Hunt for Steel
Preface & Reader Response
The temptation to look at someone simply as a meaningful human form, identity aside, can be overpowering – and hazardous.
by Jerry Murley
There are limited legal and ethical ways to acquire intimate knowledge of someone else. Most people start by actually being with someone, taking an interest in them, looking at them, listening to them, watching them interact with others, committing to their welfare. Another path to discernment is to write a profile of someone, or to read or hear what others have to say about them. But in my experience, there is nothing to compare, particularly when it comes to approaching the border of what is ethically and socially acceptable, with painting a portrait of someone. Just the thought of applying paint and brush to richly textured paper or canvas in pursuit of a portrait sends an unsettling charge of energy through my body. When fortified by a glass of wine and a chance encounter with the excellent work of other painters, the prospect of painting initiates an involuntary salivary response and lofty flights of imagination.
Though these things held nearly no attraction for me as a child or as a teenager, line, color, and texture, particularly when connected by my own hand, have become substantial, lasting pleasures in the honing and application of my intellect, aesthetic judgment, and senses of sight and touch. What to draw or paint, that is worthy of time and effort, often takes a while to determine. But it is not long before the endeavor gravitates again and again to the mute stories written in everyday human form. Hair, face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, chest, waist, hips, and legs prove a flexible topography of enough variation and potential to hold my attention indefinitely. But eyes – nuanced and formidable eyes – prevail as a focus, a challenge, and a reward. These delicate organs of seeing out and peering in reveal new worlds in their slightest shifts, shades, squints, sizes, and effervescent sheen.
Non-painters can be forgiven for not perceiving that in portraiture the final composite product, in terms of individual identity, is not the sole objective of the process. It does not matter much really, though viewers think otherwise, if the finished portrait looks exactly like the subject or not. What signifies is whether some essence of appearance and character, or a personal paradox or social puzzle, or a glimpse of a universal or a distinct aspect of the human condition, is captured and that the remainder of the portrait adequately supports, fortifies, and unifies that central feature. Differences in perspective and in depth of familiarity with the subject – disparity in know-how and ability to extract, recall, and transfer a breathing form from one field of vision to a flat surface, employing intersecting lines, color choices, gradations of tone, and rearrangement of elements with the most agile movements of arm and wrist and the delicate pressures of fingertips – these account for a wide-range of disagreement as to whether and how a portrait achieves something more than the edification of its creator or the promotion or critique of its subject.
The primary function of a portrait, from the painter's – or, more precisely, the non-professional painter's – point of view, is the discovery in getting there. It is the activity, the act of creating and translating, the small steps of revelation along the way, that is the genuine, continuous return on investment that motivates the painter to try, and keep trying, despite underrealized appreciation from the painter himself or a broader audience. (Note that I avoid dependence on the loaded, and to some the pretentious or presumptuous or reserved, words "art" and "artist." These terms hinder and distort the discussion, especially when speaking to people who over-glorify design and craft and those who undervalue them.)
When putting pencil or paint to paper or canvas, I frequently feel as if I am momentarily empowered with healing magic. It is as close as I ever get to sorcery. I suppose the sensation of mystery comes from recognizing dumb luck when I see it and being convinced that I could never possess the talent or skill to actually be in complete control of something that happens well in such a vaunted full-body enterprise.
* * *
The temptation to look at someone simply as a meaningful human form, identity aside, can be overpowering – and hazardous. After becoming sensitive to the discomforts of a studied gaze, from both the giving and the receiving ends, I generally swing in the other, more conservative, direction and forego my rightful share of the visual bounty available in a free adult society. More often than not, outside of family, the people who are readily accessible as models are not the ones who would be of interest to a respectful painter of thoughtful subjects. Modesty is a double-edged sword, it both protects and impedes. Due to self-constraints, including doubts about my facility and speed, I have long had difficulty obtaining sufficient observation of non-family subjects in natural circumstances. Yet I cannot wholly use the excuse of concerns about my painting proficiency to explain my reticence: unfettered observation, I figure, would surely quash the will to paint. Or, as I have hinted, I might fail more miserably in execution or be further consumed by painting were it permitted. I truly enjoy looking at different types of people, the combination of features flowing in a highly mobile culture appears limitless, but looking without limits is so risky, rude, and exploitative that I never satisfy my inclination to peruse a person, known or unknown, for long with painting eyes. Perhaps that is why I enjoy movies and personal photography: there is no stigma attached to looking and seeing in prolonged close-up.
When speaking before a large group of people, which I rarely do, I invariably notice someone who is intently listening and looking at me. At that juncture, my concentration is in danger of collapsing all at once as I return the gaze and am close to being adsorbed in mutual observation. It is easy for me to succumb to drinking in the facial changes, the hands, the posture, the gestures, the voice, and the eyes of a partner in conversation. It is one of the most exquisite indulgences of humankind – and it is liable to be unwelcome by the recipient of a tad too much concentration – unless the person with whom one is talking wants undivided attention. In such cases, locked attention feeds both intense interaction and absolute distraction. Generally, however, we encounter people who want something from us we are reluctant to part with, and who are loath to offer something as innocent and commonplace as a take-home comprehensive mental image in return.
* * *
Though strong line and patches of deep black appeal for some basic creations, I get carried away with colors, mixing them and blending them. If I paint from a photograph, I would just as soon that it be a black and white photograph rather than a color one. The actual color of things matters little, except for skin tone and eye tint. Color is part of the electrifying effect of painting for me. But I have no idea why a matter-of-fact person, so inhibited in so many other ways, would be so taken with vibrant, unrealistic color.
