Monday, July 22, 2013


Blue Triptych  5'6" x 11' oil and charcoal on canvas
I love standing in front of a blank, six-foot tall canvas, a stick of hard charcoal in my hand and not an idea in my head. In order for the process to work, I must be alone and the room absolutely quiet, no sounds, not even the radio. My hand begins to move, almost unbidden, like a Ouija Board: a face appears, a body, another body, everything overlaps much in the way of cave paintings. If I don’t like what I have done, too forced, not free enough, I take a rag and wipe the charcoal lines off the canvas and start over.  My surroundings begin to drop away and I find myself in what I call an Alpha state, the way you get when you meditate or are about to fall asleep. The subconscious has taken over and the creative process (at least for me) can now begin.

I take a rest and go back to work. Another figure appears. It looks familiar, but no one in particular. Where am I? In a diner? On the street? Supermarket? Buildings begin to appear on the canvas, other images come out of nowhere, maybe a sign that says EATS on it. I am in a dream state, following instructions from deep inside my visual cortex. I get into a rhythm; my hand moves on its own as if to music in my brain. I erase and redraw over and over again, a palimpsest of people and places, one overlapping the other. I start to dance, elated by what is happening on the canvas. An hour or two later, the canvas is filled with images, lines and shapes. I am too exhausted to continue. I walk out of the studio and take a rest. Later in the day, or maybe the next morning, I look at the work again. This is the critical ‘make or break’ point. If the composition and the drawing are not perfect, there’s no point going any further. I need to  start over, maybe leaving behind an image I can’t bear to erase. All of this is completely intuitive, you understand; there are no rules, no right or wrong. If, later, I still like what I have drawn, I will take a can of spray fixative and spray the entire canvas, up and down, side to side. The charcoal is now fixed in place. To change anything means removing the fixative with lacquer thinner, often damaging the primer of terra verte or umber. I sit and stare at the canvas. What next? It must be perfect at this point; one mistake, one superfluous line and all is lost.

Once I am satisfied with the composition and the drawing, I need to decide what to do next: do I stay with monochromatic stains of umber, gray and white, or go for full color – much riskier? Once a decision is made, it’s hard to turn back.  That’s the advantage of sealing of the charcoal drawing with fixative; at least you can wipe the later paint down to that layer. It’s a challenging period, not much room for error, but when it comes together, I am filled with joy. 

I was just thumbing through a book about Chagall who also used “dream” states in his work. “I am an unconscious-conscious painter,” he said. I guess I am too. It’s not easy for an artist to shut down the visual-rational world and allow the subconscious to take over. But when it happens, it’s magic.