Thoughts on the Artistic Process

by Julia Rymer

I’m battling my way through my work, preparing for an upcoming show, but also, as always, simply doing the work: creating, destroying, pondering, playing in the studio. Marking up canvases and instantly regretting the marks, or sometimes– not often– loving what I have made, and getting attached, wanting to keep it. Then destroying it and remaking it, again and again, until I feel like it is at a place balance and completion.

The artistic process feels like a battle to me. It is one I am willing to fight, but nonetheless it remains a battle.

Painting also often feels like chasing a wild animal, only the wild animal is my Self. I’m also doing a lot of inner work right now, rethinking my approach to language and my use of my voice as a person. Art has always been a means for me to have a voice, and to give all those emotions and experiences a place to exist and breathe. To feel real, and valid– in a sense, to give them solidity and form.

Some days in the studio I win the battle, and I feel a sense of accomplishment and completion. This feeling always fades, for the primal urge to create– to “art” as a verb, as my father likes to say– resurfaces, and I am back in that space, again, alone against the canvas. James Baldwin says that the artist must actively cultivate aloneness, so that we may “conquer the great wilderness of [the self].”

“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate the darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”  (James Baldwin, The Creative Process.)

To make the world a more human dwelling place. I can think of no better description of the purpose of art in this dark world. It puts into context the need for art, of all its forms and manifestations, whether dance or painting or song. We are making the world more human. And that is, indeed, a battle. This is not a world that wants more humanity. It is a world that wants and cultivates and craves more inhumanity, in all its forms, from robots making everything from hamburgers to cars, to the cruelty of separating a parent and a child as they cross a border, to the destruction of our very planet.

I carry on this work, this mission, this battle. Whether in oil or acrylic, what is in these paintings is my soul, my humanity– and I am not being overly dramatic. We are here to say something, artists. Say it.


Every painting is a journey.

One of the most common questions I am asked as an artist is how long it takes to complete a painting. This question does not surprise me. The process of making art is foreign to many. And abstract art, despite existing in the cultural lexicon since at least the late 19th century, remains mysterious in its meaning or worth, leading to the dreaded declaration, "My kid could do that."

It's true. Kids make great art. But, I'm going to show you how I make art.

I don't know how a work starts. Something strikes me- a word, a color, an image from nature, a shape I feel like making, a composition that has been flashing behind my eyes as I drift to sleep- that incites a need to create. I head to the studio. I prep the canvas or paper, lay it out on table or easel. I mix up my color, dip my brush, and I start. Immediately I react to what I just did, adding new color, a charcoal or graphite mark, or a shape, repeating the process until I built up to a composition that feels like it has balance.

The process can take minutes, hours, days, weeks, years. I never really know. Sometimes I sit with a piece for months, photograph it, market it, and then a few months later, paint over it.

This is a painting I began months ago. I painted it at the same time as two other pieces, and had some extra paint to use up from those paintings, so I quickly did began this one. Then it sat in my studio until two days ago, when I finally decided that it wasn't finished.

I initially liked how fresh it felt, and the lightness of the marks. I love simple paintings. But this one didn't last as a design. It needed more. Here is the story of where it went from there.

 

At first, I added some drawn charcoal lines and shapes, and started painting in more colors: turquoise, green, navy blue, gray. I turned the piece upside down to take a look at how the design drew the eye through it, and how "balanced" it seemed (did the parts on one section relate to parts on another section). Did the parts relate to the whole? Did some stick out, or become distracting? I decided to keep going.

I actually forgot to photograph the step in between these two steps, but no matter: it was terrible. WAY too much pink. I had nicknamed the painting "Miami." Yikes. Here's where I went from there, subduing the warm colors, and building up the surface more.

More blues, more grays, more greens, more layers. I turned the piece around again, and covered up quite a bit of the underpainting with cool colors. Shapes begin to connect through the middle, creating relationships in the composition, moving the eye around the piece like guideposts or bridges, from one section to the next.

I felt like the piece was at a stopping point, or almost. I just needed one more thing...

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More blue.

Where will it go from here? I'm not sure. I'm sitting with it for awhile longer...

What do you think?

What is Color Identity?

(Or, what makes a color feminine or masculine?)

My former mentor and art professor once gave me an exercise to push through a painting block I was experiencing. He said, “Make two paintings that are the most ugly paintings you have ever seen. Use every color you hate, and put them all into the same painting. Really go for it- try to make these paintings so hideous you cannot stand it. Get ugliness out of your system.”

I love color challenges. This was not my first from him- I had studied with him for many years by that time, and was fresh out of graduate school, stuck in the series of paintings I was working on, and needing something new. His challenge propelled me into another series, one very different from the work I had completed for my master’s thesis.

Years later I learned to pose color challenges for myself on a regular basis. I usually do this by limiting the palette I am working with, or trying to create a “mood” through my color choices in my work.

