painting for an audience
I can only stand to watch other people paint for so long before I have to join in--and so, during the Oil and Wax Workshops that I teach, I have my own work in progress during the times set aside for concentrated painting. I usually have several things going--developing the panels on which I have demonstrated various techniques (I do formal demos several times a day of various techniques) plus a few other panels that are partially done when I bring them to class. When I teach in my own studio, I work on whatever I have lying around.
The panels that begin as demos provide an ongoing example of how I develop my work from the earliest layers, while the more advanced panels I bring in show the potential for richness and depth when many layers are in place. I use my paintings as an ongoing demonstration of a crucial concept that I teach--that of staying open to change, and pushing on through early phases of pleasing surfaces to more complex layering. Students are often startled and even distressed to see that I have completely painted over something that I've been working on for hours. There is no better example to set, and it is absolutely true to my working methods in my own studio.
Many students have told me they appreciate seeing my work in progress--being able to observe in action what I teach about fluidity, responsiveness to the paint, and non-attachment to the early phases of the painting. My intention is not to set myself up as a model to follow, but simply to show hands-on how a painting moves through various stages, beyond what I can show in the fifteen minute demos I do for specific techniques. (And as I've mentioned, the itch to paint is pretty strong when I am in any kind of studio setting!) For me, a fully developed painting requires many layers and a lot of time, and working on my panels for long stretches in class conveys that better than anything I can say.
Often when the class is working quietly, and I become involved in my own painting, one or more people in the class come spontaneously to my table to watch me. Respectful silence prevails, with perhaps an occasional question or observation. Sometimes the question is, "does it bother you to have people watching you?" (I hear this from other instructors too--I gather that what I do is not a very common practice.) The short answer is no...the longer answer is that I am in the workshop to teach, and my working practices can be part of that. (I do make it clear on the first day of class that even while I'm painting, I remain available for questions or help and that no one should worry about disturbing me.)
But the truth is, it is a mystery to me how it works, to have an audience. It's not that I block it out--I am certainly aware of the eyes upon me and the interest of the observers. Maybe it's a bit like an improvised jazz performance, in which the musician is confident of basic structure, and builds upon it with spontaneous and playful moves. Maybe having an audience even encourages boldness and risk taking, a bit of showing off, rising to a challenge. If that is the case, it 's all for the good, because sometimes I surprise myself and feel like I am one of the audience too ("what will she do now?!") I feel a bit self-conscious, but not in a bad way...I still connect with the work in a way that feels normal and comfortable.
I do think the quality of the audience--a small group of other artists who are intrigued and respectful--makes a difference to me. Their rapt attention is a gift.
All the paintings on this post were done during my classes in July at Cullowhee Mountain Arts
in North Carolina. At the top, Links
, 16"x16" and Illumine
, also 16" square, oil and mixed media on panel. Below, Cullowhee, 12"x12" oil and mixed media on panel.