Thursday, November 12, 2020

How do you decide what to paint?

Artists Magazine, Jan 2021

Sarah asks: "How do you decide what you're going to paint?"

This is such an important question, and it's so rarely discussed. It's something I struggle with a lot.

I don’t usually get inspired by the familiar “artistic” motifs such as fishing boats, Italian villas, red barns, crashing waves on rocky coasts, or majestic peaks. My artistic juices often go dry in places like that, which is why I don't lead workshops in Tuscany or the south of France.

Just try googling the term "plein-air painting" and you won't find a single car or fast-food restaurant or telephone pole. But look around. Aren't cars and telephone poles everywhere? Isn't that what our world looks like? 

I'm more interested in the commonplace subjects that we screen out of our visual awareness, such as parking lots, supermarket interiors, gas stations and back alleys. They're not mundane for me. They have a weird luminous power over my imagination. 

Blockbuster, 10 x 18 inches, oil, 2000

About twenty years ago I painted a commercial strip with a Blockbuster sign. Back then, when I showed that painting to art students, I would say, 'One day this world will pass away like the dinosaurs.' They just laughed because they didn't believe me. Sure enough, that has happened, and the wheel of time keeps turning.

So does the awareness of time figure into your decision to paint something? 

Yes. I like any subject that hints at the passage of time. I tend to prefer old houses to new ones, and worn-out shoes to polished ones. I loved the movie Blade Runner because of the way it nested layers of time from a science-fiction viewpoint. 

But I'm not just attracted to concepts like time or change. Painting ideas are more visceral and visual. A picture is first and foremost a purely visual thing. Sometimes you know it when you see it, but you don't know why and you can't explain it.

Does color influence which images speak to you?

Yes, color has a big effect on whether something speaks to me, and that’s true of light effects, too. I can look at something that comes alive on a rainy day and it may not inspire me on a sunny day. Sometimes when I paint a subject I record the colors as I see them, but other times I change the lighting for a theatrical, weird, or magical effect.

The thing is that you can't just aim a camera at random and find a transcendent image. Light and color are a big part of what speaks to me. If I’m looking for a subject to paint from observation, I'm often interested in a particular lighting situation or a color combination. The same scene that did nothing for me at 11 AM suddenly looks weirdly fantastic at sunset or on a rainy day.


nuum said...

The overcast light effect that you achieved in this 'Blockbuster' painting is simply wonderful.
The first I saw it in your book "Color and Light" I knew that I was looking at a jewel.
Thanks, from Rio.

Unknown said...

" Right on, brother". Your insight on painting near home is very valuable. Every place has appeal if only the artist in people take the time to see it. Sometimes the closer to home the better. Look at the the amazing "miracles" that surround you. You'll be surprised the more you do this !! Write on, brother ! Joe Mormando- Ohio artist

Susan Krzywicki said...

Brilliant answer to the question. And wonderful essay on everyday life. It is fascinating to think about how you, who seemed to burst onto the scene with your otherworldly creations, now also hold our attention with the quotidian.

David McNeill said...

James - how does beauty play a role in your choice of painting subjects. When you paint a parking lot for example, is there some element of beauty in that subject that attracts you, or is it maybe just a particular arrangement of shapes and values that attracts you?

James Gurney said...

David, I don't think much about "beauty" or "truth" because I'm not sure what they mean, and they mean so many things to so many people.

Marion Boddy-Evans said...

Your "close to home" answer is reinforced by one of the answers on this page being the island I live on (Skye in Scotland) while my answer was a location on the other side of the world...