Sources of Creativity

Being human, we relate to the world by placing ideas, and people, into slots that define them, and this is especially true when we discuss ideas about creativity and productivity in later life.  In most of the literature regarding the subject, intelligence and creativity are discussed in terms of cognitive function and how fast or slow the nerves translate information, as if creativity manifesting in ten seconds was better than that manifesting in thirty.  If you are discovering your creative side at an age where you already fear you are irrelevant, then this is a discussion we should all have.

What is an artist?

An artist is someone who has an idea.  The idea relates to how he experiences and processes internally the environment around him.  He then challenges himself to communicate this truthful insight outside of his own inner world, using a form that others can recognize.  This form is the medium used to translate the idea, relying upon the intellect, emotions and the senses - speech, written word, musical sound, mathematical equation, and visual or tactile stimuli – any form that can communicate meaning.  The idea can be universal or very singular.  Others may have the same or similar idea but the difference is often found in the way the artist communicates the nuances of his understanding.

If the idea feels half formed, the communication is often a means to discover the form. As the form becomes stronger, the artist may become more proficient at finding imagery or medium to express it effectively, or he may not.  And when this happens, often the artist feels confused or frustrated or emotionally ineffective.  The artist will strive to find the right medium to use, often starting one place and then moving on to another, or using multiple mediums until he finds that which most clearly communicates his ideas.

Many artists, early in their growth, find it appealing to use another’s choice of idea and communication style.  In many instances this works well, the way many voices in the choir carry the music in a powerful manner that is different than the power of a single voice.  But even then, if the artist does not feel some significant inner thought connection to the idea/insight, his effort will, while adequate, lack conviction.  Even if others do not recognize the lack of conviction, the artist will sense the emptiness in the work.  And then the artist has a choice, whether to stay or move on into uncertainty of outcome, whether to successfully repeat ideas that are not clear to his own thinking or to risk finding a different solution.  It may mean going back to the source and searching for that insight, clarifying the idea.  It may mean changing styles or mediums or directions. 

Years ago, I attended a workshop taught by two artists. One taught at MoMA and created large paintings in oil of figures swimming underwater before the idea became universal.  The other was a conceptual artist working in Europe, creating large installations.  Checking in on them more than a decade and a half later, the painter had changed mediums to videography and traveled the world creating a unique visual experience, while the conceptual artist was working with natural materials harvested, formed and assembled into delicate sculptures. 

We are never locked into what we are doing.  Mediums can change; styles, influences, and ideas are just fluid means of defining our inner truth and expressing it.  When we trap ourselves in tunnel vision, looking only at the inches of ground in front of our feet, we forget to look up and see the vast view that exists.   

But it always comes back to the source, to the idea and the degree of passion and skill to communicate it to those who will respond.  When a human being attempts to move that inner awareness into an outer concrete expression in form, he is what we currently label as an artist.

And being an artist is a description of who you are.  There is a difference between that and judging either yourself or others as to whether they are or are not an artist based upon outside criteria.  Validations from peers and strangers are a measure of the success of your communication, the appeal of the voice, the visibility, “newness”, “oldness”, in, out, ten minutes of fame aspects of life.  To chase after these things appeals to our human desire to reassure ourselves that we are effective in our expression, and it is equally responsible for creating doubt in our ability to be who we are – and that is an entirely different discussion we can have over the coming months.


How To Get Unstuck in August

 

In 1984 Suzi Gablik made this observation about the effect that Modernism, and Post-Modernism, had upon art and culture: that the “values of the marketplace” had replaced or undermined any sense of a “meaning-giving function” in the art being created. Artists found themselves in a cultural and economic system that rewarded those who created commodities that met the needs of the Art Market.  As Andy Warhol stated, “why do people think artists are special? It’s just another job.”

Warhol has been described as “the art market’s one-man Dow Jones.”  And while Gablik did not foresee the influence of the internet she did address the slip into Pluralism, where there are so many ideas about the value and purpose in art, we have no real “pattern of meaning” any more.

In all this chatter, have we forgotten to value – or are we merely ignoring - the C words?

