May 31, 2011
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.