Today I am sick, yet determined to paint. I fear a career change that will land me anywhere but my studio so I find myself anchored to my green vinyl and black lacquered chair that faces a wall of half finished drawings, concept sketches, and prepared substrates ready for me to touch them with brush and paint. I mix paint between blowing my nose into sections of toilet paper and tossing them into the trash among dried blobs of paint that I’ve peeled off of my pallette. Sick or not, the work is never easy. I have difficult sessions of painting and frustrating sessions of painting. I have paintings that refuse to work with me and they now sit apart from the canon of accepted paintings for my series, buried under other rejected work.
Taming color and form is an exercise often similar to taming a wild animal. Rico Lebrun, who has crafted some of my favorite words on the exercise of drawing captures the essence of time in the studio well: “In the act of drawing, the more or less acute character of this struggle is not always on a par with the forms which come to light. As a consequence of the most grandiose overtures, meaningless and vapid forms will often appear; terrible, true, impressive ones breeze in at other times, easily and without effort. These are the ones which take pity on the bruised apprentice, the artist.” Sometimes the journey of finishing a painting is a smooth arc from what I see in my head and the resulting image. Yet for even those trained, it is not easy. It is work. And I handle the difficult ordeal the way I assume a race car driver must handle himself during numerous high-speed laps around the track. I know what I’m doing. I know what the ride feels like. I expect anything to happen, and yet nothing. I’ve done this before, and I can do it again. I can finish this. And I usually do. You see, what you’re painting, no one has painted before. You have to expect anything. You have to expect some level of difficulty even on the one thousandth painting because of this.
Today I struggle with blue. All week, I struggle with blue. My collaborator gives me shit all the time about my preference for sticking to one safe background color on which to ground the subject matter. Yellow ochre has been in everything I paint. I’ll admit I use it a lot. I know it. Like a longstanding boyfriend, I know it well enough to manipulate it. Yet today I try a stranger: cobalt blue. I’ve only spent a few days with it in my lifetime. In college, as I labored over a master copy of Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, I discovered that the ultramarine blue that I knew so well was not right for Rosie. Her overalls have a specifically cobalt blue base. Not ultramarine. Not cerulian. Cobalt. It is the only blue with yellow undertones suited for denim. Today, however, cobalt blue comes back to haunt me… Blue itself challenges me. Spits in my face. Has me mixing and remixing paint, folding previous renditions of cobalt blue into each other with my palette knife to create a color I can’t see yet. But I know it exists. I will know it when I see it.
Why blue is the hardest color to work with? Maybe it’s because our minds will always see a plane of blue as sky. I’ve found that blue abhors edges. If you think about it, the sky has no edges, It extends into our periphery, and we know it is there. And yet if you were to paint a sky, it would have edges. My mind cannot deal with blue in a box. The color hates edges, and yet it won’t suggest to me what to do with them or how it must change as I approach the boundaries of my work. In so many ways, the boundaries of the picture plane–those four walls–are your proscenium arch–the portal through which you see a play or opera in the theatre. You disregard it as you concentrate on the action and song, and yet it is paramount to your experience as you peer through it to suspend your disbelief and take in the show. And here, with a painting, you cannot ignore the edges as in a theatrical experience. You consider them whether you know you do or not because the painting is a box with four walls, as much object as it is image. Some modern and postmodern painters have disregarded the box and the idea that a painting must hang on a wall and I love them for it. Perhaps they have stood where I have stood, before blue, knowing it cannot be contained.
I find that any other color mixed with blue or introduced next to blue is “dirty” by its mere proximity to it.. It mucks up the sky, whether it was intended to be sky or not. Blue background begs a landscape. To put weight at the bottom is to make ground, mass at the top is to create an underwater cave. Different shades of blue become times of the day. Looking at a simple swatch of blue paint in my studio reminds me that we don’t really see. We perceive. Otherwise blue would be blue, and never sky. Therein lies the problem.
What baffles me more is that a single plane of blue is in and of itself landscape. It begs clouds. It begs to be grounded. It begs context. As a child, I was always scared of hanging upside down. With the loss of visual reference points for where I was in space, I feared falling into the sky. Isn’t it inherent in us to fear an abyss? Thus when we see an expanse of blue, we always look for the skyline or even the telephone pole jutting into space. It brings us home. Grounds us. Who’d have thought that we look at a painting and ask ourselves where we are? Yet we do. And so blue remains a challenge. I grapple with this in my tiny studio as I blow my nose, hit the orange juice bottle, and paint on, hoping to tame and contain the very sky.