No, not commodity.   Considering the social environment that exists, an artist cannot realistically ignore the forces of the marketplace unless he is willing to withdraw completely.

I am thinking more about these C words:

Creativity

Courage

Compassion

Compulsion

Culture

Creativity is the conceptual opposite of commodity. Courage is necessary to resist the status-quo, living in harmony with one’s inner creative values. Compassion allows the artist to find his path between the competing interests of the market, and his authentic, artistic voice.  Compulsion drives the artist’s need to reflect his image of the world in his art, and culture is the carrier of all that we value. 

August is always one of those transition months: an ending space before the next rounds of painting, submitting, and marketing activities.  It's easy to get stuck in August, worrying about what didn't work over the past several months and struggling to figure out what will.  If you are feeling stuck, wishing you could stay in August for the next several months, you are not alone.  Here are just a few ways I have come across to help get unstuck:

Dig out old journals.  Discover ideas that have hung around and are now finding their way back into your consciousness.

Rearrange your studio.  Sometimes just doing that gets you out of old patterns and thinking about new.

Don't stress about rejections.  One recent show that rejected me pointed out that there were over 1400 applications for approximately 140 slots. 

Read books like Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young  Poet, Eric Maisel's Coaching the Artist Within. 

Yes, it's a crowded, noisy world out there, but the journey is more solitary than you realize, and from that well you will find your strength.

 

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It means a lot to me that you have taken my words, and my art, into your lives.  So I would like to thank and welcome the new subscribers to this blog, and those who have also subscribed to my newsletter.  In my newsletter I write more about art technique, my motivations behind specific paintings, and occasionally offer paintings for sale at special prices.  Here is a convenient link to subscribe to my newsletter .

I would also like to thank those of you who have purchased my book, Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist, over the past month.  I hope this book helps you with the intrinsic motivation, as well as offering practical ideas and a bit of humor at the end of the day.

 


Grids: The difference between dynamic symmetry and perspective as a means of organizing space

In all styles of painting and photography grids are part of the discussion.  The big three are the Rule of Thirds, Linear Perspective, and the Golden Mean or Dynamic Symmetry.  All of them function as a means to organize pictorial space, and the more experience you gain with composition, the more you might become curious about the reasons why artists rely on these concepts.

Since composition can be discussed in terms of finding a satisfying solution to visual challenges, it’s useful to study the differences between common concepts.

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  The Rule of Thirds, and a similar division of space using a 5:3 ratio (above), are often used as quick placement guides for major lines, horizon lines, or center of interest. It divides the space unequally and avoids static placement of elements, but does little for emotional content or eye movement.

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The easily understood concept of Linear Perspective draws eye movement up, across, and "into" the canvas by creating the illusion of three dimensional space, then back out and down again.  This is true regardless of subject matter, unless you are working in a style that embraces the flat, 2-demensional aspect of canvas with the express purpose of eliminating all idea of space. I would argue that even the most vocal advocates for eliminating the window into space idea could not completely avoid the visual sense of space without eliminating overlapping form or color contrasts.  We are hard wired to place our bodies within our environment, and the brain will always translate visual sensory as dimensional space. 

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Dynamic Symmetry is about spatial relationships, the distance between things, balance, and as a means of directing eye movement through space that emphasizes what the artist feels is most important.  It is about mathematical proportion, not limited to realistic painting, the nautilus shell,  or ancient Greek ideals: Abstract artists were also concerned with the role of mathematical proportion, most notable Agnus Martin, who was obsessive about it in her goal to create abstract line relationships that were aesthetically pleasing. There have always been artists working with proportion, and those seeking to obliterate it as a response.  Dynamic Symmetry is a tool that can be used beyond simple placement or illusion, and is important enough that artists should consider adding it to their accumulation of skills. 

