I am staring at a blank canvas—and it is huge, measuring 5 feet by 8 feet. In my hand is a glass of watery phthalo blue paint. And I am about to pour it on the canvas.
Wherever the paint lands on the unprimed canvas, it will immediately and permanently soak in, never to be reversed.
I tilt the glass and let it roll.
As the paint runs down the length of the canvas, I tilt it first one way and then another, hoping to make a pleasing pattern, hoping the paint I mixed is neither too dark nor too weak. But it’s pretty much out of my control as soon as I empty the glass.
Once it dries, I will repeat the process with different colors each time, for perhaps 12 passes. And every time, the possibility of doing something wrong that will ruin what I have previously done will loom as a possibility.
With each pass, the stakes grow higher—the question of what or what not to do next becoming weightier as the painting takes shape.
Let’s pour a glass of diarylide yellow just over here…
I certainly did not invent the idea of poured paintings. That was likely the brainchild of Helen Frankenthaler, who was grouped in with a number of other artists in the 1950s that were called the Color Field artists. All worked with fields of color that were not representational. Mark Rothko was another.
The first time I saw Helen Frankenthaler’s work was perhaps 40 years ago at the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth. I drove over from Dallas not knowing what to expect. I was dumbstruck by what I saw. A huge canvas, in my memory maybe 20 feet long, running with rivers of pigment. I sat down and just stared at it. I was like a religious experience. Like seeing God. Not in the old-man-with-a-white-beard way, but in a more cosmic sense.
Time for another pour. Dioxazine Purple Deep this go-around. I hold my breath…and tip it onto the painting.
As I pour the purple stain, I remember the feeling of seeing Helen Frankenthaler’s work. That’s what I want people to feel when they look at my paintings. I want them to see God. Really.
Notice now the way the diarylide yellow overlaps the phthalo blue, making a gorgeous green…
So why have I waited 40 years to try my hand at pouring paint? You need a place to do it, with lots of room where you can risk paint going everywhere, as the process can be messy.
And you need a reason. In this case, I agreed to try to create a Frankenthaler-type painting for clients who also like her—and had a big wall they wanted to fill. Since I normally never take commissions, I took this one on the grounds that if I failed to come up with a great piece, they would owe me nothing. It helps tremendously that they are exceptionally wonderful people.
I stand back now and stare, and decide to stop. I can always add more once I see how it looks in place. This ends up being a good decision.
This is actually the second piece I have done for this project. The first was quite a showstopper. Dramatic and rich in saturated color, it seldom failed to elicit a “Wow!” from those who saw it, and my clients loved it.
But I wanted to give them a choice, and so this time I kept the colors lighter and more luminous. In the end, they will choose the second one. I think it was a good call.
When we hung it on their wall (no small feat), I stood at the bottom of the stairs and thought something I rarely think: I wouldn’t change a thing.
As an artist, you always think the greatest work is still ahead of you. And hopefully, it is. That’s what keeps you going.
But it’s also true that at some point in your life, you will create your best piece. You may not realize it at the time, but you will not reach that artistic height again.
For Picasso, it was likely “Guernica,” perhaps the last painting that anyone did that truly shook the world.
As I look up at the painting I call “Watercourse Way,” I wonder if I have painted my Guernica?
Watercourse way ( a poem)
I pour the paint
Up and down the canvas
and let it run
Ultramarine and Phthalo blue
like a memory of ancient waters
holding the pale sunlight in
its liquid embrace
Picasso had his Guernica
Michelangelo his Sistine Chapel
I only have this canvas
and a vision of God's face
reflected in the depths
of the watercourse way