Sunday, July 15, 2018

Some Thoughts on Painting

“The essential thing is to spring forth, to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing. The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature, the shock, with the original reaction.” 
- Henri Matisse

I'm teaching a week-long workshop at Castle Hill Center for the Arts in Truro, on the Cape this week. Called "Beyond Plein-Air," it combines plein air with studio painting and thus occasions a thoughtful appraisal of the relationship between these two, which also demands a reconsideration of the relationship of myself to painting in general. Thus, this class works for me as much as it does for my students as a reset button, a renewal of artistic vows, a chance for sophisticated play and fresh insight in the spirit of openness and excitement about art and life. 

Here's what I'm handing out on day one:

Don’t paint the thing - paint what made you want to paint it in the first place - that split-second miracle of insight into the mysteries of being-in-the-world. The false distinction between abstract or representational dissolves when you realize painting is about what the artist puts into it.

Matisse, The Open Window, 1905

Joyous living becomes possible when we escape the rational intellect’s habitual fight or flight mechanisms and stop judging and defining everything as either a promise or a threat. You let the floor drop and embrace failure and success as both parts of the same path. Same in the paint. All disasters are opportunities for information, to which we can have a creative response. Making art demands an embrace of uncertainty, both in the medium and, if you are making a life in art, in living itself. Enlightenment is NO FEAR, because “failure” and “success” (can we even honestly define these things?) no longer apply. In art and in life, playfulness, perception, thought, and creative surrender to uncertainty rule for as long as we can manage to embrace them. 

“Something you want to say definitely about the subject; this is the first condition of a painting. The process of painting spring from this interest… completion does not depend on material representation. The work is done when that special thing has been said.” - Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
Robert Henri, The Laughing Boy

Everything in the painting, in relation to everything else, expresses a central mood, idea, or intuition - a thought-feeling - a VISION. I’m interested in SEEING, but not as much as I’m interested in giving reality to a VISION. When a painting is too much like a picture, it closes down possibilities for poetry. Open the work to being about larger experiences through a sort of associative thinking that melds perception and observation with feeling and intuition, questions about identity, subjectivity, the attempt to grapple with the truly real. Only then engage editorial intervention.  

When looking, you ask, What are the primary relationships here, and you shape everything around that. Forms and shapes: where are the lights, where are the darks, what shapes are they, what are the colors and the edges doing?

Paul Resika, Sisters, 2001
Consciously stop yourself from making paintings based on a template of what good paintings are or are supposed to look like. Be true to yourself. Paul Resika taught me to ask of any painting not how good it is, how skillful or daring, or contemporary, or whatever, but "Is there anything in it?" 

Is there anything in it? It's a simple question concealing a powerful truth. Honest, soulful painting is always valued for itself and what the artist puts "in it." This is our task. It's why we go outside and paint from life - to puncture the cliche. Because when your eyes are open, everything is always new. Bring your love of every painting you've loved and bring your eyes honestly with you when you walk out of the door in the morning, when you arrive in a new space to paint, and everything is going to be amazing. I tell myself and my students this because it's so hard to live it every day and we need to hear it again and again.

Open your mind and heart to nature and risk everything.


  1. Wonderfully said. Your words are important, and we often need to be reminded, as you say in the last sentence.

  2. Thanks for this Chris. It’s so easy to get lost in the weeds of: is it good or is it correct and forget the passion -emotion -intuition that it is really all about!
    Sorry to have to miss your Truro Workshop this year - have wonderful time, Mary

  3. I like this; it's helpful. And your three chosen images well support the idea.