Just Paint! – An Artist’s Journey

I began painting about a month after my father died. The impulse to do so seemingly came out of nowhere, with such force that it could not be denied. Although I began playing classical piano in childhood, which continues today, art was not at all encouraged in my family. I remember reading that the death of a parent frees one in some way, and this is the form it took for me.

As a child growing up in New York, my parents often took us to the American Museum of Natural History. I especially delighted in the large African dioramas, and extensive collection of art, tools, clothing, totems, and sculptures of Native Americans. On the relatively rare occasion that we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was only the Egyptian wing that I frequented. I loved the jewelry, statues, vases and urns, frescoes, and reconstructed parts of Nile temples, and would spend hours at the exhibits. But we never ventured beyond that area.

As a young adult, however, I discovered the huge collection of paintings at the Met, and the bronze sculptures of Rodin. I was especially drawn to larger works by Rembrandt, El Greco, van Gogh, and Monet, but never to smaller pieces, drawings, and prints, nor medieval, Greek, and Roman art. I also visited the Frick Collection, and marveled at the canvases of past masters. But on a visit to the Guggenheim Museum, I could not even begin to comprehend anything of the modern art displayed, whether paintings, sculptures, or Calder mobiles.

One day in 1961 I read that the Met had spent $2.3m on a large Rembrandt, “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer.” At the time this was the highest amount ever paid for any picture at public or private sale. It seemed unbelievable to me, and when the painting was publicly exhibited, I took a day off work to go and see it. Much to my great surprise, I was totally blown away. It was, beyond doubt, a priceless masterpiece. That event completely changed my attitude toward art, especially painting.

I also vividly remember taking off work to see da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” when it came to the Met, and being awed not only by the portrait but by his rendition of the background. Another strong impact was viewing Michelangelo’s “Pietà” at the 1964 World’s Fair. And whilst living in Scotland in the late 1970’s, I was very impressed with a Tate Gallery show of late Turner works, where he essentially was painting the light.

I visited Firenze and Paris in 1978, where the paintings of Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, and the latter’s sculptures, especially the series of humans emerging from blocks of marble, touched me very deeply.

When I began painting in February 1993, it was surprisingly in an abstract style. I then began studying the Abstract Expressionists, especially Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning. When I would travel to the New York City area to visit family, I would spend many hours at MOMA, drinking in the large canvases of these painters. They had realized that after the Great Depression and World War II nothing could ever be the same, and a new kind of art was needed.

The work of these artists has had a profound and continuing effect upon my own painting, in terms of emotional expression, use of paint, and scale. I remember going to MOMA around the turn of the century, and spending over an hour looking at Pollock’s “One: No. 31, 1950,” which is 17′ 6″ long x 8′ 10″ high. The power and magnitude of that piece continues to be an inspiration.

Wanting to understand how these artists’ works and my own painting fit into art history, I created my own study program, using books obtained via interlibrary loan, online museum websites, and Artchive. Besides the Abstract Expressionists, I was particularly struck by the works of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Cézanne, Matisse, Gauguin, and the abstract paintings of Gerhard Richter. All of them felt a strong need to break with many of the traditions of the past, and pioneer new avenues of artistic expression.

For me, abstract expressionism is the most powerful way of working with paint on canvas. It is a means to enter the depths of feeling and consciousness that representationalism can only suggest. Figurative art, for example, can portray emotions and feelings in human faces, but abstraction can delineate the forces that cause these expressions.

Painting is a journey and adventure, not a destination, and along the way all sorts of discoveries and delights abound. I am interested in process, not product. To that end, I am willing to experiment freely, and let go entirely of preconceived notions.

My paintings are completely inner directed, drawing upon thoughts, feelings, visions, and nature for inspiration. Too much thinking can ruin the whole thing. What is important is to let the energies flow, and allow the paint and colors to form their own textures and shapes. In other words, just paint!

I simply stand in front of the canvas, and after a short time the image or sense of a color arises. I mix up some paint and begin, without set ideas of what strokes, forms, shapes, and so on to use. In other words, the painting creates itself. I am merely the channel through which the creative forces are expressed. I am always surprised, and often amazed, by the outcome.

On a practical level, the paintings are acrylic on stretched canvas, ranging in size from 40×30 to 78×66 inches. Anything smaller would defeat the impact of scale, which is a vital component of abstract expressionism. I prefer to work vertically, as it mirrors above and below, sky and earth.

Almost all are created with large palette knives. This approach is enormously satisfying, as large amounts of paint can be placed on the canvas in one go, and textures are easily built. I often prepare a canvas with a single color background, most often texturally applied with a knife.

Most of the pieces use impasto, textures of varying thickness. I mix the paints with gels of various consistencies for this purpose. I sometimes employ wet-in-wet methods; mostly, though, the layers are allowed to dry before overpainting. In some cases, mixing small amounts of paint with soft gel gloss allows for relatively thin layers of very translucent color. And I often make my own paint from pigment dispersions, binders, and thickeners.

Because the paintings are entirely non-representational, the titles are meant to offer the viewer an avenue for exploration. In the end, however, it is the experience that counts. Feelings, thoughts, and sensations convey meaning, and this will be different for each person.

One of the effects of art can be to awaken us to a larger dimension of being and feeling, when we fully engage with the work. What is required is taking time to allow the painting to work on all levels of consciousness, noting feelings, responses, and thoughts that arise, but allowing them to pass away. Only then can the full impact of a particular piece be realized.

As Mark Rothko said, “A painting is not about an experience; it is an experience.”

In conclusion, here is my Artist’s Statement:

“When you abstract the essence of music and visual art, an underlying structure, form and rhythm can be discerned.

The notes, rhythm and tempo of a musical piece can evoke thoughts, feelings and sensations, much the same as colors, texture, strokes and shapes in a painting. This is certainly true in my art, which is a mirroring of my internal landscape as well as a reflection of what is happening externally.

My paintings, because they are abstract, are essentially energy made visible. They are an exploration of the interplay between form and formlessness, emergence and dissolution, using color, texture, and the strokes of the palette knife upon the canvas.

To create my paintings I have to be willing to confront myself, the unknown, the shining void, to go deep within — to go crazy, even, albeit a somewhat controlled madness. It takes courage, and ongoing questing. Otherwise the vitality, energy, life and spirit could not come through.

My interest is in the power of art to inspire, challenge, transform, and heal, and to awaken new consciousness and ways of perceiving.”

© 2016 Merlin Emrys. All Rights Reserved.

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