Facing a Blank Canvas - Part 4: The Blank Canvas
Part four of a four-part blog series, from a conversation with Visual Arts Instructor Mark Mulherrin
How do you deal with the blank canvas? Any artist has this problem, any painter has this problem; they face thousands and thousands of blank canvases and have a lot of the same feelings and same doubts: “I have no talent,” “I don’t know how to do this,” “I don’t even know what I’m doing,” “Why bother?” But if we’re stubborn, we don’t allow that to stop the creative process.
So, what do you do with a blank canvas? Well, you do something to it. It doesn't matter what, anything, then you deal with that. It’s the second step that’s the most important, not the first one. That’s where you start to be creative because you have a thing and you have a parameter. This kind of improvisation in painting is, in a way, the hardest way to paint. Abstract expressionists were painting, I think, the hard way. They make it look easy, but it is very hard; what they're doing is blind responses to previous actions and then trying to make it coherent in some way or complete when there are no parameters for what is complete.
The blank canvas can also become a place where you bring an obsession and the obsession overrides any absence of confidence. And that's a sweet place to be as an artist—you have an obsession, some passionate need to see something that's not there. Everybody's obsessed with something, and that's always a good place to start—what are you obsessed with, what do you need to see, not so much what is it supposed to look like, but what do you need to make so that you can see it in front of you.
The obsession can take away that problem of “oh the canvas is blank and I’m blank and we’re both just sitting here and we have nothing to say to each other.” Another solution is to take the canvas off the easel and put it on the floor and walk around and get the floor dirt all over it and then put it back—then it’s not blank anymore, it’s dirty and not precious.
Thinking about other approaches to a blank canvas, I recall reading about a show by Robert Rauschenberg in the 1960s and he exhibited a room of blank canvases, which sounds like a neat trick, but there was something behind that which I thought was quite beautiful: he wanted people to notice that though the canvases were blank, depending on the quality of light in the room, they always changed color, there were shadows cast, they were always changing. They were never blank. And, in a way, there’s no such thing as blank, and I think that he was trying to make this point—that within that emptiness there's all kinds of things going on, you just have to look, you have to be sensitive to what's happening there. I don't know if that relates to how you make a mark on a blank canvas, but I think it does expose a bit of the fallacy of blankness—the material is never blank, there’s always something there.