Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Finding Your Way as a Painter

This sketch by John Singer Sargent shows things as they are, although I suspect he removed a twig or two.
Forest, Ramsau, Germany. 1871.
National Gallery of Art

Lots of us start out painting by just trying to make something look like what it is.  You try to sharpen and then hone to a fine edge the skills necessary for representational painting.  After awhile, you reach the point of successfully capturing the exact portrait of a particular tree, right down to every twig, and that's certainly an accomplishment.  After awhile longer, though, you realize that not every twig is important, and you start to leave out some.  Suddenly, even though the portrait is no longer exact, somehow it "feels" more like the tree than the exact copy.  This is a great accomplishment.

Cezanne here arrives at a sense of "treeness" without being totally factual.
Montagne Sainte-Victoire et viaduc du côté de Valcros. 1897-1900.
Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
Piet Mondrian takes the idea of "treeness" a bit farther.
Grey Tree. 1911.
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag.

More time passes, more practice is put in, and you start to push color.  Maybe you increase the temperature contrast between warm, sunny clumps of foliage and the cool, shadowy undersides. Maybe you even make the color a bit richer to further enhance the sunny effect.  Once more, the sketch begins to feel even more like the tree.  Although you have departed from the facts that make up the tree, you have arrived at the truth of the tree.

This is a greater accomplishment yet.  You finally have learned to outpaint nature when it comes to trees.

But after many years of feeling highly satisfied by a long run of painting trees successfully, you become aware of an uncomfortable hollowness.  It dawns on you that you are making sketches and not pictures.  Shouldn't there be something more than just painting the truth?

Frederic Edwin Church, in this painting, uplifts and inspires us.  The trees are integrated into the whole.
El Rio de Luz. 1877.
National Gallery of Art.
In this one, Winslow Homer makes the tree an important part of a story.
Sharpshooter. 1863.
Portland Museum of Art.

Some might say painting the truth is sufficient.  Others might say that a painting should also inspire and uplift.  More than a few might say that a painting should also tell a story.

But which is path is the right one?  I don't have an answer for that, and most likely, the answer varies from artist to artist.  I have to find my own way and you, yours.

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