A scene, a place, a moment strikes me, and I capture it in paint. The painting becomes a vessel containing the truth of the original. I mean both the physical truth of the objects and spaces comprising the original scene, and perhaps my emotional or psychological response to it. Robert Henri has a lovely little analogy of the sketch-artist as hunter, stalking through the world, seeking worthy quarry, and capturing the prey! There is a lot in that that I find familiar to my experience painting, especially the moment when you’ve captured what you were seeking. I have always likened art-works to time capsules. They are containers of meaning and information that can travel through time where they will be accessed by people far from their time and place of origination, even across centuries and cultures.
Painting is definitely physical as well as mental. There is the vision in your eye, the idea in your mind, but at least in the kind of painting I do, it comes down to hands and fingers. Unfolding the easel, pouring the terp, squeezing the paint tubes, holding the palette, mixing the paint, rinsing the brush, dabbing the pigment, stroking the canvas. And sometimes after hours of tedious technical work, my fingers fatigue and I fumble the brush to the ground. Good time for a break.
Sfumato, the smoky, blurred treatment of edges in a painting. DaVinci used this technique to great effect throughout the Mona Lisa, particularly at the corners of her mouth. It’s something I’ve increasingly employed in my paintings in recent years. You’d be surprised how much you can obscure. Almost obliterate an edge, and it will still read to the viewer as one. I’ve been using sfumato like shallow depth-of-field in photography, to increase the illusion of depth in my paintings. Atmospheric perspective states that objects further away from the viewer appear less distinctly than those close by. Fuzzy far away, clear up close. Most recently, I’ll make the background blurrier, the middle ground crisper, and the extreme foreground blurry again. I find it makes the viewer’s eye dive over the foreground and right into the painting. It’s a way to manipulate the viewer, and make them see what, and how, you want them to.
I remember finishing a great alla prima nocturne years ago. It had been a struggle, a battle, but in the end, after hours of working, I landed it. I took it to show my friends, and I referred to it as The Whale, as in “I landed a whale.” I think since then there have been a few more “whales” and more than a couple “beasts.” Almost every piece is, for some period during its creation, a foe, an opponent, even a beast. It requires tenacity, even obsessiveness, to see them through to completion. If you think about it, trying to manipulate colored paste with bristle-tipped sticks on a canvas to represent something is an impossible proposition. Certainly tremendously difficult. That it works at all, that it is possible, is part of why I am enchanted by this medium. And yet, there is always some ugliness in a piece when you leave it, some part that you didn’t get as right as you’d hoped, and in that sense there is something monstrous that remains in each of them.
Everything seems to be headed that way, and I love how low-tech and anachronistic painting feels in this era. Humans have been painting for tens of thousands of years, and even today I am using hair on the end of sticks to smear colored mud on a surface. It might as well be the cave-wall. I always think about painting as ancient and primitive. Make a mark. I was here. We were here. Its very primal for human beings, and I believe that as so much around us races through gadgets of near-immediate obsolescence, painting, modestly but powerfully, abides. As a painter I feel like a keeper of arcane knowledge almost entirely lost to the world. It’s romantic.
Time relates to painting in myriad ways. There are the hours and hours the paintings take to execute. The fact that a painting may well outlive its creator, and we can access something of Giotto, Michelangelo, even the painters of Lascaux and their times, from the paintings they left behind. There is often a long delay between the creation of the paintings and when they are appreciated by the world for their true value. Think of Van Gogh, Pollock, and innumerable others. And in the sense of temporal meaning “not-sacred,” Robert Irwin drew a lovely arc through the history of Art when he explained: you could only paint the Pope, then later, the Kings too, then the King’s serving maid, then just the maid’s red shawl, then eventually just the color red itself. So good.