Here is a list of books for further study in the area of grids in composition.  Some are easier reads than others, but I have them all in my resource library and I can recommend them:

Elements of Dynamic Symmetry by Jay Hambidge

Mastering Composition by Ian Roberts

Abstraction in Art and Nature by Nathan Cabot Hale

Classical Painting Atelier by Juliette Aristides

Classical Drawing Atelier by Juliette Aristides

Pictorial Composition An Introduction by Henry Rankin Poore

The Power of the Center by Rudolf Arnheim

Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne (deals more with composition than grids, but valuable)

Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow (deals more with notan, line, and basic design principles)

 

Resources on the Web that provide quick visual concepts:

LeicaCameraMonkey.com

Photography Composition Articles:Golden Mean

Google Golden Ratio Calculator and you will find on line tools that will calculate proportions for you.

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It means a lot to me that you have taken my words, and my art, into your lives.  So I would like to thank and welcome the new subscribers to this blog, and those who have also subscribed to my newsletter.  In my newsletter I write more about art technique, my motivations behind specific paintings, and occasionally offer paintings for sale at special prices.  Here is a convenient link to subscribe to my newsletter .

I would also like to thank those of you who have purchased my book, Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist, over the past month.  I hope this book helps you with the intrinsic motivation, as well as offering practical ideas and a bit of humor at the end of the day.

 


One Idea That Can Strengthen Your Design Skills

A painting can be a replication of what is seen, or it can be something more.  The difference is in the design.  And the best way to strengthen your design skills?  Spend more time planning than painting.

You can develop a structure to planning easily by considering these ideas:

Understand concepts in your own way.  In art, many approaches can seem vague and esoteric, and artists are not always effective in explaining what they mean, or even demonstrating it in a way that the student understands in his own mind.  It may take you months of study to finally gain your unique understanding of color harmony, the function of pattern, light versus shadow interest, or the idea of orchestrating a painting,  but until you have that understanding, your work will continue to feel uncertain.

Understand the conflict between emotional and logical thinking.  Logic comes first.  Emotional is last.  Think Sargent, wearing a hole in the carpet as he walked back from his canvas to check sight size, then forward for one stroke of paint, and then back again, before giving the final flourish.  As addicting as the emotion can be, save it for the end and remain disciplined as you build your structure.

Know the risks in combining too many visual approaches.  You can blend painting styles to create your own visual vocabulary without confusion: but when you try to combine too many ideas the viewer gets lost.  As you plan out your painting, decide your visual approach and maintain that throughout.  If a subject is better expressed with Impressionism, keep your style and the principles of Impressionism consistent to the end.  Check yourself: we don’t often realize when we’ve slipped into a different approach because, halfway through the painting, another idea occurred that seemed better than the first.  If going for a chiaroscuro instead of the close value/color harmony idea is actually better, rework the entire painting, or start a new one.  Just don’t flounder between hot and cold. 

Return to the basics. Use thumbnail sketches, grids, and compositional structure ideas to plan the placement of your shapes and center of interest. Determine what the finished surface quality of your painting will be before you start painting, and build up the paint, decide on mediums, determine brushes and knives accordingly.  Be clear in your mind what the painting is about, and how you will emphasize that – center of interest, color contrast, linear elements or abstract shapes – no matter what your style of painting, it is important to successful design planning to know clearly what you intend to accomplish. And be methodical in the steps, once you have decided. 

It may seem like planning takes all the fun out of painting.  Certainly painting can be fun.

But it can be a whole lot more. 

 IMG_1120 sm copyIf you are struggling with painting concepts, devise a method of study that works for your temperament.  Find two or three artists whose work exemplifies what it is you are trying to understand.  Write about what you see them doing, mark up copies of paintings with directional lines to determine placement and possible grids, keep exploring the ideas that seem most compelling to you.  Where I could not wrap my mind around the musical analogy many artists use to describe orchestrating a painting, I did eventually develop my own way of understanding the concept and to put it into practice.  It is always an ongoing process, no matter where you start you will never stop finding nuances and higher understanding - and that is what makes painting a lifelong exploration. 

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It means a lot to me that you have taken my words, and my art, into your lives.  So I would like to thank and welcome the new subscribers to this blog, and those who have also subscribed to my newsletter.  In my newsletter I write more about art technique, my motivations behind specific paintings, and occasionally offer paintings for sale at special prices.  Here is a convenient link to subscribe to my newsletter .

I would also like to thank those of you who have purchased my book, Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist, over the past month.  I hope this book helps you with the intrinsic motivation, as well as offering practical ideas and a bit of humor at the end of the day.


