Saturday, July 11, 2015

Painting: The Bootleg Tapes

"Ready to Paint" 8x8 oil/gallery wrap canvas
by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available!  $150 incl. shipping

I listen to music when I paint. My tastes are eclectic, and my large collection spans the spectrum from Bach to Björk. But do you know what my favorite music is? Bootleg tapes.

Bootlegs are unofficial releases of music. Back in the early days of rock'n'roll, a fan at a concert might sneak in a tape recorder, and he'd share the tape with friends. Over the years, the technology improved, and soon the bootlegs began to sound as good as the official releases. (Some of the Grateful Dead bootlegs are like this.) The music industry quickly realized there was a market for bootlegs, so today we have "official" bootleg releases. And although they aren't quite the same as bootlegs, there are studio session outtakes. Sometimes, the publisher will even include bits of these outtakes – informal dialogue, for example – on the official album release. I fondly remember the first time I heard some of this on The Beatle's White Album.

Bootleg sessions are far from highly-polished album releases. These, along with outtakes from raw tape, show the artists in unedited moments. You can hear the process of preparing for the performance: one artist runs scales on the keyboard while another tunes up his guitar. You can hear the process of creating music: one artist fumbles, while another hits a note too early. And you can hear the finish: maybe things were a little off, and one of the artists will comment on it. When I listen to these sessions, there's something pleasing about hearing all the elements the producer edits out. I almost feel like I'm right there with the performers, and the experience is all the richer for it. The music is "live."

My favorite paintings are like that. They're not highly-polished, and they may even be unfinished. Although a lot of editing may have been done, much of the process remains visible for me to see and enjoy. I can spot the initial line drawing of shapes and bits of underpainting; I can tell where a knife has scraped down an ill-stated passage; I can see how a bravura stroke was applied just right at the end. When I look at a painting like this, the painting is "live." I'm right there in the studio, watching the artist at work.

Recently, I've been reading the exhibition catalog for an exhibit of paintings by Degas that was shown at the Metropolitan Museum several years ago. Degas was an inveterate experimenter, and many of his paintings show his process. At the bottom of this post is an unfinished piece. I enjoy looking at it because it shows a great deal of the thought behind it.  (And at the top of this post, you can see one of my finished pieces in which you can see my process.)

I think most painters enjoy seeing this kind of painting. I believe many collectors, especially those among the cognescenti, do as well. This kind of painting isn't for someone who just wants a pretty picture for the dining room; instead, it is for someone who wants to connect with the maker, his process, and his vision.

"Woman with an Umbrella" by Edgar Degas c.1876

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