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.