Seven life lessons for artists

After 35 years in the studio, Aida Tomescu says painting is still 'like going down a mine without knowing the way out'. She provides some torchlight for other artists.
Seven life lessons for artists

Aida Tomescu; Photo Jenny Carter, supplied

Aida Tomescu’s paintings pulsating in iridescent shades of orange and yellow evoke Leonard Cohen's line: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

On the eve of her 60th birthday, Romanian born Sydney-based Tomescu has painted some of the largest canvases of her career, several of which have been more than two years in the making. Her exhibition, Eyes in the Heat also signals a new gallery relationship.

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Allowing the ‘light to get’ in to her hot paintings is central to their making. It also an apt metaphor for the way she works, finding the cracks in the armour of life pushes her to experiment with new ideas, despite the comfort of success.

Tomescu’s paintings sell in excess of $60,000 and she has been describes as ‘one of the best painters at work in Australia today’ by scholar and author Patrick McCaughey.

Over the past two decades her palette has moved from predominantly black brooding canvases to these vibrating hues, constructed from what she describes as ‘Cezanne-ian planes’ of paint which are densely layered; the slide between them offering windows to the paintings depth.

Tomescu says: ‘Painting is one of the very few pure things in life. Painting is a longing to do something great.’

How does she find that greatness?

We caught up with her to talk lessons on sustaining a career as an abstractionist and the challenges of reinvention and delivery.

Tomescu's lessons for other artists

1. Get to the studio every day

Tomescu’s key piece of advice to any painter is to work every day on it.

‘There is no such thing as inspiration. It gives the wrong idea, because painting is a laborious process - it has to be!’ It doesn’t just come.

‘With painting, the more you give it the more it needs. If you give it seven days a week it needs nine. If you give it ten hours a day it needs twelve,’ said Tomescu

She added on the topic: ‘Painters like (William) de Kooning talk about painting as a means to practice their intuition. So going to the studio every day and that daily discipline will help you tune that into that layer that feeds your painting.’

She believes that the creative process will dictate the terms, and that if an artist truly wants to be a painter then they have to listen to, and follow that need and be committed to give their time to it every day. It’s a business – the business is painting.

Studio of Aida Tomescu with works for her new exhibition at Sullivan and Strumpf gallery; Photo Jenny Carter

2. Be prepared to edit your work

Editing your own work is a hard skill to master. To be self-critical where it counts, to decide to strip a canvas back and start again, or to pull a work from a show requires total commitment.

Tomescu told ArtsHub that her shows evolve gradually and that editing them is important to understanding the work. ‘The only reason for choosing painting is to find meaning, and you learn quickly,’ she said.

‘Being attentive and responding to the weaknesses, fragility, absences and flaws, preoccupies me entirely. Ultimately it is as remote as it could be from spontaneity and self-expression,’ Tomescu was quoted in an interview some years back.

She told ArtsHub this week: ‘You see the direction in the work, but (you have to recognise that) you are not ready to show it to the public. You need to allow that language to form. It’s like that formal construction process of marks on the canvas - you are constantly rejecting some and discarding others. Past a certain point you feel like you are learning to swim again.’

Critic John MacDonald observed of Tomescu’s practice: ‘By the time she is satisfied with a picture there may be an entire exhibition lying on the studio floor.’

Tomescu’s creations are often scraped back and reworked, layer after layer. She held the work back for her current show for two years to ensure it was a cohesive body of paintings. 

3. Know when to stop

‘When I can’t bring any more fullness and form out (of a painting) and can’t get any more depth in it; It has to feel unified,’ says Tomescu of finding that ‘stop moment’ when painting.

‘I know I have to stop when whatever I might add would distract from this form. It is often (signaled) by the areas that are left open, that are not painted,’ added Tomescu. ‘The challenge is to find the balance between the construction and the freedom, and the freedom is very laborious.’

Tomescu is often associated with Abstract Expressionism, however she says her painting couldn’t be further from that position. ‘The reason for working is to get to meaning in the painting.

‘Form in painting is not an object, not a shape. It is a quality with the power to transform, to change. You can construct and have a real neat surface or image, but it wouldn’t necessarily come to life. It needs to pulsate otherwise it is just a passive surface, and the whole idea is to bring that surface to life,’ said Tomescu. ‘You need to revisit it many times over to (recognize) that life in the work.’

Tomescu admits that there is a kind of a struggle in it – to find that energy and end point.

‘There is a silent moment in painting when we experience an absolute, total intelligence in the work through which everything comes together. The logic that develops is stronger than the emotion. The painting begins to project back and I become aware of another presence; the subtle, vulnerable structure built from paint,’ she observed last year while painting this show.

Staying open to those subtle shifts is the only way you will ever know when to stop.