” he said. It is a fact of life that many art students who leave school with dreams of being a full time artist eventually give up and do something else.

Stephen had been painting for nearly twenty years before the Montreal episode and I am glad that, in the end, he stuck to painting. “Montreal was not a total bust,” he said, “I learned a lot about myself and the power of art to heal.” “I have always seen my art as therapy, both painting and writing. It seems to work for me,” I said. “The people I worked with were not artists, but art helped them nonetheless,” he said.

paint 15Aug“There is the thing about art’s ability to transform, isn’t there?” I asked Stephen as he continued to paint. “It is beautiful when it works. Humans, at least some of them, are better for the power of art,” he said. “I find what you are doing to be quite relaxing.” “That could be because I am doing all the work and you are just sitting,” he said. “That’s not fair. It takes two to have a conversation and I am trying to take notes while not looking at my notebook.” “All is forgiven, if you will crank up your Nespresso machine and make as both a cup of coffee. I need to step back and take a look at what I am doing.” I wanted to see what he was doing as well, so I complied.

“It does look like me,” I said sticking my nose close to the painting. “It is supposed to. That is the point,” he said. “One artist that we haven’t kicked around is Klimt, Gustav Klimt,” I said. “Ya, you know what I like are his landscapes. Most people don’t know about them,” Stephen said. “There are couple of great ones in New York,” I replied. “Yes, I have seen them.” “I saw a really great show of his drawings in Vienna. They were on butcher paper in red Conté. Drop dead beautiful line drawings of nude women some of them seemingly masturbating,” I said. “Rather like that strange Titian painting. Do you know the one I mean?” he said. “Yes, the Venus of Urbino. Really odd. God knows what’s going on in the background.” “Nice dog in the painting, though and Manet used the Venus as the basis for his Olympia,” he said. “But, he put a cat in place of the dog,” I added. “Art is all about quotes, isn’t?” he said.

When we got back to painting, Stephen said, “You know what helped, was the drawing. This is a better painting.” I thought so too. “Do you think that you can go back to the other painting and make it better?” I said. “It is a possibility, but I still don’t have a clear idea where this whole project is going, but I am having fun,” he said. “It is a strange way for us to spend the summer. Sitting in my kitchen and you painting my portrait,” I said. “I feel things in my body. The more you work, the better it gets,” he said. “I know what you mean. When the words come while I am writing, it is like magic, but usually the magic only happens when I work real hard at it. You were talking about being in the ‘zone’, were you not?” I said. “Yes, the zone is a magic place.”

VH 15AugMagic places, art for art’s sake, all in all, the afternoon was turning out fine. “There is a place in this world for old men,” I mused. “But we got to keep working on it. It is the simple case of use it or lose it,” He said. “I think that there is a good case for me breaking out a really good bottle of wine, throwing together something to eat, and having a great evening here with you and Sophie,” I said. “Now, that sounds like a plan, but just give me a few more minutes to paint.”

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, 13 October, 2013.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Eight

October 9, 2013

12 August 2013

Stephen Scott came into the house carrying a small blank canvas and said, “It’s time to start a new oil sketch.” This followed on the heels of our last session which was limited to him drawing studies for my portrait. “OK,” I said, “Maybe I can change my shirt so that we can keep track of which picture is which.” So I found a yellow shirt to replace the blue and red one that I was wearing for the first oil sketch. “So, what are your thoughts on your drawings of the other day?” “You know, I think I am rediscovering drawing as a tool for my painting. Even brief drawings carry a lot of information that I can use,” he said. Stephen taped the two large drawings he had done two days before on the wall so he could see them while he worked. “I don’t think that your photographs of you, look like you, my pictures look like you,” he said. He was referring to my project where I try to take a self-portrait of myself every day to test my morbid fascination with the aging process. “You have a point,” I conceded.

paletteHe seated himself in front of the new canvas, prepared his palette and started to paint. “I just cannot get good quality (art) materials in this province; paper, paint and not even a decent pencil. I even had to put an additional white ground on this prepared canvas to get a surface I can work with.” “There is just not the market for the good stuff,” I said. “I have been thinking more about German painting since our last session,” he said, “I forgot about Max Beckmann. He was a really good painter.” “Strange you should bring him up. When I was in grad school (Indiana University) the head of school (Henry Hope) had a large painting of him and his family by Beckmann in his dining room. Henry was very rich, family money, and could afford such things. Nice man helped me through school,” I said. “Wild,” Stephen said. “You know,” I added, “Beckmann taught for a number of years in St. Louis and was a big influence on Midwestern painting.” “He was a very good portrait painter, but a bit edgy,” Stephen said. “Scary, might be a better word,” I said, “Those were troubled times when he worked in Europe. Even the Hope family portrait was a bit strange.”

