Silver Jubilee Part One: Beginnings

Every year as November approaches and onward into late December, I usually put on Fables of the Reconstruction (1985), Lifes Rich Pageant (1986), and Document (1987), three albums by R.E.M., one of my favourite bands. They’re playing right now as I write this, and this limited playlist will be playing –off and on, because I need to listen to other music as well– until about mid-December. Along with those R.E.M. albums, I also have Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars by Edie Brickell and New Bohemians somewhere in the rotation. This was the music I listened to, over and over and over, while I first experimented with watercolours at home, which, of course, was an extension of my first real attempts at the medium in my high school art class.

I vividly remember sitting in that class in the fall of 1988, looking at an assortment of random objects arranged in the centre of the room, our desks encircling it, and our assignment: draw it, paint it, whatever. I think I did some drawings of the whole arrangement and probably some closer studies of specific areas, but none of that survived the decades. What does remain is my first finished watercolour painting (below) and in it you can see parts of that arrangement, specifically, the two blocky shapes in the bottom left, the big white curve in the lower right, and the thin wiry lines (they were, not surprisingly, wires). I don’t remember why I added Gumby, but looking back, I now see him (like a thumbprint next to my signature) waving hello as though he's knowingly pinpointing the exact moment of my long journey into painting.

Stuff II: Gumby's Perspective
approx. 18" x 15", watercolour,
1988, private collection

By this point, I’d already been strongly admiring watercolours through the medium of comics for a few years, poring over the work of Jon J Muth, Kent Williams, and Bill Sienkiewicz. I'm sure I didn't fully understand what I was looking at and how it was made, but I fell deeply in love and, even though I didn't know what I wanted to paint, I knew that I wanted –I needed– to paint as beautifully as they did. 

artwork by Jon J Muth
"Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown"
Volume 1, 1988

artwork by Kent Williams
"Blood: A Tale"
Volume 1, 1987

artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz
"Elektra: Assassin"
Chapter One, 1986

These artists didn’t exclusively work in watercolours, and the books I was looking at contained a wild variety of mixed media, but it was watercolours that fascinated me most. There was something about its complex delicacy in the way transparent layers could sit atop each other, combining to form new colours; there was something about the way it would form a darker “crust” around its edges at times; the way it could also be opaque and bold; the way wet-into-wet works; the beautiful gradients; the chaos of it all.

My art teacher at the time (I would have been in Grade 12) said at least once how watercolour was very unforgiving, and it seemed to me that she had a frustrated, adversarial relationship with the medium. I loved the way it looked (in the expert hands of the artists above) too much to be dissuaded myself, so I dismissed (but never forgot!) her warnings.

That Gumby painting is not really a painting but an experimental battleground/amusement park where I formally introduced myself to the medium and its various behaviours and idiosyncrasies, trying just about every possible effect I could make. But that was just a fleeting glimpse of the tip of an iceberg whose depth I still don’t fully comprehend.

For some reason (perhaps an assignment, perhaps whimsy) I partnered with a friend and classmate, Peter Kovacs, and did my next two paintings with him as a sort of collaborative jam, sometimes working simultaneously, sometimes trading the paper back and forth. I think I did the drawings because they’re so bad (but who can properly draw that maple leaf, anyway?). 

Cultural Mess (with Peter Kovacs)
15" x 22", watercolour, 1988

By the time we did Fruitful Mess we were calling ourselves the Group of Two Cubists (with a cute shorthand signature) but we didn’t collaborate further; there was no falling out or anything, we just stopped. The part I like most about the flag is the bleeding of red into blue on the left and right edges. The part I like most about the fruit is the intersection of the three facets on the left (encompassing carrot, apple, and background), which have the same colour and tonal value, making it look like a window showing the true image behind broken glass.

Fruitful Mess (with Peter Kovacs)
approx. 11" x 15", watercolour, 
1988, private collection

I’d been drawing those intersecting lines for years, mostly just in pencil, so I’m sure their inclusion in these paintings was my idea. A friend of ours, Ian Anderson, referred to this pattern one day as “matrix,” thinking that was actually the proper “art world” name for it. I didn’t have a name for it (I’ve seen it elsewhere, so I’m not the first person to stumble upon this form of doodling) and we didn’t think it was really called anything, but we looked up “matrix” and one of the definitions (“something shaped like a pattern of lines and spaces”) was appropriate enough that we started referring to it that way. I’ve been incorporating matrices in many of my paintings ever since. In this case, “ever since” means “for 25 years.”

Listening to those R.E.M. CDs propels me back to 1988 so strongly that realizing that was two-and-a-half decades ago seems surreal, as though I exist in that little room, sitting at my desk, exploring watercolours, and at the same time I exist in 2013, sitting at a different desk, writing about the past from a future perspective I couldn’t have imagined. The next few blog posts will be my celebration, my Silver Jubilee, of this landmark.

Next up: I try a portrait.


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