What’s Your Affinity? I Like Gray

What’s Your Affinity? I Like Gray

Remedios Vara is the kind of artist I would like to be. Transcendent subject matter, master level skill, unique and vast imagination, rendered in oil paint, preserved for centuries.

This is my art. Simple subject, basic skill. I’ll leave the critique of my imagination up to you but it’s clearly not as vast. I make faces, not worlds. They are so impermanent that some blow away before I can even photograph them.

When I see art I admire, my chatty inner critique likes to start up a conversation by saying: you know you’re not a very good artist, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not being an artist that concerns me. I could try to make the kind of art I admire. I have tried. Nothing impressive has come of it. But making art is not about replicating or imitating what you are attracted to. The reason to make your own body of work is to discover what you have a natural affinity for. What do you do when there is no impetus at all except for your own? What do you make when you let yourself make? Art really isn’t even a useful word because it suggests things in galleries and museums, things already made and vetted. Art for me is a practice so it could be anything that one really pays attention to, refines and gives birth to. When we give ourselves permission to do this, we learn what we have an affinity for. I apparently have an affinity for gray.

Affinity and attraction are not the same. Just as I am attracted to Remedios Vara, I am also attracted to bold patterns and colors. When I see brightly patterned dresses for sale on Instagram, I immediately favorite it just in case I want to return and buy myself a little panache. But what am I wearing while I indulge in these wild imaginations? A gray t-shirt and old jeans. What’s my favorite item of clothing? A classic black motorcycle boot. What was my favorite thing before I stupidly lost it? A gray felt cap. Most of my clothes are gray, navy or black. I am comfortable in those colors. When I put on the type of thing I am attracted to, I feel like car alarm going off in the middle of the night. I don’t like it. I might even hate it.

So, the other day I noticed most of my sidewalk faces are gray. Obviously because pavement is gray. Is this coincidence or affinity? I am comfortable in this terrain, I notice the nuances of gray, of minimal, of repetition. I don’t get tired of it and that’s affinity. I can keep going year after year because of affinity. I don’t need to ask anyone else if it’s good because of affinity. Now husband might say different, I’m always requesting/demanding his curatorial eye. I really like to show him my little people. Mostly we agree but if we don’t, he is either confirming my own fear that one is a bit lackluster or sharpening my confidence through accepting disagreement without changing course. That’s affinity.

Moving away from imitation and into affinity is a move from scarcity to abundance. It’s the place where you can do a lifetime of work. It’s a place where you can meet yourself.

Rules. Can’t Live with Them. Can’t Live without Them.

Rules. Can’t Live with Them. Can’t Live without Them.

Right off the bat, do you like the idea of having rules or hate it? Chances are if you hate it, it’s because you didn’t make them. How about rules for art? How does that make you feel? Many people bristle at having rules for their art. They think of art as a place to break rules. But whose rules? I want to make a case for creating your own.

The rules to follow in your art practice are the ones you create to make the process easier and get a good result.

That’s not really accurate but it’s more powerful then saying rules are set in place to make the process less frustrating and guide the result in the direction you are hoping for. The process will always be frustrating, and the result is never guaranteed. But to keep from being paralyzed with indecision about how to begin and anxiety riddled with dread that it will all be futile in the end, a few rules are super handy.

Are you with me? Do you want to make some rules? Great! But hold on. Rules can only be formed from analyzing artwork you’ve made that you like. Not artwork that someone else has made. Artwork you made. We will get to that. First you need some constraints. Constraints might become rules but only if you say so.

You don’t get a rule until you find a constraint you really like. What’s so great about constraints? Let me answer a question with a question. Do you prefer making multiple decisions an hour or just one or none? Say it’s around 5 pm and you’re getting hungry, what do you like most, for your spouse/partner/friend/roommate to say I’m getting us some pizza, sound good? Or inform you they just sent an email with 25 new restaurant options, could you take an hour to peruse them all and decide which one to order from. Maybe if it’s 2 pm on a lazy Saturday the second option could be fun, but not for every meal. It’s too tiring and it steals time from the good part, eating and hanging out.

Same with art. Having all the choices just keeps you from getting too it. Whittling down the choices to the ones you will most enjoy is super helpful. A constraint is a way to make entry into the process as easy as it can possibly be. Let’s assume what we want is to be making some art, how can we go from not making art to making art? Make all the decisions that cause waffling ahead of time so that no decisions need to be made during the fragile transition period from everything else you do to making art.

Let me give you an example of something I have been doing for 4 or 5 years that has almost no decisions attached to the entry point. And because of that I’ve made quite a lot.

I make abstracts. Here are the constraints.

  • 9 inch x 9 inch paper
  • Alcohol based markers
  • Abstraction only, no representational imagery

That’s it! Very very easy to start one up. I just get the paper out, get the markers out and go! The first decision I make is the first mark and I usually make it very fast. It really doesn’t matter too much. That’s not true. It probably matters a lot. But thinking about it and getting worried I will mess it up doesn’t alter the way it matters. It doesn’t contribute to something better. The process works just as well if I deliberate or don’t deliberate. That’s the value of constraints!

So how do constraints become rules? Constraints are physical, material and easy to define. Rules are stylistic, aesthetic and related to what pleases you. They would be harder to convey to another person but intuitive to you. Because you decide. You decide based on what you want. How do you know what you want? From looking deeply at what you have already created and noticing what you want more of and want you want less of. If you look at your work and see that some is neat and some is messy, which part excites you, attracts you? Do more of that and less of the other. The rule would be let it be messy or make it neat. Often it’s the relationship between the two, make it two thirds messy, one third neat. Rules aren’t easy to convey to anyone but yourself because you need a very intimate understanding of what you are doing to make them, and you are most likely the only person with that understanding.

The rule for the two abstracts above was create a pleasing balance between symmetry and chaos. Of all the times I have tried to achieve that, the one on the left is my favorite. The one on the right is not bad but not quite as good to me. I am not going to show you the ones I hate because once I determine I don’t like one, I never want to see it again. I make quite a few of those. Naturally if you are pushing your boundaries, you are bound to fall over them. Failure is also useful for rule formation. The rule is usually a variation on don’t do that again. The trick is to identify what that is. You can’t make it a rule if you don’t analysis it and make it conscious.

Sometimes the rules are use only four colors. Or they revolve around combining a limited set of shapes. Often, it’s a combination of two or more types of rules: Use these colors, use these shapes, make it loose but tidy. The point of the rules is to narrow my focus, so I don’t get overwhelmed. The point is to help me make the one thousand decisions every piece of art demands. The point is to see what happens and lean into the direction that feels good. The point is to make a lot of art. The point is to make some good art. This is how I get there.