Sunday, August 31, 2008

Breathing Space

"Not to know, but to go on." -- Agnes Martin

I find an opening up to life, to chance, to miracles when I paint. I breathe, and with each breath, a brushstroke. This practice lets me experience the sublime in the simple repetitive task of weaving the surface of a painting. I don't know where each brushstroke will take me, as we don't know what the next moment will hold for each of us. But I continue on, the challenge is worthy, it is my life, my breath. Eventually the imagery appears, a certain glow, a stunning texture, a color mixture of particular delicacy emerges.

An issue of great importance to me in my work is containment. It is very important to me that the composition is totally self-contained upon the canvas. I achieve this by surrounding the image and the edges of the canvas with a unifying color, to which the whole painting is keyed. This holds the boundaries of the painting intact, emphasizing its existence as a singular object. At the same time, the painting appears to bloom outward from its confined edges. This convergence of two opposing characteristics -- one a self-contained vessel of color and light, the other a bridge to the infinite and endless expansiveness -- is like a breath: inward then outward.

In her book, The Infinite Line, Brioney Fer discusses these two aspects of Agnes Martin's work. Martin's early pencil grids were "self-contained things, the drawings come to embrace the infinite but resist becoming totalities." The surface of her work "invites a contemplative gaze," Fer asserts, "bolting the viewer to it, as if the work of the work were to open on to an immaterial and meditative space. Agnes Martin liked to think that it could, that the simplest of means could invite the possibility of revelation. She used various words to describe the experience of boundlessness that art could give: 'infinity', 'joy', 'bliss', 'the sublime'....Yet what could be more material than her concern with the medium, her laborious weaving of surface?....Her drawing would not be concerned with the fragment but with completeness, a sense of completeness she suggested by surrounding her grids with a border..." This sense of combining the material with the immaterial, reality with infinity, mapping the "spaciousness of spirit" within the fugitive differences of the hand-drawn grid, inspires me to my own project, to an inner vision of the infinite through the vehicle of repetition.

(The above quotes are taken from The Infinite Line by Brioney Fer, pages 47-53.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Color and Intuition

My paintings begin with a single color that is methodically applied with short horizontal and vertical strokes, a kind of cross-hatching. Even though this method is very repetitive and disciplined, there is a surprising amount of variation created within these self-imposed limitations. Certain areas of the canvas will be more concentrated with paint, or subtle light effects begin to make an appearance. The grid that is formed from this underpainting shimmers with tenuous modulations.

Aerial Boundary IV, 2008, oil on canvas, 20x20 inches
© 2008 Diane McGregor

The color palette of a particular painting is chosen by an emotional connection to certain colors when I begin the painting. Color plays an important role throughout, and the unplanned discoveries in the realms of color are what usually inspire me to loosen up and allow the painting to tell me where it wants to go. The whole process of creating a painting is this balance between the intuitive signals and the structure of the grid -- sometimes I feel I am just a silent witness to what the painting reveals itself to be.

I often start a studio session with a simple graphite drawing on paper, whether or not it relates to the painting I have in progress. These are small, intimate drawings, usually 3x3 inches. I follow the same course as with an oil painting: I start with very tentative cross-hatched strokes of the pencil, building up some areas into darker clouds of form, using a gum eraser to pull out luminous forms. Sometimes these drawings are later worked into a painting, but I primarily use this practice as another way to initiate a meditative encounter and to clarify my project. I find my drawing experiences to be more immediate and intuitive than is possible with the rigorous build-up of layers of paint, and it helps connect me with the meditative awareness that can nourish one's intuition. Without having to consciously develop color relationships, the lovely graphite color easily unifies the image with only shades of silvery gray, light and dark. The parameters are extremely limited, and yet such beauty and delicacy emerge from this drawing practice. My heart is usually softened and lightened by these images. This strengthens my mission for my art, which is to connect the viewer with a deeper, more profound inner nature that is nourished by Beauty.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


"What would life be like if there were no repetition?" -- Kierkegaard

Morning Sounds III, 2008, oil on canvas, 24x24 inches
© 2008 Diane McGregor

Repetition is the foundation of my art and my world. In my personal life, I thrive on routine: watching the sun rise over the distant mesas, feeding my animals and the wild birds, enjoying my morning tea, listening to the wind in the pines. I live a very structured life and I love it. In my art, my technical objective is Beauty through repetition. As I evolve in my artistic development, minimalism becomes more and more important to me as a language, as an aesthetic, and as a superior goal to strive for. The minimalist gaze is one of repetitive constructs -- I think of Donald Judd and Agnes Martin, two of my favorite artists. That purity of language, the simplicity of clean lines or repeating forms -- this is what is so seductive to me about the minimalist aesthetic. I try to have faith that if I keep at the painting, repeating each brushstroke, repeating its number, that there will come a moment when harmony is born and recognized, and then the painting is on its way to completion.

