Joan Mitchell’s primary medium was oil paint on canvas. Mitchell’s professional period began around 1950 and can be loosely defined as the point when she moved into full abstraction. Throughout her life she never ceased to deepen and refine her relationship to and facility with the medium. Her oeuvre can be broken down into a multitude of periods; shifts in her work typically coincide with a shift in her surrounding landscape, personal relationships, or some major life event.
“My paintings repeat a feeling about Lake Michigan, or water, or fields...it’s more like a poem...and that’s what I want to paint.”
The myriad things that comprised and moved within Mitchell’s world - water, sky, trees, flowers, weather, dogs - created images and memories from which she worked. These things are often named in her titles, which were always attributed after a painting’s completion. She observed her landscape intensely, and her acute visual observations of form, space and color in life are part of the visual memories she drew upon while painting.
Mitchell worked primarily at night and rarely if ever painted from life. In order to prepare herself for painting, she might read poetry or listen to music. She worked in solitude, except for the company of her dogs. Her paintings were built slowly and carefully; she would stand back and look at a blank canvas or painting in progress for long periods of time, decide where each mark should go, then approach the work to place paint quickly and confidently. The arc of her arm can be seen in the brushstrokes in many of her paintings, especially at the top where she was extending her reach. Indeed, her approach to painting was both physically and mentally rigorous. An accomplished athlete throughout her childhood, Mitchell had a great deal of experience with discipline, practice, balance, and a relaxed and fluid faculty of control. These principles of physical action, combined with careful, precise visual observation of her environment, underscore her life-long approach to painting.
Although her larger paintings are better-known, she made small ones as well. In the 1970s, with more space to paint at her home in Vétheuil, she began to make paintings comprised of multiple panels, often very large. Working in this manner made it possible to create monumentally sized works while still easily managing the movement of canvases around the studio on her own, and to create a composition in a horizontal format without sacrificing the final size of the works. In these works, the panels within a single work often repeat and mirror the structure of the other. Within each repetition are variations from which balance emerges.
Mitchell’s process is informed by a range of emotional states, points in time, and positions in landscape, and her work is an affirmation that people experience landscapes, emotions and memories in a complex, interconnected way. This is evident in the tension and balance between figure and ground, between paint and surface, and between one or more colors. She said, “What excites me when I’m painting is what one color does to another and what they do to each other in terms of space and interaction.” Often a single bit of a color found nowhere else in a painting seems to anchor and create equilibrium in the whole composition. Her work synthesizes a multitude of contrasting concepts and forms: light and dark, warm and cool, space and density, growth and decay, gravity and lightness. When asked why she painted, Mitchell replied to biographer Marion Cajori, “…because I don’t exist anymore—it’s wonderful. I’ve always said it’s like riding a bike with no hands.”
Yves, 1991. Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 78 3/4 inches (280 x 200 cm). Private collection. © Estate of Joan Mitchell.