One of my earliest and dearest childhood memories is olfactory, that of the wonderfully pleasant, lingering scent of turpentine. Both my parents were artists. Self-taught and modest about their talents, they painted to earn a meager living in a post-World War II Russia. Their art, naive and sentimental in retrospect (a typical specimen might depict a couple in love, surrounded by white swans, under the azure skies), seemed to me most beautiful at the time, set off as it was by the surrounding bleakness and decimation visited upon the victorious but ravaged country. Growing up, I was surrounded by rusty tins of paint, soaking brushes, stretches that my father so handily put together, rolled-up canvases and other tools of the trade. The very sight, the touch, the smell of them excited my imagination. From my early childhood I remember my father sharpening pencils for me. Those were the best pencils I have ever had. Probably those were also my first lessons in art. So skillfully and with such loving care did my father go through the motions, that one could say he was sculpting a pencil, not merely sharpening it. And the end result was much more than a good pencil to use - it was truly a thing of beauty.
Did all these early experiences influence my much later urge to become an artist myself? The honest answer is, I don’t know. But the smell of turpentine still lingers.
The true interest in painting did not come until the age of fifteen. Before that, and for a couple years after, I studied the art of a circus performer and even performed briefly with a traveling troupe as acrobat and juggler. I also walked the tightrope. The feeling I now get from a few hours of productive work sometimes reminds me of the exhilaration I felt in my teenage years, when, a balance pole in my hands, I edged my way forward in half-darkness, high above the upturned heads of the hushed crowd of spectators down below. That prior occupation of mine etched in my consciousness the love and appreciation of the form and the movement - of animals and humans alike.
Much has been written about the creative process in art, yet for all that, it remains, and as far as I am concerned will forever remain, a mystery - a magical mystery. Imagination is king. A ray of light enters; it refracts through the mesh of your dream-like memories and sensory experiences; then, before you know it, your brush begins stroking the canvas; and objects, colors, textures and moods start materializing effortlessly, as if unconnected to your will.
Mysteriously? Effortlessly? Sure. But, shall we say, with a little help from years of training, of honing your skills with practice - of sharpening your pencils, as it were.
Leonardo’s thoughts on light and shadow, and their role in the art of painting, are very close to my heart. However, rather than a technical dictum, I prefer to regard them as a poetic statement on the nature of painting, where colors are born through the interplay of light and shadow.
Just as it is conceived by the artist’s imagination - often sparked by an impulse from nature - so should a painting serve as a stimulus for the viewer’s imagination. For only in this final stage does the work of art complete the full circle of the creative process, of which the viewer is as much a participant as the artist himself. In that, painting is much like poetry, and it is precisely the poetic quality of the visual image that, in my view, elevates it from a mere depiction of reality to true art - never static, always evocative, mysterious and somewhat elusive. I often tend to repaint my work. It is hard to let go of the brush. I suppose it is a symptom of that striving for perfect, complete beauty, which motivates so many of us. You know you will never arrive there, but you want so much to come close. That is why it is often difficult to determine precisely that point in time when the work has to stop. Sometimes, when I am getting too engulfed in the process, I recall to memory the character from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scuderi, a Parisian master jeweler who, entrusted with precious stones from his customers, kept making and remaking them into ever more beautiful settings, unable to part with his creations (or was it the process itself?) and finally met a gruesome and infamous end through that obsession of his. Well, that helps to stop.