“Unless it kills you…”

There is a quote from Alice Neel that I have in one of my journals:

“You should keep on painting no matter how difficult it is, because this is all part of the experience, and the more experience you have, the better it is…unless it kills you, and then you know you have gone too far.”

I’ve always felt a darkly humorous reaction to this sentiment, because yeah, this gig can certainly kill your motivation.  I find optimism in her sentiments, too, though, and it’s more valuable to explore the positive, rather than indulging in self-limiting humor.

The longer an artist creates the harder it gets, because of knowledge gained, mistakes seen, and a tendency toward intense self-criticism.  The counter argument says artists must learn to reach “good enough,” and realize when to accept a painting as finished. Both views are correct, and recognizing when one serves you better than the other is a skill worth cultivating. 

In studying today’s great artists, there are two areas that are most important to the success of their work.  The first is the concept, the idea or what the painting is about, and the second is the total design, a far more technical idea.  Too often, paintings that fail do so because of weakness in one or both of these areas. 

I believe that women are generally more intuitive about the concept, while men are more intuitive about the design, but any artist focused on craft understands both concepts.  If I were to generalize further, technical mistakes benefit from scrutiny and criticism, while concept is more subjective and best left to the “good enough” category once a single idea takes dominance.

So what do artists mean when they talk about concept and design? 

Concept is the emotional idea: what specifically is the painting about, what single area, or object, do you want the viewer to focus on to “get the idea”?  Too many competing ideas weaken the overall message, but the sensitive use of color and value can correct this during the painting process.

Design is closer to the idea of Notan: there is design underlying everything. It relates to the way our eyes see, and the way our brains interpret meaning.  A strong abstract design is critical, so critical, in fact, that if it isn’t clear from the beginning it is very easy to lose, and once you spot a design failure, it’s better to start the painting over than to try to “fix” it. 

Design works with words like underlying structure, value range, interesting shapes, grids, placement, while concept works with words like color harmony, pleasing brush work, and subject matter. Concept is also subjective, open to interpretation by the viewer as they decide what the painting communicates to them.  Design is not subjective: it is either strong and pleasing or weak and ineffective. 

My favorite tool to keep me on track with both design and idea concepts is my resource binder.  Whenever I come across an interesting example of either idea, or articles written by artists on these subjects, I put them in a large notebook. Over the years I have used this resource to identify areas of weakness, as well as strengths, when critiquing my own work.  This is empowering, especially when I lose my design pattern half way through a painting and waste precious hours trying to fix something that is really a fatal flaw.  Because, as Alice Neel warns, I would rather not have this gig kill me. 

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It means a lot to me that you have taken my words, and my art, into your lives.  So I would like to thank and welcome the new subscribers to this blog, and those who have also subscribed to my newsletter.  In my newsletter I write more about art technique, my motivations behind specific paintings, and occasionally offer paintings for sale at special prices.  Here is a convenient link to subscribe to my newsletter .

I would also like to thank those of you who have purchased my book, Ancient Wisdom: Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist, over the past month.  I hope this book helps you with the intrinsic motivation, as well as offering practical ideas and a bit of humor at the end of the day.

 

 


Is Creativity an Entitlement?

I am an observer.  Even as a child I would rather watch than participate.  And my kids will tell you I can be obsessive in my observing.  If asked, they’ll drag out their favorite photographic proof: in sequence - view driving toward the tunnel, view in the tunnel, and view exiting the tunnel.  (I think there was another one called Mom falling down the side of the road in search of the perfect view, that that one mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago.)

I don’t necessarily believe I am obsessive. I’ve realized that before I became a painter, I was recording my observations in other ways.  Whenever we traveled, I would stare out the window, photographing every dip in the landscape that caught my attention, what I secretly called my “drive-by shootings” before that term took on such horrific meaning.  What I’m trying to point out here is that as artists we automatically observe the world, taking in every nuance and experience.  That is a remarkable gift, if you ask me.  We can look at artwork created in the past and participate, vicariously, in another existence.  A continuing thread, thousands of threads, a memory veil if you wish, that shows up in different forms in our own work.  An ongoing conversation.  Lives lived that are each unique and yet filled with common experience.

