August 24, 2021

Questions I Ask Myself While Painting


When we work at tasks––cooking, cleaning, gardening, repairing––I imagine that all of us ask ourselves questions, whether consciously or not. Do I add more salt? where should I put this new plant? how can I fix this cupboard door with its loose hinge? will wood putty work? When I'm in the process of painting, which I've been doing for about 50 years (yikes!) I don't usually pay attention to the questions asked, decisions made; although they are constant, I don't focus clearly on them. Painting became like walking, where I don't have to ponder each muscle movement in order to go forward. 

But then, a painting ago, the questions became loud and clear in my head; I noticed them. The questions were about process, about the step by step making of a painting, and not anything philosophical: not why am I doing this at all, not what I'm trying to say. Just process. I imagine every artist has their own particular questions. A first question for me is the palette and which color pastes are to be laid out in the small cups: do I need Cadmium orange? which yellow should I use, Cad yellow medium or light? should I mix the greens I'll need? if so, which blues will come in handy? Ultramarine deep? Cobalt blue deep, or light or standard? maybe a green? Why oh why didn't I order more Chrome oxide green? Should I use some Phthalo green? if so, warm or cool? 

I use photographic sources for my work, so there are often decisions to be made as to how faithfully to follow the image. For this painting one large question was: what color do I paint the lower right corner? The source was green grass, which would not do at all. The warm brown you see sketched in above was many colors before it got to that one. Should it be dark green? blue? a warm earth red? maybe more yellow in that? lighter? darker? Each questioned color was tried and wiped off, to start anew. Should the color have transparency? or be more opaque? I actually thought this: should the color be dead or alive? I think my question meant how intense should the color be? should it recede, or pop, or be on the same plane as the shapes above? 

There are always questions about the composition: will I move the diagonals so that they touch the corners? what about that dark edge: put it in or leave it out? Should I widen the left rectangle? Where should I place the red circle? centered, or higher? And the biggest question: do I leave the arm coming from the left side of the red disk? And the protruding brown cylinder: is it be seen from above, as in the source image, or straight on? 

Here is a detail of that part of the painting, finished, with the questions answered.

Colors chosen bring up a litany of questions, for every color in every painting. Many years ago, when I was a student at Skowhegan, our rallying cry was "Hue! Value! Intensity!", the three qualities of color. Getting these greens––in shadow and light––to work required many layers of color answering how warm? how cool? how light? how dark? how intense do I want the color to be? which blue or green or yellow will give the hue I want? will the shadow color be more or less transparent? will adding white kill the color, or would yellow work? which yellow? maybe I should add lemon yellow to my palette? And the touch, or facture: do I want it to show a subtle painterliness or a more opaque surface? Will the green rectangle on the left be lighter, warmer than the triangular green? How about the lights? how warm, how light? One of the great qualities of egg tempera is its translucency, which allows for color mixing while layering paint. And after each layer, each new color: does it sit properly in space? does it carry enough light?  

Red Disk, 2021, egg tempera on calfskin parchment, 7 5/8 x 8 5/8 in.

A final question: do I include a photo of the finished painting in this blog post? 

As I thought about why my list of questions moved to the foreground of my mind, I remembered that I'd recently read a wonderful poem by John Yau, "Fifty for Richard Nonas", the sculptor, which consisted of a long list of questions, questions that are enlightening, thoughtful, demanding, confounding, compelling, essential. I love this::
What is invisible inside this place you are filling with carbon dioxide? What besides air, light, and memories? 
(click to enlarge)


  1. Thanks for an enjoyable, thought-provoking post. It raises a lot of questions...the obvious one is the source of the 7-o'clock shadow in the finished painting.

    The poem reminds me for some reason about how as a kid I would walk around cutting my way through an imaginary sheet of paper, a perfect plane about waist-height, which would come back together behind me after I'd passed.

    One answer I can give about the loose hinge! Slivers of toothpicks or bamboo skewers and a bit of glue, packed not too tightly in the overlarge screw-holes, and then drive the screws while still wet, is a very nice fix.

    I have ceased to receive email notification of your posts - don't know why - and was happy to see two new posts when I came to check.


    1. JBS, thanks for your comment, and suggestion about the hinge (I used wood putty). I love the memory of the paper.

      As for blog post emails, I'm using a new service, which has dropped some people, so you can sign up again at the upper right of the page.