Mess Love

Well it all started when I became a Mom. I was going a little crazy because I was only getting about ten to twenty minutes at a time to paint during my daughter’s naps.

I’ve never been much of a night painter but that became the only time available to me so I decided to figure out how to do it. So I looked around my studio and this paper bag sitting on my wire rack shelf started talking to me. Not actually talking but, I felt drawn to it, and so it also felt like it was drawn to me. I felt an attraction to this paper bag and the mess of other paper bags around it on my wire rack shelf. Something about the way the paper handles on the bags overlapped, crossed over each other, and cast shadows - long thin shadows - spoke to me. I found the scene so delicate and charming and lyrical and then almost ethereal.

So I thought of Charles Hawthorne and picked a spot where three colors converged in my picture- a light and two shadows- and mixed up those colors. I’ve been working on refining my colors- getting them closer to what I’m seeing. So for those first three colors I decided to mix each color six times. Mix the color, apply the color, decide how it could be better, scrape it off, mix it again and repeat. I learned to mix colors this way from my teacher Elana Hagler and her teacher Israel Hershberg. I hoped that after six times the relationship between the three colors would perceptually sing true. It didn’t work. After six times the colors were still off, but it was good to practice sharpening those skills and eventually I got those color spots to a place that worked.

My studio is lit by three yellow light bulbs in a ceiling fan. This sort of light seals my paper bag motif in a dull orange-ish yellow hazy air envelope. Each color I mixed had to fit inside this tiny envelope. If the color didn’t fit, it stuck out like a sore thumb, so I mixed and mixed until the atmosphere of the painting accepted the color into its world.

I found I worked on this painting for an hour at a time 3 or 4 nights a week. My little girl would be asleep, my husband reading, my dog curled up in the corner of my studio on his blanket, and I would be mixing my colors with my palette knife. I wouldn’t play music for fear of waking my sleepy house. So I would listen to the sounds of the neighborhood and the tink tapping of my steel palette knife mixing colors on my glass palette.

It seemed to take forever for the painting to take shape. All of the details shouted out for attention at once. I tried to calm my analytical mind and take care of one color at a time going for what seemed lovely over what made sense (another reference to Ken Kewley’s notes on color).

As Squeak Carnwath so eloquently puts it in this podcast speaking to Emil Robinson, making decision after decision in painting can feel much like walking in the dark. There are infinite choices but only one can be made at a time. Blindly I felt along my subconscious for the next choice. Tired after taking care of a household all day it’s almost easier to reach this point of inner trust. Five colors might be added to the composition in an hour and the picture slowly would move along its path to somewhere.

I reached a point where my paper bag started to feel like a paper bag. I kept working another month or so until the paper bag spoke less. Our conversation came to a close when I tidied up the mess on my wire rack shelf and the motif existed only on my canvas.

I love the order one can find in a subconscious mess. I’m talking about the kind of mess where you didn’t hang up your coat when you got home because you were just too tired. I wonder if there are some secrets (music of the spheres?) hidden in these messes. My paper bag painting is a dialogue with a mess on the wire rack of my studio room. Have you ever had a conversation with a mess? What was it like?