Tyranny of the Subject

“Poor Parking Place” watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

I know this example might be a stretch, but bear with me for a few moments . . .

My grandmother, (bless her heart!) was one of those grammas who held china tea cups (and saucers) in the highest possible esteem.   She had them on exhibit in her tiny living room.   Whenever we (as children) would come to visit, she was always scolding, shushing, directing and supervising every move we made in favor of protecting her treasured china tea cups.   Nothing ever transpired in that room without first favoring the tea sets.

The tea sets dominated every aspect of our visits (in my opinion, mind you!).   One might say that there was “tea set tyranny” in her house.

Tyranny is exemplified by one Joseph Stalin of yesteryear . . .who exterminated millions of people who disagreed with the scriptures of Lenin and Marx.   He was a tyrant to all who disagreed, suggested change, or ignored the political correctness of the time.

One could say that Tyranny is the sanctimonious form  of directing constant compliance, or, shall we say, obedience to some directive.

We artists are exposed to such Tyranny every time we paint!

Being exposed to hundreds and hundreds of people who wish to become good painters, I have observed how the majority of those painters become obsessed with being fully obedient to the characteristics of the subject at hand . .  .some of them to absolute extremes.   Mind you, they become addicted to painting from photos or never looking away from a scene in the outdoors.   The subject so occupies their thinking that visualizing composition or design modifications simply are pushed out of mind . . .or are simply a mystery to them.

Oh, that is harsh!   Yes, it is.   It is also true.   I know, because I am one of them.   This is especially true when I haven’t painted for a few weeks.   I become compulsive about attaining every visual aspect of the (stupid) subject!  The subject becomes the dictator of everything I do at the easel.   It even extends its tyrannical press to invade my sleep and dreams!

Yet, once I have been painting for a few days or short weeks, the subject begins to take a ‘back seat’ and sits quietly ignored while I make much more desirable changes to suit the painting and its power to arrest a viewer.

This can be seen in my sketches of subjects or thumbnails of how to treat a subject:   If I sketch onto a blank page without regard to the shape of the picture space (the rectangle into which the design shall exist), I am, or have been, unconscious of the whole composition.   After all, isn’t the whole composition what we are painting?   Instead of a report of how a subject appears?   Aren’t we as painters really and truly the bosses of what occurs inside that rectangle?   Aren’t we the ones who make the choices and set the direction and mood in developing a painting?   Well, Aren’t WE ?

If you find yourself tracing, projecting, sweating, deeply compelled to ‘accuracy’ in your preliminary drawing of your chosen subject, stop and take a deep breath . . . . . .Ask yourself if you really and truly have any say in how the final painting will come out.   If you can hear the internal whisper inside your head, which is about “if it is photographically real, then it must be good,” then you are complying with the tyranny of the subject!

For your artistic growth, pay attention to and check yourself if you are compelled to ‘make it realistic.’

Fine, beautiful paintings aren’t extraordinary unless the artist has stepped away enough from the tyranny of the subject to impart a sense of wonder and amazement from the viewer.   The fact is that it

all hinges on design, composition and creativity.

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