Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thoughts on painting the familiar by Paul Baldassini

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Tables, chairs, coffee & café patrons;
Fields; tractors, farmers & haybales

Since putting up my website about a year ago now I’ve received numerous emails commenting on my recent work, along with a number of emails regarding my Café Watercolor Series.  Recently this has included inquiries regarding purchase and purchase price.  I’ve explained how I don’t really (at least for now) do the café paintings anymore because I’m concentrating on the Working Land Series instead.  So I thought I would provide some clarification and explanation of where I’m coming from on all of this.  Like most of my posts this will be a long discussion so I hope you will read on and post me some commentary.

I firmly believe that artist’s most emotional and sincere work will only happen after one has fully assimilated and absorbed their immediate surroundings.  That is to say the sights, sounds, smells and feelings one experiences everyday in their ordinary living, working, playing and family life.  Since most of these experiences happen on an unconscious level, the familiarity of “place” allows, at least for me, a certain recall of sensations and the ability to translate to canvas deep meaning and feelings exclusive of my resource material, be they camera, sketchbook, or field studies.

This is not the same as “imagination” which is different than “memory.” The dictionary defines imagination as “...the power of the mind to form images and things not present to the senses or within the actual experience of the person involved.”  That is not to say that imagination is a bad thing in the creation of visual images, indeed it is a motivating force for many artists and much great art has been created as a result of the “imagined landscape” or imagined whatever.  For me only assiduous observation and study of things in my immediate environs can lead to a fully realized work.

For example, I do not think that I could produce a very good work of say, the Grand Canyon.  Having been there twice, it certainly is a majestic and beautiful sight to behold.  I was moved, humbled and in awe of the vastness of the landscape and even think I experienced the “life force vortex” of the Canyon so often written about in that part of the country.  But that is not enough for me to go home and “do a painting” of the Grand Canyon from say, some source photographs.  The work would lack a certain power and quality that can only come from living in Arizona or nearby that part of the country, thus assimilating all of the sensory inputs both consciously and unconsciously over a period of time.

In other words, since I lacked the assimilated Grand Canyon life experience I could not be moved from source material alone to produce a compelling image.  And if I could not produce a compelling image then no one would be compelled to enjoy it either.  I believe that if I do a good job with something that I am passionate about -- and nothing is accomplished without passion -- if I make a painting about something I love, someone else will love it also.

That does not mean, of course, that I could not set up in the field and paint a Grand Canyon scene or any other scene anywhere en plein air. I would and could most likely, produce an acceptable work.  Most of my work, however, is realized in the studio mainly through the use of photographic reference material, taken in the field over and over again nearly every day with an eye honed and trained in design and composition, for over 30 years.  Thus I am very attuned and sympathetic to the quality of light and color, shapes and shadows of my surroundings and can bring all of that to bear on photographic sources in a way that I could not by utilizing the photo-reference taken from the rim of the Grand Canyon, for example.  Not to mention the fact that its taken me years to develop a working palette to deal with the overwhelming amount GREEN all around me here in CT. I also like to get very up close and personal with my subject matter so painting a Canyon scene from say, some vantage point on the south rim, would not be suitable for my personal artistic vision.  At least not today.

Perhaps this sounds limiting to some of you, but I do not find it limiting in any way.  There is unlimited subject matter all around, you just have find it or better yet, let it come to you.  To get back to where this post started, I will say that because I worked 12-hours days at my very busy design studio in Boston’s Back Bay, I had no time to paint during the day finding, at best and not often, time to paint only at night at home. But, I had coffee every morning at a wonderful European-style café around the corner from my studio -- the Travis Café -- now long gone and since replaced with a high-end designer kitchen boutique.  I sketched and photographed café patrons there every morning and many afternoons for nearly a decade and got quite accustomed to the quality of light and color, shapes and shadows of my surroundings.  I have many sketchbooks that attest to a certain “café sensibility.”  This meant that I was able to assimilate, integrate and translate my European café experiences back in the studio into what eventually became my Café Watercolor Series of paintings.

So here I am living in Middletown, CT with my family and two cats, a very nice place to live and work and paint.  Now, as then, I do not have to travel far to find source material for my paintings.  The “Café Watercolors” series of urban landscapes filled with café patrons, table, chairs and accoutrement have been replaced with the “Working Land” series of countrified pastoral landscapes replete with farmers, hayfields, tractors and haywagons executed in the medium of oil paint.

And I’m quite content with that.

Until my next post, thank-you for listening.


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