As I have said in previous blogs, I am addicted to the Descanso Garden and was there over spring break. And I almost always head for a shady spot in the rose garden. I tell myself, probably every time I have walked in the front gate, that I will find some place else there to sit and paint. But if I am really truthful, all the groups of strollers always overwhelm me and so do the shear number of people pushing strollers, so I head for the rose garden to calm myself down. And when I once again am lured to yet another perfect spot there, I tell myself that I will do better next time and will definitely paint in a different quadrant of the garden in the future. On the 31st it was a little cool that day, and I actually sat on a bench that would normally be too bright and hot for my paints and me. I have found that the bright white blank paper is just too bright and my paints seem to get darker and darker as the water in my pots of color quickly evaporates. For this view I was interested in capturing the first new bursts of spring color in that part of the garden. And from my chosen vantage point I was treated to the first emerging pink blossoms of a flowering crabapple you see to the right and the drifts of bright blue forget-me-nots in the middle ground amongst the twig like stems of the roses. And all of this set against the San Gabriel Mountains and the perfectly clear blue blue sky.
As I sat there I found myself wanting to channel Vincent Van Gogh, to help me visualize how I wanted the bench and the crabapple blossoms to turn out. I was thinking about him as I was wandering around. And before I sat down I had looked carefully at some lovely irises that I could have done in his honor, but ultimately decided to focus on the tree blossoms and the chunky wooden bench instead.
OK, you may or may not believe this, but I just now Googled Van Gogh to see if he had done any watercolors of blossoms and I read that he was born on March 30, 1853. (Cue the creepy Twilight Zone theme song.). Happy birthday Mr. Van Gogh! Too bad you never made it to California. You would have loved the southern California light. So, both paintings are dedicated to you and all the wonderful painters who came before you to inspire all of us going forward.
So, the question I want to know about him, and really I guess it’s a question for all of us who paint. How do you know? How do you know when you are done? How do you know if you really achieved what you set out to do, or are the best parts just by chance? Or do you just stop at what might be considered a random place because you think you’ve gone too far? Van Gogh used black and that has never worked for me as it always seems to get too dark too fast, or it kind of takes over to my eye. But he knew how to use that pigment. Were his paintings planned, or did he just get bored and want to move onto something else? When I Googled him just a minute ago I also read that he created some 900 paintings, as well as 1100 sketches and drawings, and he died before he was 40. And he produced all that amazing art in about a 10-year period. And if I mentally crunch the significance of all the numbers I have described here, my mind reels. But there is one number that relates to him that truly staggers the imagination, and that number is one. It appears that after all that work, he sold only one piece in his lifetime. Yikes!
So, if I think about my process, Van Gogh would have probably thought me an art slug. I always take time to at least figure out (sketch) my composition and then I start mixing colors and planning what part I should do first, second etc. This is based on what areas will need to dry before I can move on. And I usually stop at some self-imposed critical moment to let things dry, step back and eat a peanut butter sandwich. I know there is always a chance that what I started out to do will get changed or I realize the focal point should really be something else. Or I misjudge the distances between things, or I leave things out or shift things around. So, did Van Gogh do that? How much of what he did was really planned, or was all those canvases just quick experiments. Of course, he didn’t start out doing the really memorable stuff, but did he know it was great? I hope so. My son reminded me of a “Dr. Who” episode that brought the doctor to meet Vincent Van Gogh. It was kind of a bit of contrived writing that had Van Gogh seeing things (bad guys) that others could not. So after Van Gogh helped Dr. Who destroy the bad guys, the doctor takes Van Gogh to a “future” museum. He shows the painter that his art is displayed with such relish and reverence in the future. And that he was known by countless numbers of people worldwide for his groundbreaking use of color and technique. But we all know how the story really ends and Van Gogh’s glimpse of his work after he’s gone, does not affect the choices he makes and the outcome of his personal story. I guess the true point to that bit of fiction is we want to somehow let Van Gogh know that all he went through was worth it, at least for all of us. I suspect Vincent Van Gogh could have cared less about all of us in the future. But maybe not. Maybe that’s what all of us who paint want to know, in the end—did we do it right? Was it really worth it, all those tiny details and decisions we made for every corner of every canvas or piece of watercolor paper? Guess I should really be working on a time machine instead of countless watercolors. I think I read that Vincent Van Gogh spoke English. So then I could ask him.
Note about the two paintings:
I actually sat in the garden and painted the top one on March 31, 2018. But then I got home I decided I didn’t like it much. I then painted the second one at home while looking at a photo I had taken. Of course now I can’t decide which one I like better. I wish Vincent was here.