Monday, August 19, 2019

Keep your pencil sharp

Drawing by Josef Albers
Every student was required to have a pencil sharpener and to keep a sharp point on the pencil when drawing. 
— Rob Roy Kelly on studying art with Josef Albers

Reading that statement was a kind of crux point for me in learning about making paintings. That's how I learn: somebody says (or plays) something that grabs my attention, and I run with it.

I did start using a pencil for the first time ever, and doing some hard-edged pictures, but mostly I took a very broad lesson from it, about paying attention to the quality of my line, and making clean, professional, finished-looking marks. And working more deliberately in general.

When I started, the most important thing to me was to move on impulse. The first things I did were Jackson Pollock-like drip paintings, which are conducive to an impulsive, dynamic technique, not unlike playing the drums*. After awhile I realized that that alone wasn't going to produce the pictures I wanted. I was putting down too many bad marks and colors, that I would have to deal with later, making a lot of extra work for myself.

So I saw that quote as I was thinking about how to maybe get it right in the first place. About making quality marks, so they look good in case they survive to be visible in the final piece— and the better they look, the more likely they are to survive. And also color selection; I sometimes would put paint on the canvas just because I had a lot of it on my palette— a really dumb way to paint.

Gotham News by Willem de Kooning
I had a similar attitude about music to my original attitude about painting. My main concern was energy. I had to learn that in both art and music is that having an intense effect does not necessarily come from physical intensity when creating it.

In playing the drums, that quote translates as paying attention to your sound, and improving your accuracy. That helps you sound good no matter what you play— though there are plenty of very accurate drummers who are boring to listen to. I always was thinking about my sound— in the Miles Davis sense of using it expressively, not in a commercial, studio drummer sense. Really thinking about accuracy came late in the process. Accuracy is also tied up with other issues of groove concept, time, and coordination, and with developing your ears as an ensemble player, so it can't really be addressed in isolation.

I'm not even sure this is great advice for anyone but me, right now. There's no shortage of artists and musicians capable of creating mannered, disciplined work. There are fewer who have the kind of energetic edge that I'm after.

* - That should also tell you something about my approach to drum technique. 

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