Monday, July 28, 2014

Notes On Technique


Technique is JUST technique. 

My favorite painting by Ad Reinhardt
Sometimes without realizing it, when the public admires a work of art, what they are admiring is the artist’s technique, not what the artist had to say or meant for them to grasp. To be fair, conversely quite a few artists without realizing it mistake mastering a technique for having something to say (I know because I myself have been guilty of this in the past).

Tiffany by Sarolla
The task of the artist is to find himself and to invent a special language for his personal expression. As Robert Henri taught, to “work both mind and body to the limit of endurance to find in himself whatever there is of value, to find his truest thoughts and find a means, the simplest, straightest, the most fit means to make record of them.”

A Glass of Water (2000) by Alex Kanevskey

The end of painting is “to express what you care for most by the simplest means that will avail you - your personality, your knowledge, your experience; whether you do it in work that takes years, or whether you do it, like Caran d’Ache, in the line of a few seconds.” - John La Farge. 
It seems that what’s most important in painting is the felt idea - a “vision” or strongly held conception will find or invent the technique needed for its expression. 

A still life by Susan J. Walp 
“The man who has something very definite to say and tries to force the medium to say it will learn how to draw.”  -Robert Henri

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive. Instead of establishing a vast stock of technical tricks, it would be far wiser to develop creative power …. by developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or the emotion which has moved you to expression.” -Robert Henri

Outdoor cafe at night by Robert Henri
“The real study of technique is not the acquirement of a vast stock of pat phrases, but rather the avoidance of such, and the creation of a phrase special to the idea. To accomplish this, one must first have the idea and then the active, inventive wit to make the specifying phrase. This places the idea prior to the technique as a cause for the latter, contrary to the academic idea, which is the reverse.”

Landscape sketch by Degas

“Those meek students, plodding away, afraid to use their intelligence lest they make mistakes, have a faith that after so much virtuous humble tint and line copying, years of it, the gift of imagination, the power to say things the world is in need of hearing for profit or pleasure and the special management of the medium, will be handed to them as a diploma is handed to a graduate.”- Robert Henri

All great artists invent their own technique anyway. They “find” the means, invent the techniques, that we later misguidedly canonize and take for the necessary “first things first” that must be learned before one can do anything meaningful in art. I think this is precisely not the case, and that it is actually fear of not possessing these techniques (that is, of making a “bad” picture or of being found to be “untalented”) which cripples the beginners’ ability to make successful paintings. 

Irish Coast by Robert Henri
“The man who becomes a master starts out by being master of such as he has, and the man who is master at any time of such as he has is at that time straining every faculty. What he leans then from his experience is fundamental, constructive, to the point. His wits are being used and are being formed into the habit of usage.” - Robert Henri

If this is true, then the good news is that, if could only get out of our own way, we already possess exactly those techniques needed to create our art - and I mean real art of lasting value. Do you think so? Or is this going too far?

Landscape by Cezanne
“Your ability to see is your tools of trade… Remember, when you hear people say they can see a thing but not do it that they cannot really see it. If they did, they could do it even if they put the paint on with their fingers.” - Charles Hawthorne


  1. Love the 1st one best, but all are simply wonderful!

  2. Thoughtful and interesting post, beautifully illustrated. Thank you!

  3. Right Chris. when I go out, I try to see, feel, move and slap
    that paint on, but in tune to my inner feelings. We only have something to prove to ourselves...the love of our expression. See you soon! Pat E. Nickerson

  4. Decadence in all the arts begins with the means becoming the end.---Henry James

  5. What a great post Chris! I'm keeping it.

  6. Thanks Pat, Donald, et al. Love that quote from James - a new one for me.

  7. Fantastic article, i would love to buy Caran D' Ache must check it out !!

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