Painting by Numbers

The Problem

I hit a rough patch, painting-wise, during the dregs of winter. After spending a few months staring at the sky, I found that my practice was becoming stale. I’d amassed quite a few studies done directly from my windows (see Sky Studies), only to find that my plans of turning these into the basis for longer, larger, more complex work was hitting one dilly of a speed bump. Whereas the paintings had initially spoken to and directed me, they were now giving me the silent treatment. The sensation was awful, and I wondered how I’d lost that spark. If the paintings and I had been dating, they’d be sitting at the extreme end of the couch just then, arms crossed, coldly saying, “Well, if you don’t know what you’ve done wrong, I’m certainly not going to tell you.” And that is just not cool.

pencil drawing of a sunflower drying

Detail of a sunflower drawing from 2005, graphite on paper. The face fascinated me, but was so complex that I let the shadows take over. Why I included this will soon be revealed…

This is a dire situation for a painter to be in. On the one hand, I’d invested a lot of time, energy, and -that most valuable of resources- hope into this project. The thought of it actually going nowhere just about broke my heart. Not to mention there is about 40 square feet of canvas with a half truckload of paint on it that I’d never get back. On the other hand, when the painting is sitting on that couch, arms crossed, with that unfair moral superiority thing going on, I know I can’t bully it. Even in a state of suspension it is more powerful by far than I am, and while I might not be smart enough to avoid these pitfalls entirely, I at least know that the only way out of them is to get the painting and myself back on the same team. So I needed to find a way back in, a way to meet the painting where it was rather than where I thought it should be, and for us to continue together.*

The Idea

I may, maybe, might have found that way in, in the most unlikely of places: math. The Fibonacci Sequence of numbers, developed by an Italian mathematician around 1200 C.E., to be precise. Google away if you desire- entire books have been written on these numbers by very enthusiastic math guys who use two or more exclamation points at the end of a sentence so you’ll appreciate how amazing it is (I just read such a book- it was dead cute how excited the author was). I’ll sum up the relevant points for my purposes here: The Fibonacci sequence first answered the seemingly simple question of What happens if you put two rabbits together and they start breeding like…well, rabbits? Making a few assumptions about litter sizes and gender division, the sequence charts the population growth. In itself-  big whoop. But as other excited math guys started looking at the numbers, they found all these fascinating!, amazing!!, unsuspected sightings and uses!!! for them(!).  Amongst many, many, MANY other things, the Fibonacci sequence pops up in how shells are formed, in how plant life develops and adapts. And it has influenced the compositions of some of the most beautiful works of art and architecture created since Ancient Greece. In short, it was present in nature for eons before Leonardo Fibonacci developed his rabbit tracking system, just as it had been present in the human psyche, across cultures, for millenia. My favourite line from one of my favourite books** states that “the world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands”. These numbers are a fundamental way in which nature speaks to humanity in a language that we can understand.

design for the seed on the face of a sunflower

This is the pattern that the seeds make on the face of a sunflower, in simplified form.

This subject hit a nerve for me, and made me want to join in the excessive exclamation-marking, mostly because of a series of sunflower paintings and drawings I did some years ago. There’s a lot going on in your average sunflower. For example, if you ever need to hypnotize an adversary (or a friend- it’s up to you), try placing the face of a well-developed sunflower in front of them. They might, as I was, be awe-struck by the systematic intricacy of the seed patterns on the face, the arcs that radiate perfectly from the centre,  and how each arc gracefully balances its opposing partner. And what, if you were so inclined to take numbers to it, would you find in this incredible arrangement? The Fibonacci numbers. (!!!).

The Application

So, I thought in my wee little brain, if there are some compositional basics that are supported by these numbers and proportions, can that help me out of the tight spot I’m in? After all, the speed bump is of a compositional nature: The sky paintings are separated by two degrees from the subject that originally inspired them- by this I mean the sky was the inspiration, I made a study of it (that’s one degree), and now I’m trying to make something different from those studies (that’s two degrees): different scale, different species. They function more as abstracts than as representational paintings, and I don’t do well without some kind of map in front of me. My one ever attempt at a purely abstract painting would have dissolved the viewers’ eyeballs with its hideousness. I’m not exaggerating at all. I destroyed it with my own hands to save you.

But perhaps this language of nature can get me back in my paintings’ good graces. When I am lost, which I will be, I can turn to the lessons hidden in the sunflowers and the shells, and try to find them in the paintings, too.

drawing of golden spiral

This is a golden spiral, generated using the Fibonacci numbers. Looks like a shell, doesn’t it? Also, I drew this free-hand, as I have not owned a compass since 1991.

(*yes, I’m aware that I anthropomorphize my paintings. And I’m aware that it’s a little nuts. But I dare you to take up the brush and NOT end up thinking of it as a separate entity with its own will. It doesn’t take long-  even late bloomers, by the third year of art school, are talking about “what the painting needs”, and their fellow students are nodding in agreement.)

**from Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke, may she please publish another book soon.

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