I never saw that you did painting need… (March 22-25)

Lena Levin. Sunflowers and Irises (in progress). 24"x20".
Lena Levin. Sunflowers and Irises (in progress). 24″x20″.

There was a scattered, unfocused quality to the last week in the studio, after the second sonnet composition “completed itself” so unexpectedly, leaving me without a clear plan for studio work. And this lack of focus spilled over to the practice of “studio journaling”, too. This is certainly something I’ve got to change: after all, one of the purposes of studio journaling is increased awareness of these periods of lost concentration — and if I stop doing it when such periods roll over me, it cannot really work, can it?

In retrospect, it probably makes more sense to see this week as a slow, hesitant approach to the eighty third sonnet painting (I never saw that you did painting need… ). It’s one of the sonnets which — in the context of this sequence — almost inevitably shift the reference points, and begin to feel as though it’s me talking to Shakespeare: I never saw that you did painting need… 

Interestingly, this painting was nearly ready to start several weeks ago, just before the whole renovation project disrupted my life and work (sooner than expected). But when back in the studio, I couldn’t return to it right away, vacillating instead between my Rembrandt study and the rework of the second composition, “Paradox of death”.

I keep marveling at how my life mirrors the sonnets I am working on with uncanny effortlessness. After all, this particular sonnet obviously refers to a long pause in the flow of sonnets, which somehow provoked frustrated questions from the addressee: where is my next sonnet? Why don’t you write? Why have you slept in my report?

And so my life, and the steady progress of my studio work, make a swerve, creating a mirroring pause in the flow of sonnet paintings: me sleeping in Shakespeare’s report. And if that wasn’t enough, the whole theme of need for painting branched out into a newly emerged plan for a series of essays for my “Art of Seeing” site…   

With the second composition complete, and the eighty third sonnet painting decidedly not ready to start spilling onto canvas, I had two options: to return to Rembrandt study (an ultimate remedy for any “artist’s block”), or to try and re-invigorate my sense of vision with some painting from life.

And since it just so happened that I bought a bunch of sunflowers over the weekend, that’s what I decided to do — using an earlier (utterly failed) painting of irises as “underpainting”. Apart from just the pure joy of painting from life, without agenda or expectations, I had this fleeting idea of combining two moments in time within a single canvas — and two opposing themes of “Irises” and “Sunflowers”, both inspired by Van Gogh. In the painting, this theme shows itself as a tension between two “styles”, two different “geometries”. But as a lived painting experience, it was simply a tension between the existing painting of irises (representing the past), and the visual experience of sunflowers in the here and now.

Although the eighty third sonnet kept reciting itself in the background of my mind, it didn’t bring me perceptibly closer to actually starting the painting. So the next day, I decided to take another roundabout — to have a closer look at the previous paintings from the overall composition it belongs to.

It is supposed to be a sixteen sonnets composition (the working title is “Poet and his Muse”) and there are five completed (or quasi-completed) paintings so far. There was a hope that this experience will bring me closer to painting the eighty third, and a slight suspicion that there maybe something to be changed in these previous paintings. Of these five, it was the eightieth sonnet that (once again) called powerfully to be changed, shouting out its incompleteness, its lack of ultimate clarity.

Sonnet 80 (O how I faint when I of thee do write...)
Sonnet 80 (O how I faint when I of thee do write…)

How strange that this one has turned out to be so hard, the process so long and windy — even though its visualisation is so clear and straightforward. Maybe it’s not the sonnet per se, but just repercussions from the difficult, dark months of the last fall. Or maybe this is just another case of sonnets playing havoc with my life: after all, this sonnet reaches deep into shadowy doubts in one’s artistic powers (and the fact that it’s Shakespeare, and not me, who engages in virtual self-flagellation here, doesn’t really help much; if anything, it makes it worse).

Sonnet 81
Sonnet 81

And that morning, behind and beyond seeing imperfections on the surface of this painting with a fresh eye, there were two strong impulses for change. One came from the neighbouring sonnet painting, with its strong circular movement — a tangible need to support and clarify the radiance of this shape by strengthening a similar, rhyming, larger circle partially visible in this painting. And the other, more internal motivation: the need to express more clearly that, after all, it’s the poor, wretched, wrecked, saucy boat — the self-representation of the speaker — that creates and shapes the space of this sonnet and gives it its light and power (without losing any of its wretchedness in the process). In a sense, these impulses turned out to be the same, or almost the same (because it’s actually the sail of the small boat that gives shape to the circular movement linking this sonnet painting with the next one).

There was a small — or seemingly small — experience during this short painting session, which seems strangely significant. At some point, I noticed a black spot — or rather couple of small spots — near the upper edge of the painting (close to the centre of the large sail). It was obviously just dirt, and so, at some point, when the painting declared its completeness (or near-completeness) to me, I decided it was about time to paint over these random spots.

I couldn’t resist making a couple of other small alterations at the same time, so when the painting turned out to have weakened when I stepped back again, I attributed it to those other changes, and partially reversed them — but that just wasn’t enough. To return the painting to its peak strength, I had to re-introduce — although in a somewhat different way — that darker and greyer spot near the upper edge, replicating what had seemed to be “just” random dirt. It was almost as though painting had been trying somehow to “correct” itself while I wasn’t paying attention to it — and all I had to do was listen to its cues…

Experiencing versus witnessing (Sonnet 80, January 8, 2016)

2016-01-08 14.16.46I didn’t really know what to expect in the studio today: was the yesterday’s breakthrough real — will it survive the next morning, or will I be pushed right back to the struggle and despair?

