remembering why I paint

I’ve been painting so long now that there are a lot of levels to every canvas I drop. And that’s a good thing! It means I’m busy and successful.

There are canvases created for several niche markets I serve, like the Lowcountry pieces, and the ongoing City Series. There are customized pieces which utilize reproductions of my own paintings that I paint again in different palettes, or add mixed media elements to personalize for collectors. Now there are “products” which are a modern wonder of technology that allows me to use my original paintings to decorate functional items, at click.

In creating this new platform for my recent wildlife buddies, and some older fish and birds, I found myself writing little narratives to go with the cutting boards and throwpillows. And in doing that, I remembered how many of these pieces came about, the feelings involved, or the activities that led to them.

The fish pieces, for example, showed up early in my painting. In those days, my husband and I tried to spend at least one weekend a month on our boat, off the North Carolina coast, often out in the Gulf Stream. We seriously pursued billfish, researched our pelagic friends, caught and released, and caught and ate. I know what a tuna feels like on a line and in my hands. I know what it tastes like raw right off the hook. I got pretty good at driving the weedlines, watching the birds.

We caught all kinds of fish. We took home lots of tuna, Spanish mackeral, mahi, wahoo. We saw all kinds of crazy stuff out on the water; you always do. We had sharks steal fish. We had birds ride along. One day when my stepdaughter was with us, we anchored over a hole and caught nothing but baby hammerheads. When we took the kids, we’d cruise through Shackleford Banks and watch for the wild horses.

All those sensory memories went into the creation of “the dinner crowd,”* simple painting though it is. But you wouldn’t know that to look at it. You wouldn’t know that I used to anchor in Charlotte Amalie every Tuesday in the 1970s, even though the nautical chart for USVI creates the background of that painting. Or that fishing for bonefish in the Turks and Caicos gave me the “feel” for the surface reflection looking up above the pack of sailfish. You wouldn’t know that I know what a sailfish bill feels like, as you hold it while the hook is released, or the power of that body as it jerks away in freedom. But I hope you see it there.

Sometimes, even if memories are involved, research is necessary. And the amount of research often has no relationship to the result. In the painting of New York City I did in 2012 I did hours of research on the Brooklyn Bridge, even though it’s painted very simply in the foreground. I wanted it to be recognizable, and one thing led to another. Eventually I listened to a 50+ hour book about it, but not before I finished the painting.

When I paint cities I use lots of photographs. Even if I know the city well, like Raleigh, or Charleston, I look at dozens of angles and images. When I was painting lots of cities, I’d often paint them in groups, and the palette would be the same among them. So LA, Newport Beach and Phoenix are all in the same palette, for example, as are Philadelphia, Birmingham and Richmond.

In other words, planning has been involved in the majority of painting I’ve done in the last 6 or 7 years.

But for the last week I’ve been working on 3 canvases intuitively. This is something I used to do a lot. It’s a lot of fun. Just start applying paint and see what happens. It is very freeing and therapeutic. Sometimes I still paint backgrounds this way, but less and less often. I used to do entire paintings intuitively and a lot of abstract artists consider it the only way to paint.

It was fantastic. It felt good. Just the smell of the paint and the feel of it. It’s hard to turn off the designer in my head, but I just went with the motions. One of the three may actually continue as an intuitive abstract, but the real reward was the process. I had no agenda, no expectations to be fulfilled, no city to recreate or design niche to fill.

So for two very different reasons I was reminded of the origins of these paintings I do, and the joy of the process. I need to be reminded of that regularly.

They tell us that if we have a passion, that is what we should do in life, and then we’ll “never work a day in our lives.” The idea being that if you do what you love it isn’t work. But it is. And even if you absolutely love the thing you do, you still do it to make a living and it therefore runs the risk of becoming many things besides your passion, including mundane, stressful, and run of the mill.

Don’t let it! Remember the smell of the fish on a hot afternoon. Remember the feel of the paint, when it didn’t matter where it went. At least once a week, take a few minutes to remember what it was like to just do it for the fun of it.

Don’t think about the profit in it or the deadline attached. And remember how much just the sight of the finished product can make someone’s day. That’s the other joy of painting we forget, but I’ll save that one for another day.

  • the original painting is 36 x 42 and is titled “hunting with the big guys”. It is in a private collection in Kentucky. It seemed only right to rename the products “the dinner crowd” These guys are at the top of the food chain and they often hunt in packs like this. They cruise the warm oceans of the world at will.

About CJS

living in my beloved Lowcountry, between the blackwater swamps and the saltmarshes, surrounded by pre-revolutionary history.....thinking about current events....painting the wonderful cities that make up our heroic country....hoping we can save it from apathy, and our enemies....pondering a life of adventure from the comfort of age
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