Friday, May 24, 2013

Painting as Journey, Not as Journey's End

Monet - 1864
As artists, we need to look deep into our souls to see what it is about painting that thrills us.  Some of us yearn to create a work that is as finished as our craftsmanship will allow.  If we love detail, we may delight in putting in every last leaf.  If we love color, we may delight in getting that final glaze just right.  If we love brush work, we may delight in adding that final, well-placed stroke of bravura.

As craftsmen, whether or not we delight in these small tasks, they are necessary pains of our trade.  The point is to arrive at a superlative degree of finish that satisifies.

Yet what if this kind of finish work - exacting craftsmanship - doesn't thrill you?  Imagine, if you will, a furniture maker who is content with just roughing in the "idea" of a chair and not bothering with the sanding and varnishing.  But if you consider yourself more an artist and not so much a craftsman, does it matter?  As an artist, can  you stop short and call it done?

Monet - 1903
I include two images with this post, both paintings by Monet.  The first was done in 1864; the second, in 1903.  For each of these, what were Monet's goals with respect to painting as a craft and painting as an art?

Although I always try to hit a high degree of craftsmanship, I have to confess that, for me, I enjoy the process more than the finish.  I am quite delighted with, say, observing a tree closely, noting the wonderful shifts between warm and cool colors in its bark, and then mixing and placing spots of color accurately.  This kind of active observation gives me endless pleasure.  So much so that I often feel that bringing the painting to a high level of finish would be anticlimactic.

Still, if I didn't come up with a finished product, I'd have nothing to sell and would be forced down a different path for income.  So, as part of my vision when I start a painting, I try to keep this finish in mind as I work.  (Monet may no longer have cared about "finish" by 1903.)  My method must be working, because I'm still making a living at it.

When I retire from being a professional painter, I joke with my peers, I'll travel with just a single painting panel.  With it, I'll "capture the moment" in paint and then, after I've enjoyed the piece a day or two, scrape it clean.  I'll use this same panel over and over, enjoying the process without having as my goal a finished, material work.  And it sure would save on closet space.

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4 comments:

Charles Eisener said...

Van Gogh and Picasso, among many others, also went from classic, realistic style to a more liberated impressionistic approach. I think the technical is needed to provide the tools for free expression as we mature. The camera is much easier if I want an accurate image, but seldom evokes an emotional response.
Van Gogh, as I recall, sold only one of his impressionist paintings. Most artists do not have families able and willing to cover their expenses, so sometimes compromise is in order for the rest of us . .
Very insightful blog, Michael -thanks!

violetta said...

Such an interesting post. I remember when I saw the big highly finished works John Constable's did for a living, compared to his so called rough preliminary paintings and sketches which I love. Its like his heart and soul of an artist was in the preliminary works, even the thumbnail sketches, and, somehow, as skilled as they were, his big detailed finished works were just that. You can just about feel it.

Helen Opie said...

I think the difference between those two Monet paintings is not whether or not he cared to bring the earlier one to a high level of finish and didn't care about finishing/selling the later one; I think it is what Eli Leon in his book Who'd a Thought It about his quilt collection called esthetic intention. He describes two wedding ring quilts in his collection, one a riotous red-white & blue creation that was very unevenly cut out pieces, the other a pastel confection of perfect cutting, piecing, and quilting.

A Black contractor friend of his asked if he could bring is several sisters over to see Leon's quilts, as they were here for a funeral and would be going their scattered ways afterwards. Leon sid yes and the all came over. He showed the "perfect" one (a white woman's quilt done carefully following a pattern) to them first, and the women spoke in hushed reverential tones, saying things like "On my, ain't that a beauty!" and raising its perfect stitching and exact cutting. Then he got out the other one, uncertain as to how it would be receive after this one that elicited awe. Well, they knew how to approach this one; they clapped their hands and stomped their feet and whooped with delight.

This is what Eli Leon called recognizing the makers' esthetic intention: one quilt was a highly-perfected work of art; the other was a riotous and joyful statement about making something to keep someone warm. I think Monet's esthetic intention in the earlier work was to show a locale, as accurately as possible (might this be before cameras were common?) and with a high degree of both detail and finish; the other was (is to me) a statement about the atmosphere of this time of day in this location, not a 'report' on the location itself. He didn't care about being precise in the photographic recording sense - although I'd say his drawing looks bang-on accurate - because he was trying to make a statement about the atmosphere with paint, about the time of day, the moisture (and smog?) in the air, about the weather, and perhaps other factors, and to let us know only enough to understand that this is a place where boats go and a bridge crosses over. More detail would have spoilt the atmospheric qualities of the work.

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Excellent thoughts, everyone!