Returning to class from Yosemite, I had to give a mindless demo of different ways to create textures or to give a sense of surface in a painting. I say mindless because it was simply a blank piece of paper and a bunch of different examples of stamping, lifting, spraying, splattering, smudging, dripping etc . . . .all with no image or intention of making a painting.
Meanwhile, in the back of my mind was a vision I had seen through the eyes of a zoom lens . . . .the face of one of the sheer granite walls towering hundreds of meters above my place on the valley floor. Full grown trees grew out of cracks on the stone! Yet those trees and the abstract patterns in the rock had me buzzing inside.
I took the demo sheet home and began experimenting with more textures and colors and ‘stuff’ just to see what I could come up with that **might** suggest those walls and their abstractions on that same sheet . . .just slobbering layer over layer.
Often, it is the coming together of sheer experimentations and the visions from inspired ideas that create works which arrest a viewer and hold their interest . . . .much more that a tired scene of something everyone knows.
Clearly, to be different, one must do different things at the easel. The painter must allow the paint to act like paint rather than conform to some notion about looking like something else. Experiments can show us painters new ways to consider our beautiful mediums. In fact, I believe most of our work as artists must be connected to experimenting.
It usually has to do with relationships. What relationships, you ask?
How red might behaves next to green will be different than how it behaves next to, say for example, violet. How one value reads next to a darker value might be quite different in how it might read next to a more medium value. In other words, everything in every painting reads in the context in which it lies. If a triangle shape is the only triangle in a group of many circles, the triangle will seem way out of place, or will absolutely draw the eye due to its’ difference. (contrast!)
As I was painting this piece, the tops of the dark cypress (seen over the edge of the ridge and between the face of the big bluff) they drew the eye away from the focal point at the top left of the painting. Not good! So . . .how to fix it? It was merely a value relationship problem: the bluffs were lighter in value then . . .I had established a contrast that wasn’t consistent with the rest of the painting. Darken the cliff face . . .and keep the color contrasts at a minimum . . .was the solution.
Several difficulties like this arose all through this painting. The beach and the edges along the foam and sand were dangerously distracting the eye, also. Again, value differences and sharply defined edges (sudden value changes) pulled the eye away from what was important in the painting. The beach is meant as a quiet area to rest the eye, not attract it. The white of the foam had to be calmed, the edges blurred, the values brought closer were all slight but significant adjustments that were needed for all the different pieces in that area to relate and act as a whole, rather than individual parts.
Contrasts are what make a painting work, but building harmonies with them and setting up transitions and gradations between contrasts is a great challenge. It goes beyond painting “things” and “details.” As artists, our charge is to paint relationships.
There are times in the studio when one needs to exercise the creative muscle, if, for nothing else, to regain it’s strength . . . . . and to experience something new . . . even if it doesn’t come out right.
Early yesterday morning, I was busy working on a lesson for a class. This idea came to mind as a way to break open barriers to doing something new and different. My classes are encouraged to CREATE. And I attempt to give the participants access to some possible paths they might employ to start the creative thought process. Those hints lie in the seven elements of design, Line, Size, Shape, Direction, Color, Value and Texture.
In this exercise, I took each of the elements and asked myself “What could I do with______? (Insert one or more elements). First, I decided on a dominance which had to pervade the picture space . . . .that, of course, sets up the environment for contrasts and harmonies. Here I chose a yellow green dominance (color) with violet contrasts. Also, I sought an angular dominance (line and shape). By subdividing the shapes into angular ‘shards’ (shape) I created a repetition which set texture dominance. You can also see a diagonal dark crossing the vertical composition which adds other contrasts (value, color and direction).
Some wonder about the disappearance of ‘spontaneity’ in this kind design planning. All the above paragraph does is set a framework under which the artist can explore different design choices. By doing so, the artist assures a degree of success while stretching the imagination. The outcome is that the artist can see more easily the results of interrelationships of the elements. It is in that stretching, exploration and acquiring new experience that can contribute a spontaneous insertion of *knowledge* into future works. All paintings cannot be masterpieces, but they can certainly be part of the cumulative experience which leads to anticipating outcomes and, thus, mastery
My opinion is that doodles are often ideas trying to be expressed. It might be the subconscious trying to tell the conscious mind that there is something afoot . . . an idea is brewing. So, why don’t more artists consider those ideas as something to develop on canvas or paper?
Returning from a trip last weekend, I sat in front of the TV and discovered an urgent need to have a pencil and paper in my hands. Grabbing a scratch pad and pen, I started doodling. Soon, I was playing with flat shapes . . . .overlapping them, shading them, stacking them . . . .just fiddling with no intent other than to see what showed up.
The next thing I knew was one was speaking to me with “paint me!” written all over it. So I began it. For three days I have worked on this piece to develop it at the easel. With nothing to look at other than the doodle, the mental gymnastics ensued. One finds quickly what design concerns are when confronted with working out a non objective painting . . .and why it is soooo important to understand the ins and outs of sound design.
The very issues that tease us artists in making ANY painting of ANY subject successful come quickly to confront the artist in non objective work. Whether a subject is realistic or not, how it fits into the rectangle, how all the parts relate or conflict and how the eye works through the piece are only parts of the whole puzzle in any painting. Non objective work gives the artist no hints. It all has to come from the thoughts and intuition of the artist. It is mental exercise of very high order. Whether this one fails or succeeds, what counts is the strengthening of creative muscles through the exercise and answering the creative urge.
