Desultory painting

May 31, 2011

Robert Genn

My friend Jack Hambleton and I were in the town of Sao Bras de Alportel in southern Portugal. Stepping out onto the spacious flat roof of our three-story hotel one evening, we saw potential. Before sun-up the next day we were back out there, drinking our coffee and seriously rethinking the variety below. Small winding streets led away in all directions. Red-tiled roofs rubbed shoulders and formed cubist patterns with the white walls, laundry lines, and geranium-filled window boxes. Decorative chimneys studded the skyline. Jack said, "There are a million views in the tiny city."

We set up in the middle of the roof, near the potential shade of a water cistern. Our method was to walk to the parapet and assemble a view in our heads, then come back to the easel and begin. Going from one view to another, only a short time was required to lay in each composition. We set down our half-baked paintings--his watercolours and my acrylics--in a growing circle around us. By noon we both had a half dozen starts.

The second phase was to walk to the parapet with a "chosen" painting in hand. Elements and points of interest not noticed before popped into view and motifs from other works begged to be included. Needless to say, midday light introduced different shadows and different challenges.

Returning again to the easel brought a further degree of finish. Some works took four or five parapet-trips before signature. Less favoured ones were unceremoniously abandoned. By Scotch-time we each had several modest crackerjackers. Later, an inconvenienced but mildly amused hotelier served us a calamari and asparagus dinner right there on the roof. We revelled and anecdoted until we could no longer see.

The Oxford Dictionary defines "desultory" as "skipping from one subject to another, disconnected, unmethodical." It may be an unmethodical method, but it's a useful one. Here's why: Our minds are capable of far more multi-tasking and multi-tracking than we think. The critical sense that goes with the processes of art-making moves forward on both prior experience and intuition. Quick looks and automatic decisions, devoid of long-term contemplation and recrimination, often produce decent results. Going from one project to another heightens the faculty.

Over time, an artist builds a repertoire of creative moves, motifs and techniques--there to be released or withheld as the artist sees fit. Desultory it may be, but it's a valuable ploy in an artist's ongoing obligation to play.