“The important thing is somehow to begin.” — Henry Moore
Facing the white blank field of a fresh canvas can be a sticking point of starting a painting. For a few artists it is their “bête noir,” their black beast veiled in white. Some artists can become flustered and suddenly need to sweep their studios. Others find that something important must be attended to immediately and without further delay and the beginning of this work will just have to wait.
One might imagine that the obvious advice would be to just start with something – some color or line or gesture, something to sully the pristine surface. But I have an alternate philosophy on the preparation of surfaces as the courtship phase of the work.
If you stretch your canvases or make your own paper perhaps this approach would not be necessary and even redundant.. With the thinness of commercial canvases in this modern era, it is even more important to apply your own coats of gesso. I like at least three additional layers. With commercial grade canvases on which the gesso is sprayed – you never know if your canvas might have the watery portion. You do not want the paint to seep through to the back (this consideration is even more important for oil painters.) Adding layers of gesso increases the weight of the canvas and help it last years longer. This step even helps protect the eventual painting from accidental tears. With commercial paper, you may wish to rinse the sizing from the surface, which changes it absorption range.
There is now a vast array of gesso that comes in colors. Try experimenting with a black-surfaced canvas. It evokes an entirely different orientation, one where you are pulling the light from the depths of the canvas rather than laying the atmosphere or image on the surface. There is also a buff titanium colored gesso, which gives an earthy connection, a middle-grey one the forces a high value range as well as many other colors. (Daniel Smith Art Supplies has a beautiful gold gesso.)
Preparing your surfaces allows you to personalize your direct contact with the surface. Such time in preparation grants you time to get to know, on an intimate level, the surface and can start your creative process. You dream instead of despair.
One of the factors that might cause one to hesitate beginning on the whiteness is the nature of surface memory. With the visual arts, the history of each mark, every change, any alteration of color, shape, the deviance of a line is always with us. I imagine one of the differences between the literary and visual arts might be that while a writer might start with a single word or prompt – it would be a simply process to delete the beginning impulse and impetus. With the visual arts, every mark carries its particular history – even if one might erase seemingly completely that first gesture, there remains a trace on the surface, a pale ghost whose shadow nevertheless influences and effects the proceeding work.
I had an art instructor named Howard Brodie, who was also a courtroom artist-correspondent for television news-programs, who reported that if he did not feel his first mark was authentic, he would toss the whole sheet of paper. This appeared very extravagant to poor art students, though now I recognize and admire that there was certainly a high price to be paid to adhere to his principles. But I do not agree. The record of the search is also fundamental and enlivens the surface.
If you have difficultly confronting a blank canvas, take heart. There is the tale of Jackson Pollock and his process when commissioned to produce a huge painting – a little over eight feet in height and almost 20 feet long. He was intimidated by the size and scope of the project. He removed a wall in his apartment-studio (I am sure his landlord loved that) to accommodate this enormous stretched canvas and then he sat down. He sat in front the vastness of white and looked. He continued this action for six months – he did not do any other work. Then, after everyone thought that he would have to return the advance and that he would never be able to confront such a huge undertaking, he completed the painting in a frenzy within a 24 hour period. There is a classic debate – did this painting burst forth in a matter of less than a day—or did it take six months. I veer toward the six-month side. Ask yourself if your reluctance is a case of elaborate procrastination or if the scope of active musing is an essential step for you to proceed.
I close this musing with a quote from the great abstract painter Milton Resnick (one of my touchstone artists):
“What do you bring as knowledge to a blank canvas? How do you begin?”