Previous month:
February 2011
Next month:
April 2011

March 2011

The Not So Secret Secrets of a Conceptual Painter

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. 


DSC06789 smcopy
Roses and Curly Willow, © 2010 sfsmith Private Collection

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.





At What Point Is It Enough?

I do not normally post so frequently about the same subject, but I have found that at my age the longer I wait between question and answer, the more likely I am to forget what to say.

There is confusion between artists on the subject of creativity, originality, the nature of derivative work, leaving many people polarized.  When is work different enough from some inspirational source to be original?

I’ve found the best measure for any work is defined through this quote from the movie Jurassic Park, where Jeff Goldblum’s character, the Chaotician, confronts the genetic scientists:

“You didn’t require any discipline to attain it, you know.  You read what others had done and you took the next step.  You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourself so you don’t take any responsibility for it.  You stood on the shoulders of genius to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had…”

It seems sensible to me that every artist should develop the discipline, earn the knowledge, and take responsibility for what they produce.  

I have a rule about my own blog posts: if I have to warm up my coffee before I finish reading, then they’re too long.  Perhaps we will continue this particular dialogue in the near future.

I am adding a link to an excellent post on Making a Mark by guest author John Kinney that contributes to this fascinating discussion.  I  hope you will check it out.

When Art Becomes a Business Model - A Response to Katherine Tyrrell

Katherine Tyrrell wrote a thoughtful post on her blog Making a Mark, and my initial response was “this is a bold move on a provocative topic.”  But is it always so simple?

Katherine's post raised questions about the comfort zone we have around our personal artistic space – a space another cannot violate without committing artistic plagiarism.  What is it that arouses the emotion? Why are we defensive when our space has been invaded but hardly notice when we invade someone else’s space?  And how much of this space is actually unique to us and not universal – including elements of craft and theories of brain science – the way we see and process visual information?

Art is not a linear function but a dimensional one, although many artists are focused on one direction at a time, such as color theory or brushwork, particularly as they learn their craft.  Each piece must be explored and fitted into place in the larger sphere of conceptual thinking before the unique artistic voice is fully expressed. I felt that to publicly criticize an artist because there are similarities – particularly in a business model so narrowly focused as the PAD movement – seemed unfair, throwing into question every plein air painting after the Barbizon painters that was not attributed, every asparagus painting after Manet, every sketch of trees after Constable...(Je suis desolee, Monsieur Manet, I did paint an asparagus painting four years ago and did not attribute it...)

The argument can be made that when art becomes a business model it moves into a different psychological/practical space designed to make money. As this idea relates to the PAD movement, the concept of offering some new insight/product/idea on a daily basis is not unique if you consider daily cartoons in the newspaper, daily verses on desk calendars. In fact, there’s little conceptual difference between the Painting A Day Movement and the idea to sell hamburgers through a drive through window in the 50’s: it was a novel way to move product through distribution channels newly opened - blogs and the internet now, the family car then.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with approaching art as a business. And as a disclaimer I am not actively participating in a Daily Painting movement and don't claim to be an expert, only an admirer. I did appreciate the point Katherine Tyrrell was making about artistic honesty, but I began to stumble with the plagerism argument once it was applied to something as narrowly defined as PAD. To selectively fault artists who are painting common daily items in a 6 x 6 or 5 x 7 space because of a similarity in subject (pre-defined) or style (currently extremely popular with the public) - doesn't this come too close to criticising all Impressionist movements since Monet for using high key color schemes, specific brush marks, and pastoral or domestic subjects?

Another case in point –  in this story by Mike Boehm in the Los Angeles Times  we are further confused over the line between origin and derivative. Conceptual Artist Takashi Murakami turned leftover fabric – used for handbags – into limited edition wall art: the new "art" was selling for $6000 to $10,000, when you could buy the same fabric in the form of a handbag for $1000. 

Part of this discussion stems from a natural dialogue between artists back and forth about the nature of art in today’s society.  When art – no matter what it’s original purpose - becomes a business model or a commodity - the argument between art and concept, plagiarism and derivative becomes murky as to what is original, what is re-framing or re-purposing, and what is artistically dishonest.

Did the images referenced in the Making a Mark post look uncomfortably similar - yes, when discussed in terms of subject, composition, and color.  But perhaps that similarity feels uncomfortable, not because of artistic plagiarism, but because it contributes to a growing unease - that we are losing the sense of an individual artistic self.  Our access to millions of other artists and their work through the internet is unprecedented in art history. Isolation is nearly lost. How many times have you worked in the solitude of your own studio producing what you thought was wholly original work, only to find something extremely similar created by an artist across the country? 

For me it has become unproductive to demand that every visual idea be unique in order to be valid: there are millions of artists in the world, and given those odds, it's impossible once we recognize we're not so much unique in our experiences but universal.  Duane Keiser's comments about the Making a Mark post carries this further, pointing out why he appreciates the discussion Katherine started -   “because the emphasis will become the deeper ideas and meaning behind the work rather than the surface features of technique and subject matter.”

Art does not exist in a vacuum, nor does any other intellectual activity. Perhaps a more interesting argument for the aspiring artist (and we are all aspiring to be better at what we do) is this: how can we take influences from a long lineage of artistic history and translate that into something of our own?