Oh yes. Time. Solitude. Poverty. Obscurity. Let’s not pretend that painting is a big part, or even any part, of the daily lives of most people living today. Sure, they’ll appreciate it if you stick it under their nose, but ask 100 people in the supermarket if they had any thoughts related to painting today. I think building bridges, for example, is more useful and important than painting. There are rewards of course, subtle and rare though they may be. The satisfaction of earnest effort. The joy of sharing the beauty and truth of the world with others. The romance of pursuing a life others imagine difficult, if not impossible. The glory of choosing a free and independent métier in the face of this world’s pressures. Hew to your goals and gifts. You won’t regret it. And nobody lies on their death-bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office. They say,rather, “I wish I’d tried to write that novel…”
What was it Cezanne said? All of nature can be reduced to the cone, the sphere, and the cylinder? It’s a useful point when teaching people the fundamentals of drawing, but it’s just a spring-board, and an early one at that. Like training wheels for a bicycle. I think he’s one of the most over-rated and misinterpreted painters in the history of art. Maybe you had to be there. I’ve seen hundreds of his works in museums around the world, and I’ve visited his studio in Aix three times, and he could barely draw his way out of a paper bag. Did he intentionally open up the abstract side of painting or did he struggle with color, anatomy, and perspective? Even if it was intentional, did he really pull it off? I’m not so sure. If Braque and Picasso looked at his clumsy and awkward paintings and were inspired towards cubism, then that was a happy historical accident, like when chocolate met peanut-butter. I hope this tirade ruffles some feathers of the indoctrinated. Don’t get me wrong, Cezanne made some very good paintings. I’m just making a point about art history. Think for yourself and don’t swallow precedent without question. It is interesting and revealing to critique the canon of painting. Who made it in? How elevated are they, and why? Every artist should study the works of others and create their own canon. Fortunately we do it inadvertently. One of my very favorites is Francesco Lojacano. Who’s heard of him? He was much more useful to me than Cezanne, and his paintings were much better.
I like to make my paintings as realistic as possible. An important part of that is not just getting the surface features of a scene, but also getting the underlying anatomy of the land. I love to paint both the skin AND the bones of the landscape. The realism is established by the feel of individual leaves, the texture of the bark, and the hulking bulk of that tree on its gently sloping hill-side. These can enforce each other when done right, and foil one another when done wrong. I think a lot of landscape paintings may capture the color and surface of a scene, but they feel ethereal and insubstantial. Make me feel weight, density, and hardness where they exist.
Late fall and winter are great times for seeing these bones. When the leaves are down or the landscape is unified by a covering of snow, you can really comprehend the legacy of glacial movement, scars of erosion, the contrast of man-shaped spaces. The blasted rock-faces where roads have been cut, the dripping ice-sheets that form on them, and the subtle colors they contain based on the soils nearby and the light of the day…this is the visual bounty and richness of the world-around us.
Chaos is the paint box, no matter how often I straighten it up. Chaos is the coffee cans of paintbrushes, because I’m always acquiring more and almost never throwing any old ones out. The whole studio can be chaotic. I save organization and order for what happens inside the painting.
Colors are the stuff of painting. Precise colors are the stuff of good painting. How many names for colors can you come up with? Even these fall short of how many different colors we can perceive. Psychologists and marketers talk about the emotion charges of colors: red = anger, blue = calm, etc. Such an over-simplification. Its much more nuanced and fluid than that. I know nurturing, stabilizing reds, and irritable, disturbing blues. And what about the emotional or psychological effects of colors in combination? A full painting may be the result of combining a dozen, or scores, or hundreds of colors. I don’t think I’ve ever mixed up cerise, but maybe I’ll try.
Joel Griffith has been exhibiting throughout New York’s Hudson Valley since 1994. In 2003 he was named Painter Laureate of his hometown, Tivoli, New York. His series of seven paintings documenting the town are permanently displayed in the village’s historic Watts de Peyster Hall. He was included in the “Out of the Studio, Hudson Valley Artists 2004” exhibit at the Samuel Dorsky Museum in New Paltz. In 2005, he was awarded a Peter S. Reed Foundation Grant. Joel has an MFA from Bard College, and currently resides in Tivoli, NY, where he was recently appointed to the Village of Tivoli Board of Trustees. A gallery of his work-to-date can be found at his website: joelgriffithpainter.com.