Three weeks ago, I turned 66, and acted on a decision I've been making over the past couple of months: I started painting in oils again.
Even though we have this spacious and light-filled studio here in Montreal, for some reason I stopped working in oils after we moved back in 2006, turning instead to media that were complementary to my newly-established publishing business -- like linocut -- and doing more daily sketching and drawing. When I painted, it tended to be in watercolor or acrylic, or else I worked in pastel or charcoal -- all works on paper that took up less storage space and were odorless. My mother's big easel, made by my dad, has been set up here the entire time, but I haven't used it very much; I tend to work standing up at my large, adjustable drawing table.
In Vermont, I had a small painting studio in a room in the back of our garage; it looked out on the garden and functioned as both studio and a meditation/quiet space for me. I missed that space a lot when we moved here, and it wasn't easy for me to learn to share a big open space with my husband, or to find the concentrated, solitary focus that painting -- so I always thought -- requires. But I've changed over these years; we work here together quite happily now, with the room somewhat divided in half but without barriers or partitions, each quietly doing our own thing.
Clementine and Mexican ceramics, A recent watercolor, 9" x 6" (detail).
Oil painting used to be my main medium, and it's what matters to me the most. I'm not sure why -- perhaps I think it has a better chance of lasting, but I think it's mostly because it presents the greatest challenges. Watercolor is notoriously difficult and unforgiving, it's true, and I love it and will always work in it. But for some reason, I've experienced greater highs and deeper lows with oil, and I think that struggle has taught me the most about myself.
Getting back to oils has been in my mind over the past year or so -- a kind of nagging little voice in the back of my head. When we lost our friend and fellow artist, Jenny, at the end of the summer, and I thought about my own upcoming birthday, I realized a decision had already been made, almost without consciously realizing it. Jenny had also worked in many different media over her lifetime, but in recent years she had turned to ceramics and was making fantastic, often whimsical objects and sculptures that were a reflection of her personality and spirit -- and she loved it, she had really found her perfect medium. At the musical wake the day after Jenny's memorial service, I sat on the couch in their apartment, singing and listening to music being played, talking to old friends, while looking at Jenny's ceramics arrayed on a long window shelf, the towers of Manhattan rising behind them. On a perpendicular wall, over the piano, was an oil painting of mine that I gave Jenny and Bill a long time ago, accompanied by one of Jonathan's photographs, and a portrait in oils of Jenny's mother by a well-known New York artist. It made me think. To some extent, my desire to start again in this medium is a way to remember and honor our friend, and acknowledge that time is passing. If not now, when?
Rocks and Cacti at Cefalu. Oil on canvas, 10" x 12". September 2018.
Of course, the decision to start again with something I'd left off more than a decade ago came with some questions. I'm not the same person I was then, and I've changed as an artist too; it's not a resumption, it's more of a new beginning. First off, did it have to be oils? I had bought new acrylics over the past years. Though I'm not a snob about it, acrylics have never completely satisfied me for painting on canvas, and I like using them on paper, but they didn't call to me. I have a lovely French box easel, too, that is portable and folds up into a small space; I took it apart and set it up; my paints were stored in the drawer. I did an inventory of my paints, which were not in great shape or abundance: to my surprise, some old pigments in lead tubes had weathered the intervening years much better than newer paints in aluminum. In the studio, I do have a number of blank canvases: beautiful Belgian linen that I had stretched, covered with rabbit-skin glue, and oil-primed before we ever moved here. I got out a small one, squeezed some oil paint onto a palette, poured some odorless medium into a cup. I took up a brush. With the first stroke came a rush of sensory impressions, followed by strong memories. It felt not just OK, but very good.
View of Cefalu. Oil on canvas, 12" x 10". October 2018.
The second question was, and still is, where do I want to go with it? In the last two weeks I did two small paintings to get back my feel for the medium and how to handle it, and although neither feels like an indication of direction, they were both helpful and I enjoyed doing them. I've been looking at a lot of work in books and online; I've been thinking both about the places we've traveled -- the light in the Mediterranean and in Mexico -- and also about the still lives I've drawn steadily for a long while. I've been doing some color tests; another thing that's changed is that I'm more analytical now and more willing to put in the effort to learn more about my tools. I'm not going to try to force anything, but I have some ideas; we'll see what happens and what grows naturally out of the process of doing. One big change is that I know that whatever I paint now will be greatly supported by all the drawing I've done since 2010. Drawing is always the foundation, even when the work is abstract.
Toward the sea, Agrigento. 9" x 6", charcoal and graphite on toned paper. A just-finished drawing for a new painting.
It makes me happy to be doing this. Painting always feels like a miracle to me, as do all the arts: beginning from blankness and silence, then creating and building something that grows out of what felt empty, but was always actually filled with potential. What could be more hopeful and life-affirming than that? And yet it's so easy to get caught in the destructive and doubting void, particularly now, when the world often feels hopeless and negative, and so many are despairing and angry. I don't want to be like that; I want to work, as long as I'm able, to see and express something better and more beautiful about our world and my small place in it. That's the real decision that was made.