The painter always started by toning his canvas. The canvas had to be completely covered with colour of some sort. The nagging glare of raw canvas between areas of colour bespoke of an amateur too eager to finish his work to care that he had not actually painted it completely. He toned some canvases to look like out of focus camouflage, warm greens, putty grays, charcoals, blurred colours running into each other as blended clouds rather than as sharply defined shapes. Other canvases he toned with ochres and browns, still others with bright, cadmium colours – joyful reds, brilliant oranges, screaming yellows.
At any one time, he’d have three or four paintings at various stages of development. Some with first tonings, not more; others had tones covered by structural definition, a kind of vague pattern of design definition, to direct how the eye travels and takes in the composition. He considered this second stage as establishing the pulse of his paintings, to begin bringing it to life, rather like the stereotypical obstetrician’s slap on the bum of a newborn babe.
Lastly, he would provide surface detail. Often, this phase of development within his work would be impasto, to impart texture, to show its own method of application, hiding the most basic underlying structures of the art work, yet just as a face of skin and wrinkles and hair covers a structure of bone and muscle and sinew, it is the surface that is most likely to be seen and recognized, even though it would be unrecognizable without the underlying structure.
Each step in the development of his work had a degree of importance. The choice of toning his canvas with bright colours, for instance, would lead to some of those colours showing through the final work, there to vibrate with intensity, to excite the eye, to call sharp attention to the edge of a shape, to contrast boldly with a colour in opposition, to pose a question in the middle of statements, to sing with raucous abandon, indifferent to the soft murmurs of surrounding hues.
Establishing the pulse, the phase in which he began to define how the dynamics of the work would be seen, took on its own energy and rhythm. During this stage he needed to be in touch with whatever intuitive force guided his hand, long horizontals to establish stability and calm, interruptions in that force to show new growth, new possibilities within the underlying context, diagonals to lead and to carry fields of force, curves to contain or show expanding potentials, verticals to imply possibilities of individuation, of rebelliousness or opposition to the smoothing constancy of inevitable erosion and flat, underlying, ground-level solidity. The composition itself seemed to begin to suggest what it might be and he had to be attuned to its call; he had to say, “Yes” to the directions it urged and to follow its directions by leading it where it needed to go.
The final step covered the earlier passages with rich, youthful energy. It was the “I am” phase. It provided the handwriting. It involved the viewer. It sat in the café and shared observations with the one person that mattered in this world, as if the rest of the world barely mattered at all. It was recognizable. It provided observable character. It obscured its own history, not from shame, but from growth. It was the clothing that lovers must remove in order to unite their physical differences, to get still closer to each other.
Like a woman trying to achieve just the right look before an evening out, a layer went on, then it was judged, then it was removed or adjusted in some fundamental fashion. Another layer was applied, pulled on, tugged aside, considered, scratched through, incised, dragged on, scraped on, slathered on, covered over, then covered over again, constantly adjusted until it was right, or seemed satisfying in some fundamental way.
As he worked, he was aware that his work was not the woman who would be going out for the evening at all! This was culture itself! It was civilization! It was the multi-layered ancient city of Rome, or Carthage or the archaeological revelations of Ur, Mycenae, Minos, the Cyclades. It was every futile attempt to establish its own permanence only to fall victim to that greater permanence, the inevitability of change. Layer upon layer was built, then covered with new building. Each layer provided a sub-structure for the latest, the newest, the youngest expression of paint. Each layer left evidence of its being, an intriguing, arcane trail of itself, an expression of its creator and ultimately of what was important to him at that moment in time.
Did it work? Does it work? Do you see? Is it worthwhile? Does it need change? Is it finished? Does it speak for itself? Is it an expression worth considering? Did it say all he needed it to say?
Set it aside. Consider it over time. Maybe one day he’ll see in a moment of inspiration that which was missing, then he would apply the final touch, the final stroke of colour that would make the meaning sing with pride and confidence. A declaration that he was here! That he mattered. That what he had to say was fathomed, even in some undeclared way that said, “Yes! You have it! I am with you! We are with you! You have created an expression that bears examination, that shows purpose and understanding, that can be appreciated for what it is and for what it evokes within us.”
Then, the painter moves on to discover what territory, what life, what possibility lies waiting to be discovered and revealed in his next work.