I like to paint in a certain kind of way, getting in and getting out and moving on.
Sometimes, though, a painting refuses to allow me to get out of it. It stares me down and requires me to go away and come back again and again and again.
Sometimes I go away and never come back. Paintings that have outwitted me in this way are piled in cupboards, boxes, behind bins of other paintings.
Today I resumed work on a painting that was so large (4′ x 5′) and so almost there that I felt any moment I would be standing back and saying, “there it is!” and feeling like I had won the day.
But – I had felt that the day before, also, when I had gone back in to this very same painting and had ended the day feeling defeated.
“I think I might have to break it,” I said to Tom as he was loading up the car to head into town. His day, too, will be revisiting a lot of unfinished business, and he seemed to know what I meant as he laughed consolingly and then went on his way
Part of breaking the painting is understanding that I am attached to some thing or things in the painting that are keeping me from getting on with the work.
Part of breaking the painting means letting go of those little darling moments that I find so captivating when my nose is up close and personal with the work, those gestures and colors and strokes and happenings that simply don’t read from a distance.
Breaking the painting means, in the words of Stephen King, you must be willing to “kill the little darlings.” To regain the integrity of the whole, to recover the plot, to get back to the big statement.
After dilly dallying this morning, finally I broke out the big brushes and just went for it, simplifying the forms, thinking about value (light-dark) and the color harmony that had inspired me in the first place, painting over in broad strokes huge numbers of highlights and glittering trees, frothy waves and illuminated cloud formations. The wonderful and weird viridian green/white had to go, relinquishing its screaming dominance to the softer story of the lavender hills, light cobalt skies, deep greens of oak and redwood at dawn.
Hints of what came before continue to inform the new layers of paint. Again and again I walked away, standing across the room, looking, looking away, looking back, looking away.
At some point, I felt like something very tight in my chest loosened. I could breathe again. The painting was breathing again.
I cracked it open – and let go of what it could not become.
Maybe it’s like Leonard Cohen’s song, Forget Your Perfect Offering, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”