That might actually be the core mystery behind creativity.  And as Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book, Big Magic, we don’t need anyone’s permission to express our creativity.  Yet artists often struggle with the belief that they do need permission.  If they don’t get that commission, or a gallery response to their portfolio, or accepted into a prestigious show, the sense of rejection can set the studio work back for months.  I speak from experience.  And it isn’t just the rejections, but the sense that we must do more important things (important to whom?) before we can justify stepping into the studio and paint yet another painting that won’t see the light of day. 

Again, I speak from experience. Due to unexpected circumstances, I returned to work three years ago, spending endless hours doing emotionally draining and exceedingly boring work and leaving my full-time studio dedication behind.  It paid the bills.  But the drip, drip, drip of the mundane did far worse for my sense of creative entitlement than the lack of money ever could.  That, my friends, can feel deadly.  It’s as if you don’t deserve the muse.  Pointlessness again creeps in and logical arguments grow proportionally.  With each step you move further away and it becomes harder to return, because, after all, now you are a full-fledged fraud calling yourself an artist when you can’t even get into the studio more than a few times a month. 

But I don’t think creativity cares.  Let me tell you a story.  Back when I was living the Real Artist Life I met a fellow artist who became a role model for me.  She was my age now when I met her over a decade ago, and during the 1970’s, while I was busy with young children and photographing tunnels, she was discovering her unique personal voice. In the 1990’s, while I was merely feeling restless, she was living in Mexico and Guatemala, creating works on handcrafted paper made of corn, perfecting her unique style reminiscent of Marc Chagall, and creating highly acclaimed work in her teaching studio. When we finally met, I idolized her while I was sure she hardly recognized me.  But one day I opened a wonderful email from her expressing admiration for my work.  Now, I am not attempting to connect myself to a famous person here, because this story does have an important lesson.  Perhaps a year ago, now, I was back visiting with my old gallery director, and I asked about this artist.  She was fine, my friend explained, leading me back into her shop and pulling out several canvases.  They were in various stages of the initial drawing or first few bits of paint.  My role model, she explained, was very happy, but she had forgotten how to paint.  She could not remember enough to finish the work.  I left that day with two of her sable brushes and several canvases, in various stages of development, which to this day and into the future will remain just as they are.  And that’s ok.

We do not have time to worry about whether we are entitled to or have earned the right to be in our studios creating pointless works of art.   Nothing is pointless, just as nothing is so earth shatteringly important that if it isn’t perfect or accepted by the world than it shouldn’t be done. It takes courage to resist the voices so eager to tell you no, not yet, this isn’t your time, me first.  But for many of us, we don’t get brave enough until we actually see the finish line of our own lives, and realize if not now, then probably never.

But late-blooming bravery is ok too. Because the way I see it, when I paint, I am doing it for myself, recording, exploring, analyzing my experiences as I work my way through life.

Which is really the only way I want to live my life.

 


Missing Inspiration? Why 400 Sketchbooks Are Not Enough

Standing in the cookie aisle, I suddenly realized if I told the truth about where my inspiration comes from,  she wouldn’t believe me.

I could have said 18 years with over 400 sketch books and I still don’t have a handle on it, but I opted for the short answer. You know the cliché about 99% perspiration. Because, like many creative misunderstandings, people want to believe in the idea that their artist toiled away in seclusion before the epoch discovery that became their painting, and who am I to disavow them? Besides, the artist’s struggle is more like a selfie-battle that gets all tangled up in lofty ideals than it is a search for inspired perfection. But since this woman held emotional ownership in the painting, and recognized me between the Twinkies and Oreos, I did my best to maintain my artistic mystique.

So why is Inspiration so elusive?

Perhaps because we are really, really good about making it complicated. Take the idea that hard work and hours of effort go into that genius moment. Hard work is necessary - to learn and perfect skills, explore techniques, all that craft related stuff. But hard work has little to do with the real blocks to inspiration, which reside in our brains, in our addictions, and the fears growing out of misconceptions.

