Monday, June 10, 2013

Looking, Thinking, Painting

I have a friend who knows far more about art than I do, to whom I occasionally show my work (when I get up the nerve). He recently managed to soothe my oft-times fevered brow with some brief encouragement and the words, "keep looking, thinking, and painting."

Landscape by Bruce Crane (c. 1910)
"That'll happen, anyway," I thought to myself - but his words kept coming back to me with increasing gravity. Looking, thinking, and painting. 

Actually, what else is there? Doing just these three things with intense passion, thoughtfulness, and dedication are precisely what's required of a good painter. 

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape, 1963

From here, there are many different ways to go. Personally, I tend to think a lot about painting (why I love art history and why I write this blog). It seems to me that the purpose of painting is not simply to produce a more or less "faithful" copy (faithful to what, exactly?) of something (a particular tree in a particular hilly field, or a particular cityscape in California, for example). We have cameras for that. I believe with Charles Woodbury that “a picture is a thought or feeling expressed in terms of Nature.” The rest of that sentence reads: “The method is a matter of the moment….Clear sight, clear thought, clear expression; the thought should depend on the sight, and the expression on the thought.” Sight, thought, and expression = looking, thinking, and painting = "observations, concentration then application," so said Frederick Waugh as well.

You probably already believe, as I do, that painting has more to do with seeing than with technique. Let's face it, the technique of painting is much easier to learn than the lifelong task of knowing oneself. I think one of painting’s amazing qualities is how it “opens our eyes” to our role in creating meaning via the links between "sight, thought, and expression."

Winslow Homer, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains

I'm turning this over in my mind because I'm going to be teaching a plein-air workshop at Crawford Notch in the White Mountains next week (Monday & Tuesday, June 17 & 18). Mindful that it’s probably not possible or even desirable to consciously control the whole process while immersed in the act of painting itself, this three-tiered foundation will be our premise and our guide. Seeing with fresh eyes is the essential first tier; thought, the subjective response, follows from the initial perception; technique serves to express the artistic experience.

Titian, Rape of Europa (detail)

I get more excited thinking about teaching people to use painting as a means of heightening perception, deepening self knowledge, and becoming a more fully realized person than I do thinking about teaching technique. 

Brice Marden, Vine, 1992-93

Do you teach technique or artistic seeing? A little of both? As we all know, it’s entirely possible for students to follow the principles of freedom and self-expression and to produce failed paintings, concluding (almost certainly wrongly) that they have no talent. The reason for this, I think, is that painting, like any creative act, implies an audience (even if only of one), and therefore one must balance the freedom of personal expression with technical means and with a related aesthetic (e.g. "loose," impressionistic, realist, tonalist, semi-abstract, etc.), a manner or style either consciously chosen or inherited. 

Antonio Lopez-Garcia, The Dinner, 1971-80

Alternately, many students of painting believe they are “learning to paint” when they are merely learning the techniques behind a particular painter’s aesthetic. I don't want to teach technique or a particular aesthetic approach, but I do want to teach students how to make "good paintings." Am I wrong to sense that this depends on something separate from, maybe prior to, technique? I want  my students to be very happy with their paintings, but I want them to really be their paintings.

A RAVISHINGLY SEEN and painted landscape by John Singer Sargent

What are your thoughts on teaching and learning to paint? What do you think of the idea of breaking it down into "clear sight, clear thought, clear expression" - looking, thinking, painting?


  1. Isn't this a cart before the horse, chicken before the egg question?

    Looking, thinking, painting-

    Gonna write that on the sleeve of my painting shirt-

  2. Hi Chris...good post, and an even better question. Although I think we're talking about the same thing, I posit the question to my students in a more homely way. I try to have them understand, and then absorb, the notion that a painting can be "of" something at the same time that it is "about" something else. The ability to minutely record a scene in front of one is much to be envied, but technique is only technique and must be of service beyond being the merely the means of gaining the applause of those impressed with one's patience or skill. The real brass ring is the "about', as we connect with our viewers in the world of ideas and emotions. 19th c. salon painting fell into this trap. The technical facility attained was breathtaking but the "about" fell into the realm of the terminally flabby. Even now we see, in the resurgence of great diligence in "classical" technique, the first signs of great facility brought down by a hollowness at its center. Henry James said "Decadence in all the arts comes from the means becoming the end."

