It’s generally recognized for athletes that warming up before serious exertion enhances performance and reduces the likelihood of injury. I would recommend this reasoning for the artist as well. Hitting the canvas cold is rough. The brain and temperament need to gently calibrate for the strangeness of the endeavor of painting. I admire the polyglot that seamlessly jumps between languages. However, I wonder if that isn’t an easier transition given the similarity in reasoning and expectations between different tongues whereas artistic communication and thinking operate with an entirely novel set of criteria. It isn’t a simple substitution of different words for an idea, because often it is the feeling of the idea that matters. Coming to the easel straight from the linguistic mind is like hopping off the toilet into full sprint—the body is engaged in a wholly different task and the results will be messy.
So each day as I settle into the studio, I have to wake up the painterly mind and excuse the rational linguistic mind. I do this largely through preparing the palette. This odd piece of equipment is the central engine that runs the show and rightly is seen as the artist’s lingam. The hand-held varieties can take on iconic and yet quite alien shapes— ovoid leaves designed to meld into the hand, arm and hip. They appear like some parasitic fungus, drawing life from the host. But to the one who holds it there is a certain empowerment. Here is the real organ of speech, I think. And one becomes animated with it in hand, motion flowing from the palette through the body and onto the canvas.
In the studio I work on a glass palette, a large windowpane actually, set on an adjustable table. It is not only the home for my paint, but a dozen or so liquid-filled jars and brush-filled cans congregate around the perimeter. They crowd around the paint action like spectators of a concert or brawl. Radiating from that central stage, a film of paint and medium lacquers everything, comparable to the ring of debris found along the shoreline.
I begin this meditative process of preparing the palette by scraping the used paint from the mixing regions with a razor, but not without taking note of what has happened there. This is like cleaning a room the day after a party—it’s a dirty chore but helps to recall the revelry that led to the disarray. Then I use my knife to free the crusted globs of unmixed paint and set them in the newly cleaned center while I then reset their place at the table. One by one I squeeze out the still youthful paint from the dried portion that has scabbed over. The salvaged paint is reseated in an orderly spectrum. That is a nice time because I can reacquaint myself with each pigment one on one; a brief but important “how are you, how’re the kids” before we go into battle. Next, from the tubes I top off those members of the assembly who are running low and reinstate those who have expired completely. All the while, I’m also sneaking peaks at the canvases on deck, sizing up the work ahead. Completing this routine along with sundry other tasks builds momentum for the subsequent act of painting.
All of this housekeeping is an act of self-hypnosis. It is a ritual cleansing that transforms the palette from material work-site into visual alphabet, and readies the mind to use it. The palette is likewise activated and what follows can be unhindered alchemy. A binding affection deepens between artist and palette with this care.
The palettes of many famous painters have been preserved after their death as a record of their efforts. This may seem unfair to depict an artist with a single preserved moment on the palette for eternity, but it does seem to tell a good deal about the painter. There are the choices of pigments, of course, as well and the method of arrangement. But the poetry that comes across is in the smears and dabs, the patina left from arduous use. There is the real look of searching for color and tone that betrays a personality. It is unedited artist’s fingerprint and it is the editing itself.
The palette is the most beautiful thing in the studio or worn by the artist in the field, if of course it has been well loved and well used. Only the palette has the behind-the-scenes remnants of painterly thought. There is a certain jealousy that I’ve come to know for the incidental beauty of the palette that seems to outshine what I’ve attempted on the canvas. Perhaps it is the authentic look of paint caught unaware in a candid moment that gives the palette its attractiveness.