No monkey or kindergartener could do this, regardless of what some uninformed lay people might think or say.
Have you ever done a painting, accepted it as done and went back a few weeks later to see it had **changed** ?
What are these mysterious gremlins at work on our paintings? Somehow, they manage to modify shapes, change the colors, put strokes in the paintings that I KNOW I never did. How does this happen.
Maybe I should pose these questions another way. Why was I so bloody blind when I was painting it? That is the real question!!
I have several paintings leaning against my easel which MUST be revised. I can see now what I could not see when I was painting them. It must be the incubation process. That is to say, like hens eggs, they must incubate quietly under warm conditions, then they hatch. Paintings have a similar character. We don’t really get to see them in the state they will be living until they have “incubated.” . . . . . .Or, been out of our vision for a period of time. . . . . How Long? . . . . . . . . Maybe as long as a year or more. Most times, though, it is usually a few weeks. Then I see the errors in color, shape, value, texture and direction. You can see in this painting of the poplars that it was rather blah. The sky was too yellow, the trees washed out, there wasn’t enough contrast of value, the color of the trees was wrong and they were leaning to the left. The more I looked at the painting, the more I itched to fix it.
So, here are the results, such as they are. I am much happier with the piece, but my mind’s vision is still a distance away from the outcome (that never changes, incidentally). As artists who are constantly looking for improvement in our work, I think our minds grow much faster than we realize. Perhaps that is why we can see the faults in our work in a matter of a few weeks.
Personally, I am very thankful for the constant change in my mental perspective. Incubation affords me to see the errors of my skills then consciously make improvements. How else does an artist grow?
A subject or object or group of objects is nothing more than a beginning point for a startling, captivating design. Mind you this could be a landscape, portrait, still life or what have you. It does not matter. It is the interaction of line, direction, color, value, shape and texture that arouses us. Granted, that is an abstract way to think, but it is precisely what happens.
The word “PICTURE” has crept so deeply into our vocabulary that we synonymously connect the word to a mental image of a photograph, or an image of SOME THING OR PLACE. Pictorial accuracy seems to be some critics’ measure of ‘good art.’ I disagree again . . .and loudly! It isn’t the picture or the thing or the realism that is so wonderful in a painting. . . . .
It is what the artist does with the paint to lure the viewer into the concentrated observance of the art and the surface. While an image does provide a starting point for shapes and value structure, it is not the exactness or the accuracy of those things that entertain us as art viewers. Matisse proved this over and over. So did Van Gogh and the Impressionists. There is beauty in the paint! There is emotion and mood in the colors, values, textures and directions. What counts is what the viewer FEELS while viewing the work. Just get a look at “Crows Over a Corn Field” or “Starry Night” and you’ll get what I am saying immediately.
Yes, realism can and does communicate a feeling. BUT, that feeling does not come from the accuracy of the work. It comes from how big dark and light differences are arranged. It comes from the artist’s use of color and texture. Hopper’s work is a perfect example of this. His mood of melancholy and emptiness hits a viewer hard, but it seems to be ‘accuarate.” Some of Winslow Homer’s work had strong threatening feelings and sense of danger. And those paintings were in watercolor! The “happy medium.” Riiight! His and Hopper’s designs were absolutely deliberately set to affect MOOD or “content.”
There are plenty of artists out there who can reproduce a photograph. So what!? How many millions of photos are there in the world? How many have you seen that you vividly remember? Few, if any, is my bet. (Mind you, art photos are something else all together. I am speaking of the every day snapshots that are slavishly copied.) Yet, when a painter builds up color and texture on a surface and it is remindful of, or directly stating something about, a subject with both drama and subtlety, we are engaged with it. It holds our interest because the image or the arrangement of color, value and texture are so unusual and unique. It is this uniqueness that holds the viewer’s attention. . . . . .not the fact that the painter was able to make a pretty “picture.”
As a painter, I work in series. Maybe not as faithfully as some artists, but series work draws out boredom and forces the artist to create something more than representation of a subject. It is through using the same beginning idea over and over and over again . . . .this still life set up for example . . . . . . . .that the artist is forced to make something different each time he paints it. That purpose or that cause is what brings to light the strength of his work. It is the stuff that comes from within . . . .the stuff that sets his or her work apart from all other artwork or images which entertain us as viewers. It is what he or she does to stimulate contrasts and harmonies. It is what her or she does to deliver a sense of space or surface that holds our interest. It boils down to how the colors and values react to serve up visual stimulation. That is the CREATIVE aspect of the work.
This idea of making something different is the frustrating part of making art. (Not the only one, though! There are plenty more frustrations!) We, as humans, tend to be easily influenced by other artists methods or “the how” or what we believe to be “the rules.” All those things make creating new, different art even more difficult. They influence us to avoid showing that which we would do without coaching. By the virtue of that point alone, when an artist creates something unique, which especially connects with our emotions, then we MUST honor the work. That artist probably went through mental hell getting there.
And that brings up another aspect of making art that gets in the artists’ way . . . . .the desire to make a masterwork. And how trying too hard locks us up. But that is another subject for another day.