It's March. Late March to be precise. The sun is shining brightly, yet it's 24 degrees outside my studio this afternoon, with a wind chill that makes it feel like zero. Snow and ice blanket the surrounding countryside as deeply as a mid-January day.
Now, I will grant you that most of the country views March as the first month of Spring, but in Maine it's the last month of Winter. Actually, our seasons go like this: Spring is April, May and June. Summer is July 10-18. August, September and October are Fall, and November through March is Winter.
This snow and cold has been helpful with one thing, though: My current painting. It's a Winter scene, and I've been using this extended Winter to step outside and study light, shadow and snow effects to make my picture more truthful. And that's where I'm going completely wrong...
Don't get me wrong-- I like the picture. Or rather, I like the potential it still holds. But I'm having my usual fight between Truth vs Art. I've written about this ongoing battle before, as astute readers of my blog (and you know who you are) will attest. (No, not you. The one in the back over there. Yeah-- you.) It seems the paintings I admire most are beautiful combinations of reality, but within the framework of great Art. For instance, take a peek at one of my favorite Andrew Wyeth Paintings:
Most folks think of this painting as a realistic, truthful depiction of a Maine house. But in reality, this isn't what Andy saw at all. Well, kinda, but not in the strictest sense. The Olsen house here does look like this, and he painted it very recognizably. But what's important is that he painted it the way he felt about it. So he took out any distracting trees or useless details that have nothing to do with his emotions about the place. He simplified subordinate passages and used detailed precision on the important ones. He used his signature color scheme of greys and ochres to tie all the elements together. So yeah, it's what he saw, but more importantly-- he made it look like Art.
And that's the problem I'm having with my little painting. It's the court stenographers transcription of a trial as opposed to the newspapers story as opposed to the novel about the trial. Know what I mean? It's Linus mirthlessly plinking Jingle. Bells. Jingle. Bells. on his toy piano as opposed to Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way... So yeah, my painting looks like a truthful depiction of a scene set during a Winter's afternoon. But it ain't Art. Not yet. But it will be.
Maybe to keep myself from being tempted to overly "truth" it up, I should wait to finish it until after Spring arrives.
And the way things feel outside, that won't be anytime soon. After all, it's still Winter...
Wednesday, March 12, 2014
All aboard for a ride on a twisting train of thought...
After a couple of weeks of research, sketching and doing color studies for a painting I'm starting, I got the thought that I have evolved into a slow, methodical painter. Not that I want to be, mind you. My slowness is just the result of a combination of my current painting technique and my tendency to over-think everything. In reality I have the attention span of a gnat coupled with the patience of a two-year old. So on occasion I will cast an envious glance at those painters who can seemingly bang out a complex painting in just a few hours.
There are a couple of different ways one can acquire speed in painting, I guess. One is to have a complete and total mastery over every element of color and paint application possible. The other is to do things the same way every time. It's a lot easier to paint a landscape, say, when one paints trees and skies with the same colors and in the same way in every painting, changing only the composition. It doesn't make any difference whether the tree is on the right or the left of the picture when you've painted it the same way before. Same thing with seascapes; When an artist uses the same ocean, rocks and sand in every painting, all that has to be done is re-arrange them from picture to picture. If you do it that way, you can bang those bad boys out!
Cranking out pictures in this way isn't anything new, by the way, it's actually a tried and true manner of painting that artists have done for centuries. Take Thomas Buttersworth for example.
I recently read a delightful book called Caveat Emptor by Ken Perenyi. (It's available at Amazon Books). Perenyi was an art forger who made a handsome living passing off paintings done in the style of 19th century painters. He didn't copy known paintings by these people, ("Hey look! I found another DaVinci version of the Mona Lisa!") but by painting pictures in the style of those artists, he was able to claim he found them tucked up in an attic somewhere. If you want to know how he fooled all the experts with his fakes, you have to read the book-- and I recommend it.
Anyway, Perenyi noticed that painters like Buttersworth and others used repeated elements in their paintings. With Buttersworth, the skies were almost always painted the same way, along with the ocean and backgrounds. He even re-used the yachts many times. Just as Buttersworth did, all Perenyi had to do was apply those motifs in different configurations and voila! A new Buttersworth has been found! Now, Buttersworth and all the other painters who did this didn't care that their paintings carried redundancies because who was ever going to see twenty of them lined up on a wall? In those days most people never went to fancy art galleries, and heck, back then even the interweb was still a gleam in Al Gore's eye! And that got me thinking about artists of today.
There's a current artist out there (among many) whose works I admire whenever I see them pop up in social media. Well, Facebook really, because that's where my social media knowledge begins and ends. Anyhow, I went to that artists web site to check out more paintings. What I saw astounded me.
Like many web sites, this artist had about twenty thumbnails on the page, my computer screen making them little more than a postage stamp in size, and each one at that small scale was indistinguishable from the other! The colors, the subjects, the orientation of the paintings-- all looked identical. It wasn't until you enlarged them that you could see the (very subtle) differences between each painting. Look-- it's one thing to have a style that's identifiable, I get that, but having each painting look the same is to me the kiss of death. Buttersworth could pull it off back in his day, but in today's Google Image, instant world? Not so much.
Yeah, I know all about that "Paint what sells" philosophy, (and I'm still trying to catch that elusive snipe myself) but I would think that having your paintings be of the same subjects done in the same manner would have to make it awfully hard to sell, wouldn't it? Think about it: Why would a collector keep coming back to purchase the same painting? I mean, if you've seen one, you've seen them all, am I right? I would assume that you'd have to keep finding new buyers, but I am on the painting side of the ledger, not the client's side. So what do I know? Still, I have a hard time believing that a gallery would ring up an artist and say, "Hey-- people love your painting of ______! No, no-- don't change a thing! Keep painting them exactly the same!"
But look at artists whose style is iconic. Andrew Wyeth painted in browns and grays in an abstract/hyper realistic way-- if you get what I mean. Sure, he revisited themes; The Olsen's of Cushing Maine, The Kuerner's of Chadd's Ford, Helga-- but he didn't paint twenty different versions of Christina's World. You know, with Christina in the left corner of this one, and in the upper right corner of that one, and in this one she's in the middle of the field-- No, one was enough. But that's kind of like the impression I got when I looked at that afore-mentioned artists web site; (and many others) Twenty different versions of the same thing. So with Wyeth, while his style remained the same, every painting he did was unique. (Oh, sure-- others have utilized the Wyeth look in their paintings, and do you know what those artists are called? Painter's in the school of... Or, painters in the manner of... Or, Copy Cats. But that's a different subject.)
If you've studied enough art, you should be able to spot an artist by their style first, and subject second. In a room full of South Western paintings, a Maynard Dixon should jump off the wall. On a web page of Impressionists, the difference between a Monet landscape and a landscape by William Merritt Chase should be as obvious as the nose on your face. It's not the subjects of the paintings that identify them, but in there manner of treatment.
I'm not writing all this just to pick on one poor artist; Just that I've seen this trait before. So to be clear-- I'm not saying that person, or all artists should change their style and subject with every painting. Oh no, on the contrary; Find your own style, and it should be as unique as your thumb print, just maybe you shouldn't do the same painting over and over. I know it's a fine line between being known as a "Painter of ______" and a "One-Trick Pony". But doesn't it stand to reason that if you always paint the same things the same way-
It's just all the same?