I noted that Stephen had a photograph of one of the drawings on his iPhone that was on the wall in his hand while he was painting my picture. “That’s odd, Stephen. I am sitting here, the drawings are on the wall and you are looking at a photograph of a drawing that is staring you in the face.” “It is just different. It gives me another viewpoint,” he said. Whatever his methods, they seemed to be working very well and who am I to question success? “I have to compete with artists using photography and I guess this is a way of doing that.” I guess one can never have too many sources and it was interesting to watch him move his eyes from me, to one of the drawings on the wall, to the photograph on his phone in his left hand and repeat the process, all along painting on the canvas with swift brush strokes.

paints and portrait“You know, I can not think of a single male muse,” Stephen said. “What do you mean? A muse who is actual a male? The female muses all served male masters. At least, that was supposed to be the idea until women artists showed up,” I said. “No, a male muse. Let’s see if I can name the traditional muses?” he said. Good luck with that and besides the plural of muse is musae, I thought. “Let’s see, Calliope, Erato, Terpsichore, Clio, Urania. Who am I missing?” He said. “Damned, if I know, but I have a book in the bedroom that will tells us.” Why I keep a dictionary of classical mythology in the bedroom is anybody’s guess, but I haven’t impressed any women guests with it, yet. Back with the book, I quickly added: Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Thalia. “And, you know, none of these fine ladies are the muse of painting much less being a man,” I said. “Something we’ll have to fix,” Stephen said. “If I had my rathers, I would prefer my muse for painting to be a woman, but I like the company of women,” I added. “I knew that,” he said. As usual, our conversation was all over the map and I suggest we stop for a coffee break.

“The reason there wasn’t a muse for painting in the classical world was that painters were thought to be, at best, craftsman and not artists,” Stephen said has he stared into his Americano. “Yes, Plato treated us particularly rough,” I said. “We need to invent a muse,” he said, “Any ideas?” “We are a couple of thousand years too late,” I said, “perhaps we could add painting on to the list duties of one the traditional nine. I sort of like Polyhymnia. Nobody talks about her much.” “What does she do?” Stephen asked. Looking into the book, I told him that she was the muse for sacred song, oratory, lyric, singing and rhetoric. “Besides poly means many, so what’s another duty to her list?” I said. “I still think that we need our own muse,” he said. “I will see if I can take it up with Zeus, but Mnemosyne (his wife) has already had nine daughters and might be tired,” I said. “She might get lucky and the tenth time, it might be a son and our muse,” he said.”Better late, than never,” I added.

VH 8Back at painting, Stephen said, “My job is to be critical, a perfectionist.” Laudable sentiments, but difficult to accomplish, I thought, “What do you mean by that?” “You need the vision and the drive to get a painting where you want it to be,” he answered. “I agree, but perfection is pretty hard to come by,” I said. “Perhaps, what I mean is to seek perfection,” he said. “I usually find more perfection in the work of other people than I do in my own,” I said, “particularly in my writing.” “Yes, it is easy to find fault in your own work,” he said. “The reason I mainly gave up on painting and photography and resorted to writing was that I never could get them to the point where I was satisfied with the work. How come you never went there?” I asked. “I have had plenty of low points, but I was always able to battle my way back. I guess it was through hard work,” he said. “It has always been a battle between my mind and I eye,” I countered. “They never reconciled. I knew what I wanted my pictures to look like, but never matched my mind’s image. I still think that I can draw well and I like to think that I still have the eye and that’s why I am trying photography again,” I said. “You give up too easy. Art is always a fight,” Stephen said.

As usual, Stephen had a point and common sense on his side and that’s what makes him a good artist and me a wannabe. Those of us who delve into intellectual issues often find ourselves sidelined by inaction brought on by too much thinking and not enough doing. Stephen’s perfection was sought through his painting while mine way was in my mind. “Painting is a thing, an object, a direct experience,” he said which only added to my discomfort. “Let’s have a look at what you are doing,” I said and perhaps, we could call it day.” I was learning a lot from my afternoons with him. Yes, he had a gift, but he knew how to use it. He was teaching me that I had ventured off the track of my own creativity by being too lazy. I had some catching up to do and, perhaps, only another month of Stephen painting my picture.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Saturday, 5 October, 2013.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Seven

October 2, 2013

10 August 2013

Six days had passed since our last sitting although Stephen and I had seen each other and talked every day. We generally had dinner together along with Sophie, his wife; he was at my usual Wednesday night gathering over wine and cheese and there was the matter of the big blowout for my seventy-fifth birthday on the 5th of August. The other issue that held us up was the weather. We need sunshine and it had rained for days on end.

VH drawing 2“I just want to draw today,” Stephen said. He had brought a large sheet of paper taped to a drawing board. “I like to work from drawings,” he said, “They tell me more than photographs.” We had talked about this before and we had agreed not to use photographs for my portrait just as I had agreed to work from notes and not record our conversations. We wanted to keep it old school out of a sense of plain curmudgeonliness. “The secret of drawing is not to think about it,” he said as he started to work. “Yes, I know,” I said, “it has got to be second nature, automatic.” I went on my usual bit about the lack of drawing skill being taught in art schools which is a favourite hobbyhorse of mine. Stephen agreed, “A lot of today’s artists couldn’t draw their way out of a box.” He was looking at me very intently as he drew. “I need the luxury of time. I need to take my fucking time.” I asked him about old master drawings, which we both admire. “How can you tell the difference between genius and competence?” “You can tell. There is an ease to genius that the only competent lack,” he replied. “Mind you, many competent old master artists were pretty good,” I said, “they did a lot of drawing and were well trained.”