Why is it that we don’t believe in our own work?

When we let our brain take short cuts, we forget what we’re trying to do. Every day we are inundated with thousands of images, are constantly reevaluating our own ideas, and stressed out with the idea that a disinterested public isn’t going to give our work even the 27.2 seconds of looking at art that research says most people spend. It’s exhausting, and our brains go into auto pilot, making assumptions in an effort to function more efficiently.

Take Pinterest as an example. As an idea for honing creative skills, I have a love-hate relationship with my boards, neatly classified by genre. As a pre-screening tool, my brain loves the ease of scanning images and selecting those that grab my attention without any real effort. I can pin for twenty minutes and feel as if I’ve spent hours exploring the world of art. When people re-pin I get an idea of which artists are growing in popularity, and how many other pinners have boards similar to my own choices. It’s a reassuring form of crowd sourcing, proof of the evolutionary aesthetic choices that have become so popular in our culture.

But while Pinterest tells us we are in the mainstream with our visual preferences, it also kills the idea of originality. More often than not, after an hour of studying your boards you come away not inspired by the way other artists solve problems, but discouraged. When everything looks the same and it’s all been done before, might as well just kick back with a good book or the game. This could be a symptom of visual overload, since the brain can only absorb so much before it switches to something more interesting, or maybe it’s the playoff game or a really good book. But either way, visual overload is an inspiration kill.

And speaking of the brain

Our brain is basically a computer that entertains itself by solving problems. Some problems are boring, and others become boring when that auto pilot part of the brain informs the problem solving part that, oh, yeah, I’ve got all I need out of this painting. It’s one of the theories behind the ability of artists to engage the human imagination through deconstruction or a minimal amount of detail. Patrick Cavanagh says “Artistic license taps into the simplified physics used by our brain to recognize everyday scenes,” and this idea may be the reason why you can feel excited about a concept one moment and bored the next. Take the experiment by Niko Tinbergens with the chick and the “super beak,” or the distortions of Van Gogh.  Super exaggerated aspects in art can be disorienting to the eye, but trigger pleasure centers within the brain that humans find emotionally addicting. Without appreciating this battle behind the artist’s purpose of creating mystery and the viewer’s addiction to solving it, we end up solving our own mysteries. And mysteries solved are yesterday’s news.

Still not convinced?

Then why does your initial rough in with gestural marks and beautifully simplified values turn in to such a boring painting? Why the expectation of something wonderful that thrilled your artist’s brain fizzled when the messages got to your logic-controlled dominate hand?

And speaking of those fears and expectations

There is no denying it. On some level, everyone who has identified as an artist has also identified with the Big Experience. It’s all tied in with the flow, with artistic callings, with producing meaningful work. Art History does a good job of indoctrinating the culture and you have to admit, the romanticized version of creating some visual image in your basement with the power to change the world has kept more than one person up at night. So if you still harbor the idea that art is a form of a higher calling (which it still might be, but the idea and the goal can be crippling to your inspiration) here is a  quote from an entertaining, anonymous Art Handler when talking about the type of artwork he hangs: 

“I often deal with wealthy women. They usually fall into one of two categories: plastic surgery housewives or power suit business types…The first type doesn’t really know much about art at all and is … like, “Where do you think this should go? Does this look good with this?” The second type knows more about art but…I was hanging it in the living room as they observed from the couch. Their conversation for the entire hour was 40% plastic surgery and 60% cosmetics, with the occasional praise of the artwork purchased.”

So a quick answer about inspiration is impossible.

It is true that artists report feeling like the act of creating is essential to their identities. And the fear of not living up to that reality insures the safe zone, ignoring brain short cuts and allowing distractions and excuses to take away the blame. Believe me, you don’t need to hang in the Met. I’m relieved when someone tells me my work hangs on their wall and not still under the bed after fifteen years because they haven’t “gotten around to framing it yet.” (True story).

Realize that your brain tells you the painting is boring because you’ve solved all the mysteries. Don’t cripple yourself with unfounded fears of not measuring up, or meeting the expectations of others who don’t exactly count. Inspiration comes when you set a challenge for yourself, not from painting to the common denominator of crowd sourcing. Be mindful. Make friends with the addictions you feel and know that the emotions are real. They are yours. Use them to bring inspiration into your art.

