|“A disciplined ecstasy is the finest gift of the gods to man; it is likewise the best an artist can give to the work of his hands.”–William Rothenstein|
CREATING A PAINTING
Whether we love paintings for themselves or pursue painting as a livelihood, the love and creation of art satisfy elemental needs: the affection for a scene, the need to describe and demonstrate craft, and bring peace and quiet to temporal affairs. The ability to appreciate the somber beauty of an earthenware pot in sunlight, the relationship of fields and woods on a stormy day, and the changing colors of the last light of day, contribute to our joy.
ENJOYING A PAINTING
Enjoyment is a celebration of understanding. The more we know the elements that make up our love for a work, the deeper and more total our feeling. In fact, it is helpful if we understand how a work is constructed. The effect of the falling light; the modeling of form with color; the sense of atmospheric space; variety of lightness and darkness; compositional notions; texture; surface; qualities of edges; mass patterns; decorative color vs. realistic color; materials and methods: the painter must deal with all these matters, and they are equally of concern to the viewer. For the painter, the enjoyment of standing before a work created with one’s own eyes and hands and running one’s fingers over its textured surface gives one regard for place and self.
ART IS SPIRIT AND FEELING
The best of art avoids rules that interfere with conveying emotions. The painter and sculptor Stephen Perkins comments that rules are for those with little understanding. He rightly says that behind the rules lie principles; as children we learn rules, later, we understand the principles behind the rules. By its nature, art must be concerned foremost with principles. Technique aside, perhaps the most essential element in a painting is its passion. It touches us in a way we remember. In this way, the best in art is spiritual, not religious, though conveying joy and passion.
The best in art is an affirmation of greater awareness. It must share the painter’s impression of the subject’s vitality and be an expression of emotional reaction. I do not mean that technique is unimportant. Still, that technique must be subservient to conveying emotional feeling. Instead of being an errorless rendition, a painting should filter nature through the painter’s temperament. It is, in effect, an illusion, a conveying of what he or she senses tinged with emotional being.
Though the painter’s work is from life, this effort should represent what is seen, and what is felt. Unity comes from the painter’s emotional response and being balanced by analytical study. But in contrast to simply transcribing what lies before him or her, the painter must infuse it with his or her own human quality. Through experience, he or she transcends the specific subject matter to a larger and richer feeling that all can understand. The subject matter, then, whether landscape, still life, or portrait, triggers the imagination but is not the subject of the work. The painter transcends an emotional response and moves to a higher level of sentiment and passion.
Because we are human, material objects have a spiritual significance. If not spiritual in a religious sense, spiritual in that emotion, impression, idea, creative source, meaning, are all subtle essences that affect how we see. Subject matter and human nature mingle so thoroughly in each of us that there is no separation when we paint. Our images constantly intertwine with our innate sense of spirituality; we paint our humanity above all.
In one sense, paintings are simple relationships of different colors. They are attractive to the eye, perhaps graceful in flowing lines, spatial design, and appealing contrasts of texture and color. It might be imagined they are merely decorations to complement the interior environments of the well-to-do, where they will not force their ideas upon others. This is a fallacy. Each painting has its own peculiar ways and workings and incidental quirks of personality.
A painting then has a life of its own. For the viewer, a work of value can only be discovered by gaining knowledge about what is good in it. It is often the strength (vigor and grace of how the rhythms flow to one another) of the form, relationships between colors, or some combination thereof, that best expresses the meaning of the image or painting. In fact, to create something of lasting value, to stand the test of time, a painter must also express something beautifully. Whether it is the beauty of color or design, if it transcends mere description or shows a love of work, it may succeed.
For the painter, this journey also consists of dogged trial and error and an attitude of acceptance and humility. When a painting, even one with limitations, is admired, it is a bridge where both painter and viewer are brought to discovery and knowledge. Great art Is defined by insight and struggle. It does not come from ease or lack of intellectual rigor. It is not a decoration that matches one’s sofa. The viewer cares for Its intrinsic beauty and artistry because they can appreciate the painter’s struggle.
VIRTUE IN SIMPLICITY
George Inness said that a work of art does not appeal to the intellect or morality; its aim is not to instruct, but to awaken an emotion, and its greatness lies in the force of this emotion. He thought “over-love of knowing” was the chronic trouble with most painters and produced in their works “the appearance of effort and labor instead of the freedom which is the truth of life.” Stephen Perkins adds that art pulls the trigger of suppressed emotion. Paintings that describe a hoard of information are dulling to the soul. They mock the principles of design and fidelity to how we see. That is, we do not see everything in equal focus. True, a painter often has the goal of achieving a good likeness.
However, a painting should not be a compendium of data; it is an emotional experience that challenges the intellect and the heart. The painter must simplify and strip it of all that is unnecessary to do this. When we see a beautiful painting of inspiration and skill, we care little if the result is an exact likeness of the scene. Sixty years from now, a painting’s importance will have less to do with its being a credible likeness than with its aesthetic grace. Do we debate if DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa” is an exact depiction of a long-dead sitter? Whether the sitter is remembered historically or not, a portrait must be more than a clinical record of a man’s or woman’s face to survive the generations. It must show the character of the painter as well as the sitter. Further, it must indicate the times they lived and be original and stylistically well-rendered. Mere topography destroys these profound virtues.
EXCESS DESCRIPTIVENESS INHIBITS UNITY
Inness felt that unity was the “great spiritual principle.” He felt imperiled that this harmony was an overabundance of descriptiveness that called undue notice to the objects the painting described. The painting became, in effect, a technique mechanically reproducing what the artist saw. To Inness, painting should be “an idea partaking more or less of the creative source from which it flows.” Requisite to achieving that idea, that creative source, was a broad and spontaneous style: “You must suggest… you can never show me reality.” He felt a painting created by “spontaneous movement” that observed the spiritual law of harmony or unity enjoyed more true and underlying reality than one fashioned by tedious displays of precision. When objects are copied too precisely, he said, “you get a linear impression only, and produce a work more or less literary or descriptive.”
