Starting at the Stop

Abstract 62, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16
Grove, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 10x8
Grove, oil on canvas, 10×8

STARTING AT THE STOP

IN PAINTING, unlike writing, it is easier to add than to subtract.

I often begin a painting with an idea (or a premise, as Al Lachman would say) rather than a feeling. The idea, like the canvas itself, becomes the framework through which the painting’s energy and emotion flow.

Yet even when I have a clear concept in mind, the painting seldom turns out exactly as I imagined it. There are beautiful twists and turns, challenging detours, and sudden discoveries along the way.

In this way, painting is like gardening: my best-laid designs are modified by nature, usually to good effect. It’s best not to overthink things, and to be open to possibility.

Sometimes a painting begins with color. The shades I choose reflect my current mood, perhaps, or something more indelible, often inspired by music, or my favorites as a child.

Maybe I’ve seen certain color combinations before without really noticing at the time, walking to the river, or in the puddled reflection of a neon sign.

Or I begin by simply using still-wet paint left in my brush from a previous canvas. I hate to waste paint.

Sometimes at the start I just play, child-like, not knowing (or caring) what to expect. Choose colors at random. Circulate. Ambulate. Get the arm moving and the blood flowing. Let it go! 

Other paintings begin with mystical, energetic shapes, archetypal symbols channeled confidently through my arm and wrist. They look and feel familiar, but I cannot say exactly what they mean.

The painting’s colors and shapes eventually merge and form patterns or stories, like my gardens, in ways I guide but over which I lack full control. Yet the painting’s elements are firmly of my soil—the same soil that runs beneath all human feet.

Abstract 62, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16
Abstract 62, oil on canvas, 20×16

WHATEVER APPROACH I use captures a particular moment in time, and I often like the resulting painting’s energy and spontaneity. The colors harmonious, the shapes and patterns evocative, the composition whole, the painting is sometimes finished in a single session or, at most, a few.

Oftentimes, less is more. I can still hear Geri Brunelle, an early teacher of mine, shouting “Stop!” across the large, open studio to prevent me from mucking up a perfectly good painting by following the novice’s impulse to fill in every space. Simplicity can be powerful.

Much of the time it is obvious when a painting is done. Yet sometimes, after a week or so on the wall of my studio, a painting I previously thought was finished appears undone. It has a lot of things I like, but it doesn’t hold together. It is better served as the background of a new painting rather than carrying the scene on its own.

A new interpretation or approach beckons, and I follow it toward improved design or meaning.

Sometimes it is simply problem-solving: not walking away when things go bad or simply painting over, but experimenting instead and forging ahead to see if I can turn an average painting into a good one.

Love Songs, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16
Love Songs, oil on canvas, 20×16
Aperture 18, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16
Aperture 18, oil on canvas, 20×16
Abstract 61, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 16x12
Abstract 61, oil on canvas, 16×12
Electrical Storm (Approach), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 16x12
Electrical Storm (Approach), oil on canvas, 16×12
Abstract 60, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16
Abstract 60, oil on canvas, 20×16
Electrical Storm (Arrival), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 20x16
Electrical Storm (Arrival), oil on canvas, 20×16
Aperture 13, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x18
Aperture 13, oil on canvas, 24×18
Aperture 13 (revisited), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x18
Aperture 13 (revisited), oil on canvas, 24×18

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