Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Painting in the dark


Brett Whiteley's ghost, oil on canvas, 

This portrait was painted in the dark.


Because I haven't been able to paint for months. I've been daunted by the blank page. A blank canvas seems a mountain i just cannot climb. Have i simply run out of ideas? Motivation? Bravado?

It is as if i have been as if frozen, trapped in a torpor, paralysed by self-doubt. No, it's not that i didn't have ideas or desire to work. It's that i was intimidated by the task. The responsibility of producing a 'good' painting was too great.

And along comes fellow post-grad student, Bec, who is exploring the notion of liberation from self-critical thinking during the process of painting. She is doing this through contour drawing and painting while looking away from the canvas. She has tried painting in low light as a gambit. So after we talked about, i was fired up enough to give it a try.

The process went as follows. After setting up the canvas and squeezing some Titanium white, Ultra Blue, Prussian blue, Cerulean, Viridian, Lemon Yellow and Indian Red onto a white plastic picnic plate (my disposable palettes), i went and turned out the lights in my studio. I found my way back to the easel with a torch, picked up palette and brush, and turned off the torch. I could just make out the shape the canvas in the gloom. When i looked at my palette, all the colours had turned to globs of black and grey.

I set to work to paint Brett Whiteley's features from recollection. I also carried a query in my head re Brett post postmortem. What might the ghost of Brett look like? Could i touch his presence in dark?

I guesstimated where the bits should be located on the canvas. Very quickly the blobs of black and grey on my plastic plate merged to become a dog's breakfast of vague grays. I pressed on. I could only gauge how loaded the brush was by the resistance as bristle dragged through paint, the weight at the business end as i lifted it to canvas. Sometimes i heard a splat as excess flipped off and smacked onto the canvas as i worked in haste. Whatever image was emerging in the dark, i was not responsible. I stabbed and slashed and squiggled. And then stopped to turn on the light.

Surprise. An image that had a rawness about it. Non-realist. Expressive. Parts were satisfying. Other parts silly or dead. The whole didn't hang together. So i poured on some gum turps to let osmosis fill in the gaps. A mistake, in hindsight. It killed off much of the immediacy and freshness.

But for better or worse, here it is, warts and all.
Art or a mess, interesting or silly, i don't care.
It's what happened in the dark.
I've called it Brett Whiteley's ghost. A visitation in my darkness.
Hopefully it will kick-start some deliberate work in coming weeks.

In the meantime, i've started some art-related 'busywork'. I've stared a Pinterest blog HERE. It enables me to gather together drawings and paintings i like and are influential on my own creative practice. It enables me to share my passions and my work among a growing online art community. If you too have an art Pinterest board i'd love to connect up!


  1. wow what an experiment. Successful, I'd say..your post makes me want to try it..painting in the dark. Loved the bit about a dog's breakfast of vague grays. I hope you paint more...I hope you never ever stop painting. Maybe you should paint in more extreme situations...just to keep your interest up.

    1. Painting in extreme situations - i feel a series coming on, lolz. Well, at least ive started some new pieces, so maybe the ice is broken. Thanks for your warm support, Celeste.

  2. Where does this fear come from? It seems common among many painters. It doesn't seem to matter how skilled a person is. The blank canvas I imagine much like the blank page a writer faces. The imagination/vision trapped within the mind. It's good to find ways to trip open the lock and release the flow. At first a trickle but soon a torrent.

    I like this experiment, in the dark so no one will see. The judging cannot happen if the critic cannot see.

    Take care Harry and keep unlocking the cage.

    1. I think youre right, Elizabeth. I'm by no means the only one who is suddenly struck dumb before the blank page. It's one of the reasons art teachers often get their students to muss up the paper before starting an actual bit of work. It's all that pristine perfection, maybe. It's not human, somehow.

      Yes, silencing that inner negative harping voice. If it can't see, it can't comment .... except about the stupidity of painting in the dark and wasting materials. Can't win. But hopefully it has started a flow of new work. Thanks so for understanding.

    2. I forgot to mention that the reason why I wonder about the fear is because it haunts me every time I start a new painting.

  3. A really skeletal face--maybe you did have company while painting.

    Congratulations on having work published in "Big Difference..........". I enjoyed looking at your pinterest site.

    1. Haha, i'll have to invite the spook to take over the brush time. Thanks for checking out Pinterest. Not the same as blogspot but still fun.

  4. So ghastly, Harry! But ghastly in a remarkably good way and what a great way to deal with your fear of the blank - a leap of faith!

    1. Ah, i have missed your astute observations, Regina. So pleased youve stopped by again.

      Yes, ghastly, but i don't know where it is from.

      Is it a monster from my Unconscious (and therefore my Taliban)? Or is mere chance fumbling in the dark, like much of our lives? Am i in any way responsible? Does darkness absolve me? Or is darkness a mere excuse?

      Yes, a leap of faith (how you to see it in these terms). Or maybe an exercise in hope ... hoping that if we wrestle angels in the dark an absolute voice might speak to us.

      Or is it merely faith in the human nervous system, the physics of pigments, the roll of the dice?

      Maybe one day i will sit in the dark and ask the Almighty to guide my hand. Then i might see if there is more than the maths of chance running this universe. (Even Thomas was allowed to put his hand in the side of his Lord).

  5. Really like that your work (how you work) is also an ontological (cum physiological and psychological) enquiry. I wonder if it is something like transcendence when you don't know where IT comes from? It wasn't about losing control though was it... as always with how you work there is method but with this one the outcome was far more uncertain. Maybe you trusted that there is more than what you know (can make sense of or consciously bring about) since with knowing you seemed to hit a wall. If so, more than a method it is a way of being. The next challenge perhaps is to realise the ghastly without being in the dark.

    Always appreciating your work even when I don't say anything, Harry :-)

    1. You have put your finger on precisely why i have taken up the visual arts ... and so late in life.

      I want to find a way to get in touch with the non-reasoning, intuitive, emotional, imaginative aspects of myself. A developmental corrective to all that reasoning that i have given my life to, if you will.

      So maybe when i'm most lost i'm on the right track?

  6. I have really missed your work Harry. I always look forward to what you might be up to next. I have been wondering what had prevented you from posting.

    Oh, how I identify with your agony Harry having experienced it myself. The fear of judgement can be so paralyzing. I know if I start out to make a 'great' painting I am doomed to a miserable failure. Better to stay in the moment and let 'it' happen what ever 'it' is.

    The result of your painting in the dark is positively scary. It is as demented in it's looks as anything coming back from the dead might be. I mean that in a good way. The darkness is not an excuse but a vehicle for beginning again. Use any trick you can for that. It's all part of the process of negative capability. Remember negative capability?

    All I know is that the active process of painting feels 'right' and I feel most powerful when painting. I also get my best ideas while working. Getting started is the agony. Sometimes it's very hard to keep working without some goal like an exhibition. It helps to know someone is looking.

    Sometimes, just like Cezanne, "I want to throw down my brushes and go to the Louvre!" But I always try to let go and begin again.

    1. I thought you would understand, Davida. Yes, it all gets very Zen ... how to be in the moment without giving the moment a thought.

      I guess the anxiety is that no trick will get me back in the zone, that i'm a one trick pony and my best, such as it was, is already past.

      Time will tell.

  7. I have the same anxiety. I have decided to just paint.I doesn't matter what I paint as long as I paint. I am working under the assumption that in just doing this pony stumble across a new trick.