I so wanted to finally bring to completion both 79 and 80 — I felt that today was the day; that was the intention I brought to the studio. I didn’t touch 79, which is probably to the better; the whole trio that begins this sixteen-sonnets composition should be left alone for now, till the final integration of the whole composition. But I believe I did complete the 80 — brought it to this stage where I want to let it rest for a few months, while I work my way through the next ones.

It was a good day, “in the flow” kind of day. For me, it rarely happens on the days of “final touches” — the final brushstrokes that bring a painting to its completion, the final decisions. When it does happen, it’s because the whole process is a single experience of flow, when the painting has started to “sing” the sonnet back to me somewhen early in the process. Then, it all happens easily, organically — you just do what the painting asks you to. But I couldn’t expect anything like this today — not after these months of hopeless struggle against I don’t even know what.

And yet, it was a good day; spent in harmony with the sonnet, and with the painting. The strength of sonnet-like response from the painting was not as clear as it sometimes is, but it was there, and the despair — which is, after all, there in the text — was finally refined, distilled fully into painting. It has become beautiful — not dangerous and murderous anymore.

Somewhere in the midst of the painting sessions I caught these words in my head: “Find the rhythms of the universe”. The rhythmical structure of the sonnet finally found its way into the painting today; the rhythmical contrast between the tonal themes of “my saucy boat” versus “his of tall standing and of goodly pride”. This contrast was always supposed to be there, enacted through the difference between two parts of the painting (the lower and the higher), but now it seems to have found a more straightforward expression — with strengthening of the vertical movement from within the “proud” boat up, opening the composition upwards in the right top corner, and partly closing it on the left with darkening of the sky.

The painting is saved, I think — for now at least. And I seem to be out of this void of despair — survived, once again. As I was editing the journal entry from yesterday, I understood that I was still “hiding” from myself the most obvious source of this despair — Shakespeare, the sonnet itself. The process does require going deep into the “mood” of the sonnet, so I could paint from that place. And I do that, but I don’t always acknowledge it to myself; I allow myself to forget that it’s not “my” despair, and so it becomes mine.

This despair-to-be-painted should be experienced fully, but witnessed in a different way. It’s not a guarantee from falling into a depression-like state of mind, but at least a chance. To be both the experiencer and the witness simultaneously. That’s the key to the connection between the sonnets series and the “problem of consciousness” in general.

The depth of despair (Sonnet 80, January 7, 2016)

2016-01-07 14.35.44While updating my catalog with today’s in-progress photo, I realised — to my utter surprise — that I did not even have an entry in the catalog for this painting. Over the last few years, I was generally quite disciplined in keeping this internal record of my work up to date, adding in-progress photos and, occasionally, some notes every day, not to mention regular “internal reviews”. But even well-ingrained habits have the unlucky tendency of slipping though cracks in one’s attention  and dissolving — in this case, even without me being aware that this has happened at all.  It’s been a long time that I’ve let so many weeks — nay, months even — go by without ever pausing to review my current work; to reflect on where I am and what it is I am doing.

I did make some in-progress photos, but they were just sitting there in the folder of “Camera Uploads” — as though to remind me just how long I have been torturing this painting — and being tortured by it in return. Such a long, dark process, much longer than a sonnet painting usually takes. And with such a seemingly simple sonnet, too: with all the visual imagery right there in the text, ready to paint.

2015-11-16 14.28.32I began months ago with sketching sailboats from life, in San Francisco. And then it transformed into a long study of Van Gogh’s seascape; just because it linked itself with this sonnet so powerfully. This, at least, was a good thing — a deeper connection to Van Gogh than I had ever achieved before. But turning it into a sonnet painting was harder than I could have imagined. As I am writing this, I feel that I cannot really express the roughness and depth of this despair — even now, looking back, I cannot quite let myself feel it fully. The disappointment; the fight with this superficial prettiness and conventionality that the painting kept sinking to. The tension between platitude and depth.

2015-11-11 14.11.09There was a strong beginning, I remember — and then something went terribly awry. At some point, there happened a really disastrous idea to introduce overt reds into this painting, in a misguided attempt to straightforwardly link it with the previous sonnet. The reds of this painting should have always remained as hidden as they are in Van Gogh’s seascape: these small, nearly invisible spots, like drops of blood. Getting rid of my overpowering, vulgar reds was the first step towards the breakthrough with this painting, but it wasn’t enough. I suddenly realised this morning that I have to go back to Van Gogh’s original to strengthen the shrillness, the inner dissonance of the foreground wave — and then suddenly, miraculously, all elements of the painting started to fall into place, to unify themselves into a whole. It is beginning to feel right.

All these weeks I was dragging myself to the studio — just because I know that I cannot live without painting, not because I felt like painting. But I really wasn’t there fully — almost never; with a few exceptions, my mind tended to wander away, towards something completely unrelated. It is true that one cannot wait for inspiration; but I’ve got to learn to handle these days and weeks without inspiration differently — more painting from life, more technically challenging studies. Or, if I cannot leave a non-behaving painting alone, I’ve got to learn to surrender to despair fully, without hiding it from myself.