Sunday, February 20, 2011

How I make Things, Why We Make Things, and Why It's Essential For Us to Make

Here it is, the infamous, "artist's statement" for my upcoming show. Too much?

Observation in Mannerism and Expressionism: Beyond the Natural Record or How I make Things, Why We Make Things, and Why It's Essential For Us to Make Things

I work in dry brush, which is a technique that involves painting or drawing with more pigment than water on the brush, causing the pigment to pick up the texture of the paper, giving the marks a roughened look, or a scumbled effect. Or, with a little more but still less water than you would use in a traditional wet media technique, I use the brush to make a series of parallel hatch marks to build up texture and give form to the image.

In all of my work there is an illusion of space, whether it's a study from nature or from my imagination, it's a representation of something. If from nature, to achieve this I use as many photos of the subject as I can to gain an understanding of its anatomy and appearance in the round. I don't use any single photo for reference unless I've taken the photo myself, but generally I try to reinvent the subject from these multiple sources to generate a unique image that is not simply executed from a single two-dimensional image.

The foundation of all my images is contour. Though some of my images allude to a light source, in others I use marks almost as you would a sculpting medium, using surface texture to describe form without regard to a light source. My inspiration for this method is Chinese brush painting, Japanese woodblock painting, and classic Western engraving and lithography techniques, particularly those of Ernst Haeckel.

Haeckel's studies from nature have an intricate complexity that is both keenly observant, and uniquely stylized. This classic method of rendering was common in the mid 1800s, with its roots in the paintings of Durer and some of the earliest depictions of natural phenomena that long predate photography. The earliest depictions of the natural world were heavily mannered, reflective of the prejudices and fashions of their time. It was through this prism of mannerism that the natural world was reflected, and despite what we might imagine, our world view continues to be affected by the contemporary mannerism in modern film and photography. For example: the way a subject is isolated and composed in a textbook, or the way a nature film is edited, all contribute to a mannered and less than purely objective view of nature. Scientists and naturalists have never been the cold and dispassionate observers that they have long been depicted to be, but offer the world their own unique, and imaginative impressions. In all depictions of nature there is always invention, reflecting both a contemporary world view and the individual observer's imagination.

Though classic Eastern painting doesn't rely on the Western/European tradition of perspective and chiaroscuro, it too has been keenly observant of nature in its own way. There has, and still occasionally is a misapprehension that, because traditional Eastern artists were not schooled in these Western techniques, their approach is somehow naïve, but Eastern art was no more naïve in its mannerism than its Western counterpart. Eastern art simply used a different vocabulary of symbols to describe and record the dynamics and uniquely observed features of natural history. Even without Western perspective or Chiaroscuro, there are depth cues and suggestions of texture and volume in Eastern art. For example, in One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, Hokusai made woodblock studies of the natural features of the mountain and its surrounding environment that were no less observant or mannered than Audubon's lithographs of birds just a few decades later.

I am further inspired by modernist expressionism. Modernism, freed from the necessity to record by photography, embraced the affectations of mannerism and explored with greater depth what is unique and special about how we view nature and world. As strictly a form of objective observation, mannerism has in some ways hindered our understanding of the natural world, while modernism has amplified and expanded upon these affectations to provide us with yet another way to understand our surroundings. The emotional content of expressionism has often been overemphasized, since there are few other ways to describe a process that is essentially non-rational. All traditions of art making, whether Western, Eastern or aboriginal, are in their own way no less significant tools for understanding the natural world than scientific and historical record, the process is simply a more intuitive one.

So How Long Did These Things Take You To Do?

I'm often asked, “how long did that take you to do?” It's a perfectly reasonable question, and though I might be able to tell you how long a particular piece took to make, this wouldn't really answer the assumption behind the question.

Ideally, I like to try to allow each mark to do as much work as possible, to describe the form, shape, and lyricism of the subject simply and directly. This isn't something that I can plan or predetermine, but results from the direct and intuitive application of pigment. Often this first application doesn't work out just how I want it to, so what you see may be my third, fourth, or fifth attempt at the same subject. If the piece isn't achieving what I want it to after that first or second, or third application, I have to start again. While some pieces may seem to be a collection of happy accidents, most of these “accidents” resulted from trial and error. So unlike oil painting, where the image is a result of layers and multiple applications of paint, the layers of process in my dry brush pieces are discarded, and though some artifacts of that process may still remain, what you see is that final step, that last spontaneous application of pigment that is the final result.

This process is unpredictable by nature. I never know how it's going to work out, or how much time a given piece is going to take, though I can say that a smaller piece usually takes less time than a larger or more complex one. What you see on the paper may have only taken an hour, but may be the result of hours and hours of failures. For one of the pieces in this show, for instance, it took three weeks to get a satisfactory result. So the honest, literal answer to the question, “how long did that take you to do?” isn't really what most people are looking for when they ask it. Each dry brush piece has it's own process, but there is no procedure for manufacturing them that I can explain as you would something that is methodically crafted in a predictable way. Each piece is it's own discovery.

Opens on the 22nd at The Pence! Reception at 6:00! More info here.


  1. This was really interesting for me, as only a consumer of art, to read. When I was younger I used to feel very proprietary on a creator's behalf. I had this (romantical?) notion that a work was created with a very specific purpose in mind and that that purpose was wholly owned by the artist and the job of the consumer was to understand and appreciate that purpose. Now I have come to see art as collaborative (do you love I just co-opted the hours of work and training that go into creating new work?) wherein the artist presents a work and the consumer receives that work. The presentation is 50% and the reception is 50%. The coming together of the two makes a piece of work whole. In fact, I now begrudge artists who do not allow me my 50%. I will say, though, that I would be hard-pressed to cut up a print as then I would feel like I was imposing on the artist half of the work. My two cents as a consumer of art...

  2. Is it this post you meant to comment on?

    That's the one where I talk about art after you make it. This one is just me babbling about my work. I shaved a couple of pages from this one for the opening.

    The only thing I'd amend though, is that reception is EVERYTHING, since the artist is also receiving it, but none of it is proprietary in a real sense. In a practical sense, owning stuff is about money, and I want to make money from my work, since it is, in fact, work. But the audience is definitely a part of the not getting paid portion of the experience.

  3. Oh yes, it was. Was scrolling through my google reader and probably clicked on the wrong one. woopsy!