Saturday, March 12, 2011

The first mark

Posted by Mary Helen Miller

Last Saturday was the start of a new pose with Dawn. We fiddled with the few elements that we can change from pose to pose—the lighting, the backdrop material, the way Dawn sat. This time, we kept her clothed, in a silky floral dress, then stuck her in a bright blue camping chair and had her keep on one sock. The sock looked a little lopsided and goofy to me, but her feet never made it on my canvas anyway.

It’s funny what happens next, in the time between setting up the scene and setting up your easel. You pull down your eyebrows, scrunch up your cheeks and nose, and amble around the room looking at the model from different spots. The squinty-wander isn’t something they teach you, it’s just something you find yourself doing one day.

When I start a painting, I usually don’t map out my composition in great detail. Instead, I block in the outline of some major forms, wipe them away, and do it a couple more times until I’m vaguely satisfied. Then, I cover my canvas up with paint. Lots of it. Too much of it.

I’ve been watching Mike paint for a few weeks now. While I search for forms by pushing around thick, slick paint, he slowly builds his up with thin, careful lines and layers. When we started the new pose, I told myself that just this one time, I’d do my best to guard my clean canvas from my goopy brushes. But then I kept dipping back for more paint like an addict, and by the end of the three hours, my canvas was coated.

So I asked Mike about how he goes into a new painting—what does he try to accomplish on Day 1? Why is he so frugal with his paint?

Mike’s a drawing nut. I think he’s been to every life-drawing group in the Boston area, and he makes a point to practice frequently. And it shows.

He started his painting of Dawn with a single vertical line down his canvas. When he looked at Dawn sitting in the camping chair, he noticed that her ear, her neck, her fingers, and the back of her knee all lined up. So, he drew a line with his paint, and that was his point of entry.

“If I see something in the pose—a drawing element that helps me unify it, that I can get on the canvas—I can start attacking it with paint,” he said.

He lets himself be excited about the drawing and composition on that first day. Focusing on those elements, and enjoying them, can be hard for some of us. On the days that I’m just drawing, I find joy in it. But on the days that I’m painting, drawing becomes a tedious chore that I have to do to get to the fun part. The temptation is to flippantly scribble a drawing, then start laying on paint. Then later, I’m mad at myself because I’m stuck with a wobbly drawing to paint on.

But drawing doesn’t have to be just a cold, mathematical task. It can be a chance to spot exciting passages, and plant little seeds. Mike says that when things don’t line up exactly how he’d hoped—like, say, the ear above the hands above the knee—he starts to think more abstractly. He looks for curves and lines that aren’t blatantly obvious but that turn into a gestural mark.

“When you start to find these abstract lines in it, it starts to become more of a painting or an object in itself,” he said.

Then, he pulls the painting out of the drawing, by adding color. After that, he says he doesn’t know what happens, but a painting surfaces.

“Something comes out, and it either stinks or it’s good.”


  1. Such a nice read. I like to think of painting as a conversation. I start out with a topic in mind or an observation and the painting will pose questions/problems. It is my job to make good answers and creative solutions. There is no right or wrong way to make art; what I love about it.

    M. Morris Gaman

  2. Nice. Leads to lots of tangential thoughts, too many to talk about here. But I hope you'll and we'll get to them all eventually. Nice work, and let's do a history and reasons for the BFAC soon.