The past year has been an exploration of feminine and masculine color schemes.

As an artist I bristle at being called a “female artist”— why is there an indicator of gender needed; no one calls an artist a “male artist” — yet we live in a culture that places meaning on color. I call these Color Identifiers, also known as Color Analogues. Color can identify as masculine, feminine, or it can be both, depending on the contextual colors around it. This dichotomy compelled me in the studio, and my work evolved largely because of it.

After making what I call “pretty paintings”, which felt incredibly feminine, I found myself pushing into the masculine world of color in 2015. I noticed that so-called “male artists” that I admired had very different approaches to color, allowing the ugliness of colors to co-exist with the beauty of color— and within the same piece. This is a complex and sophisticated undertaking, and a huge color challenge. As examples I look to artists like Tim Hussey, Brian Coleman, and John Wood, whose works dance that line of beautiful and unattractive, a visual exploration of the French term “jolie laide,” in which a person is seen as “attractive but not conventionally pretty.”

Interestingly, I am not the only one exploring the color juxtaposition of “male” and “female” colors. Pantone chose two colors for the Color of the Year in 2016, a pale rose pink and lavender blue, to express our culture’s current obsession with gender identity and dynamics.

What also interests me about this process is the relationship I have with "feminine" colors as light, pale, pastel, warm, beautiful or pretty, and "masculine" colors as harsh, dark, muted, cool and unattractive. Where does that subconsciously come from?

Let me know what you think of my work- does it seem “feminine” or “masculine” to you? Does it bridge that gap as I intended? What are your “color identifiers”?

Being the Artist You Are

One of the most profound moments of my artistic career happened not with a great mentor or inspiring artist. It happened, instead, with a professor I quite detested at the time for their negativity, cynicism, and angst. I never took another class from her, in fact. But their advice to me in that moment was one that has stuck with me to this day, and I still think of it often.

In my first semester of graduate school, I struggled to find my voice as an artist, flitting from style to style and media to media like a toddler exploring a room filled with new toys. I did not stay with any one thing for long. My lack of focus was frustrating, for how do you get a grasp on creating an entire master’s thesis when you cannot commit in the span of one artwork?

One of these professors said something to me at a studio visit towards the end of the semester that encapsulated what I was struggling with quite succinctly. During a weekly studio visit, the professor looked at all the work I had created, and said, point blank:

“At some point, Julia, you will have to just make the art you are going to make, and you are going to have to be OK with that.”

Say that again?

You will just have to make the art you make, and you are going to have to be OK with that.

Both revelatory and a shock, this was a lesson that has slowly sunk in over the years. What this professor meant was: be the artist you are. Don’t be someone else­– not your famous professor, best friend from art school, or that guy who randomly picked up a paintbrush one day and now sells paintings for $20,000 a pop. Not the Pop artist, or the friends whose art involves tagging the neighborhood. Don’t make someone else’s work; make yours, and be OK with that.

It has taken me decades of work as a painter and printmaker to hold my focus, creating abstract paintings and prints that explore my fascination with science and nature.  Only once I stopped flitting about in the studio, and buckled down to a series that could sustain me for years, did I start to feel my confidence as an artist grow. These years of dedication were affirmed recently, when I met with a gallery director, who said to me, “You just keep your style, your palette, your vocabulary.” She said that if I don’t, my work is not authentic. And authenticity is something I value as much as beauty and craft.

So, be brave, artists. Just keeping making YOUR art.

 

Art & Beauty: Skyler McGee

McGee_3Skyler McGee: Balancing Nature and Space

I have followed Skyler McGee’s work since she was a student of mine at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Since then, her work has evolved into careful, poetic considerations of nature, space, and color.

Inspired by the natural world, Skyler works in fresh, delicate layers. She plays with combinations of materials– hard and soft, light and heavy, from oil paint to printmaking to watercolor. She emphasizes the artist’s hand or presence- nothing feels machine-made, but rather as if it was somehow uncovered in a forgotten studio from long ago, or excavated from an anthropological dig. She works carefully, slowly, her color sense reflecting the natural elements that inspire her work.

Currently living in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and two little girls, Skyler’s work reflects her daily life as well, as she balances her life as an artist, mom and wife. You can see more of her work at charcoalandsaffron.wordpress.com.

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The Creative Place

Image "Creative artists ... are mankind's wakeners to recollection: summoners of our outward mind to conscious contact with ourselves, not as participants in this or that morsel of history, but as spirit, in the consciousness of being. Their task, therefore, is to communicate directly from one inward world to another, in such a way that an actual shock of experience will have been rendered: not a mere statement for the information or persuasion of a brain, but an effective communication across the void of space and time from one center of consciousness to another."

Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Volume IV: Creative Mythology

What is art if not to awaken us? To make things seen that we do not see, to bring light onto subjects we would pass by. Art says, "Look. Hear. Feel. Experience." – and then some.

Art creates a place where we are present.