Travelling in the Paintingspace

I suppose the number of different potential pour paintings is truly infinite - and all that from just a few techniques. Yet, I like some of my paintings and don’t like others. And, I don’t want to get stuck making paintings that look like each other. How can I explore an infinite space to find the ones I like and avoid the ones I don’t? I’ve been pretty much just bashing my head against this for months driven mainly by instinct and curiosity. After all, if you don’t know where you are going any route will do.

I finally came up with a process model. I put it into a drawing and it looks like this:

(Click image for a larger version)

I know I have control over part of the process, and the rest is controlled by physics which I affectionately call chaos. But, really, it is the order of the universe asserting itself and it is only chaos to me because I don’t understand it well enough, Regardless, it is beyond my control.

The process begins with adding some paint to a canvas (upper left in the diagram). After that there’s a simultaneous dance with my taking actions and the painting responding, moving right across the diagram. The painting grows and spreads and evolves over time. I can add paint to the mix or various kinds of control, and I can also wait and do nothing while the painting evolves. At every moment I’m in control of what I do next but the painting has a life of its own while the paint is wet and I am just one of the forces affecting its final appearance.

I work while the paint is wet and then I set it down to dry, but it continues to evolve, slowing as the paint begins to dry. The viscosity of the paint starts our about like thinned down white glue but it ends as a solid. Between the start and end it gets thicker and thicker and it interacts less and less with the paint around it. While the paint is still liquid it responds to imbalances in the forces within the liquid paint. For example, when I pour a bunch of paint in one spot there is a fairly circular, thick puddle of paint at first. But the puddle of paint immediately begins spreading out. If there was a layer of paint under it then it interacts with that both under the spreading puddle and also at its edges where it might blend or feather.

A puddle of paint rolls over its edges when it slides over a dry canvas. The patterns at the edge of the puddle get sucked underneath the moving leading edge of the puddle. But if the puddle is on a wet canvas (covered in paint and thick enough to match the viscosity of the puddle) then the leading edge patterns remain above the paint and slide across the lower layer (mostly). More accurately, the layer underneath slides and carries the layers above with it. When the layers underneath get thin enough the puddle on top starts to get sucked under at the edges in a manner like it does on a dry canvas, but less quickly.

Of course I use lots of different colors of paint in different locations manipulated in different ways. Often I use a lot of techniques on the same painting. Their order and how long I wait in between steps hugely affects the outcome. The diagram above shows only some of the techniques, but it is enough to convey the overall idea that the process is iterative - you can add more paint and manipulate it or simply continue to manipulate it until you are done or the paint is dry. It takes long enough for the paint to dry that I am usually long done with my contribution before the painting begins to slow its evolution. In fact, I count on some evolution to happen after I put it on the shelf. More often than not a painting improves after I stop manipulating it. Chaos is better at this than I am, apparently.

I think about the process as I make paintings and imagine that there was some language in which I could record the recipe for a painting. I wish there was such a language that could express not only the choices in the process above, but also the locations where paint was applied and what color and how much was used, as well as all the choices made while tilting the painting to use gravity... and all the parameters for every maneuver performed. Obviously, such a language doesn’t exist and it would take longer to express how a painting was made than it took to make the painting. If such a language existed it still wouldn’t be possible to make exactly the same painting again. And while you might not even get objectively close to the same painting, it would still be closer than anyone else could probably get without the same recipe. Or, you could record it being made, but that isn’t the same thing as a language because video is about recording what has happened, not predicting what will happen. I can’t think in video that anyone else can see, even if I take the time to make videos, it is too slow a process.

The many parameters and choices involved in paintings help define how I can look at the space of all paintings made with these techniques. Of course this only speaks to paintings made this way and not to all other painting techniques which have their own spaces. But this space can be partly described in terms of its choices and parameters. The use of this for me is that I can start to think about how paintings will look before actually pouring any paint. I’m often wrong. I’m frequently surprised at complex behavior in the paint and sometimes I just have to stop, get out of the way and let the painting do its thing for a while. I guess I’m just holding chaos’ beer at that point.

I want to understand the space of paintings (made this way) so that I can use that understanding to produce better paintings, and to help guide myself out of simply repeating old patterns. But, sometimes something special happens and it becomes a whole new kind of painting for me. For example, my salvaged paint pieces.

I am a traveller in this space and it is beautiful here, but I wonder what else is out there and how to navigate. This helps me with the navigation. This helps me find what’s new to me. It feels dogmatic to create a process diagram for painting, but the goal is to avoid dogmatic art. It’s all subjective, but the paint still dries: like an anchor thrown out that painting is stopped in time and somewhere in the space of all paintings. I want to understand its coordinates, because my journey leads me elsewhere and this is only a milestone along the way.