“There is plenty of confusion between the terms modern and contemporary art,” I said. “Yes, I agree, modern art goes back a long time and a lot of modern artists were well trained and could draw well.” “Where do you think we lost it, the ability to draw well?” I said. “I think that we lost skill when art schools started putting more emphasis on theory than practice.” “It goes back two or three generations of teachers many of whom never learned much skill, like drawing, themselves and hence are hard pressed to teach it,” I said. “We both know that art is more than skill,” Stephen said, “but knowing how to do something well sure makes it easier.” We have often engaged in this chicken and egg argument over the summer, even if we were both on the same side, the question always boiled down to what was more important, content or technique? The truth is there will always be good art being done and there has always plenty of bad art to go around. Defining the good stuff is the big question.

“You know, I would rather talk about being a painter rather than an artist,” I said, “The term ‘artist‘ is used too easily.” “You are right. Every second year art student thinks they are an artist when clearly they aren’t,” Stephen replied. “It’s the bigger world that makes someone as artist, the public, the critics, and the galleries,” I said. “And they aren’t always right,” he said. “History, is about the only judge and I am not sure about that,” I said. “I would be happy if we just got rid of the term art,” he said. “You are not the first to think along those terms.” We continued along this line for some time talking about how the term art has been debased where everything is art; the art of cooking, driving, fashion and any other noun that can be prefaced with an additive. “This is getting depressing. Let’s have a coffee and talk about something else,” Stephen said.

With coffee in hand, I said, “How about Germany? How long where you there?” “Six months, the first time in 03 and five months more in total in three other trips in 05, 07 and 11. It certainly changed my life.” “It was mostly in Berlin, wasn’t it?” “Yes, a very exciting place, but it’s changing now.” I asked what impressed him most. “German art both past and present,” he said. “It’s a very different place which results in a very different art which effected my art,” he continued. I told him that I would have thought that German Romantic landscape painting along the lines of Casper David Friedrich must have impressed him. It did me when I first had the chance to see it in Germany many years ago. “Of course, it was impressive. Totally different from the landscape painting in New Brunswick that I was used to. There is a drama in his paintings that is lacking here,” he said, “but there is lots of other German and northern painting that is impressive.”

“Give me some examples,” I said. “Somebody, I really like is Zorn (Anders Zorn 1860-1920), strictly speaking, he is not German, but Swedish. Great portrait artist rather like Sargent,” Stephen said. This was an artist I liked as well, but not well known outside of Sweden although there are good examples of his work in Boston and he did portrait of three US presidents. “Of course, there are the German Expressionists like Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brülke,” he said. “I could go to the museums every day and learn something new.” “Seeing stuff in the flesh certainly makes a difference,” I said. “And you are seeing it in its own social context which is a big difference,” he added. “Berlin must have been one hell of a place during the hay days of the Weimar Republic,” I said. “Yes, and a great place to read about it is Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodby to Berlin.” “I think we missed something by not being able to be in Berlin or Paris in the run up to World War II,” I added. “Always knew I was born at the wrong time,” he said. “I would have loved to have been Hemingway in Paris at that time. Short sentences, long drinks and hot and cold running romances,” I said.

It was back to reality, as we started the sitting again. “Where were we?” Stephen asked. “About to make me immortal, I hope.” “I go with what I got,” was his less than hopeful response. “I hope I can use these drawings in the end to help me with a larger painting,” he said. It was our idea that this project would end with a large portrait, but there was a doubt that it could be done over the summer. So the idea transpired that Stephen would do a number of oil sketches, some drawings and using them make a cartoon that would be transferred to a larger canvas before he left Sackville at the beginning of September, but even that was a tall order given the slow nature of the work. I also thought that I could go to Fredericton a couple of times during the fall to sit for the finished product.

VH drawing1He had started another drawing. Again the idea was to establish lights and darks. “Do you think the history of art is linear or chaotic,” I asked. “Linear,” he answered. “That’s not what you said the other day.” “I feel free to contradict myself,” Stephen said. Of course, I am full of contradictions myself, but I wasn’t about to tell Stephen that. “I think that it is circular edging on chaos. Actually, it’s more like a Möbius strip, going around forever turning back on itself,” I said. “That’s an interesting idea,” he said, “rather like a trap that we can’t get out of.” “Exactly. Think about it. In time and space everything that has existed, still exists and everything that will exist, exists,” I said. “So what goes around, comes around,” he said. I felt that, perhaps, we were solving the mystery of the Universe and that it might be good time to stop and get ourselves a stiff drink. “I am taking myself too seriously. Let’s go to Ducky’s (our local bar),” I said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Tuesday, 1 October, 2013.

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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.