Saturday, August 17, 2013

An Exercise in Expressiveness

I recently had a chance to try out some new exercises with two different groups of painters in classes on Cape Cod and at Star Island. The site of a practically untouched 1870s hotel, Star Island is part of the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky yet beautiful and timeless islands lying 10 miles off the New Hampshire coast.

A painting of mine of the cliff known as
"Miss Underhill's Chair" on Star Island
In one exercise, the challenge was to paint a wholly expressive, abstract interpretation of the environment. The exercise started with a meditative walk in which we tried to be wholly present and to soak up impressions and "notice what we noticed" - a flash of color, the sweep of a cloud, the jut of rock or a root.

Next we returned to the studio and purposely did not paint anything that looked like the location. Armed only with our fresh impressions and memories, we specifically painted not what we saw but what we felt - not our ideas about what the physical place looked like but non-objective, expressive corollaries of the sensations we received from being there.

The point was not to make a masterpiece but to tap into something genuine. Even if the painting "failed" as traditional Western art, it would succeed in its truth and each artist's painting would truly be his or her own.

As it turned out, many of these paintings were not only expressive but also extraordinarily "good" paintings - exciting and surprising works conveying palpable moods and unique perspectives.

Finding and expressing one's heart's truth in painting is a mysterious, blindfolded affair; so much of it comes from parts of us that are inaccessible to rational thought. But we can control what we don't do - we can refuse the rational mind's insistence on what makes a "good composition," we can get around the rule of thirds, the rules of perspective, color theory and proportion.

I think it's probably a good idea sometimes to slip out the back door of the expected and the received and see what happens. 

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