Anything is Paintable

If your mission is to paint stuff — sun-dappled water, piers, workers, tools, and so on — the process is quite dreary. There's just too much stuff. Makes my head hurt.

But if you believe what my father told me decades ago, that a painting is just a pattern of lights, darks and colors on the retina of your eye — then suddenly anything can be painted, regardless of the prolixity of its detail. It is a lesson which, after some 45 years, I am pushing myself to learn.

The idea is simple enough. A painting's a mosaic, formed of brushstrokes instead of tiles. A big mosaic formed of very small tiles could give the illusion of great detail. A smaller mosaic, formed of larger tiles, would tell the same story, but with less information. Either way, each tile, or each brushstroke, would need to be the same value, hue and chroma that falls on the retina of the eye, and it must be in the right place. By that reckoning, anything is paintable.

For example, this view of a marina down by the Ohio River, which I happened upon last Saturday:


Oodles of stuff there. What's a fella to do? Well, you've got to start somewhere…

So I started with an 11x14" canvas, the cheap kind you get at Hobby Lobby. Might as well not use a surface which is expensive and intimidating. Plus, cheap canvas panels are easier to paint on than lead-primed linen, at least for me, and at least on the first day. You've just got to cover the stupid acrylic priming with something that'll accept oil paint. Here, the panel had been rubbed down with a thin layer of burnt sienna. This may or may not have been the best choice for this particular subject, but it made the surface easier to deal with.

There are people who can do this a lot faster and more accurately than I can, at least at this point in my life. But one does the best one can. Here, I broke down the scene into a pattern of darks and lights, as best I could.

The canvas, as you can see, is in shadow. This is helpful. Were the full blast of the sun to hit the canvas, it would make me think the picture in progress was a lot lighter than it actually was. The effect might be okay outside, but when you bring such a picture inside the house, it becomes much darker than one would like. William Merritt Chase is the exception to the rule: he favored getting as much light on his canvas as possible. Which is fine if you know going in that such a procedure is going to push you toward the dark side of the spectrum. I adore Chase, but his plein air pictures are rather darker than those of his contemporaries.


"G'wan, paint into it!!" my irascible teacher Robert Phillipp used to yell when I felt intimidated trying to work into wet pigment. The sooner one learns how cooperative wet paint really is, the better. There certainly could be a limit to the amount of finesse one can put into a single session of painting, but few of us ever actually reach that limit.

Cold wind and the fast-moving afternoon sun shut me down.


Here's today's work. Yeah, anything is paintable. The question isn't the amount of stuff you render, but the skill with which you see and paint each chunk of the canvas. Given the right mixture of paint, aimed in the right place, ropes, tools and all sorts of stuff will explain themselves as they do in real life, as a pattern on the retina of one's eyes. My friend Luschek and his art school buddies used to try to do a whole picture with a set number of brushstrokes. Can you tell the story with fifty? 100? 500? It might be an exercise worth trying.

In the meantime, here's to the memory of my wonderful father, and all the colors and values which, for almost 98 years, played over the retinas of his eyes.