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Painting Workshop

It’s so beautiful here in the south of France. Exquisite. Rocky and scrubby. The cypresses. The vineyards. Villages of piled yellow stones with red tile roofs. The real locals, like a guy who is the watchman at the marble quarry, they talk French so it sounds like Spanish. Languedoc.

It’s been very windy the whole time, like the wind in Big Sur, it gets on your nerves. A steady fitful wind is, by its very essence, “in your face.”

I’m fully off line here, which is great. I’m hardly even keeping journal notes. Just letting the experiences mount up and flow by. I like the flow of time here. Shifting sand. All the others have jet-lag, which makes time even more vague. The one kind of writing I’m doing is chipping away at the novel.

But really it’s about painting these days. I wake up at night and think about what I’ll paint the next day.

I’ve finished four paintings now, working six or more hours a day for eight days in the studio, which is a big old building in a field by a river, it’s a former saw mill for blocks of the local red marble from the Caunes quarry, “Le Carrière du Roi.” Only four more days to go here, I’ll miss this life.

Glen gave me really good practical advice about the pictures. He never talks about the content, just about the composition. Tricks to push things forward, or to avoid “triple points” (where too many lines come together).

I did a very nice final landscape, South of France. I was working on it at night in the studio and then I went outside and it was still a little bit light even though it was 10 p.m. and I had my brush in my hand and I was reaching out towards the trees and clouds and the house, moving my brush in the air, “painting” the things in place.

It was in the Wayne Thiebaud multiperspective style, a view of the vineyards with a piñon pine in the foreground. Glen like it, he said it was a very personal take on Thiebaud, a fantasy landscape, with a lot of rhythm. I suggested putting in a UFO, but got no encouragement on this front! I’m happy to be doing a straight landscape. I never thought I could do that. Glen’s brought me to a new level.

Riding my bike home after finishing my painting, Hylozoic¸ I was enthralled by the alternating shutters and doors in they yellow stone houses by the road. And on the porch, the wind feels like a paintbrush, a sweep of color.

In the tub this morning, rubbing my back with a washcloth, it felt like I was painting on blue-white paint. Imagine everything becoming color and gesture.

It’s all about painting these days. I wake up at night and think about what I’ll paint the next day. I wake up sore from the painting. Today I did yoga and I was seeing my muscle pains as colors. Not intellectually imagining this, but viscerally feeling washes of color in my brain. My forever-sore muscle along the right side of my spine oozed a pale cobalt blue as I squeezed it out. The sharp pain in my right shoulder a triangle of orange (made of vermillion and cadmium yellow). My legs a mixture of Mars black and cadmium red. The pain in my lower back is an acid green produced by mixing cobalt blue with cadmium yellow and white. Veins of thalo green creeping in.


[A seven-sided church dome in a 12th C church near Caunes.]

I was planning to do a triptych here: Postsingular, Hylozoic, and Infinite. I got some canvas for it, and finished the middle one, a square meter.

In the sky and in the foreground are circular blobs, representing the ubiquity of consciousness (every atom has a mind). It shows Thuy Nguyen with her pigtails in the lower right corner. You see her from behind, just the part and the pigtails and her bare neck. To the left stands a painter holding up a brush and looking towards her. He has a hat like Bosch wears in a drawing that’s sometimes said to represent him. Also he has a halo. I think of him as Bosch, as me, as Jayjay.

The largest and brightest thing in the picture is a flying manta ray, a Hrull mothership. Her mouth is open and you can see someone inside her mouth, like the people inside the body of the tree-man in the hell panel of Garden of Earthly Delights. This is Chu, who becomes a Hrull ship crew member. The manta ray’s mouth is vaginal, so Chu also resembles a fetus. There’s a logical flow from the pig-tailed young woman to the painter phallically displaying his brush to the small figure inside the manta ray. Woman seduced by magus becomes pregnant.

Doesn’t quite fit the book, as in fact Thuy seduces the young Chu and gets pregnant from that. But when I paint from one of my novels before actually writing the material, I’m using the painting to uncover possibilities. Maybe Bosch becomes besotted with Thuy, even though she’s only one foot tall relative to him. Or maybe we’re seeing Bosch steering the Hrull mothership (bearing Chu inside) to Thuy in the second to last chapter. Or, again, Jayjay could be the painter, and then the picture would make more sense. Thuy, Jayjay, and Chu.

So what I learned from the painting is that Jayjay does in fact become a painter like Bosch, maybe even a Bosch impersonator.

This is a photo from an exhibit by the winegrowers’ association that was up in the Caunes abbey before our group show. What we see here is a mob of enraged locals pulling down—a cautionary message about drinking and driving! They’re going after it as if it were a statue of Stalin or Saddam Hussein. This really cracked me up; I totally can’t imagine this demonstration happening in our puritanical US. Nobody would dare! Crimethink! Public safety is our scared cow. Not that I’m advocating drunk driving, mind you—but it’s interesting to see that societies can work from different sets of assumptions.

Glen says that he dreams of making a “breakthrough” and coming up with some new angle on painting. That set me to thinking about writing breakthroughs. In a way, I’m just happy to be able to write at all, and to get my work published. Maybe I made my breakthrough some time ago and am now enjoying my mature style. But maybe I am working for breakthrough too.


[Snail on a plane tree by the Canal du Midi.]

