Painter's Block

 Daniel Maidman |  Manou  | oil on canvas | 72x36

Daniel Maidman | Manou | oil on canvas | 72x36

At the very beginning of this year, I completed this painting. It is exactly life-sized.

I painted most of it in six three-hour sessions, working from life. I made sure to get the hands and feet done. These never look quite right in reference photos. The extraordinary model, Manou, lives in Europe and had to leave before I finished. I had only the face left to do, and I painted it right away, so I would be able to get the color and paint handling consistent with what I had done already.

In many ways, this painting represented a culmination of years of work. I have put in so much time and effort learning to draw and paint the figure, and I think I finally made the whole thing flow in this painting. I have also struggled with the concept of the background. I lose interest in anything that isn’t a figure. But some decision must be made for the background, and I have cycled through a lot of decisions. Many were not especially good. This one felt clean and spare, nothing less than what the image needed. I’ve painted Manou in front of white backgrounds before. I think it suits her, and it suits me too: my art is about light, about seeing everything clearly. When I think about my work, my mind often reflexively repeats a mantra – rivers of light, oceans of light.

If I had struggled toward this painting for a long time, I now faced a conflict. On the one hand, I had done the thing I hoped to do. And on the other hand, I still liked to do this exact thing.  I like making these paintings. It makes me happy. But it made me happy in the context of not having gotten there yet. What was I to do with success?

My first impulse was to extend this painting into a series. I had reason to think this way: a very impressive gallery had given some indication that it might be interested in showing such a body of work. On the rare occasions that Manou visits, I shoot tons of reference to work from when she’s not around. I’ve drawn her for years at a time from the pictures I take. So painting a whole show based on reference wasn’t out of the question. I started with a portrait in the idiom I had used for the full-length painting above.



 Daniel Maidman |  Large Portrait of Manou  | oil on canvas | 30x24

Daniel Maidman | Large Portrait of Manou | oil on canvas | 30x24

This is pleasingly over life sized and I thought it came out great. I have always had good luck with my work with Manou – much of it has sold, and my most viral painting ever is a painting of her hands. The same good fortune took place with this portrait: it was juried into the first show at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, a group show of figurative work curated by the remarkable painter Alyssa Monks.

But I still had my problem simmering. It would certainly be possible to do another ten paintings of Manou in this manner. But it could not go on forever. I could sense deadness lurking at the edges. It always creeps in when I do things I already know I can do. Without the risk of failure, the work starts to die. I can only go on making living work by trying something new.

Over the next month or two, the problem went from a distant cloud to a full-blown shitstorm. The very impressive gallery seemed to lose interest. Showing with them wouldn’t have been much of a diplomatic problem with my existing gallery because my existing gallery had told me not long before that they didn’t want to show any more of my nude paintings. I could show those wherever I wanted, just not with them.

So my own gallery wanted me to find something different to paint, preferably narrative. And the other gallery didn’t want me at all.

A few other factors added up to a perfect storm:

I have a toddler, and this year in particular involved a ton of time fragmentation. I never got more than four hours at a time in the studio.

I had gotten into a particularly melodramatic spat with the art critic Jerry Saltz a few years before. He especially hated my figurative drawings, and because I am an ornery contrarian, I began to focus more on my drawing. This developed into a kind of compulsive mania. As painting slipped away from me, I threw myself into drawing, more than I wanted to at times.

The excessive drawing also fed my Instagram addiction. I happen to be very popular with the Instagram algorithm, but that depends on a steady stream of content. You can post a drawing every day. A painting, not so much.

And finally, I am spread too thin. I’m also busy finishing a novel I’ve been working on since 2005. This is less impressive than it sounds. It was basically dormant for eight years. The first few drafts were stubbornly unreadable. I spent those eight years writing art criticism for mass consumption at The Huffington Post and elsewhere, and this taught me to write in a way that people could actually read. In late 2016, I had a flash of insight about how to finish my book. I suddenly knew how to write the narrator’s voice, and I had to go over it from start to finish, rewriting every sentence. It would work – but it would take a lot of time. Painting time. I have been sitting with my manuscript for the year that I have done so little painting.

As far as painting went, I was out of the habit and not even all that interested. Sometimes I thought I wasn’t a painter anymore. Other times I remembered that my creative life moves in cycles with horizons longer than I can see from ground level.

But I still didn’t know what I wanted to paint. I felt a great hollow listlessness.

After a few months I started to pull myself together. I started by looking around me to see if I could learn from other art. I got a lot of encouragement and inspiration from looking at contemporary painters, especially the ambitious ones. I figured it was time to up my ambitions, since I had conquered the set of problems I’d set myself as a painter.

Some of the people whose work really excited me were –

Inka Essenhigh. She creates entire worlds, vividly animated, answering to a sense of biological form that is all her own. And her worlds are not blank portraits, they are stages on which complete dramas, fully conceived and fluidly executed, play out. I know Inka a bit, and she is dedicated not only to imagination, but to joy. She cannot understand why anyone would paint anything that did not bring them joy, minute by minute, to paint. She is not an advocate of the just-finish-coloring-and-rendering school of painting. She is an ecstatic painter. This combination of ambition and joy is very appealing to me.

 Inka Essenhigh |  City Blossom  | 2014 | oil on paper | 96x51 each panel

Inka Essenhigh | City Blossom | 2014 | oil on paper | 96x51 each panel

Andrew Sendor. He is halfway to being a filmmaker. He invents complex cinematic narratives and then painstakingly stages them with props and actors. He photographs these scenes, and then paints the photographs with an almost fetishistic dedication to a perfectly refined brushwork. It takes him forever to paint anything, and yet, by saying “no” to so many of the rewards of prolific painting, he is able to roar “YES” to the set of values dearest to him as an artist. Nobody else does what he does.

