I began my studies at the Water Street Atelier in May of 1997. The course of study at that time involved only working from a posed life model 4 hours a day five days a week with the same pose being held for the duration of an entire month. At lunchtime the cadre of students went their separate ways. But I had just quit a job at Christie's auction house to pursue full-time studies at Water Street. I had nowhere to go and the enthusiasm to continue working. And so Jacob set me up along one of the walls in the model room with a plaster cast to begin practicing the most basic skills of the translation of dimensional reality to represented reality...the block-in. In the emptiness of the new Water Street Atelier I did my exercises.
I do not remember the reason or the timing but at some point Jacob mentioned that he had done a series of 3 hour still life paintings early in his career to practice painting and to begin selling paintings. Up to that point I had never painted before, so the idea from a technical perspective and a professional perspective seemed like a reasonable one. I set aside the block-ins and started afternoon and weekend quick still life paintings. They started to sell, albeit for paltry suns of money, and I have been painting still life ever since. I have seen the 3 hour still life painting as a wonderful experience ever since. It was a training ground in the material knowledge of paint, in the selection of preferred tools and working habits, in the perception of color, in the feeling of composition and aesthetic possibilities, in the endeavor to incarnate concept through all these elements and in the development of relationships of people beyond myself (collectors and galleries) to the work I was producing.
The Material Knowledge of Paint
The three hour still life ignited in me the sensation of thinking in paint. It developed the immediate sensation of what the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, calls the "material imagination." Previous narratives of creativity most often described a ghostly idea plugged into a receptive material, resulting in a work of art. But that is a poor description. In fact the material reality has just as much influence on the conceptual dimension as the conceptual dimension has on the material receptor. It is an intimate dialogue with no primary element. The paint influences the idea as much as the idea influences the paint. It is a chicken/egg scenario.
And so, immersion in paint as an exercise develops the painter as a painter. It develops the skill of thinking in paint. It develops the state of making paintings and not plugging ideas uncomfortably into paint like square pegs into round holes. The mess of the paint...the very element of its infinite flexibility...must be embraced to realize its expressive possibility.
This is where the three hours becomes such an important element. It might seem arbitrary to put a time limit on a creative act. But what I experienced was that the time limit forced me to think inside the paint and work with it as paint. I had to move and move quickly. The only way to do so was to embrace the constraints and possibilities of the medium. I had to develop a trust in my decision making within the medium. I had to live in the chaos of slippery color to experience resolved cosmic work. The imposition of time on the process forces a development of trust in oneself within the immersive environment of paint. There is no time to think outside of paint. One learns to think inside the paint...inside the process...inside the possibility. As a result one grows in confidence in this once-foreign environment.
The Selection of Tools and Habits
The education of the artist is not simply the education of personal technical procedure. Nor is it the education of the former with the development and refinement of personal sensibility. It is both of these things, but it is also the placement of all these important elements in relationship to the realization of the importance of a necessary and ever-present persistence of play, experimentation and openness as vital to a healthy and lifelong creative orientation. If this last element is not present and nurtured then the first two will eventually become stale. The three hour still life was my first experience of an openness to non-intentionality in my work.
The boundaries or parameters the exercise sets creates a lack of attachment to nearly all elements of making a painting. Nothing is allowed to become so precious that I won't undo it through some bold gesture. I have committed neither so much time nor energy nor expense that any and all elements are open for evaluation. And because of this lack of attachment an exercise like this gives a practical place to experiment with any element of the painting-making process.
Let me give an example. When I first started out painting I used to get together with friends and make painting surfaces with the highest grade linen treated until gessoed and sanded to glass-like perfection. I did not just make painting panels, I made love to them. But what I found was that the effort to make the painting substrate created a performance anxiety in painting on them. The painting had to be perfect to honor the effort of preparation. And it never was nor should I have expected it to be simply because I was at the beginning of my development. I had no room to learn and play. The specter of perfection hovered over the panel before the first mark was ever made. I was paralyzed.
I started to regain psychic movement when I started to remove expectation from the process. I used the worst brushes, drew on the cheapest paper, painted to think in paint and not to achieve a final result. And in so doing...in removing myself from the confinement of mythological perfection and creating a space wherein I allowed myself to wallow in my imperfection and in my learning...I saw a way toward the sound of perfection singing inside me. The three hour still life is one concrete possibility for realizing this space in one's creative landscape. One can use it to experiment with materials and tools, with process and technique, with expressive possibility and with final aesthetic goals. It can offer the room to experiment with working habits, daily creative schedules or technical and intellectual process possibilities that might resolve into being "my" process way. And the investment is so low that failure does not discourage further exploration and eventual resolution to issues through this exploration. The cost is low, so the fear of failure and the accompanying paralysis is low in intensity.