Inness’s admonition does not mean that lack of description is a virtue, but that representation should be balanced by spiritual unity. Indeed, one element does not preclude the other. As Perkins points out, some great spiritual artists are pretty descriptive and non-descriptive artists who are not spiritual but more like designers. It is, in part, a choice based on physiology — the way we see. Our peripheral vision is less sharp than the midpoint of the area upon which we focus. In painting, it is the same. The relatively small spot of focus is sharper in detail; it has a more intense color than the larger, peripheral area. In this way, having the proper focal point enhances the sensed unity.
PAINTING HONORS THE ILLUSION
An inexperienced viewer may often feel that paintings must look like photos. In fact, the better they resemble the cloying realism of the photograph, the better they are. Here, education is needed. As I’ve indicated, literal representation fails to show an emotional response and sensitivity to the subject. It does not allow the viewer to respond in the same way as did the painter. Passion bleeds away when nothing is left to the imagination. To guide the viewer in the spirit of the subject, the painter must transcend literal observation. In a poetic sense, he or she must surpass reality. In this way, each work is not a duplicate but something entirely unique.
THE TEST OF GREAT ART
The test of truly great art is whether it has something to say. Is it creative rather than derivative or reminiscent of someone else’s work? Does it say something, speak to humankind clearly without divulging or over-emphasizing the means of expression? Is it superb in design and form? If it falls short, it may fail in its intent in a limited way. To be fair, technique is subjective. A painting should be judged in its own genre. If it is deficient in one point but superb in other ways — color or emotional expressiveness — it cannot be a failure.
As we have seen, it is not the physical aspect of the subject that marks a great work but the painter’s creative interpretation with joy and spirit. Painting is representational only insofar as representation is necessary to convey the source of what brought forth the impression. In this way, like good fiction or poetry, painting does not so much describe as suggest, conveying emotion through interpretation. A corollary to this is that we live in a world of images that have meaning to us. A particular image may be emotional to one person but not affect another. A balance of representation and emotion is suggested. Spirit can be conveyed through form as well as with color. The exquisite form of Ingres and the natural color of Monet have separate truths.
TRANSCEND WHAT IS LITERAL
Perhaps today’s preoccupation with detail and its emphasis on errorless description turn painters away from vigor. These painters busy themselves with strict delineation. Details like leaves on a branch or ruffles on a blouse center attention on unimportant points. However, the dilemma is that the painter has often lost the essence of what he or she wishes to say with this tight description. The emotional, the spiritual, is missing. It is squandered by the ceaseless depiction that, even untrue and spiritless in rendering leaves, fails to say something about humankind itself.
The opposite of indulgence in detail is over-simplification. The latter leads to distortion, the work unstudied. Here, the mind is not challenged, not stimulated by an underlying structure that helps describe the painter’s idea. Suppose a work conveys great artistry and visual beauty. In that case, if honesty and passion come forth, it is possible to admire it without caring about accuracy in detail. Cultivate, therefore, the instinct for what is essential and scorn for what is trivial.
OBJECTIVE OF ART
George Inness said that he painted to reproduce the impression that a scene made upon him in other minds. He felt a work of art does not appeal to the intellect but to the emotional sense. He maintained the true beauty of the work consisted in the beauty of the emotion it inspired. This emotion maybe love, pity, veneration, hate, pleasure, or pain. To Inness, a painting’s greatness consisted of the quality and force of this emotion. The painter’s conception of the subject matter and his or her mastery at conveying emotion is the essence of painting.
FINE ART IS NEVER DERIVATIVE
Perhaps the most pernicious curse upon the painter today is the temptation to mimic the art of the past. In truth, much art is derivative. Few works genuinely new creations. Most are copies changed in minor ways from what has come before. Sources are as diverse as the religious work of medieval times, the great portraits of Rembrandt or Sargent, or the modern work of Picasso or Matisse. Recent contemporary paintings — often, unfortunately, of lesser quality — are a common source. In referencing, however minor, the problem begins. The original painters have already shown the world what they wished to say; anyone who adapts their motifs, or works in their style, merely echoes statements, potent when original, but hackneyed when repeated. Every community of painters has its Weyth and Sargent copyists. True art is created with the force of its own expression and is never a throwback to known work. Nor does it hark back to the specific movements with which others are identified.
Authentic art is a statement of something no one has expressed before. Note that when I refer to ‘something new’ I am speaking in the abstract — that, as a concept, seeking something new as a worthy goal. More literally, as many have noted, the truth is that nothing is really new; everything has been expressed before. Don’t we see this problem with the ‘Avant-Garde,’ which is always looking for the new-fangled?
Conveying a new sentiment may seem hard to accomplish. But not if it comes from the soul — if what brought the painter to art was not the desire to describe reality, but the need to fulfill a longing within oneself to express the surrounding world in terms of one’s own innate spirituality — to show profound feelings to others, to show something more than is readily apparent to the casual observer. Unfortunately, painters are influenced by training which accentuates a dominant, controlling quality over their work. These influences are often a reflection of what is currently fashionable or, worse, in vogue during the formative years of their teachers.
Instead of bogging down in the chameleon or copy-like processes of so much self-consciously derivative art, the painter should consider how to be less someone else and more him- or herself. In part, the answer is to change one’s mental approach. For example, the painter should see what is to be painted with his or her own eyes. Only when personally interpreting the scene will the painter tap the resources of inborn invention and create something unique.