I consider myself a conceptual painter. What this means - often sadly - is while I absolutely love the beautiful figure paintings created today, I can't paint them. I can't paint them because I know my brain doesn't see and interpret space in the same way.
I guess I'm more like Van Gogh. I'm interested in the volume of a defined space and the active forces interacting there. A version of Yin and Yang. My paintings can be visually active for this reason, although I used to describe that "activity" through brush marks alone. As I mature in my understanding of what I am trying to communicate I've realized I can better nuance my ideas.
I was fortunate in that the focus during my art education was on the conceptual foundation in art. One professor said, "When the thinking is good, the art is good." If you are unfamiliar with the idea of conceptual thinking in realistic art here is a wonderful post by Thomas Torak, who teaches painting at the Art Student's League in New York and continues to have a distinguished career.
Actually, it was through my still life painting that I began to understand my landscapes. I switch back and forth between the genres whenever I get stuck or just too bored with myself. For years I thought I was conceptual when I focused on colors and shapes, and not objects, but when I finished Roses and Curly Willow some connection began to click. I think it was the line of the curly willow branch that suggested I was describing the invisible space between and around the objects; my subject was actually how those objects pressed into the emptiness, intersected it, were isolated by it, or were trying to meet each other across it. The human dynamic, how we deal with life and all that might mean.
Another factor was the light, how it washed over objects but through the empty volume, unseen but interacting all the same. Perhaps symbolic of hope and perseverance. Conceptually, I realized my interest was not in the shapes. It was a larger idea relating to my experience and understanding of the dynamic forces in human life - which is ideally expressed through my subjects of choice.
Some of this understanding emerged at the same time I began reading Rudolf Arnheim's book, The Power Of The Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts. The author is a retired Professor of the Psychology of Art at Harvard, and has written extensively on the subject, including the well known book Visual Thinking. His discussion about "centers of energy" generating "tension-loaded fields" gave me the conceptual nudge I needed to clarify my thinking. To understand the way I paint.
This is why I can't paint figure (well, okay, not the only reason why). I love to study stand-out paintings like those by Marina Dieul, or Michael Malm - but I also realize the difference between their visual thinking and my own. What I take from my study of artists is a better understanding of how they express their ideas on color theory, edges, brush marks - the craft elements - and combine that with what I perceive to be their conceptual point of view, to create one powerful visual statement.
I'll never learn enough.