The Subject and the painting.

During the last Summer of my formal art training I registered for a full Summer semester (12 credit hours) of watercolor. Nothing else, just watercolor. The faculty member I would be working under said that only one other student had taken that on and he had never completed it.I am just pig-headed enough that I did it in spite of the warning, turning in seven paintings each week for  12 weeks.  They weren’t all zingers, that is certain, but the immersion forced me to find subjects everywhere. I began by traveling as far as 25 miles to find good subject matter. I would have gone farther, but I couldn’t afford the gas. By the end I was finding plenty of subjects around town and within my own neighborhood.

The self-imposed discipline made me stop looking for beautiful subjects, and instead I began looking for interesting arrangements of light and dark shapes, patterns that moved my eye around, contrasts of line and shape and visually interesting corners of my daily experience. Some of these were what might be called beautiful, like some flowers in my neighbor’s yard, but most were not. They were little overlooked places I had passed by a hundred times. Now I saw them differently.

The play of sunlight across the corner of a couple of old wooden steps can make as beautiful a painting as a portrait of the latest hollywood starlet. Make that a more beautiful painting than the latter. It is not the subject that makes a good painting. As an example, Jesus Christ as a subject has featured in some of the most sublime works of art as well as in some of the most hideous.

Frederick Franck in his book The Zen of Seeing said, “Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world. I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.” That is one of the best reasons for drawing I have ever heard. Drawing is the discipline that helps us see the divine in the ordinary. I often find myself drawing and painting things that I would not want in my yard, or even next door. After all, I don’t want the value of my property to decline. However, I am glad that some properties are left to slowly make their way  to dissolution, because as they fall under the forces of Nature, the rather boring repetitions that man created become more passionate and playful rhythms. I am including here a photo of a street which would be a nightmare for a real estate agent to try to unload.

It would take a fortune to fix up these houses.

I was taken by the visual complexity and the business of the shapes and lines here. I began exploring it with a pen, and fell into the process of watching the drawing grow. Below is the final result of the pen’s dance over these forms. I enhanced the drawing with watercolor washes. The artistic value of the drawing is by no means tied to the property value of the houses. A passion for the process, and the practice of drawing constantly are the most important ingredients.

The pen starts a line that moves around an through a subject like an explorer, always at the point of discovery.

Have a Merry Christmas, and a fulfilling New Year. And ask Santa for some drawing materials.

Best regards


If you have had experiences that corroborate my point here, please share them.


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