The setting was an April morning at the Riverfront Park in Washington, Missouri, on the Missouri River. The grass was very green, some of it overlaid by a pattern of vertical black stripes, silhouettes of the legs of picnic tables. The air was wet.
When it came time to paint the bridge, of which I am very fond, my brush was running dry, but rather than reloading it I just kept going until the bridge disappeared.
After I painted that basic green triangle of grass I put in a park bench and its shadow on the lawn, then I painted it out. I had gone a little too far with the grass at the bottom, then realized my mistake and stopped. I came very near to painting the black stripes of the picnic table legs, because I do love a screen. As you can see, I abandoned that inspiration.
In the foreground was the now unstriped concrete walk. It was roughly the color of the toned canvas so I left it unpainted. Rather than matching the sidewalk color and obliterating the erring green patch, I left it. I decided not to modulate the color of the sidewalk or draw division lines in perspective, though these would have made the sidewalk appear properly horizontal.
Why did I stop at this point? Because it felt right to do so.
And why did it feel right to do so? Let me step out of myself and see if I can answer that.
Psychologists and philosophers are finding it more and more profoundly true that our brains are very busy behind the scenes, and it is not just that some material has been suppressed, possibly later to be retrieved. A psychologist may be able to perform CTL-ALT-DEL on a person, but the real material is unreachable, ineffable. The unconscious logic of the brain is not part of anything we know, just as the screen of this computer can never display what is going on inside the computer. We could put code up on the screen along with task reports, but even if this screen were now full of formulas and schematics, still the display would leave out entire layers of computer activity, including, for example, the commands for translating its logic into code then into letters.
Forgive me if I am stating what is obvious to you. And if it is obvious also that the same is true of people. The content of a person’s mind is a very shallow representation of all that is going on. Sometimes, though, what does become conscious seems at odds with what we know of ourselves. We can make suppositions of hidden brain-work, but we can never know for sure.
That bridge is physically coming down this year. It will be gone by the time I return to Washington, Missouri. It is already disappearing in my painting. I did not paint that on conscious purpose, but had the insight much later.
As for the green triangle of grass and plain tan sidewalk, I am attracted to juxtaposed patches of color, have been since nursery school. Color harmonies are, for me, the basis for this and most other paintings. I am so emphatic about it, and arrogant, that if you don’t like my colors I suspect you haven’t yet developed a sophisticated color sense. In this painting* I enjoy the harmonic relationships among the colors of the sky, the trees, the water, the grass, and the sidewalk. If you don’t like them it’s okay. You can’t help it; you just don’t know any better.
I jettisoned the park bench and black stripes because they would interfere with the proclamation of the preeminence of color. Even allowing the errant green to remain supports that statement. I let the distant trees recede and the water has some depth, but that is the end of my concessions to those who insist on illusionism. “Sidewalk?” they might say. “How can you tell it is a sidewalk and not a sandbank? It just stands up there.”
Yup. I’ve shown you I can paint depth; now please spend a moment contemplating the meaning of a presentation of contrast between painting an illusion and painting what I really see.
That’s my best guess as to the inner working of my brain speaking. I, this conscious mindful I, did not let a bridge fade or simplify a bright green triangle or allow a sidewalk to go undefined for any deliberate reasons; I just stopped painting when I was told to.
But wait; there’s more—as soon as I choose a painting to go with the next installment.
*Please understand that colors on the computer, despite my best efforts, are not true.