Repetition is a function of time. In the act of repeating brushstroke after brushstroke, one is essentially exposing temporality for the the viewer. Painting is a very different art form from music, poetry, or even sculpture. There is the time element, a sequence of cognition as one hears each musical notation, or reads each word of a poem, or, in the case of sculpture, walks around the piece, taking it in one section at a time. An abstract painting is all there, at once, simultaneously referencing color, light, pathos, meaning. It hits the viewer with a force of suspended time; that is, in a moment the viewer can "get it" or not -- the painting does not necessarily require a temporal experience to inhabit meaning. However, I believe that minimalist art, through repetition, articulates time to the viewer, and, like a chant, the painting can slowly reveal itself to the viewer in a way that is meditative and uplifting.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Although I am not a practicing Buddhist, the philosophy and spiritual growth offered by Buddhism is very similar to my own beliefs and theories about my art. My studio practice is my spiritual practice. The Buddhist's "empty" mind is the same goal as my desire for an art without ego.

I have been reading a great book, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, Jacquelynn Bass and Mary Jane Jacob, editors. Jacob writes:
In the space of art dwells the "mind of don't know." The "empty" mind is the creative mind....The process of art-making in which the artist does not know the outcome, what the work of art will look like, or even be, is a process with shifts and changes, one of simultaneously seeing and finding a new way....In art, as in Buddhism, creative potential resides in that nothing place, that nowhere of emptiness; an open space without attachment to outcome, with an aim to guide the process but the goal (the answer) kept at bay...for as long as usefully possible.

The artist's way of working is a daily routine, a daily confrontation with beauty and fear, harmony and suffering. It is "a life's path...a way of being -- that is integral and ongoing," observes Jacob. She continues:
Practice is about trying, developing, cultivating, improving. Practice connotes repetition: to practice, to perfect. Practice becomes the rituals of life, continual acts of doing. And sustaining a practice -- not just surviving in the business of art, but living in the space of art -- means to know that the process is of greater value than the product, that the making...exceeds the thing made, that the experience outweighs the material form.

Painting is simply a practice of showing up, laying on the paint, and allowing the painting to manifest, trusting that whatever appears at the end is meaningful:
Art-making is above all a process of inquiry. It takes skill and knowledge, valuing one's intuition, and knowing that intuition is much more than a hunch, a fluke, or luck, that it is the surfacing of an inner knowledge we may not have known we possessed. To launch into and carry out a process without a stated outcome is to allow that process of inquiry to unfold; to trust that the right way will arise; to wait, perservering through a blank open space, looking for guideposts, listening with a level of perception that enables us to move in ways we would not have found outside this process.

This deep awareness of the processes of art -- of self in process -- is key to is always determined by the actual process of making and the depth of awareness one brings to bear during that process. This awareness is what moves beyond the known for the self, for the viewer, and potentially for the society or the culture at large. The work of art derives its "presence" from this heightened awareness -- from the artist's presence of mind. Buddhism's call to be present in the moment is also the artist's call.

(The above quotes are taken from pages 164-167 in Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


My search for the Absolute has come through a process-oriented approach. After many years of experimenting and trying different ways to make an abstract painting, I've discovered that when one tries to remove the ego from the process, a pure art can be liberated from the psyche. Methodically applying paint with little or no thought involved is a powerful way to circumvent the ego and create something more archetypal and universal.

Rules of Travel, 2008, oil on canvas, 36x36 inches
© 2008 Diane McGregor

The grid is the underlying structure for all of my work. It weaves under the paint, like a thread, coming back up to the surface to reinstate itself, to lay claim to an area of the composition, then gently guides itself back down under the surface of the painting to emerge again in a later passage. It orders and regulates the pattern of the image.

I begin the painting process by methodically weaving together horizontal and vertical brushstrokes. This technique generates a grid substructure from the very earliest stages of the painting. The grid is then deconstructed, with an eye on the subtle balance of the composition. Eventually light and dark areas emerge, and I follow my intuition to guide the placement, color, and weight of the forms. Fragments of texture and highly saturated hues are left exposed, yielding an emotive quality to the content of the piece. Luminous, softly shifting color fields drift through the image, creating an ambiguous figure-ground relationship that pushes and pulls. I love that tension, movement, and mystery.

I use fan brushes which give a delicate, complex weave to the grid. Sometimes I drag the paint with a loaded brush, sometimes the stroke is smoothed out with medium. The carefully blended color fields are built up from hundreds of strokes, quietly polished into air, light, mist. Painting is my way of meditating, of going beyond the traps of the mind and allowing the moment to just be the action of each brushstroke. Moment upon moment, brushstroke upon brushstroke. The painting, then, becomes a record of a solitary, contemplative practice that is both private and shared.