As painters, most of us are confronted with the “Tyranny of the Subject” . . . . .
That is becoming enslaved to representing the subject, rather than stating one’s feelings about the subject. That is being so captive to the visually perceived attributes of a subject that the artist cannot think outside of those limits. We sarcastically poke at artists who are confined by a subject to that extent by openly challenging that person to “use a camera and be done with it!” Sadly, many painters are fully and completely limited by the superficial, visual aspects of any subject and are not free to express themselves about the subject or how they feel about it. I believe that is what separates an illustrator from a true artist.
There is a blurred area between illustration and fine art. That blurred area was inhabited by Norman Rockwell. He was able to represent people in a format of telling an emotional story. He imbued all of his work with something we artists refer to as “Content.” That is some form of story or emotion or message or socio-political statement made via visual hints. For Rockwell it was facial expressions and costume and surroundings that told his stories.
In my humble opinion as an artist, content is only part of reaching beyond the obvious. . . . .
Have you ever noticed that when you are about to step up to the easel that there is a race of thoughts going through your mind about whether you can pull off this painting? Have you ever been faced with wondering what you spouse “thinks” about your work . . .I mean really thinks. Or, have you ever, even for a minute, wondered if you were really cut out to be an artist? If you are truly creative? If you have “enough” talent?
And what about the worry of spoiling the carpet under your feet? Or spilling something? Or wondering if you’ll ever be able to clean up this mess?
Well, those questions are part of what I mean by “beyond the obvious.” Generally, everything that affects a painting, including your mood, is what is meant by that idea. Most lay people see only the subject of a painting. And many a person ambitious to become an artist can only see the subject. There is much, much more to consider than just a pretty picture! There is all of the design elements and the conditions or relationships created by how the artist treats those elements inside of and around the subject. Quite frankly, one’s psychological positioning of self is very much a part of the making of a painting. For example, if one is nervous about what others will think or if one is worried about their reputation if the painting is a failure, you would probably see the tightness and brittleness in that person’s paintings.
You see, the combination of all that goes into making a painting . . one’s feelings about self and artistic skills, one’s understanding of design and composition, color strategy, value pattern, unity of shape etc. . . . . are exactly what is beyond the obvious . . . .that is beyond the physical, visible attributes of a subject. What is not obvious is what we can’t name in a painting. Like the space between shapes, or the sense of rhythm in a painting, or some odd color that has no name. Then there is the habit of wanting to NAME everything in a painting . . . to treat all parts of the painting as real objects (not healthy for painters!), like the empty space behind something being named “background.” (Sorry if I touched a nerve there!). Or naming that dark green shape as a “tree.”
The moment we resort to naming, we are immediately corralled into thinking about the physical attributes of “tree” . . . . for examples, the leaves, the branches, the trunk, the bark and so on and on and on . . . . . . . rather than whether or not the shape is of the correct color, value, temperature and intensity to affect a harmony in the entire art piece . . . .all attributes of how the shape fits into the whole painting.
Who was it who said, “A rose is a rose is a rose?” . . . . .some beginning painters think “Green is green.” They probably do not consider how toned a green is, or if it should be warmer or cooler (or how to make it so), . . . . .their perception is that grass and trees are green, which is an over simplification, for sure! That sort of thinking is the left overs from grammar school! And, breaking that sort of thinking is a huge part of becoming a ‘painter.’ One must attune themselves to thinking “Beyond the Obvious.” It is a journey, even a struggle at times. But the road must be travelled.
This means confronting and dealing with those inner thoughts about whether or not you are “good enough.” This means STUDY of the principles of design and composition. It means practice and challenge in one’s studio to the extent that you wear out brushes until they are useless. It means, literally, wasting paint, canvas and paper for years in order to develop one’s “style.” It can, and often does, mean depression and excitement and frustration and elation and everything else in the emotional spectrum.
And . . . . .it also means that you must get rid of the notion that people are “born with the skills and talent.” They aren’t. No one is. All of this stuff is learned and developed skills, which take years to accumulate. Is it any wonder that we honor painting masters as we do? They went through the same struggles and challenges. We all have had to look beyond and understand what is the obvious.