Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Anatomy of a Page: Step One - Breaking the Voodoo*

1) Venice and Burritos.

2) Hanuman and some lines.

3) Letters, fish, robots, and women.

Blank sketchbook pages and freshly gessoed canvases; I love them and I hate them. Every time I look at such pristine white surfaces I'm intimidated by their beauty and am overwhelmed by possibilities. There is also the fear of screwing up a perfectly good book spread or canvas with badly done work. No wonder the hardest step in any piece is the beginning.

I resent feeling intimidated in this way, so every time I see a clean white page I'm compelled to bring it down to my level. I want to turn the blank surface into art but first I have to take that difficult and all-important first step.

Once the spell is broken, the rest is easy. I simply respond to what is developing on the page, continue to add marks, colors, and images in the places that intuitively seem right, and allow the piece to evolve. On good days, it seems to happen almost of its own accord and I am simply a conduit. Everything flows naturally.

But when there is nothing yet on the page, how do you know what to do? Through the years I've developed a number of tricks, all of which are based on giving up control and preconceived ideas. When in doubt, there's always random action. Any sketch, collage, or writing will do: a grocery list, friend's phone number, description of an idea for a sculptural installation, or a canceled postage stamp. It doesn't matter.

The way sketchbooks fit into my lifestyle gives me ample opportunity for these random acts. I carry a book with me wherever I go, and throughout the past 25 years or so I've made it a habit to constantly jot down ideas, quotes I like, or observations. Sometimes they show up in words and sometimes in pictures; either way, even the most mundane artifact of daily life gets the process started.

The page above started with notes on the Venice episode of Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations coupled with directions and a burrito order my wife wrote, as well as the number of a parking space I'd recently occupied. I never fear that I've included anything too stupid at this stage because I assume it will be covered up in subsequent layers. This assumption also keeps me from feeling too protective about anything in the early stages of a piece.

After Venice and the burritos, I began thinking about Hanuman, the Hindu diety I am drawing for a friend's tattoo, experimenting with a combination of human and monkey features. Then I divided the spread into sections with lines, responding to what I sensed were holes in the composition. Often, when I do not have a clear, spontaneous idea of what to add next, I'll resort to patterns or building up textures (both of which I used here). At this stage, I resist every temptation to think about what should go into the piece. I focus instead on things I'm instinctively drawn to or that are the first to pop into my head.

I also spend time looking through scraps and random images to collage in to the piece. In this case, I found a Titian nude, a flower drawn by a friend's young daughter, a toy robot silhouette, and a fish and plate from an early scratch board illustration I'd done. I make no attempt whatever to plan or interpret the relationship between these images and symbols. In fact, I scrupulously avoid it; the last thing I want to do is let that obstreperous and domineering rational mind into the process too early.

Next post, we'll see how these random markings become the foundation for a finished piece.

*I stole this phrase from Detroit-based poet M.L. Liebler, my English professor at the College for Creative Studies.

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