John Howe

Painting Out Loud

Or a Certain Conflation of Sound and Vision

The other day I was busily painting away, with my iPod plugged into my ears, when I realized that something was wrong.

Or rather, that something was not right.
Or, more precisely, missing.

I suddenly put my finger on it – figuratively as well as physically – I couldn’t hear the brush on the paper.

Of explanation, a word: I use a lot of oil painting brushes when I am working with inks, as the stiffer bristles are wonderfully suited to the sort of bastardized dry-brushing technique upon which I’ve come to rely. Depending on the effect desired, the brush is just on the damp side of dry, and allows me to move the inks about without lifting them entirely off the paper, as a wetter brush would do. Now the brush, once dipped in the water jar and tamped dry on a sheet of paper towel, has to be of just the right degree of dampness, and while all this sounds incredibly finicky and precious when recounted in so many words, it’s a largely automatic process.

Except, with earphone plugs in my ears, I realized I couldn’t really tell exactly how damp it was, since – as I realized when I couldn’t hear – it was the sound the brush made on the paper that told me if it was the right dampness. I would automatically re-wet the brush when I realized it no longer held enough water, not so much because I could see it wasn’t damp enough, but when I could hear it was too dry.

Now, while I’m largely allergic to allegory, I’m greatly enamoured of metaphor. The former is, according to the dictionary definition,  “a figurative mode of representation conveying a meaning other than the literal”, and the latter is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”. (And what’s the difference, you may well ask. The first is largely used by those who wish to make a point without coming straight out about it, an eliptically esoteric exercise, and greatly subject to interpretation, witness the lukewarm controversy about Tolkien’s Mordor actually being Nazi Germany in disguise. What is introduced as literary bravura often simply peters out into an exercise in symbolatry. Metaphor, however, is a rather more enlightening undertaking, shedding light from a novel angle on familiar subjects, assigning novel characteristics, in order to consider them anew.)

It suddenly seemed an apt metaphor of the business of making pictures, which we tend to think of in mechanical terms, as if we humans were a sort of living pantograph: what you see is what you get, one dimension artfully subtracted and transfigured through the elaborate code we call linear perspective. Physical and mathematical, but limited to light and our interpretation of it through sight.
Because we are clever creatures, we find comfort in order and rejoice in the assigning of tasks. We enjoy knowing what does what are quick to chop things up into their component parts or functions. As we build machines and contrivances from smaller pieces, we tend to think it is a simple matter to reverse the process. 19th-century medecine, besides being a gallery of horrors of curious notions about cardinal humours and physicks and radical treatments, was a reverse image of the Industrial Age, but still rooted in the imperfectly understood medieval concepts inherited from Avicenna, but that’s an example in danger of becoming a digression. We do like order though. It’s our way of dealing with the world.

But, of course, things are never quite so simple. While we are justifiably proud of the Cartesian cathedrals of thought in which we dutifully worship Logic, the stone itself is quarried from strata riddled with the ethnocentricities and quirks – which we find amusing in others but ignore in ourselves. Of course were I to become deaf I would soon learn to compensate for that which I take for granted, and perhaps without ever really realizing what was missing.

It’s complicated.

Now, while this doesn’t imply that we should subtitle every action in Angst Bold or Irresolute Italic, it does suggest there is much we ignore in what we are convinced we know.  As if our propensity for making the world fit manageable pigeonholes compromises our ability to see it as a whole. It seems we spend much time sulking on the battlements of our proud and ivory towers, and not paying attention to the view.

What goes into a painting isn’t necessarily something you can pinpoint on a colour chart.

Here is a recent interview, as well as an E-zine you can download if you wish, simply click on “官方下载” (The magazine is in Chinese, and is a healthy download at approximately 64.6 Mb, but there are quite a few images.)