Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Learning from an Artist

I love being in the presence of phenomenally gifted creative people. I love it most of all when they are gifted in an art form different from my own: gifted filmmakers, composers, actors, painters. Then I can simply bask in awe of them, drawing inspiration from the beauty they create in the world, without having to submit to the inevitable self-denigration that would otherwise follow.

On Sunday afternoon I had the opportunity to hear an "art talk" at the Boulder Public Library by my friend Ina's daughter Zoey Frank, who is, in my view, not only a phenomenally gifted young artist, but an artist of genius. You can give yourself the gift of marveling at her brilliant paintings on her website, which showcases the dazzling evolutions of her style that she shared with us on Sunday.

Zoey began her training in a classical atelier, where she spent, she told us, four years learning "how to paint a single object under a single light source." The entire first year was spent only in drawing, followed by a year of painting only in shades of black and white. It wasn't until the fourth year that color was introduced. Like generations of painters before her, Zoey spent months in the Lourvre copying great masters with astonishing fidelity. This Rembrandt copy looks awfully like an original Rembrandt to me.
She then produced her own works of strikingly original subjects with the same meticulous attention to detail, like this one (my personal favorite) from a series of paintings of white garments hung against a white wall.
If I could paint like this, I'd spend the rest of my life painting nothing but white dresses. What on earth could be lovelier?

Not Zoey. She went on to an MFA program where she learned to paint in a whole new way. A course on "Time in Painting" encouraged her to capture the process of painting itself in her work, leaving remnants of earlier approaches to a subject in the painting itself, as shown in this breathtaking short video, Girl in Striped Shirt.

I tried to take notes as Zoey talked, but it was difficult as I couldn't bear to take my eyes off the images projected on the screen. But here are a few nuggets:

She had to "trick herself" out of her usual hyper-detailed style by choosing subjects impossible to render in the way she had been trained: e.g., still life arrangements that changed every day.

She sometimes sets herself the challenge of "making an interesting painting from something that isn't inherently interesting," like painting an abandoned table in a dimly lit studio basement.

She plays with different angles of approach, now realizing that "straight on and fully frontal" is merely the default angle for a painting: new possibilities emerge if an object is viewed from above, from below.

After spending so many years mastering the technique of exact rendering, it was hard to let herself do something that looks simpler - but isn't.

I came away from Zoey's talk wondering if I can trick myself into deviating from my own usual style, with which I've now had four decades of practice, not four years. Can I write an interesting story about something that isn't inherently interesting? Can I play with different angles of approach to a fictional narrative? Can I let myself do something that looks simpler but isn't?

Here, one more image from Zoey's recent work - oh, the lushness of that melon! Could I ever write a melon that would taste so good?

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