Looking back at a year of oil painting

Untitled work in progress, 36″ x 24″, June 20 2017

A year ago today, I went to a neighborhood art store and bought three tubes of oil paint on a whim, and started making oil paintings for the first time in my life. I wrote about that at the time here, about starting from scratch and about some of my thoughts and feelings about oil painting as then a still mostly abstract idea.

Looking back a year later, what started as a little experiment — another likely short-lived hobby to add to my long history of same — has become instead a serious and emotionally valuable part of my life.  

Five Concentric Wireframe Cubes, 36″ x 24″, 2017

I call myself a painter now without blushing or equivocating; I paint daily, sketch daily, talk about ideas with my wife daily; I’ve built a huge easel from scratch, sold several paintings, pored over books, and made a regular habit of sharing work both finished and in progress in my online social circles.

I’ve also built a site specifically for my finished painting work, art.joshmillard.com.  Take a look if you haven’t already.  Tell your friends.  Etc.

Menger in Oils, 6″ x 6″, June 21 2016

My first oil painting last year was a simple Menger sponge in three colors, Menger in Oils.  I talk in the blog entry linked up top about creating that after having done a couple of much cleaner, flatter Menger sponge paintings with latex house paint, and the shock of producing something so far from what I was hoping for.  It’s a clumsy little first go.

But it’s also on point for me: my fixation on Menger sponges and related forms predated the move into oils, and as I accelerated my painting early in 2017 it became a default subject, on which I’ve painted a great many variants.  A year after that little painting, I have dozens of points of comparison and departure.  Having the Menger sponge as a go-to starting point has allowed me to just get to work, to put my effort and energy into trying to figure out how to execute a given painting instead of waffling endlessly over what to paint and so never getting started.  Which I otherwise still struggle with, though it’s coming easier over time.

Menger With Knife, 11″ x 14″

The experience of exploring this idea over and over, whether neatly and careful drafted or done more expressively and intuitively as with the experimental Menger With Knife earlier this year or the more recent, larger followup Menger With Knife II or in tighter, more controlled and mechanical compositions like Superposition, has let me pull off a good trick: practicing without thinking about it as practice.

Menger With Knife II, 24″ x 30″, 2017

I don’t drill well, I don’t rehearse or practice my scales or show much didactic discipline.  I’m a poor student when it’s just for scholarship’s sake.  I play several musical instruments well, but I never got good at clarinet, the only one I was formally studying, because I have trouble formally studying.  What I do well at is jumping in and being too distracted by enjoying the process to realize that I’m working at it.  I find it very easy to forget a lot of the time that I’m working at painting, and it’s been good for me.

Superposition, 20″ x 24″, 2017

I could put another twenty Menger sponge-related paintings into this post; I should say that I could put a couple dozen paintings that are tangentially or not at all related as well.  I haven’t entirely fallen down that well, fixation hasn’t turned into monomania so much as it has been a lighthouse, a point by which to navigate other waters as much as one to return to.  But it is in any case a conspicuous theme, and if this is a look back at a year of work then that is the central organizing force in that work as I’ve developed my processes and skill set.

Six Menger Sponges In Transit, 36″ x 12″, 2017

This last year didn’t happen in a null context; it’s been a rough time politically, with an ugly election season and a disastrous outcome.  My paintings are overwhelming apolitical (with the occasional exception) but my actual job, running and moderating MetaFilter, involves more or less constant exposure to the details of the sociopolitical clusterfuck we’re currently living through.

And so painting has been an escape, a target for energy that’d otherwise have to go into something else or just translate into free-floating anxiety and anger.

Volume Curve, Menger I, 12″ x12″, 2017

I started painting last summer, but for much of 2016 it was halting, still just an experiment here and there.  I made a handful of paintings over the course of six months.

But earlier this year, in February, something clicked.  I had been and continued to be angry and sad and worn down by the election and its outcome, and on the tail of the inauguration that all came back to full crushing force after the almost-catching-my-breath interim of December and early January.

Two Menger Sponges Interlaced, 14″ x 11″, 2017

And painting was there, and I dove in hard, and it gave me something to do with myself that made all of that easier to deal with, easier to genuinely take a mental break from a few hours at a time.  And made it easier to summon up the energy to do my job when I needed to get back to doing it.

The last four months are when most of the work I’ve done has happened, when things started really coming together.  It’s been a little bit of a blur but hugely rewarding.  I’m brimming with ideas.  I’m looking forward to the next project, and the next.  It’s hard to believe it’s been a year; it’s hard to believe it’s only been four months.  Time’s gotten a little strange these days.  And I’m still angry and sad and worried.  But I’m painting.

Continuity, 11″ x 14″, 2017

Author: Josh Millard

I manage and help moderate the community website MetaFilter, where I go by "cortex"; in my spare time I get up to all sorts of creative nerdery on the internet and in Portland, Oregon.

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