Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Damned: Notes on Becoming an Artist, Part 1

What is painting? To be a painter is to enter into an infinitely chaotic conversation between yourself, the work, and the world. The problem is compounded because each of these elements takes multiple forms at different times. 

Looking, thinking, painting. Self, work, world. In practice, it’s apparently impossible to separately identify and define these terms: beacons blinking on and off in the fog.

Gerhard Richter, Ice Berg in Fog
Antonio Lopez-Garcia’s work teaches us that art emerges from what is closest to us - the small epiphanies of everyday life, the glimpses into larger things. I just looked up from these notes to see my six-year-old son perched atop a stool and when I saw the smooth, swanlike angle of his head and neck, I felt mortality, the fragility of life - a very small glimpse of the beauty and sorrow of humanity. 

Kenneth Blom, Portrait, 2000
Nothing matters except the articulation of that feeling (I wonder, must it be that image as well? Or can something seemingly unrelated embody that feeling “instinctively?” I suspect something like this is going on in many of my landscapes). 

To be an artist is to be constantly tantalized by the fruit you can almost see, touch, smell. But the truth is that you’re blindfolded, and every time your fingertips seem to touch the tender rind, it sways beyond your reach. Go ahead, form a coherent theory about what you’re doing and why! And watch as the bottom of every conceptual framework you apply falls away beneath you. And there you are, standing at the easel for another day. 

Roland Petersen, Spring Picnic, 1963

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?