For more inspiring ideas, stories, links and videos, please visit my Facebook page,  Ancient Artist: Developing at Art Career After 50


How Paint Quality Impacts Emotional Content - Lessons from Rembrandt's Blood Stain

Lucretia_1666Rembrandt - 1666 version of the Death of Lucretia


Every student of art encounters Art History at some point, and finds himself either overwhelmed or trapped by the tenants of one style compared to another. Perhaps it is inevitable, in that picture making is always influenced by what has been previously produced. But in this modern world, the visual image as a form of communication has been dissected, manipulated, and used to the point where we are eye blind, much like the student on a museum tour who goes in star struck and comes out with a nonchalant shrug saying, “Oh, another Michelangelo.”  Sometimes a work of art translates into a powerful emotional experience, but more often than not, there is a five second glance of disinterest and lack of connection.

So how, then, is the artist to overcome that five second glance? Many competing concepts must be put together to create a successful painting, extending beyond just understanding how to achieve certain results. Throughout my art development I have been guided by a quote attributed to Lee Krasner: “I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point. And, as the limitations are something called pigment and canvas, let’s see if I can do it.”

Great artists from the past achieved high levels of this sense of “aliveness”, and one of the ways they did it is through paint quality. The temptation to use Rembrandt’s self-portrait as an example of paint quality is a persistent one. With the artist’s thick swirls of paint that appear sculptural, you see basic concepts of thick impasto contrasted with thin layers of delicate color. But using this painting as an example traps the artist in a sweeping generalization. It isn’t only about the contrast in paint thickness, or the differences in the brush stroke.

I recently came across an article by Simon Schama, exploring the idea behind How Rembrandt Dressed Women for Death, which directed me to Rembrandt’s 1666 painting, The Suicide of Lucretia.  The paint quality in this painting jolts the viewer between the sumptuous depictions of fabric and textures in Lucretia’s dress, to the visceral impact of the blood stain on her bodice: edges of the stain, where the plasma has separated with a lighter tinge, highlighting the weave of the delicate fabric that could not protect her body, as the deepening red depression sinks visually into the flesh, turning a dark crimson in a ragged knife blade shape. That, for me, is visual impact achieved by a master of paint quality

Lucretia_1666 copy 1

If painting is more than a flat visual perception, then the artist must find some understanding of what that means. I believe that art should not be limited to what the eye sees but how to depict through the senses what the eye sees. And while I might be a toddler in terms of art, having just learned to walk and now exploring my environment on uncertain legs, I understand that artists mistake generalizations for fact and rework ideas that are worn out. Avoiding generalizations might require the artist to assess his core intentions, what is meaningful to his work, and how his subject and technique addresses both his personal freedom and the impact the work has upon the viewing public. And as a consequence, an artist’s personal style will evolve and change over time as realizations and concepts become internalized and expressed effectively.  We should expect it. Reach for it.

Reach for the understanding and ability to come as close as we can to the perfection of Rembrandt's blood stain.

 


River Road and Aesthetic Conviction

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River Road, oil, 18 x 24, 2015

 

In my last post we were talking about aesthetic conviction.  While I find this concept easier to understand when discussing figure or portrait painting, my passion is landscape.  I wanted to share some of the thinking that goes into a painting such as River Road. 

Why did I paint this:  In 1908, two competing railroad companies began laying track on opposite sides of the Deschutes River on a route that ran from the Columbia River to Bend.  One was the Oregon Trunk Road, on the west side of the river, the other was the Deschutes Railroad.  At several points along the way both needed the same land.  Conflicts erupted, including blowing up of supply lines, skirmishes and gun battles, injuries and death.   There is currently one working rail track in use today, but the remains of abandoned rail beds are still present and used for recreation.   It's a little known element of Oregon's wild west history.

 

What this painting is about: While I was attracted to the story, this is not a historical painting. The warm winter light, the red and ocher and sage, the reflections on the river are a metaphor for optimism and a sense of adventure in the face of uncertainty.  The landscape is the message.  It speaks of endurance, and the transience of  human experience. 

