I finished a painting today.
I had been painting on it for a while. At least 8 years, I think. I don't mean I was painting on it every day for 8 years. I mean from time to time, over that stretch of time, I would take up the picture and try to get it done. It feels done now, meaning that it succeeds as a picture and it has a life of its own independent of me. It does something that I did not anticipate and it continues to disarm me as a maker, and to empower me as a viewer. In a nutshell, that's how I know it's done.
I think about what I was doing over the various times I took up the picture. I was in love when I started it and I thought I finished it then. In fact, I thought I finished it a number of times. I've had a variety of jobs, lovers, friends, losses, success, and failures over that time. I think the picture bears the traces of all of it. Some days I picked up the brush with confidence only to be embarrassed at how badly the picture was coming along. I would turn it to the wall on these days. Even looking at the back of the panel, I could see the failed image.
I never really had an idea of what this picture was supposed to be. It has been a variety of heads over time. It's been too many colors; the flesh tones have gotten progressively bloodless over the time I painted it. It's been sanded a couple of times, by hand and with a power sander. I had way too much paint on it for a while and the ridges and history of the dried paint sometimes got in the way of the track of the brush. The dried paint forced me to make the same decisions over and over. When I sanded some of the paint off, I made an effort to keep the image. Sometimes I could and sometimes I would just paint over everything and cry.
Years ago, I cant't remember how long ago, I saw a man at the Purple Cactus who had a beautiful nose. When I got back to my car, I drew his face and I had the drawing in my wallet for a while. I pulled it out the other day and thought about the painting. I wondered if this was the nose that was supposed to be in the painting. I tried to put it in and it made me change the entire picture. It was a worse failure than before. I wondered if I should just paint the nose and leave the rest of the painting. Maybe it could just be a painting of a nose?
I was at MacDowell and there was snow. The greens and the greys mixed in a way that I could only describe as heavy and thick. I loved the density of the winter color. For the first time in a long time, I considered painting the landscape. I would never do that because landscape painting is really fucking hard. Especially for a control freak like me.
I pulled out this painting yesterday and thought about heavy grey. I mixed a bunch of color in the memory of the snow. I looked at my jawline in the mirror and repainted the picture. It's not a big painting, about 12 x 16 inches. It took me a few hours to repaint it. I used my jaw and I painted over the perfect nose of the man but for some reason, I thought about his hair and I used it. I invented the cheekbones and followed the line of them to place the eye pits and the line of the skull.
I thought he might be blind. I painted his eyes and then I thought he might be blinking or winking. I thought he might not want to see what he was seeing. I thought his mouth might be a sign of life, bloody, vibrant. A dead head with a living mouth. I thought he was somewhere between the lusty and the dead.
His ears were bigger.
I set the painting on my table so it would be the first thing I saw when I came back into the studio and I went home. When I came in today, that's when I knew it was finished. I didn't want to do anything to it and I was looking at it for a long time. I was a viewer, I wasn't a painter then. That's how I knew it was done.
I started making a base for it. It needs to be a free standing painting.