Goals for a New Watercolor Project of California Route 1. Also, the First Painting–Elephant Seals of San Simeon

In The Art of Fiction John Gardner advocates above all else that a writer must not break the vivid continuous dream of a work of fiction (he exempts meta fiction from this rule). I always liked this idea. So much of writing is about editing, and this idea gives a great rule to follow when reading and revising. Anything that breaks the dream must be removed or fixed. It’s an instinct-based approach that can be honed by practice both in writing and in editing. A good “natural” writer will produce that vivid continuous dream more fluidly, so less re-shaping may be required. Dreams can take many forms and styles, and exist in or across many genres. The writer of the dream need only stick with that dream’s set of norms.

I have been thinking about this idea with my painting. I have done a scattering of subjects, working out techniques and styles. In some I hope that sense of a vivid dream has existed–I think most in my Old San Juan painting–but that dream hasn’t been continuous, and that’s what I want to strive for.

The Brooklyn Museum show of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors brought several dreams into focus.The thematic groupings, coupled with his lively almost magical style, stuck with me, and I have been studying his work closely since. I had a similar experience several years ago when the National Gallery had a Cezanne show. A lot to learn from those two.

So here is my project. I want to create series of paintings in a style that will create and perpetuate that sense of a vivid continuous dream. Like I wrote in my last post, I want to make an album that flows together, that’s both encompassing and varied, but very much unified. The unifying theme of this album will be California’s Route 1.

Two years ago we visited some very close friends in Santa Barbara. The landscape and the feeling of being there were so potent that I dream of living there someday. It was not enough just to visit. We spent a few days going from Santa Barbara to Monterey and back on Route 1, stopping in a few places along the way. I took a lot of photos, which I will filter through memory and paint. I won’t paint them in sequence, but I will approach them in an emerging unified style. On the blog I will post everything, though like with any album, not everything posted here will make the cut. I will arrange the final selection in a proper order, perhaps put them out in a short book if I think they’re good enough.

Below is my first work, shown in sequence as it developed, of elephant seals near San Simeon. The seals gather here to rest and fight–a groan and craning of the neck is about all I saw of it. The fighting is brief because rest seems to be most important to them. The way they arranged themselves while resting was interesting. Generally nestled in with each other but with some outliers. One could be forgiven for mistaking them for rocks.

In painting these I tried to handle the scene roughly, mixing swipes of the brush with some wet-in-wet work to convey an overall materiality. I was generally less precise, focusing on believability and composition over accuracy, though with the main seal in front I put in just enough detail to get it to read as a seal.

Also new in this work, and something I will continue in the rest of the series, is my use of M. Graham white gouache, in some cases mixed with my Maimeri Blu and Sennelier watercolors, to pull out some details and give some more materiality to the works, at least in the focal points. Materiality, roughness, and believability will guide my style through this series. Maybe I need to start thinking through a set of values like Calvino’s Six Memos.

Thanks for reading.

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