Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Something Clicked

I think I'm on to something. According to my test (see previous post) if after a couple of paintings I get bored of my newfound voice, it's not really my voice. I was just bedazzled by a discovery which turned out to be something cosmetic. Not so profound as to finding myself.

Not that I think I can just find myself that easily. Nor do I think it'll take less than a lifetime. But I think I've found a piece of the puzzle. It feels like a corner piece, even. I applied the test, and not only did I not get bored after two or three paintings, but I just keep getting sucked into it further and further. I have now done over thirty paintings pursuing this path, and it feels like the paintings just paint themselves. I'm just holding onto the brush for dear life!

The ride is bumpy, to be sure, and of the thirty, many ended up in the trash but even those felt good to do. I can't clearly identify what "it" is that I found, but I can feel it in my bones.

You see, over the years and in the course of doing thousands of paintings, I began to notice certain patterns in my tendencies. The things I like and don't like. I became more aware of what I respond to, both in my own paintings and in other people's. And also in what I see out there in the course of a normal day. When I took stock of these likes and dislikes, it became more clear to me why I thought some good paintings failed, and why some others, while not so good, resonated with me.

Here are some of my likes:
- a sense of mystery.
- atmosphere.
- flat shapes.
- anonymity.
- moodiness.
- quiet.
- subtlety.
- obscurity.
- expressive, yet controlled brushwork.
- muted colors.
- close harmonies.
- ordinary things and views.
- evokative qualities.

And here are some things that I either don't like, or I like in other people's work but not in mine:
- slick realism.
- lots of detail.
- bright colors.
- compositions that rely on, or dominated by complex perspectives.
- sentimentalism.
- the spectacular in nature. Like fiery sunsets. or the Grand Canyon.
- anomalies in nature.
- too much narrative.
- portraiture.
- still life.
- "pretty" things.
- subjects that are more or less irrelevant to my daily life. Boats, for example.

The "dislikes" are a lot trickier to identify, because most of these things I actually do like when I see them done well by other people. Sometimes I might even love them so much that I start fooling myself into believing I would like them in my own paintings too.

There are more on the lists, and they become more specific to technique, or mood, or color, or what have you. The thing is, I've known my tendencies for a long time but I never listened to myself. I would see a beautiful painting done by a friend, and think, "wow! that is so freakin' cool! I want to do that!!"  And I would allow myself to be influenced. That stuff doesn't stand my test, of course, but I would come out of it more confused than when I started.

So what happened? It wasn't a sudden epiphany or anything, but earlier this year, I had an occasion to paint some people crossing the street in front of cars. This was done en plein air, which means moving targets. Basically memory painting on the spot is what it was. Which is not something new for me. What was different this time, was the view I was painting was back-lit. When looking into the sun, everything becomes simplified because you really can't see any detail. The light and shadow separation is pretty much all you get. You might get some local colors in the foreground, but remember, my foreground elements were moving so I didn't get a chance to overwork them, neither in detail or color.

What I had before me was devoid of detail, very atmospheric, almost completely tonal. Which meant I had no bright colors. Very moody, and because I was painting moving targets, my brushwork was about movement, not about the pedestrians or cars. There's a huge difference between painting "things" like people, and painting visually abstract notions like "motion". I end up having pedestrians on my canvas but I wasn't painting them. I was painting "motion".

I realized that here was a subject matter and set up that forced me to emphasize all that I liked, and none that I disliked. Ping! Lightbulb!

I went home, and started to experiment in the studio, painting backlit cityscapes and comparing them to the same scenes painted front or side lit. And it became more and more clear that when I painted a back lit view, I would paint more abstractly (because I couldn't see anything literal beyond silhouettes), whereas front or side lit views would put my mind in a more literal gear.

OK, this is good, I thought. Lots of potential. Let's try a few more and see if there's more to it...


  1. I have been thinking the same way...you articulated it very well and I am certain others, too, will appreciate the "lists". This standing back with a critical eye and continuing to try stuff out, throw stuff out then hang onto the good stuff is finding one's style, handwriting or voice. The trick is to keep on'e faith and continue down the path found.
    Great post Terry. Thank you!

  2. Thank you Terry, this is another eye opener. This post tells people like me what kind of things to think about.
    You said you have been trying out this idea for some time now. Is this what you had in mind when you made "Early Delivery" and the larger painting from it? They are both fabulous.

  3. Man, what a lesson. Thank you very much.

  4. Terry, This is right on. Great post ! Great lists and the process you describe is great. I hit it "big" when I sketched baseball players in a game... then crashing waves.... then waterfalls... Painting motion didn't bore me and being forced to do it fast got me to the same place you are talking about. Really interesting - the essence of it becomes clear.

  5. Thanks everybody for your thoughtful comments!!

    Vinayak, "Early Delivery" evolved further, and I will do a post on it. It's kind of interesting in a different way :-)