There are times when I think you can learn everything about visual art from painting. They say you have to learn to draw before you can paint, but I’m not sure it’s true. It may in fact be the other way around. Even if I never paint a painting that I am happy with, it lays the groundwork for every other medium I work in – photography, printmaking, textiles. Perhaps even writing.
It’s easy to give up on and I have, many times.
Painting is hard work. You’re jumping off a cliff each time you begin and it’s one of the most intense mental workouts there is – something like a cross between 3-dimensional chess, meditation and psychoanalysis. Anyone who tells you they’ve learned how to paint hasn’t. Inevitably I’m pleased with a beginning, then manage to destroy it, then have to figure out how to salvage it. Then there’s the state of mind I aim to achieve. I’m excited, but I have to be detached. I have to inhabit and convey a feeling, but I can’t get caught up in it. I have to cultivate fearlessness. I have to hold an image in my mind, but at the same time let it go. I have to “get out of the way of the painting.”
It’s hard to say what a good art teacher does. I’ve had a few and the best ones teach don’t tell you much about how to paint. “Pushing paint around a surface is a very silly thing to do,” as David Bolduc said. But every so often I get that feeling – it’s time to grow. I feel stuck. I need some help.
Here, in Peterborough, I’m lucky to have John Climenhage in my neighbourhood. One of the most prolific artists I’ve ever known, he is nothing if not engaged, on many levels. On Tuesday afternoons I trot down the bike path to join some other painters in the newly built studio I visited last year, now full of his work – huge vigorous landscapes and a drum kit to boot (he also performs with The Burgess Shale). There are abstracts too, that play with the picture plane. Suddenly he pulls out a box of paintings with realistic, unflinching war imagery. These evolve into brightly coloured abstracts depicting people and places in the process of being blown up: his Afghanistan period. His painting is informed by physics and philosophy. He holds back unless asked – he’s learned to contain his dynamic energy.
He doesn’t so much teach as poke me in the right direction. Like knowing when to stop. “I’m going to take this away from you now before you ruin it.” He takes a long look at what I’ve been working on and says, “You’re going to have to work pretty hard to keep that from becoming illustration.” He flips through a stack of paintings to show what he did at an earlier stage in his career, analysing his own work. “I’m not sure I believe in that one,” he says. He’s dead knowledgeable about art history and pulls art books from his personal library: “You might be interested in this work by Francis Bacon.” He makes it easy to begin. Here is paint squeezed onto the palette, a board and a brush. I don’t have to wrangle the tools – I just have to paint.
He’s teaching me when he says nothing – giving tacit approval, letting me work through a problem, helping me learn to trust my instincts. I’m learning to recognize the sound of my own voice. Afterward he says, “I really like the struggle in that one.”
Half the battle is training my eye to see my work through the lens of a more experienced painter. Work I thought was painfully bad might be better than I thought. It is incredibly satisfying to complete a painting that I believe in. Why, I’m not sure, because I know I’ll have start all over again the next time I pick up a brush.
There will come a day when I won’t need John’s help anymore, but for now I can hardly wait for Tuesday afternoon.
John Climenhage teaches at the Art Gallery of Peterborough and privately. You can purchase his work or contact him for more information through his website: johnclimenhage.com