George Inness was compulsive when it came to achieving perfection, to the point where he regularly destroyed more paintings by doing “some little repainting” than he completed successfully. At one point his insistence to fix some small thing that disturbed him was so great that his collectors would routinely hide their Inness canvases whenever he came to visit, or risk having Inness take the painting from the wall and back to his studio, where he would “fix” it to the point of being unrecognizable.[i]
Not all artists are dissatisfied with the result of their efforts to the degree that Inness was, but the sense of dissatisfaction is a familiar one. It is easy to feel inspired, easy to paint, but hard to accept the results. We evolved most recently from the Expressionist/Impressionist branches of the family tree: both 'isms" involve emotion in paint – when told to paint something that reflects anger, you can do it, can’t you? I want to believe that when I am in the flow, magic happens. You want to believe it. But we know this isn’t completely true. Something is missing, the thing we can’t describe, the thing that leaves us feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the result of our efforts.
I believe our sense of dissatisfaction is really an argument. An argument between the right brain, inspired and passionate, saying “isn’t this beautiful?” - and the left brain, logical and linear, that keeps saying, “yeah, but it doesn't look to me like it felt to you when you painted it.”
And the solution – at least for me – has to come from historical foundations of painting. Even the most bravura artists of our times have a solid grounding in traditional training.
If you study Sargent’s paintings, you may notice a structure based on the Fibonacci numbers or some other version of dynamic symmetry.
Sergei Bongart, the well-loved Russian Impressionist, was a student of Michail Yarovoy at a very early age, an artist who himself was a student of Ilya Repin, the great Russian realist.[ii]
Joaquin Sorolla impressed the public with the speed and intuition of his brushwork, his dazzling colors, and his ability to take in a subject with a single glance. His critics were impressed by his complete command of technique. His close friends reported that “The execution of each work was preceded by a period of preparation in which, by making numerous studies of design and color, both of details and of the whole composition, he was at pains to familiarize himself with the subject.” [iii]
I believe that many ideas at the heart of Modern painting do artists a disservice. The Modernists of the last half century applauded spontaneity. They encouraged personal expression and an intuitive response to the painting. But they also had solid foundations in traditional ideas and their work was in response to those ideas.
Yet Art education today often emphasizes personal expression over the necessity of acquiring a deep understanding of composition, values, edges, form, line, pattern, drawing – the elements of painting.
How often, before you begin a painting, do you ask yourself, am I telling a story, or singing a song?
If you are singing a song, all you need is an emotional melody, a pleasing sound, because all information is transmitted through our sense of hearing. We can sing along with the music, cringe at the occasional missed note, but understand the emotional message without effort because our sense of hearing is adapted to obtaining information from the nuance of sound alone.
But if you are telling a story – and you are with a painting – you are dealing with the visual sense, which is highly connected to the mind - and the mind expects more clues in the visual information you are providing. It wants a sense of rhythm, of pattern, shape and form, of pleasing paint application and solid value differences. It wants to be visually delighted, emotionally involved, and to discover what it is that the artist wishes to share. And to do this, to communicate the visual story you want to tell, you need to be the most proficient in the language of painting as you can be.