Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Fluency in Painting

Thomas Mann, author of Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain)
and winner of the Nobel prize for Literature, 1929.
I've never read his famous book in the original German.

Learning to paint is a lot like learning a language.  After a great deal of practice, one becomes fluent.  Fluency means you don't have to translate in your head.  Listening and responding doesn't require the intermediate step of translation.

I have to admit, I'm terrible at learning languages.  I had two years of German in college.  During my last year, we had to speak German exclusively while in class.  I always had to translate the professor's question in my head and then translate my response before finally answering.  You can imagine the awkward delay and how foolish I felt.  I really admired the students who could respond instantly.  They had acquired a fluency I could only dream of.

Fluency in painting is, as in languages, a goal worth shooting for.

For example, in order to capture a thought quickly in paint and to put it down without the result looking clumsy or overworked, you need to be able to mix color almost intuitively.  For this, you need to possess a good "vocabulary of color" that includes colors and mixtures.  To take the analogy back to languages:  There is a world of difference between knowing a word and searching for it, and not knowing a word and searching for it.

It's the same with line, composition, mark-making and all the other elements that go into the grammar of painting.

The more you paint, the more fluent you become.  It's important, too, to practice regularly.  Even the best translators get rusty if they don't practice.

After my experience with German—and believe me, I really tried to learn—I will say that I believe  acquiring native-speaker level fluency requires not just skill but also a certain amount of talent.  My brain is wired differently from someone who can speak like a native, and even in an immersion setting, I don't believe I could ever attain the fluency of, say, Thomas Mann.

Is it the same with painting?  Is it true that one can become a competent painter with only skill, but to magically take thoughts and feelings and turn them into a masterpiece requires talent?

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