“Most artists keep a well-rehearsed speech close at hand for fielding the familiar request to explain a finished piece. But if asked to describe how it felt during the artmaking – well, that often comes out a bit like Dorothy trying to describe the Land of Oz to Auntie Em. Between the initial idea and the finished piece lies a gulf we can see across, but never fully chart.” — Bayles & Orland
I call that place the Gulf of Staring.
Visual art is more than painting or sculpting, throwing pots or gluing pieces onto a collage. It’s more than color theory or choosing canvas. More than keeping the brushes and tools clean.
Here’s what a lot of it is about: standing or sitting and staring. This is not the same as watching the paint dry, although it might sound a little like it.
Moments on the Gulf of Staring happen when the paint is already dry unless the artist is doing some wet on wet and color blending, but that’s a different matter. Visits to the Gulf of Staring are not about watching the paint dry.
You work on a piece and think it’s looking pretty good, maybe even finished, and then you journey to the Gulf of Staring.
You move across the studio if you have a studio to get some distance or across the kitchen if you paint in the kitchen or across the spare room if you paint in a spare room. If you’re out in nature, you step away from the painting. To the Gulf of Staring.
As you stare you ask questions, and it doesn’t matter that you’re a landscape artist, an abstract expressionist or a portraitist. Nor does it matter what medium you choose–oil, acrylic, watercolor, feathers, yarn or wood scraps.
Nor does the specific art form matter — paintings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, folded paper, glass, you sit or stand and you stare. As you stare, you ask many questions. No matter the space, the medium, the form, the questions are the same.
Is that the color I want? The shape? What’s working here? What’s missing? What’s here that doesn’t belong?
What am I trying to do here anyway, and why did it look so much better in my head? Why does it always look better in my head?
Then comes the next big question: How can I fix it?
And for painters, the question of last resort: Where’s the gesso?
Creative endeavors carried out by a group, a team, the cast of a play, a dance company or a band offer immediate feedback. For visual artists or for writers, not so much.
Eventually, of course, all art and writing and music and dance and acting make it out to the big wide world where the feedback is definitely there. Actors might get a standing ovation or they might play to a near-empty house. Musicians might hear applause or just people talking through the set. You get what I’m saying.
But on the way to the big wide world, artists and writers work pretty much alone. Oh, sure, somebody might walk by and offer a comment about the work in progress which the artist or writer can take or leave alone, but most of the response to the work, especially for an artist, comes from inside. From the shores of the Gulf of Staring.
Like many artists, I try to have more than one piece going at a time. It’s something to do while the paint dries. But sooner or later, it’s still time to stop and stare. And ask the questions.
We know the rules, and we know how to break them. We know what’s getting the press and selling and we know what we want to create and sell. We know our mentors and the artists whose work we admire and we know we need to find our own way.
We know all those things and we also know that when we stand on the shores of the Gulf of Staring, we are on our own.
4 thoughts on “The Artist and the Gulf of Staring”
I understand 100 percent. I was at the National Gallery in D.C. one day staring at a show of Van Gogh miniatures and wanted so much to touch those paint strokes. The guard tapped me on the shoulder, smiled and said, “Don’t do it.” I asked him how he knew what I was thinking and he said, “Some people just have that look.” Busted! Thank you for appreciating art, my friend – my art and that of so many others…
I guess I’m just sucked into the Gulf of Staring…I love looking at paintings, up close and further back, brush strokes and colors, that’s why I love your art and also Jackson Pollack. Keep going my friend.
One of my favorites, too…Thanks, Leo…I’m sure the architects of the world do a lot of staring, also.
Hope your summer is going well.
This is a thoughtful aspect of making art that is seldom discussed. I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorite philosophers:
“You can observe a lot by watching.”