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Seeing clearly and an autumn spent in oils.
I thought it was about time that I gave you guys an update from my sketchbook. It has been awhile. The images I’m sharing here are not exactly sketches, but they are oil studies, which is a little like a sketch, just a lot more expensive to produce (ha!). If you follow me on Instagram you’ve probably seen some of them already, but I thought I’d share them here. I’d been feeling a rather intense craving to start working in oils again, so a few months ago I decided to go for it.
I went to Sennelier, the historic art store on the Quai Voltaire, and picked up a bunch of little canvases. I decided it was okay to spend time on this, despite being way past my book deadline, just so long as I did it during breaks from my writing work to clear my head. I had been having a hard time getting back into certain aspects of my work after a difficult few months, but it felt important to do something creative that was outside my professional responsibilities. I would work for an hour or so on the book— very focused, no distractions—and then take a break to paint for 20 minutes at a time. I always worked from life.
Some of the results frustrated me, some I really liked. It was a wonderful exercise in observation, and I learned a lot about strategic breaks. For example, things I didn’t know how to resolve during one 20-minute session seemed somehow easier once I came back for the next one. The paintings were usually completed in between three and six sessions. It made me think of something I’d heard a number of times, that visual artists who are working from life must take breaks from their canvases every few hours, because after a while it become impossible to see clearly. Our eyes get tired, but it’s something more than that, something deeper. We lose a sense of perspective. We can’t see what’s in front of us objectively anymore. We can’t judge what we’re doing. We get too close to it, too accustomed, and it blinds us. Writing is like this too.
I painted what was in front of me, mostly what was on the kitchen table, in daylight or lamplight. I painted fruit and then ate it. I painted at night in the kinds of settings you’re not supposed to paint in when working from life, but did so anyway. I had mostly worked from photographs or imagined compositions in the past, in art school and after, and this was the first time I was working exclusively from life. The world was doing that thing it does sometimes, where very small things are suddenly very beautiful, and I wanted to more fully live inside that feeling. I know it can start to sound cliché, talking about being present and appreciating the beauty around you, but what else is there? I was reading through my research about all these painters for my book—Manet, and Morisot, and Stevens, and Meurent—and it was very satisfying to be able to take a break and paint, for myself, even in just this small way.
More and more I am trying to write like I paint—(“Badly?” the mean-girl that lives rent free in my head said just now)—but what I mean is, I am trying to focus on depicting just what I see. What’s there. The truth of it. It’s that notion of honesty, and the revelation of beauty that can be found when we really and truly tap into telling the truth. Writing it how it really is, or was. Reaching for that description that feels the clearest, the most true. Painting what you see, and not what you don’t see. With every little painting I made, I had to let go of the painting I saw in my head before I could appreciate the painting I’d actually brought into existence. With sketches this is easier—it’s just a sketch! But the pressure mounts with painting in oils, the way it can when you have a book contract for the book you always dreamed of writing.
I had to stop taking these painting breaks a few weeks ago. There’s a half finished painting on my easel right now that I hope I can come back to at some point, if I can manage to recreate the still life. My Substack work and my book revisions are just too time consuming at the moment. Those frequent 20-minute breaks are a thing of the past. Once I hand in the book, I’m looking forward to doing some more painting, and maybe working large.
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