This quote by Graham Nickson pretty much sums up the experience of the painting marathon I just attended at the New York Studio School. Although I have attended three other marathons, this was my first one for painting. Although I paint, I was feeling that I actually didn't know how to do it. There was more to it than I understood, and I wanted that more.
I was in for a grueling treat. Up at 6:30, dashing out the door at 7:30 a.m. to find breakfast, lunch, coffee and snacks and be sure my brushes, palette and canvases were in order, I climbed on the school's bus to head for the Westbury Gardens at 8:30. I stumbled back to my Airbnb, totally beat, and had something to eat about 9:30 p.m. Such was the intensity that I didn't even stop painting at night. Random thoughts came along as I drifted off to sleep, and they were all formed with brushes making paintings. Oy.
We were at the Gardens painting outdoors for three days a week, and in the studio two days a week. I had changed my medium from acrylics to oil paints after a couple of days, just because I couldn't resist the colors available in oils – not to mention that they were the ones the class was using for the assigned palettes each day. That decision was no light thing. It meant I could learn more about color, make more of them, and - be doing the same thing as the rest of the group. It really wasn't the place to be doing my own thing, although no one had insisted that I use oils, and indeed there was lots of understanding about why I was using acrylics. When I changed though, one of the consequences was not only increasing my learning curve, but also scrambling to keep up in terms of having the needed supplies. It all worked out, but it was another thing that added to the personal chaos that the marathon was bringing to me.
I became aware of how fraught with fear I was – facing the canvas everyday and being confronted with color, the rigor of being outside and of the assignments themselves. Every day, my instructors gave me “the talk” (or one of “the talks"), constantly assaulted as I was by doubts and anxieties. I can't say enough good things about the value of studying with Graham Nickson and also with Fran O'Neil. Their comments on painting, life and the internal process have been irreplaceable as they have shooed me along the path of being a developing painter.
In terms of the actual logistics of painting, I started out trying to have some sort of coherent plan, attempting to access some sort of philosophy about making those first marks. I abandoned that after a few days and had to just dive in because at this particular stage in my development I just got too bogged to otherwise make a move. Once several marks had been made, I was “in” - carried by the tide of the process, lost in observation and the complicated decisions of observation entwined with color. I had thought drawing was difficult, but painting is far more complex and exceedingly harder. In fact, drawing, a long time friend, simply leaped out the window and vanished. And I found the same challenges as ever with mixing paints – not enough room on the palette, the nuances that weren’t quite right, and discerning values amidst all the chaos of the color in the Great Outdoors was practically overwhelming. But I soldiered on.
There have been times in past drawing marathons where I have made something plausible with a sense of culmination at the end. This time, I counted myself fortunate to produce canvases that maybe approached solving the problems posed by the various assignments. One of them, I couldn't even finish; this made the rest even more precious. I chalked these up to making studies and examples of various questions that come up, and tried to make images that held in their space through the color choices. I shipped them all home, knowing that those assignments will bear on my work for a long time to come and take years to truly understand.
On the last day, I had never been more aware of how much more study and work will be needed in order to make the progress that I want to make. Worn out and listless, I wondered if I had what it takes to actually be a painter – it’s incredibly hard. I countered this with the thought that what matters is showing up and and getting going even if it only seems like going through the motions - the thought itself a sign of progress. Weary as I was, I picked up the brush and miraculously – it was enough. I was carried away into the complex tide of color and decisions, the urgency of putting paint down, of discovering the deep color of Indian Red (yes, the company needs to change that name), and caput mortum. The final painting was unresolved and awkward in many ways - but I was happy. The work of the marathon had begun to carve a path with new tools towards a more intentional and full painting practice.
The learning curve was steep, and I'm still on it. It was a big challenge, hugely rewarding and even fun in its own excruciating way. I was taken seriously as an artist, I had the support and psychic space to learn and I really loved being in NYC. My teachers and mentors were awesome, responding with wisdom and advice as I worked through both the painting, the challenges of the materials and my state of mind. There’s lots of work to come – I am grateful for this start.