HOW TO START A PAINTING
No question: Even after a lifetime of making art, a blank canvas is intimidating. A blank canvas is perfect. It is untouched and therefore, has a unity of color and conception. The first mark it receives fractures this unity, and makes it imperfect. The artist is suddenly confronted with the problem of what to do next. Will the painting fail to meet the challenge posed by the empty, white canvas or will it succeed and create an identity all its own?
Each artist, I believe, finds his/her own way to begin a painting. I learned my way, not from conversations with other artists but from studying paintings in the museum, specifically the pre-WWI paintings of Henri Matisse at MOMA. I love this period of Matisse’s work, especially the still lives. Over years, I have spent many hours studying these paintings, perusing Matisse’s technical skills, compositional variations and use of color.
While studying a still life, my eyes wandered to the painting’s edge, where the canvas wraps around the stretcher. Instead of the white of the primer, I saw a faint, almost invisible, light yellow tinted canvas. Matisse had built his luminous color on a pale yellow tinted surface.
I applied my insight to my own empty white canvas. It helped me overcome the initial intimidation of a fresh canvas. In the first place, it immediately violated the “purity” of the blank canvas, relieving the tension of the first brushstroke. It did this in a reassuring way through a controlled application of a unified color. This maintained a unified surface with some irregularities of tone which offered visual ambiguities from which to build.
The application of a primary color also created a second plane that is distinct from the original canvas. Immediately, this gave the painting depth. The third brushstroke creates a third plane, and we are off.
Since learning Matisse’s secret, I have tried washing my canvas with a range of different colors. I begin a painting with little idea what the finished painting will look like. Without knowing how the painting will look when it is finished, my selection of the initial color is simply based on which color I feel predisposed to that day.
Once the wash is applied, I wait an hour for the acrylic paint to dry. then begin painting. It is always helpful to remember that any mark, brushstroke or color can be hidden by painting over it with another color or removed with a cloth and water.
Clearly, the trick to starting a painting is to find a way to keep working on it until it is successfully finished and then the process begins again, anxieties and all.