Joan Mitchell on How to Be an Artist
Photo by David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.
Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell always spoke her mind, no matter the scenario. “They call me sauvage [“wild”] in Europe, ’cause I’m direct and I say what I think,” she told director Marion Cajori in the 1992 documentary Joan Mitchell: Portrait of an Abstract Painter. “And you’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to be diplomatic, which I call hypocrisy, lying really.”
Mitchell was equally notorious in New York, where she debated the philosophical underpinnings and aesthetics of abstract art from booths at the Cedar Bar, a boys’ club haunt frequented by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
Over the course of her career of more than four decades, Mitchell also gave a number of profoundly candid interviews. In long conversations with scholars like Irving Sandler, Linda Nochlin, and Yves Michaud, she revealed what fueled her expressive canvases, which erupt with ecstatic brushstrokes and vibrant pools of paint.
These exchanges also provide a window into the painter’s groundbreaking creative process—and what kept her returning to the studio, despite bouts of alcoholism and depression, to forge her visceral, deeply affecting compositions. Below, we’ve pulled words of wisdom from the influential artist’s archives on inspiration, nature, and losing oneself in painting.
Let feeling be your guide
“How do you start a painting?” feminist art scholar Nochlin asked Mitchell in 1986, when the artist was in her early sixties. After a long, thoughtful pause, Mitchell answered: “Well, I would go back to my word ‘feeling.’”
As was the case for some other leading Abstract Expressionists, Mitchell created compositions that were stimulated by her deep-seated emotions and sensations drawn from memories and the subconscious. “I want to paint the feeling of a space,” she told Michaud in a 1986 interview. “It might be an enclosed space, it might be a vast space. It might be an object.…”
Indeed, Mitchell sought to embody the psychological aspects of various environments, objects, and experiences in her throbbing marks and hues. In the same interview, the artist discussed a series of paintings she made in the late 1960s, after a hiatus from art-making. The canvases burst with circles composed of energetic strokes of yellow, deep purple, and brown. They evoked dying sunflowers—which made Mitchell “feel very intensely,” she told Michaud. “They look so wonderful when young and they are so very moving when they are dying.” These feelings pulled the painter back into the studio and spurred new work.
Mitchell placed feeling and painting on the same pedestal: both gave meaning to life. “Feeling is something more: It’s feeling your existence,” she said to Michaud. “Painting is a means of feeling ‘living.’”
When you’re stuck, look to nature
Michaud kicked off his 1986 interview with Mitchell with a very big question: “What inspires you to paint?” Mitchell answered by describing an experience where she’d been liberated from a bout of artist block: “Through the window I saw two fir trees in a park, and the grey sky, and the beautiful grey rain, and I was so happy,” she said. “It had something to do with being alive. I could see the pine trees, and I felt I could paint.”
Throughout her life, nature and the emotions it stirred provided the bedrock for Mitchell’s abstract paintings. “Emotion must have an outside reference,” wrote critic Irving Sandler in a 1957 profile, “and nature furnishes the external substance in her work.”
During one of Sandler’s visits to the artist’s downtown Manhattan studio, Mitchell was working on two paintings. In both, “a recollected landscape provided the initial impulse,” Sandler continued, “but the representational image was transformed in the artist’s imagination by feelings inspired by bridge and beach.” Indeed, Mitchell kept a reserve of vistas and vegetation in her mind, for moments when she might need them in the studio. “I carry my landscapes around with me,” she admitted to Sandler.
Though early in her career, Mitchell remembered “[hating] the word ‘Nature’ with a capital ‘N,’” she later admitted its essential role in her practice. “Now I accept it. I suppose. I mean, I really like trees and flowers and dogs and all that much more than a lot of other people,” she told Nochlin.
“Frame” the experiences that move you
Mitchell followed a unique ritual to remember the many objects, colors, and experiences that moved her. She called it “framing”—a means of paring an event down to a single image, and then storing it her mind, like a metaphysical mood board.
“I ‘frame’ everything that happens,” she told Michaud. “I can see you now. This will be a photograph in my head: you against the sky, and that way I will remember you, but I won’t see you moving around, dropping that recorder, or having lunch. You are living and I keep you in one still piece alive. It will be like a painting. It’s not only a piece of life, it’s an image, a real image.”
Mitchell kept a treasure trove of images like these in her mind and drew on them, almost subconsciously, in the studio. In turn, she created abstract paintings that harnessed the feelings these memories inspired, rather than their physical qualities. Sandler, for his part, saw memory as an essential aspect of Mitchell’s process: “Memory, as a storehouse of indelible images, becomes her creative domain,” he wrote.
Lose yourself in the process
“I think that’s probably why I paint, because I don’t exist anymore,” Mitchell once told Cajori, with a mischievous smile. “It’s wonderful.” Indeed, the painter often associated her best work with the process of losing herself and shedding her ego.
While Mitchell’s work was rooted in intimate feelings and memories, the process of translating them into abstract compositions was almost instinctual. “When I am working, I am only aware of the canvas and what it tells me to do,” she told Michaud. “I am certainly not aware of myself. Painting is a way of forgetting oneself.”
In numerous interviews, she likened this process to riding a bicycle with no hands. “I am in it.…It is a state of non-self-consciousness,” she continued. “It does not happen often. I am always hoping it might happen again. It is lovely.”
This process also forged a space between Mitchell’s ego and the finished painting. Upon completing a canvas, she felt almost disconnected from it. For the artist, this was a joyful, cathartic process of parting ways. “When my paintings left my studio for New York recently, I was in the garden…and there was a beautiful light and I saw the paintings moving,” she recalled to Michaud, in 1986. “A big strong man moved them with great ease and I saw all their colors behind the trees moving and it was like a parade and I was happy. I did not feel abandoned for a change.”
She continued: “Because when I do paint, I am not aware of myself. As I said before, I am ‘no hands,’ the painting is telling me what to do.”