It should be obvious to any amateur or expert that I have had no lessons in drawing or painting. However, I have spent time in idle homage in the greatest museums in the world, tried to copy masterworks, practiced drawing, browsed art history books, and read a book or two on the materials and methods, mostly having to do with chemistry, of the acknowledged mainstream masters. I have experimented largely ignorant of expertise and bereft of destination. I did not see the point of formally studying the techniques of painting as I had no hope or real passion to be a public painter.
Out of laziness, and the difficulty of finding subjects or themes worthy of being, or willing to be, rendered in two dimensions by me in a semi-permanent state, I took a cue from the old Dutch masters: I have frequently drawn and painted pictures of my wife, who is not always an enthusiastic participant. Owing first to Rembrandt, who was an early guide, and once again owing partly to my solitary wandering in the wilderness of standard practice, I became fascinated with the self-portraits of other painters. I have executed several self-portraits myself, a few with horrifying, perhaps too truthful, results and a few done quickly with a novitiate's modest success.
* * *
Due in large measure to the support and patience of my family, and especially to the willingness of my wife to live simply for a few decades, I was afforded the luxury of living the second twenty years of my life as if in semi-retirement, with the concerns and income of a mid-level laborer and the unquenchable curiosity of a yet free and active mind. Therefore, while healthy and not too old and rigid, I was able to explore retirement-like pastimes, such as reading, gardening, woodworking, writing, drawing, and painting, and living comfortably, further deluding myself in pursuit of the passions of youth while only loosely shackled to the daily grind most endure without respite.
However, life changed, as it is wont to do: I have not painted in almost fifteen years. But I hope to in retirement – if my eyes and hands have not failed me by then. The reason for this suspension is in part due to the exigencies of making a living and maintaining a home and family, obligations that do not fit well with spending long hours playing with paint and pondering compositions. I know that after I have spent an hour setting up to commence painting, I will fall into a trance that will hold me for hours, if not days and weeks. I will be preoccupied with mental images even when not at the drawing board or easel. It is indeed a fine vice that makes time irrelevant and erodes relationships with the people with whom one has intense love and extensive commitments. As a matter of conjecture, it may be fortuitous, given my late-life difficulties with my right lung, that for the past fifteen years or so I have not spent many more hours wrapped in the vapors of chemicals involved in painting.
For twenty years or more, a razor sharp intensity thrilled me in painting. As eyesight declines, patience wanes, fastidiousness fades, and hands unsteady, I am fairly sure that impressionistic blur, by accident of age and infirmity, will assume a more prominent role in my paintings.
Oddly for a history, and almost a psychology, major who considers context to be critical to understanding almost anything, I limit the environmental trappings in my drawings and paintings to the bare essentials. I hardly ever try to capture movement or interaction or background. Natural scenery seems a sacrilege and an impossibility, especially when contrasted with the products of good photography. I will admit that this characteristic, or peculiarity, of my painting can primarily be attributed to ineptitude, lack of imagination, and laziness. However, the context does not really interest me or serve my purpose, simple and honest as it is. It is as if I think that one has to take the subject as a package in the moment: envelopment in surrounding objects is unnecessary.
A confirmed believer in the benefits of starting out each day as a blank slate, I do not deem it peculiar to see an individual in the abstract without a past, but rather as a newborn – as they are fresh in one moment with an untold future. Therefore, to my mind, I would describe my lack of obsession with context in drawing and painting as a minimalism that sees a person through the eyes and restrained preconceptions of a newly awakened, unbiased mind – without concern about environmental setting. It is not that I don't think the environmental conditions matter to the person in a portrait; it is that they should not be overemphasized for the viewer. The viewer will see more, and should see more, than the restricted perspective and insights of the painter, more than the dated details of a cluttered compartment. As regards staging, simple, unstylistic drapery and dress serve the purpose of plucking a person from prejudices of rank and manner, the consignment of social position, and placing them and their eyes, their expression, their posture, their hands, front and center, devoid of overage – raw as a seedling in fresh soil, worthy of full wonder in the eyes of a beholder.
In this one form of expression, I, as the painter, am not god-like, but a worshiper of the unique and the common, the spontaneous and the static, the strength and the vulnerability and the beauty, of an individual. To me this is the mark of a liberal mind and a path-finding painter: all the to do about nurturing versus natural influences and dramatic dynamism are naught compared to the being of an individual, changing or not over a span of frozen time.
Environment means little, but atmospherics mean much: painting is all about the steady collision of darks and light and color to me. Mood and prospects are bleak without the bright, pure light and color that I celebrate rushing headlong into pitch dark and solidly revolving shadows.
* * *
The painting that accompanies this essay, offered here as an example for scrutiny and pleasure, is in fact unfinished. It will never be finished as intended, because intentions are not always correct, perfection is not always possible or advisable. For several years, I thought I needed to slightly alter shadowing on the face for reasons of likeness and logic. But I did not know exactly what to do to satisfy my urge to rework the painting and still retain its simplicity and subtle shifting colors. Most of all, I feared losing what I had accomplished by overworking the piece. The opportunity and compulsion to fix things ended when the painting was briefly abducted (then immediately returned) by the person for whom it was intended and promised as a friendly gift. Though it now belongs to my son, I would not dare touch it: it breathes or perishes on its own.
* * *
Pardon the eyes. They must look to exist and to paint. Painting eyes will see and imagine a depth and openness and connectedness that surpasses understanding – and, perhaps, all reality. A portrait of painting eyes does not merely duplicate what comes by nature: it magnifies the real, it multiplies the possible – it ignites a pigment being not confined by lifetime.