Austin, Texas, Warren’s large painting studio located on the back of his landscaped property. Warren is putting on his artist’s hat today (literally) working on a 60” x 40” acrylic painting. Writing Coach Jacob is the observer today, watching and writing as Warren goes through his artistic process.
Watching Paint Dry
By Jacob Pousland
Warren begins with a ritual dance of preparation. The studio must be cleaned, the acrylic paints organized in neat rows, fresh water is readied next to the glass palette. The water and a plastic box can keep the paint wet for weeks, Warren explains as he pushes aside a couple canvases that were “distracting” him. The easel is an enormous 8×4 foot piece of painted white plywood with peg holes drilled into it; Warren adjusts the pegs to keep the artwork at eye level. The final touch is his apron and artist’s hat, because in his words “I also like to wear a hat while I paint. I don’t know why, It just always feels more comfortable.”
Today he is retouching an old painting called Serenade. He sold it years ago and recently traded it back from a collector. Warren’s style has changed since then, so he wants to bring it “up to date.” Once he’s finished he’ll be sending the revised painting to be printed as a poster for the September 27th and 28th Pecan Street Art Festival in Austin.
He begins with a pair of scissors, a sheet of black construction paper, and a roll of blue masking tape. “This isn’t the usual method.” He explains, cutting a flower stem out of construction paper. “This came out of sculpting, because with sculpture you want to have your design fairly well established before you start pressing clay.” And so he tapes his cut-out stems to the painting. “Right now where is the focus of the painting?” He asks rhetorically, pointing. “The Shoes have your attention!” His cutout plants help disguise the shoes, and add “visual weight” to counter the window. A few more cut-out shapes and he traces his edits with a sharpie, then it’s time to paint.
The painting looks forlorn on the white easel, like a prisoner on a rack. Warren approaching menacingly with a loaded paintbrush. He jabs the broad brush at it mercilessly with wide, blunt strokes, dabbing on blobs of paint as he covers up entire sections of with apparently reckless abandon. Occasionally he grabs a plastic bag and crumples it over the surface of the wet paint, pulling up the plastic to reveal interesting textures left in the paint.
Even while painting, Warren’s quite talkative. We chat, swap stories, and make plans for his blog. Occasionally I will make a comment about his painting or ask what he’s doing. He dictates an email to me and I type it out at my desk like a secretary, which seems to be my role today. At this point I get the sense that the creativity is now happening at a level far beyond conscious thought. It flowed out of his hands and onto the canvas without stopping to check with his brain.
As far as I can estimate, this is an example of the thoughts that were going through our minds as Warren Painted:
Me: What kind of dress is that? Is it see-through? Is that what that blob of color is supposed to indicate? Now What’s he doing? Oh – yeah, that makes sense. Looks almost like 1960’s or 70’s fashion, except for the adobe walls. So based on the clothing style and position of the landscape in the window, this picture is apparently taking place in the 1960’s in an adobe restaurant situated smack in the middle of the congress bridge…
No wait, the moon is wrong. This is apparently some alternate earth tilted twenty degrees more than ours.
Warren: I’ll put some warm color here and cool the guitar off so that it falls into the background. That line is too close to parallel with that line, so I’ll tilt it a bit… Now the small pieces around the plant will balance out the Austin skyline. How’s the next blog post going?
“Hello Brother Charles. No I don’t know why that stock went down, probably because they declared a dividend and everyone bought in, got their dividend and sold.” *continues painting while talking on the phone for the next 15 minutes*
The different thought processes don’t actually surprise me. Warren’s an artist; he has spent decades training his eye to see color and shape. He looks and the relationships unfold before him so that he can, at a glance, tell what colors should be where and which shapes fit. I trained as a Historian in college, a profession built around intuiting as many details as possible from a little information. Give me an old photograph and I could tell where, when, and why it was taken. Amazing how our professions train us to “see” different things.
At this point Warren introduced me to “The Tube,” holding up the cardboard core of a paper towel roll. He quickly falls back into his padded office chair, holding The Tube to his eye like a child playing pirates. The only thing missing was the colored plastic wrap on the end. “In the tube I’ve isolated a smaller portion of the painting, and I can analyze it much more carefully.” He explains. Personally, I wasn’t seeing much of artistic value through my own Tube, but I was remembering my hand-crafted telescopes from long ago. Personally, I preferred the double-toilet-roll binocular model, but I was never one to turn down a cardboard tube.
We lapsed into silence as the hours went on. I watched as Warren continually painted over pieces he had added earlier, changing entire sections and colors again and again. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing, although his changes seemed random to me, but as the painting progressed they fell into place like pieces of a puzzle. As he painted he made a comment that struck me: “I want the color when I get through to have a taste, like cinnamon or sandalwood. Something like that.”
And that I understood. He wanted the painting to have a warm, vibrant, palpable aura to it; the “taste” of cinnamon or sandalwood personified in oranges, reds, and yellows. I watched as his broad brush-strokes slowly warmed the painting from cool greens, blues and purples to warm shades. The background took on the color of candle-light.
“What time is it?”
“About four thirty.”
“Four Thirty!” Warren almost jumped, “I thought it was two thirty.” I almost laughed. Obviously Warren lost track of time in “Art Mode.”
At about five thirty his wife Kitty showed up in the studio with two glasses of wine to remind her husband it was time to stop for the day. They settled into their time-honored ritual, enjoying their wine and critiquing the work-in-progress as I packed up and left for the day.
“Now this is where I get frustrated.” Warren told me the next morning. “On every painting and sculpture I’ve ever made, there’s been a point where it’s just not yet a finished piece of art. This ‘no man’s land’ is uncomfortable and uncompromising and needing something that one can’t quite know how to proceed.”
It took him about half an hour to work through the problem and get the painting back on track. This mainly involved painting a pair of purple chair legs and adding some black lines.
I will confess to being continually mystified by Warren’s style. I’m too focused on symmetry, and order. When I bother picking up a sketch pad it’s usually to draw something like a house or vehicle, with lines and circles and gradient slopes drawn using a compass and ruler, and calculated using trigonometry. Warren, on the other hand, goes out of his way to deny the eye an easy pattern to lock onto. His shapes are purposefully blob-like and never repeating. His colors are a means to push objects back or pull them forward with little regard for realism. It all leads to a fascinatingly visceral image that plays to the senses more than the mind.
So what’s it like to watch artist paint? My response is many descriptions, intriguing, mystifying, sometimes amusing, and just a little bit boring. Mostly he made it look easy. Dab some paint on, smear it around and suddenly the painting has a completely different flavor. I’ve spent hours sketching the shape of a house and Warren could walk up, flick his wrist a few times and have a better one than I ever had. He’s like the computer scientist who walks over and fixes your computer after you spend two hours trying to debug it.
It looks like fun. Not the “playing games” kind of fun – the kind of fun you get from climbing a mountain, or running a marathon, or (for a historian) digging through a mountain of archives. These are examples of exhausting, satisfying, delightful fun. I might not want to paint, but I want to go home and do something.
Serenade was completed on Saturday the 23rd of August and will serve as the feature art for the September 2014 Pecan Street Art Show. You can see more of Warren’s art at artwarren.com.