Friday, March 29, 2013

Notes on Charles H. Woodbury

Charles H. Woodbury, Breaking Wave
I've been delving into the work and theories of Charles H. Woodbury (1864-1940), and the more I look the more excited I'm getting about the treasure trove of inspiration in his method and his words.

The historical background is fascinating in itself; he founded an art colony in Ogunquit, Maine and in 1896 established an influential summer school there devoted to what today we'd call perceptual painting. But I'm also seeing how his ideas can be relevant to artists alive and working today. 

Woodbury wrote some startling things: "Paint as though you were sent for" - "Paint big and fast outside" - "Get the big color relations" - "Paint in verbs not in nouns." 

That's a call to fresh seeing and exuberant creativity!

Painting is perceptual - it's always more and always less than a record of the visible. Painting - and any art, really - can also be a mechanism for seeing more and better, a powerful tool for rediscovering the self, for recognizing not only what we hold dear but what and how we truly think and see, for enquiry into the very nature of our relationship to reality. "You don't draw what you see of the wave - you draw what it does!" he would tell his students. His immediacy as a painter springs from active seeing - "seeing big" - and getting excited about capturing the flavor of life lived in the moment fully awake and engaged.

I'm in the process of putting together a series of blog posts and a short presentation on Woodbury's life and art which will be part of an Ogunquit workshop I'm offering on April 19. My focus will be on how to apply his message about open-hearted seeing and expression to almost any creative work - painting, yes, but why not photography, writing, poetry, making sushi? I believe we all already possess the tools to make art - what we need is the inspiration to do so, and Woodbury's art and writings can provide illuminating insights that can help add more energy, vitality, and depth to our creative processes. 

Is Woodbury's seascape above a "great" painting, in the art-historical sense? By some standards maybe, by others maybe not. But it stands as a certain testament to open-eyed seeing and direct expression, a palpable reminder that freshness, vitality, and inspiration (worthy goals!) are only a heartbeat away if we want them - it's a call to authentic seeing and being.

6 comments:

  1. Interesting post, Chris! not what it is but what it DOES!

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  3. Thanks, Steve. I find that one of the hardest to put into practice of any of his ideas! It's just not intuitive (for me anyway) to approach a painting that way - I usually tend to put a lot of energy into "really seeing" the shapes, colors, and everything else, so thinking about (much less painting!) "what it does" has been pretty low on the list. It seems to me a refreshingly different way to approach plein-air painting in particular.

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