 Andrew Sendor |  Saturday in search of Knivsfla in Geirangerfjorden  | Saturday, March 14,2016 [detail] | oil on matte white Plexiglas in polished aluminum frame | 26 3/4 x 20 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches (68 x 51,5 x 4 cm), SW 16187

Andrew Sendor | Saturday in search of Knivsfla in Geirangerfjorden | Saturday, March 14,2016 [detail] | oil on matte white Plexiglas in polished aluminum frame | 26 3/4 x 20 1/4 x 1 1/2 inches (68 x 51,5 x 4 cm), SW 16187

Peter Drake. Drake’s ambitions span both the tools of expression and the size of the canvas. He is interested in dragging a sense of his childhood back from the deeps of forgetting, and to do so he uses paint to mimic the quality of late black and white and early color television. Through painstaking transparent washes, he resurrects television’s flattened value scales, saturated, slightly off-key colors, and peculiar free-floating pastel artifacts. Sometimes his attention focuses on a single real video frame, other times he zooms back to a portrait of a society crafted from his own original imagery, but rendered in the befuddling television idiom he has mastered.

 Peter Drake |  Overlook  | 2008 | acrylic on canvas | 89x117

Peter Drake | Overlook | 2008 | acrylic on canvas | 89x117

And finally, perhaps most fundamentally, I looked at David Salle. Often, solutions to profound problems come from a direction one did not anticipate. And so too Salle attacked the problem from an unexpected direction. His iconic paintings are large and complex, “ambitious” in the way of the other painters I looked at. But in his most recent solo show, Ham and Cheese and Other Paintings, he abandoned his smooth brushwork and giant canvases, and made a room full of small, improvisational, brightly colored paintings of women. Taking a great deal of inspiration from Max Beckmann, he innovated a sweeping, visible brushstroke, churning out images that brimmed with life.

 David Salle |  Drop Earrings  | 2017 | flashe on archival digital print mounted on linen | 37.75x28

David Salle | Drop Earrings | 2017 | flashe on archival digital print mounted on linen | 37.75x28

I had looked for this kind of inspiration in shows of Picabia and Beckmann, but something was missing. The intimate connection wasn’t quite there. Looking at Salle’s pieces, I felt a gate open. Progress was possible in this direction.

And yet I did not walk through that gate. More time passed. No matter which way I turned, I knew some artist already working in that idiom, and doing it well enough that my assistance was unneeded. I became convinced that if I could even describe what I wished to do, it would negate the need for it. If it could be put into words, it would lack the urgency to force itself into existence.

Finally, I got some good advice from my dad: “When you cannot figure out what to do, do exercises.” So I resolved to do this. Nothing special, nothing ambitious, nothing at all. Just exercises. There are always exercises to do.

I saw a Braque with nice thick disgusting paint, really heavy encrusted stuff. The information card beside the painting listed sand in the oil paint. So I went to the hardware store and bought a bag of sand. I decided to try it out with an image from childhood, one of the first nudes I ever saw: a photograph of a woman, facing away, walking giddily and unsteadily across sand dunes. The wind whips her short hair, and the sun gleams off her oiled body. There is a dreamy, hyperreal quality to the image. It was printed in U.S. Camera, an annual book of photography, in 1952, the year my mom was born. We had the book on our shelf when I was growing up. The photograph made a strong impression on me as a child.

So I ventured into the studio for the first time in literally months. I rapidly sketched out the figure on a four foot canvas I had lying around, then mixed some sand into a palette analogous to the black and white photograph: titanium white, Payne’s grey, burnt umber, and Portland warm grey. I tried it out. And... ugh. The paint was slightly elastic, like rubber. It had a gritty texture. It gunked up my brushes. Too much sand? Whatever it was, I hated it. I scraped it off and started over with clean paint. I painted for eight hours, and I painted the whole painting (well, I’ll probably mess with it a bit more).

 Daniel Maidman |  1952  (work in progress) | oil on canvas | 48x36

Daniel Maidman | 1952 (work in progress) | oil on canvas | 48x36

Is this something fundamentally different for me? I don’t know. I don’t want to put words to it because I don’t want to suffocate any path it may be opening. To name is to define; to define is to limit; to limit, in art, is to destroy. I know that I painted it in a single focused nonverbal rush and that I do not feel bad about it. For now, this will have to be enough.

I am not out of my painter’s block. Or, better, I am out of the worst of the haze. I don’t know where I’m going, but this is worlds better than knowing that I’m not going anywhere. I have enough faith now to put one foot in front of the other, hand on the wall, and feel my way along.

There is no moral to the story. I just wanted to tell you because I get the impression that a lot of people know who I am and think that things are always great for me. They are not always great. I started 2017 expecting a year of creative discoveries in my painting. Instead I was hardly able to paint at all. As bad as your thing is, I also have bad things. We will all try again in 2018 and see how things go. A very happy new year to you.


Daniel Maidman is best known for his vivid depiction of the figure. Maidman’s drawings and paintings are included in the permanent collections of the Library of Congress, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and the Long Beach Museum of Art. His art and writing on art have been featured in PoetsArtistsARTnewsForbesWJuxtapozHyperallergicAmerican Art Collector, and Manifest. He writes art criticism for The Huffington Post, art instruction for International Artist, and is a repeat guest critic at the New York Academy of Art. His first book of drawings, Daniel Maidman: Nudes, is available from Griffith Moon Publishing. He is represented by Jenn Singer Gallery in New York. He lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.