Thank you to Oil Painters of America, for awarding River Road an Honorable Mention in the 2015 Fall On-Line Showcase. 


The Importance of Gravitas

Back in 2001, when I began to study art seriously, I asked how gravitas could be achieved in painting. The answer differed depending upon which teacher I asked. Some said it was subject matter. Others based their assessment upon technique. Still others said only the Old Masters achieved gravitas. None of these answers were particularly helpful. While they skirted around the question, no single point of view could explain gravitas, because gravitas is a word that attempts to define emotional connection.

Over the years I have come to believe that gravitas relates most specifically to how well the artist can transform an emotional idea into its visual equivalent. Paul Gauguin is quoted as saying that Degas’s nudes were “chaste. But his women in washtubs! ...just the way it is at home.” This is the difference between illustration and connection.  When we recognize in a work of art the emotion, the sensation, as something familiar, known - this is connection.  And if I were to summarize the descriptions found in books, in lectures from a few Masters, and the student-artists who work toward the same goals I have as a continuing student-artist, I would say that the primary attribute of gravitas is aesthetic conviction - another vague term that doesn't answer questions but raises new ones.

We all set the same goals, to do a better job than the day before. Sounds easy, and on most days easy wins out and the painting is a failure. But we still pick up the brush and try again, chasing the possibilities, as well as the joy. Gravitas, or aesthetic conviction, becomes the goal toward which we struggle, and the thing we don’t see is that our contemporary context also plays a role. The everyday world full of work demands, traffic delays and constant irritation bear little connection to the contemplative world of the artist. We cannot retreat to the ivory tower of the studio. Our work must relate to the society in which we live, to the people who might view it, and that pool of individuals is so vast and so complex it’s overwhelming to think about aesthetic conviction. Whose aesthetic do we appeal to?  This person's, that one, those over there?

So we have no real choice. We must develop our own conviction regardless. And when I paint better than I think I can, I recognize the underlying motive. I am not thinking about being “successful,” or appealing to the public, or a jury, or even trying to make a painting that is better than the one I did yesterday. I am only thinking that this painting is the painting I need to do.

Research demonstrates that Masters achieve their highest creativity either after years of creative endeavor, or through the furious passion of youth. Both speak to the need for technique as well as emotional investment – the soul of the work. Where younger artists might be more impulsive and risk-taking, older artists are equally passionate with greater self-acceptance and depth of understanding. This is the research saying it, not me. But I do know that without one – technique - you cannot communicate the other – emotional communication.  This is true regardless of age.

In my experience, it has taken only moments to understand some artistic concepts, but years to understand them enough to begin to put them into practice. And even now I do not fully comprehend. But the idea that I cannot hope to create something worthwhile if I cannot use the visual language required, remains a constant. To that end, this is what I have found to be important:

  • Decisions are based on thinking, and thinking is based on knowledge, so there can never be an end to learning or practice or experimentation. You must know what you can do with the materials, how to do it to best effect, and why you want to do it. Only then can the artist hope to communicate the qualities of human emotional experience through paint. As for taste, it is a concept that changes with time, but sensitivity is different. An artist who strives for sensitivity becomes expressive, different from the rest.
  • It’s easy to choose a subject to paint. It’s imperative to know what you are painting.  In the book, How I Paint: Secrets of a Sunday Painter, Thomas D Buechner (1926 - 2010), a painter's painter who became the the director of the Brooklyn Museum, has given one of the best descriptions of artistic conviction I have ever read.  He describes his painting of an angular, awkward ten-year-old boy named Ian: "He is the subject, but the painting is really about uncertainty, about not knowing the future...the subject was chosen for a specific purpose, to serve as a metaphor for this confusion, which influenced the pose, colors, shapes, and textures. In other words, Ian was the message."

But this is my list, and it is not complete. Nor is it as important as the one you make for yourself.  Stuart Davis (1894-1964) is quoted as saying, "The act of painting is not a duplication of experience, but the extension of experience on the plane of formal invention." Such is the purpose of art.  It is what we know.  It's the getting there that is hard.