    I'm off with my students to France next week, hoping to have them address not only the facts of France but, more important, the idea of France. Our destination is the Berry, in the dead-center of the country. A gentle landscape, it's often called "la France profonde" or "deepest France". The trees are the same as they are in many places elsewhere in France, as are the cows and the buildings. "La France profonde" is an idea, not a view, and we'll chase it. Be well, and good luck in the Whites.

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  4. Cyn - True! Once you start painting, who knows what really happens! In reality there's just the moment - like Frank O'Hara said about poetry, "You just go on your nerve."

  5. Donald - I really like the distinction between what a painting is "of" and what it is "about." I suspect asking that question of any of the images inserted into this post would yield many interesting answers! I agree that technique is only technique (another very useful idea). The blind worship or over-development of technique is something that happens when an artist loses sight of what he has to say.

    Further, the thing being said (what the painting is "about") can be said in many, many ways, some borrowed some spontaneously of the moment, and each requiring diverse levels and types of technique! It's the thing being said that's important though. If the need is great enough, the means will be found. As you know, the French Academics had modern equipment and an entire institution to draw from, but Rembrandt could have said more with a toothbrush and a can of shoe polish.

  6. Hear! Hear! The Shinola Series!

    The whole world is in Van Goyen's almost monochrome investigations of the intersection between man and his landscape.

    I join with WCW, in saying "so much depends on the white chickens, beside the red wheelbarrow, glazed with
    rain water."

  7. Thinking of Williams, I ventured on to Stevens.Often students of mine are too consumed by capturing all facts of what is before them while avoiding attending to what meaning their view has for them.there is and will always be someone who can better describe in paint the exact scene. But no one will ever be able to surpass a given student's depiction of his own, personal reaction to a place.As an art lover and as a teacher, I more highly value the genuine response no matter how crude the manner than the buffed and perfect panel speaking of nothing but empty headedness.
    Each of us is, as was Picasso, a player of Stevens's blue guitar.

    They said, "You have a blue guitar,
    You do not play things as they are."
    The man replied, "Things as they are
    Are changed upon the blue guitar.

  8. Donald- well said! Anything less than a genuine response begins to feel empty over time.

  9. I hope you will write more about this. Thinking about what my painting is ABOUT has rarely occurred to me, yet I'm sure that subjects I'm willing to spend time on are about something. When I paint non-objectively, I DO know what they are about (even if nobody else does)... but if they are the least bit representational.. I apparently default to the content.

  10. Dana - that's so intriguing to me. I'm going to think more about that - I've been using my plein air studies as gateways to more non-representational abstraction-haven't thought as much about what light might be shed upon the whole process by moving in the opposite direction.

  11. Wonderful post, Chris, and rich food for thought on a rainy day before a painting class. I would add one word to your credo: "Looking, feeling, painting, thinking." Too often we get wrapped up in the realm of the intellect, and while it's an important place, we can all too easily get caught in the jaws of the thinking-too-much-about-what-we're-doing trap. Tapping into our emotions, letting them rise and swell and move us (and the brush or palette knife) is what makes our paintings break through, I think. That's where we can--and do--get scared. And that's when we can revert to thinking without letting the feelings speak the way they need to. To me, it's always a balance--a dance of moving back and forth between technique and theory, listening to my inner voice and TRUSTING IT, looking, feeling, painting, thinking (in that order). Everything converges. It's only when I know afterwards that nothing can be the same that I suspect I have touched upon what that great mystery inside is trying to get out. That's the thing I find myself chasing. And it is so damned elusive.

    1. You're so right Dawn. Perhaps it's because it's by nature elusive, wordless, indeterminate that "feeling" in art so often doesn't get talked about. It's much easier to describe technique but feeling and getting it into the work-trusting that intuition - is a more mysterious thing. "Le couer a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas."