This article from this morning's NEW YORK TIMES reminded me of an artist
friend's daily painting project, and then, of how each artist has unique needs and
processes. Hence the need for choice.
Happy Mothers' Day to all the special women, mothers or not, on this great
May 8, 2005
Wake Up. Wash Face. Do Routine. Now Paint.
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
CHRIS OFILI'S watercolors at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the spring art
season's rapturous sleeper, are of imaginary heads. There are 181 of them, all the
same size, of men and women in bright African garb, deliriously colored and
intricately detailed. Mr. Ofili is, obviously, the British artist (lately
transplanted to Trinidad) whose "Holy Virgin Mary," with elephant dung, caused a
ruckus a few years back when the "Sensation" show was at the Brooklyn Museum. He
is also adept at rather lovely, clever and not at all inflammatory art,
including these silhouettes and straight-on portraits, which are titled
Mr. Ofili, it turns out, has been painting his watercolor heads nearly every
day for 10 years - for himself, mostly, although some of them have made their
way into the world. Watercoloring is his daily ritual. A few years ago he
added the occasional bird or flower, to stop the routine from becoming a rut.
Everyone has routines. What works for one person may not for someone else.
Routines can be comforting. They may be our jobs. They define our limits and we
try to make something constructive out of them.
The myth is that artists are somehow different. That they leap from one peak
of inspiration to another. That they reject limits - that this is precisely
what makes them artists. But of course that's not true. Most artists work as the
rest of us do, incrementally, day by day, according to their own habits. That
most art does not rise above the level of routine has nothing necessarily to
do with the value of having a ritual.
Twyla Tharp wakes up every day at 5:30 and takes a cab to the gym. Chopin
played Bach. Beethoven strolled around Vienna with a sketch pad first thing in
the morning. Giorgio Morandi spent decades painting the same dusty bunch of
small bottles, bowls and biscuit tins. Chuck Close paints and draws and makes
prints of nearly identical dots or marks, which, depending on how they're
arranged, turn into different faces. "Having a routine, knowing what to do," he has
said, "gives me a sense of freedom and keeps me from going crazy. It's calming."
He calls his method Zenlike, "like raking gravel in a monastery."
There are routines and there are routines. On Kawara, the Japanese-born
artist, paints the date. Since the 1960's, he has made thousands of "Today"
paintings. His routine entails at least four or five coats of the same brand of
paint, the letters white and hand-drawn, always in roughly the same proportion to
the size of the canvas.
Out of routine comes inspiration. That's the idea, anyway. To grasp what's
exceptional, you first have to know what's routine. I once spent several months
watching the American realist painter Philip Pearlstein paint a picture of two
nudes. He has followed the same routine for years. One of the models, Desirée
Alvarez, who is also an artist, said that the value of watching someone
else's studio routine was "in terms of discipline and day-to-dayness and commitment
to work even when it isn't going well."
"I know Philip is interested in Zen monks," she continued. "They have their
routines, because they think that within routine, and only within routine,
Mr. Ofili said, "That's exactly it," when we spoke the other day about his
daily routine. He arrives in his studio at 9 or 10 in the morning, he explained.
He sets aside a corner for watercolors and drawings "away from center stage,"
meaning where he paints his big, collaged oil paintings. "I consider that
corner of the studio to be my comfort zone," he said. First, he tears a large
sheet of paper, always the same size, into eight pieces, all about 6 by 9 inches.
Then he loosens up with some pencil marks, "nothing statements, which have no
"They're not a guide," he went on, they're just a way to say something and
nothing with a physical mark that is nothing except a start."
Watercolor goes on top. He estimated that each head takes 5 to 15 minutes.
Occasionally he'll paint while on the phone. He may finish one watercolor or 10
in the course of a day.
"There have been days I have not made them," he added. "Sometimes it felt
absolutely necessary to do pencil drawings instead. It was cleansing. There's a
beautiful sound that pencil makes when it's scratching on paper. Very soothing.
Watercolor is like waving a conductor's baton. It's very quick. I almost
don't even have to think."
"Sometimes," he added, "I will return to the watercolors in the evening. And
that's a completely different atmosphere. If things haven't gone well during
the day, I can calm down. The big paintings are like a performance - me looking
at me. It's self-conscious. There's a lot of getting up close to the canvas,
then stepping back, reflecting on decisions, thinking about gestures. I try to
take on all sorts of issues and ideas. So my mind is busy. With watercolor,
it's just about the colors and the faces. They're free to go any way they want
to go. I may tell myself, 'This will be the last one I do.' Then I'll do
another. That's liberating."
No two heads are quite alike. There are ballooning Afros and pointy beards,
ponytails and hairdos that resemble butterfly wings, earrings that look like
fishhooks or like raindrops, necklaces in gold, turquoise or emerald. The heads
are as modest and charming as the work that made Mr. Ofili famous is outsize
and occasionally over the top. It is wrong to make too much of them. But if
they can become repetitive, they convey - like the passing of days, each day akin
to the previous one but also a little different - something about the nature
of variety in life, which can be subtle.
Despite the care he has taken to attend to this daily ritual, Mr. Ofili said
he had never really stopped to think about it so explicitly until someone
happened to ask. "I never realized I was so set in my ways until now," he said,
thinking it over during our conversation. "But I guess I have tons of rules.
They say Morandi mixed and mixed color until he felt there was no color left and
then he would begin to paint. He painted his little objects, but I think he
was trying to paint what you might call the spaces between the objects. Philip
Guston is another example. He had his own routine. He was heavily into
political subject matter, into issues in his own life, but he was looking to get
beyond those issues, to find the zone. He talked about the process of painting as
an emptying out: he said everyone was in the studio with him when he started
and gradually they all left until finally he left, too, and then there was only
"In the end, it doesn't really matter what you paint," Mr. Ofili concluded.
"It's all just a routine to connect yourself finally with other people. Someone
else's routine would seem restrictive to me. But rules and limits are
something to push against. It's like doing your morning exercise. Things don't kick
in until you push at your limits."
After we spoke, I came across the composer Eric Satie's "Memoirs of an
Amnesiac." It's an irreverent gem, like his music. "The artist must regulate his
life," Satie wrote, then listed his daily activities:
Up at 7:18. From 10:23 to 11:47: inspiration. Lunch at 12:11. Leave the table
by 12:14. Only white foods, including boiled chicken and camphorized sausage.
More inspiration: 3:12 to 4:07. Bed at 10:37. "Once a week I wake up with a
start at 3:19," he wrote. That's on Tuesday.
"I sleep with one eye open. My sleep is very deep. My bed is round, with a
hole in the middle for my head."