It is one possibility...the one I have to offer. There are many more. But each should be characterized by an immersion in a process that is not governed by creative attachment.
The Perception (and Translation) of Color
This element of the three hour still life painting process is, in fact, a subject of thinking in paint. Perhaps instead of the general statement of thinking in paint, the matter of color is best described as thinking in the particular painting. That is because, despite being spoken of in absolute terms with definitive names, the perception and translation of color in the painted world is a completely relative undertaking. The meaning or "rightness of any given color is determined relative to all the surrounding colors and the general framework set up by the demands and state of the world captured in paint on the substrate before the artist.
The three hour still life is not only an exercise in thinking in paint, but it is a particularly helpful exercise in tuning the eye and mind to the notion of living in an absolutely relative world. Every part of that world as translated in brushstrokes of paint takes its meaning from the neighborhood in which it lives and how it relates to its neighbor in the structure of that neighborhood. The very first brushstroke paints the entire painting unless the artist is able to hold two positions in his or her head simultaneously. The first position...that this first brushstroke establishes the key of the painting. The second position...future experience might demand that the key be adjusted. So the artist must have a working method that allows for concrete, assertive statements while also allowing for the development of perceiving and understanding that require small or fundamental changes even in foundational elements of the work. A painter is a carnival juggler. Everything in his or her hands is in constant motion relative to everything else in his or her hands. The three hour still life teaches each student to live in the complex universe of the absolutely relative painting, developing a process which results in a sensation of universal stability as a result of experiencing said painting. This final sensation is the sensation of meaningfulness of the work.
The Work in Relationship
My beginning at the Water Street Atelier in May, 1997, was also an ending. I quit a job...a career...that I loved. One that was advancing. When I informed the bosses of my imminent departure I was offered a raise and new position to entice me to stay. I declined both my current situation and my future possibilities. I was 27 years old.
Jacob Collins' suggestion that I paint three hour still life paintings was not made solely or even primarily in the context of becoming a better painter. It was made in the context of making money as a painter. That resonated deeply with me given my situation in life at the time. And so part of the experience of the three hour still life is the possibility the work offers in developing a necessary economic ecosystem around the act of making art.
Now the purists and idealists in the audience will perhaps find a problem with the union of educational concerns with economic ones. And I will respond by stating that the relationship is not of my making. And I would refer the skeptic to a seminal work of anthropology by Frederick Turner titled "The Ritual Process." in the book Turner argues that a constant dialogue exists between utopian aspirations and the pressure and need to put formal structure around those aspirations to allow for them to continue and develop into the future.
The same is true with the life of the artist. It is essentially a utopian form a living...a life based on adhering to the purity of vision or calling resonating within the artist. Deviation from this feels like treasonous betrayal of a fundamental order. And so the notion of linking the educational nurturing of this calling with the stated desire to profit from the process seems problematic. But the reality is that this structure already exists. The aspirant lives inevitably in an economic ecosystem. He or she is immersed in it whether conscious of it or not. In most cases the pressure of that ecosystem incites a fear so great that the artistic aspiration is drowned out by real and present fears. The art happens...if it happens at all...as a prosthetic to the person's life. Jacob's suggestion offered a way to fuse art-making into the center of my life.
It proved to be true. The small still life paintings started to sell. And I have been painting ever since. Over 20 years. I learned how to relate to people looking at my work. To criticism and praise. I learned how to develop relationships with people who might want to represent or acquire my work. I built networks of relationships with all the elements necessary to get my work into the world...photographers, shippers, framers. And as I change and the art world changes I continue to learn. But I learn as a person still painting. I learn as an artist in the world making art. The three hour still life began that process for me.
Paul Cezanne, it is said, once made the following pronouncement: "I want to astonish Paris with an apple." And he did. Andy Warhol astonished with a can of soup. Paintings of lowly Things can be the occasion for the investigation and revelation of the most profound insights and possibilities.
The three hour still life workshop is not the transmission of a complete, fully-formed method for making three hour still life paintings. It is the setting for the practice of all the elements that will allow for each individual artist to experience the process and elements necessary for him or her to develop into an artist capable of making astonishing things. Perhaps those astonishing things are the three hour still life paintings themselves. Perhaps they are something of a totally different nature. The workshop is the space wherein one can open up the possibilities of astonishment. Whether through apples or cans of soup. Astonishment is the only aim of this workshop.