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February 2014

When Age and Art Converge

Aging is an inevitable part of our personal experience, on both a physical and social level.  How we perceive our ability to express creativity can open us up to new experiences. 

As a mature artist entering the field later in life, I have faced a common insecurity: can I realistically achieve my goals or is it too late?

My position is that you can.  There is no research to indicate that creativity functions differently with age: if anything, it increases.  Where physical stamina may decrease, experience and perceptions allow us to make artistic connections with more ease than a younger artist.  If there is one thing that works to our disadvantage, it is time.

Because the mature artist does not have the 30 or 40 years required for some accomplishments, it becomes important to focus on what, realistically, we can achieve. I advocate a business-like approach, because goal setting, implementing strategies, and establishing routines are business oriented.  But art is unlike any other business.  It can be subjective and competitive.  Despite the internet, there are still powerful gatekeepers and some geographical dependency. Your motivations must be strong to weather the inevitable discouragements and continue with your creative process.  Knowing what your aspirations are will increase your ability to focus on the activities that will get you to your goals.  But your business orientation ends there, or at least assumes a lesser importance compared to the living of your art. 

We are all different as artists, and different, too, in our desires. The time available to us will play a role, but we can’t accurately predict what we will achieve until we try.  This is not a new idea.  While attending a workshop recently, I listened to Rose Frantzen echo similar thoughts in response to the question, what is beauty?  She answered that she didn’t know ahead of time what was beautiful – that she couldn’t always see it until she tried to paint it. 

It was through the act of exploration that the beauty was discovered.

It is through your artistic exploration that a way of living is discovered.

If this way of living can also be labeled an art career, then many artists will be satisfied.

But if it only produces beauty, connects humans in a meaningful way, contributes to the culture, or joins in with a long conversation by artists about their experiences going back to the beginning of time without any of the financial or prestigious recognitions – well, that’s pretty impressive, too. 

Your results will ultimately be defined by you. 


How the Light Gets In

Over the years I have tried to understand this idea of painting the light.  On the surface it appears straightforward. We see because our eyes interpret the various wave lengths of light as color.  There are rules to further guide us: atmospheric perspective, cool light and warm shadows, turning the form, capturing a fleeting moment of light in Plein Air.  Taken collectively, the act of representing something as being in or out of the light ought to be a matter of proper drawing and shading and value. 

And yet it seems such an elusive thing, to convincingly depict the sense of light.

In many ways it is an act of seeing, sensitively and without judgment.  And in other ways, it can be a matter of understanding the philosophical foundation of the style in which you are painting.  We seldom stop to think about this.  The Barbizon Painters had a completely different painting approach to depicting the light than the Impressionists, even though the Barbizon School evolved into the Impressionists.  Classical Realists are at the opposite end of the Light spectrum from the school of Chiaroscuro. Throughout art history we see many different ways to paint the beautiful effects of light: we could even say that Hans Hofmann and Mark Rothko were concerned with depicting the effect of light through color and abstract forms. 

This idea – of appreciating the underlying conceptual approach – was demonstrated in a real way for me by Rose Frantzen and Sherrie McGraw.  As I studied with each artist, I began to appreciate how the concept determined the method. Each artist could manipulate the paint in a seemingly effortless way, to create magical results.  But each way was also different. 

In the first few days of learning, I did not appreciate this fact.  I was a student again, not realizing I was combining approaches in a way that left me visually confused.  I struggled, feeling inept and uninspired, wondering what I was not understanding.  And then a subtle awareness began to seep into my painting.  In order to create a specific end result I needed to approach it from a specific starting point, intellectually. 

I believe that we need to know what our end result will look like, and that can also mean that we need to know if we are working in a particular style or artistic tradition.  I think it’s quite possible to believe you are painting in a specific style without realizing you are combining it with ideas drawn from a different genre, just as it is possible for a very skilled artist to create a traditional motif in an extremely abstracted style without the end result looking staged.  But underneath that skilled approach, I am sure that artist understands exactly what conceptual foundation is informing him in his depiction of light.   

All of my instructors repeated one mantra: it is about what the light is doing.

I almost feel foolish saying this: after all I have been painting for quite a long time.  But sometimes we forget that painting is about learning, and learning is about seeing, and seeing is about understanding how to manipulate the paint.

And manipulating the paint is all about the artistic tradition that is informing you. 

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Asparagus, oil, 9 x 12, 2014