With Brush in Hand: Theory through Praxis

One of the “holiday watercolors” that I made this winter: a watercolor study of poppies, 2023

Over the holidays, I gave myself a gift: I took a break from work and allowed my brain to pursue pleasure. I picked up a copy of T. J. Clark’s If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present, anticipating that the book would bring me a thorny, complicated kind of pleasure. Nothing Clark writes is straightforward. He plays with language, with perspective, inserts bits of poetry where you expect to find argument. But the real joy of reading Clark–a joy I remember from taking his classes at Berkeley–is the way that he spurs you to look carefully at everything, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, he pushes you to look again. I still remember our very first class assignment. He sent us to the university art museum to look at a painting. He wanted us to really learn to look at a work of art. This wasn’t supposed to be the sort of drive-by museum visit that undergraduates usually make. We were supposed to sit with the painting, draw it, over and over–I remember producing sheets of diagrams, dissecting how the painting directed the gaze, how the painter distributed values of light and dark across the canvas, the placement of trees, the placement of vanishing points, etc. If These Apples Should Fall brings that intensity of looking to bear on Cezanne’s oeuvre. It delights in the movement between excavating the Cezanne’s processes–of looking, making, constructing–and Clark’s own processes of looking, beholding, and ultimately, of trying to make sense of all these processes. 

Leanne Shapton, watercolor study, 2023

I like to think that Clark’s book primed me to decide–after reading Leanne Shapton’s descriptions of visiting the 28th Street Flower Market in Manhattan, and looking at Shapton’s watercolors, inspired by her visit–that I also needed to pull out my brushes and watercolors, and spend the rest of my holiday thinking over Clark’s various proposals about painting, Cezanne, and modernity, while happily painting away.

The painting, I found, helped me form a different relationship to visuality. The act of painting revised my sense of what it means to look at something. I found myself letting my hand take over, letting my eye be seduced by pure chroma, by the way that the watercolor pigments flowed and spread across the paper–and allowing these things, points of physical pleasure, guide my next move.

In painting, as in looking, it is easy to lose all sense of time, and it is just as easy, as I found this winter, to dawdle over them, to start another painting as soon as the last one is complete.

All of this close looking, I found, added up to more than just pure pleasure, though it was indeed very pleasurable. It also amounted to a disciplining of the eye, mind, and hand.

So this is why Clark keeps returning and looking, I think.

So this is how you develop a theory of painting. 

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