Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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Seeing in Paint

"Distant Buttes", Michael Baum
Distant Buttes, WC, 4" x 3"

"Distant Buttes 2", Michael Baum
Distant Buttes, Michael Baum, WC, 3" x 4"


Thursday, 11/15/07
Case in Point:
I've climbed the lower slope of a huge sandstone cliff, slowly, hand over hand, until the rock face becomes so steep, I can't go any farther. I nestle into a little ledge, checking first for rattlesnakes and scorpions. Below, the San Juan River courses silently fringed in green cottonwoods. Beyond, a world of bluffs, buttes, and canyons sculpted in parched ancient rock undulates under cobalt sky.

I'm aware of the ancient eyes that have taken in this same vista hundreds of years before. Ruins of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings hide in alcoves all around me and rock art covers the cliff walls.

I open my pack and lay out my painting stuff, watercolor palette, brushes, paper towels, sketch book. I take a drink from my water bottle, then carefully pour a little water into a jar for wetting the brush. Water is precious. Without it, neither the painting nor myself could exist. It's hot and dry on this south-facing perch. I'll need all I have.

Gazing around, I settle on the scene in front of me and quickly sketch it out in pencil, then paint. Then I choose another patch of landscape, a distant butte, and paint another sketch. I do several more. Time slips. It's hot. I'm running out of water, probably have a sunburn. I put down the brush, quickly pack up, and work my way down to the river.

I smell the water, heavy in the dry air. A canyon wren recites. The world explodes. Intense color paints the cliffs, the sky, everything. Shapes of rock and water sculpt into deep relief. The clouds are solid blocks of marble in an impossibly blue sky. I can see the smell of water, see the call of the wren. I see it all. Intense, almost painful. All is as it is and as it should be.

Everything is a painting.

I wonder down the river in search of my companions, a little reluctant to find them. Later, I hear voices ahead, see movement.

This is what I call "seeing in paint." Painting is meditation, intense and focused. It brings the mind to a heightened state of awareness. "Seeing in paint" like this often happens after an intense painting session. Once after a long session in the studio, I was reading when I noticed the words and paper had become a painting complete with brush strokes. It feels like a hallucinogenic experience, but it's no hallucination. It's more real than everyday experience. And it's more than just seeing. It is all the senses heightened, accompanied by a feeling of well-being. A painter's high.

"Seeing in paint" is the experience in painting when the thing you are painting becomes paint and the paint on the canvas seemingly becomes the thing you are painting. The very skin of the model.

This is what I am trying to convey in my paintings. I think all artists are. Beyond the subject and mood, it is the reality at the bottom of experience. The essence. Subject, mood, style, everything springs from that.

Paintings almost always fall short of fully expressing this reality. But they point the way. They are a record of the artist's journey, the tool he uses to see more deeply into the heart of things.


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