On Painting

An Evening in June

I've been listening to John Berger - "Ways of Seeing," and thoughts have wandered off on a tangent but not completely unrelated to his point. His main argument about oil painting seems to be that its history is mired in egoism, status and self-promotion. So it has led me again, as I am led often, to the question of why I paint. If my motivation is honest, hopefully my paintings will be too. Of all Charles Hawthorne's wise advice to his students, three simple words have stayed with me: "Paint something true."

For some reason this, to me, leans toward love. View from my back yard.

For some reason this, to me, leans toward love.
View from my back yard.

One way to approach the question of motivation is "What do I want painting to do for me?" I have heard this question asked by other artists. If I were to be completely honest, there is forever the problem of ego that gets in the way of painting. This is nothing new. But the ego does not always appear bold or proud as one might expect. Often it shows up in the most shy, sly ways. Anything about painting that has to do with my agenda to achieve some end or to appear successful or identify myself as an artist, or even to "find my voice" (that tired phrase) or to endlessly effort to be original or to say something profound or important... all of that has got to go.

When you take away all of the agendas, in the end painting is a beautiful way of living a life, a quiet honest and meaningful way of paying attention. I will always think of Albert York, quietly painting in his basement because, simply, the world is just too beautiful. If no one had discovered his work, his life would have been just as beautiful for the time and attention he gave to painting.

I heard another artist say this once, and it has become a mantra of mine: It does not matter who or what is paying attention to me (or my work); it only matters to what I am paying attention. If you think this is obvious or easy, don't be fooled. I believe this is a core struggle of every artist, if he is honest.

It is in this way of losing our sense of ego or separateness and finding instead humility and a sense of belonging that I believe the world unfolds before us and we become more keenly aware of things as they really are. This is something I hope painting will do for me. And this is also freedom. I hope I live to be at least 100... true, free, honest painting is a life-long pursuit.

Another way to approach the question of why I paint would be, "What is my relationship to my paintings?" The answer I have to that is clear most of the time: I love them. That's not to say that I judge them as "good" paintings, and therefore I love them. I simply, truly and deeply love them as they are, even the weak humanly frail ones. And to love them (and to love the painting of them, the process) is to pay an honorable, even sacred level of attention to them and to the painting of them. Love is, after all, attention - close, deep, careful, discerning, compassionate attention.

And so, this is interesting to me - how everything comes down to love. I suppose love is why I paint., and I want above all to paint love, even though I know I will never quite figure out how to do that. I do know it is possible. There is evidence of it in paintings everywhere.

Stacy CaldwellComment