It's a discussion worth having and I hope you will give your opinions.

What are the deeper ideas in your work, and how are you working toward expressing them?

What You Can't Say In Polite Company

There are some things you can't say in polite company.  I know this to be true, having frequently said the wrong thing at the wrong time, so I've learned to play it safe and not sorry and have recently taken my approach to the absurd.

At the artist reception for "There and Back" I found myself chatting with people, an occupation I enjoy: it's one of the few times I get feedback about whether or not I've been successful as an artist.  Aside from the person who first asked if I was associated with the gallery and then wanted to know where the hor d'oeuvres were, there was one emerging comment that rose above the rest. 


"You really have to get back from these paintings to see them."


DSC06923sm copy
January Thaw, oil on canvas, 26 x 22, scsmith © 2011


My first impulse was to say something like, well I don't paint small paintings.  I paint large. I want to you see them from across the room and I want you to run toward them like a crazy person and dive into the spaces and wander around.  I don't play safe with those ready made images you probably like and that - to me, at least - are boringly predictable.  I want a little chaos and disorder and incorrectness in my work.

But of course I didn't say that. What I ended up saying was that I was farsighted and that was probably why I painted like that...


Rocks of Reconciliation, oil on canvas, 26 x 30, scsmith © 2011


Jasper Johns is quoted as saying, "When you work you learn something about what you are doing and you develop habits and procedures out of what you're doing."  Sometimes, when you talk to people about your work, you realize the reasons why you choose the subject matter and the approach that you use, reasons that might not translate well in polite company but are valid none the less. But to talk around these ideas out of "politeness" makes you more vulnerable to making stupid explanations like "farsightedness."

So I guess it's true what Henri Matisse said: "Creativity takes courage."

Of course, you don't need to add the boringly predictable ready made images that you probably like part unless you want your gallery director to boot you out the door.  No.  That would not be good. 


Quotes from Artist To Artist: Inspiration & Advice from Artists Past & Present, compiled by Clint Brown, Jackson Creek Press, Corvallis, Oregon, © 1998

The Argument For the 1% Solution

My last post discussed the argument that painting is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, in that the artist must be fully aware of what he wants to communicate and how he is going to accomplish it.  But today’s post looks at the counter argument that intuition is just another name for accessing the right side of the brain and producing solutions that the left hemisphere could never conceive. 

Sometimes we get that glimmer of an idea, or an emotion, or a higher truth that flashes across our mind and we want desperately to clarify it before it gets away. Or we finish a painting and then find ourselves looking closely at certain passages and wondering how we accomplished the result.  Painting in the flow, when most of the decision-making arises from the creative center of the brain, is one of our most fulfilling artistic experiences.  No doubt about it.

So why even think about ideas such as these? Art can be calculated and well executed, or it can be emotional and an expression of what the artist felt – or a combination. But it needs to be something.  Periodically, we must ask challenging questions about our artistic philosophy, about how we create, and why.  When we dig deep to explore our motivations, we are able to clarify our intent and strengthen that personal understanding of why we create.

And when we have that, we have a solid footing on an insecure path. 

What are your thoughts?


Initially, I did not think it appropriate to write about anything trivial while the people of Japan are dealing with such tragic circumstances.  My thoughts and prayers go out to them and I will find ways to help where I can.  But more than anything, keeping creative energy flowing right now is vital to moving forward.  I know you understand. 

The Argument Against Intuitive Painting

As artists we find ourselves engaging in intuitive painting: responding to what the paint is telling us, or otherwise working in a flow that includes instinctive or habitual responses.  Ideally, we can produce innovative work, much like Jackson Pollack did with his drip paintings, drawing on automatic memory.  More often, though, we are in danger of creating the mundane. 

Creativity is not a unique phenomenon in that everyone is creative on a daily basis.  When describing my painting process to a potential client, she immediately responded by saying, "oh, it's like cooking, you have the recipe as a starting point and then go from there."  But as any chef knows, when you "go from there" some thought has to be put into the expected outcome if you want your restaurant to survive.

So if creativity is not a unique phenomenon, what is painting, or the act of creating any piece of art?  It's worth considering this statement in the book Aging, Creativity, and Art:

"All cognitions, creative or not, include working memory, capacity, speed of retrieval, perceptual fluency, activation of relevant concepts and inhibition of irrelevant ones, recollective ability, inspection of memories, and a host other processes that are used in everyday cognition." 

The author then asks, " Why are some cognitions creative and others ordinary?"

The argument against intuitive painting asks the same: why are some paintings creative, and others ordinary?

If the goal of the artist is to take an abstract idea and intrepret it with a visable image in a compelling and easily understood way, then it requires purposful thought in addition to creative impulse. And as the author of Aging, Creativity, and Art goes on to say, " "creativity-as-cognition is about problem-finding, -defining, -identifying, -discovering, -expressing, -posing, -representing, -translating, -integrating, and -synthesizing."

 The next time you're facing down a potentially mundane painting consider why the word "intuitive" wasn't included in that list.


Aging, Creativity and Art: A Positive Perspective on Late-Life Development, by Martin S. Lindauer, 2003, Klewer Academic/Plenum Publishers, NY