I do try and break through to new ideas each time out, but my characters and incidentals are much the same. I have a sense that trying for a breakthrough isn’t always a good idea, at least for me. It’s hard enough to write at all. Going for a breakthrough is that “knock it outta the park” thing—and you can end up whiffing. Saucer Wisdom was a deliberate breakthrough book, and it didn’t do too well in the marketplace. Maybe the trilogy I’m working on is a breakthrough. Or maybe it’s the same old sh*t. Like I say, the main thing is that I can do it. I love exercising my craft, making it funnier and vibbier and more gripping, step by step, tweak by tweak, polishing it like an icon.


[Barbara Heffernan with one of her paintings, and her portrait by Kevin Brown]

Today we hung a little show in a room at the local museum. Paintings by our workshop members.

I have two of my pictures up. Glen’s picture wasn’t finished yet. Last night he was going to do a big push, but he didn’t get it together. He was tense.


[Paul Fujii with his watercolors.]

The students’ mood and state of well being was very dependent on Glen’s moods. Imagine this for Bosch’s studio.

The opening of our group show was actually fun and the dinner was cheerful. Glen was in a good mood. On the night before the opening—after the rest of us had hung our pictures—Glen finished a piece about 8 ft by 4 ft, paper, an irregular pattern of black dots with white rings around them (acrylic) and then the paper laid on the floor and stained with a mug of black tea that stood on it and slowly dried overnight.

The effect was good, a kind of leopard skin quality. Glen called it Magellanic Clouds. I like the way he looks in this picture, so proud. He’s like, “Yaaar, I caught the big fish!” A little reminiscent of CA Turing spots as well, but funkier.

Glen was happy and we students were happy for him. We had dinner at a place in the tiny town of Citou on a back road. I don’t think a single car went by while we ate for four hours.

I had a landscape called Minerve in the show, which is the name of a town where I sketched the scene above, and painted the scene below.

I would have liked to see Hylozoic in the show but it’s not stretched, I painted it on a big square of canvas stapled to the wall. Now I’m worrying about getting that home, also my South of France painting, which is on a sheet of paper too big to fit in the suitcase. I rolled them up in foam.

Walking around the little medieval village of Caunes day after day. It’s so tiny. And on most of the streets you can’t see the horizon, or even any green. You just see the walls. It’s like being inside a very high-walled maze. The village. And when you get out into the green fields it’s such a relief. I see Thuy and Jayjay having this feeling in s’Hertogenbosch.

Glen lent me a vibby book, What Painting Is, by James Elkins. It’s a sustained analogy between painting and the medieval practice of alchemy. Paint is water (the medium) and stone (the pigment), and you’re trying to distill the fire of light. On the palette, the mixed paints are like excrement, the “prima materia” of alchemists. They paints transform unexpectedly. You don’t really know what you’re doing, it’s a somewhat magical and intuitive process.

I personally hate to try and think about the color wheel when I’m mixing paints—logical analysis feels wrong in this context. It’s much more pleasant to just muddle the paints together and see what I get, and if it’s not what I wanted, maybe I can use the “wrong” color somewhere else. This said, I am learning a few basics, like that cobalt blue and cadmium yellow make a nice green—but still, and here’s the alchemy of it, this mixture doesn’t always seem to work. I have to throw in an unspecified amount of white. Or adjust the amount of yellow.

Would be nice to have an actual alchemist in the story. Maybe Thuy and Azaroth are hanging out with one. A guy like in Bruegel’s drawing of a Nick Herbert or Phineas McWhinney type alchemist. “Al gemischt,” it says in the Bruegel drawing, which means all mixed up.

I’m planning to model my Infinite wing of the triptych on Bosch’s Venice painting of an ascent to heaven, where the image is (perhaps) inspired by the appearance of the water-mirrored round arches in the s’Hertogenbosch town canal. I can have Bosch point this out to Jayjay.

We took a little ride in a boat on the Canal du Midi. Exquisite.

And then it was back to the big city.

7 Responses to “Painting Workshop”

  1. Gamma Says:

    good work what about the centre…?

  2. COOP Says:

    I like the painting of the lawnchair/couch the best. I loves me some Thiebaud. All that thick, crusty impasto, like a painting made of cake frosting. Which I guess is the whole point, in his case.

    I also have those kind of synaesthesiac experiences when I’m painting. When I’m working on one of those 12-foot mothers, I can think of hardly anything else, and everything somehow translates into that process. My brain starts to break everything down into color formulas and hunks of light.

    Painting and writing are real magic; making something from nothing. It’s fun to be a wizard sometimes.

  3. Marc Laidlaw Says:

    You must convince Sylvia to let you put up photos of her paintings. From what I can see in the one shot, they’re really nice.

    I like your couches a lot. The yellow does something to my brain.

  4. Steve H Says:

    Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about – enrich your own work with technique and advice from others without letting them dilute your vision. Sounds like you’re having a great time and getting narrative ideas; especially if you’re seeing paint everywhere. Marc’s right, the yellow couches are satisfying thick and tactile. Interesting to see the other students’ excellent work and that Glen’s painting had an sfnal title.

  5. rs Says:

    cool entry, I loved the line about the flying saucer — I can see the grin on face.

  6. vanderleun Says:

    Good to see you still happy and productive. Pretty good paintings as well.

  7. hurtstotouchfire Says:

    Your synesthesia reminded me of a Joey Comeau short story:
    http://www.looseteeth.ca/itstoolate/

    lovely post.


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