Separating The Wheat From The Chaff

One of the greatest challenges for early makers is letting go of successes that happen early in a piece. I vividly remember when that was difficult for me. I felt strongly that I didn’t know what I was doing. When anything ever did work, I felt it was a miracle or an accident that would never happen again. I learned very quickly that once I had changed something, it was impossible to remake the earlier version. The trap I fell into was trying to hold on to my successes while continuing to change the parts of the piece that didn’t work. The typical outcome was that I would get a piece to about a 60% success level, at which point I would freeze up because I couldn’t keep working the piece without wrecking the parts I liked.

The biggest problem was that I didn’t understand the nature of expression yet. I saw expression as something fragile, something that would disappear if I didn’t keep an eye out for it and protect it when it happened. Now, I feel exactly the opposite, that one’s core sensibility isn’t fragile at all. In fact, the more I shake up my work by repeatedly demolishing and rebuilding it, the more clearly and profoundly what is truly mine manifests itself. I’ve brought up in previous entries how much I value the metaphor of a wet dog shaking itself dry. The dog shakes so violently that all that can possibly remain is dog. A similar metaphor is the process of separating wheat from chaff, subjecting harvested wheat to such violence that all that is fragile is broken away, leaving only the seed, the part of the plant that carries the highest concentration of nutrients.

How this looks when I am painting is that, early in the process, there are often some passages in the painting that I really like. I could try to hold on to those passages while working the rest of the painting to get the less successful parts to work as well as the more successful parts. The problem is, that never works. One can’t both explore with a high level of risk and selectively protect at the same time. The two are actually mutually exclusive attitudes. Whenever a painter tries to do both simultaneously, the painting develops both a stiffness, especially in the strokes that are getting too close to the favorite parts, and a discontinuity because some parts are brave, risky, and spontaneous, while other parts reveal an attitude of holding back for fear of what might be ruined.

So back to my typical sequence. I develop a painting that is starting to work. Then as I continue to work the painting in risky ways on subsequent days, the original specific potential that I saw in the painting invariably gets trashed. The ruination of early potential happens partly because each day I work a painting, I need to have complete freedom to follow the expressive impulses that I have on that specific day. I can’t pretend to be in the same frame of mind I was in the day before. My expressive impulses simply exist and they are always changing. I suppose I could start a new painting at each sitting, but I am far more interested in a kind of maturation that only happens in paintings that have been returned to again and again. So, some good things happen, I ruin them, some new things happen, I ruin those, too. I keep rolling the dice again and again until the painting gets to a place where it has the richer voice that comes from repeated wrestling with the same surface. I think every painter eventually caves and stops this iterative process, but the longer one can keep the doors open on a painting, the greater the potential for depth. But not only depth. What I’m really most interested in, is finding something that is fundamentally expressive of my sensibility, rather than attaching to handsome early accidents. Like the wet dog, I want to shake the process so hard that my sensibility is the only thing left.

A bit more on the metaphor of throwing dice. If the goal is throwing double sixes, one can’t throw a two and a six, keep the six and continue throwing the second die until it lands on six, then claiming to have thrown double sixes. All you can do is throw the dice again and again until both sixes happen on the same throw. It doesn’t happen often. For it to happen regularly, one has to throw the dice an awful lot.

There is no sense in which this attitude toward painting is particularly rare or uniquely my own. I have found it in every painting I have ever loved. I think all the art that has truly inspired me over the years has been created in the way I have been describing. Quotes of Picasso’s refer explicitly to this process. Passages in James Lord’s book, A Giacometti Portrait, describe the same attitude in Giacometti’s work. Jim Dine and Frank Auerbach have both spoken in interviews of how central destruction and remaking is to their work. This idea appears again and again in both the writing and the work of many artists. It is, however, a difficult concept early in one’s work.

For less experienced makers, just remember that painting is not a linear process, paintings don’t get good, then get better and better, in a state of constant ascent. The work of my favorite painters is more like a sine wave, constantly up and down, as the artist’s impulses shift at each sitting and collide with the previous day’s work. It is as important to the quality of the work to allow destruction as it is to make constructive choices. I continue to strive to get better and better at ruining my work, simply because destruction, perhaps counterintuitively, is a crucial part of the work’s maturation process. I certainly understand the impulse to try to protect early successes but too often it degenerates simply into selling oneself cheap, accepting far less than one’s full capability.

I suggested early in this essay that my early process led to pieces that achieved perhaps a 60% success level, i.e. 60% of the painting was exciting to me. The more destructive process I am advocating is less efficient. I lose way more strong moments. My paintings take way longer. However, through this process that allows, even cultivates, destruction, I sometimes get paintings up into the 80s and 90s. Not a bad trade. I’d rather get one painting to 90% than have hundreds at 60.

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3 Responses to Separating The Wheat From The Chaff

  1. I am doing some ceramics lately when I can grab a moment. I am having exactly this experience with clay often only liking the tea bowl or tumbler or….. after I have given up on it and stopped trying for some preconceived idea of what I want to make.
    Thanks for the reinforcement.

    • I find my Intro students place lots of value on what they intend/see in their mind’s eye. Having been making nearly 40 years now, my work hasn’t once turned out as I envisioned it. Now I work to see what happens rather than to execute a preconceived intent. Picasso suggested that if he knew in advance exactly what he wanted to make, there would be no reason to make it.

  2. Serenity says:

    I have just found your blog. I am seeking to find my way through paint, color, drawing now that my kids are all in school. After being in school for art/design, I always struggled to be let loose to take a lot of time….it’s like I always needed to complete something, I guess they needed to give me a grade, ha! Now, I’m back into art after many years of mothering at home and I still find myself needing to “complete in a timely manner”. It’s making me crazy and causing my art to be staying on the surface of the water.
    So, thank you for putting words to my feelings and putting me at ease with time and destruction. It really, truly is a risky business!!

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