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.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Why I Paint: Instant Feedback

"Rolling Fog"
7x9 Oil
Available Here

Once upon a time, I wanted to write novels.  And I did write a few, one of which I finally ended up self-publishing.  But I found that I had a problem with the novel-writing process—feedback on chapters given to friends for review took a long time coming.  This slowed down the writing, which, for a novel, was already considerably slow.  I was raised on a diet rich in impatience.

Craving faster feedback, I turned to short stories. They were quicker to write, but feedback didn't come any faster.  And the time it took for a story submitted to a magazine either to be rejected or accepted was, well, daunting.  I tried poetry, too, short little things.*

It occured to me that the problem with writing is that it is linear.  Letters are strung into words; words, into sentences; sentences into chapters; chapters into the proverbial weighty tome.  (Or "tomb," if all that work doesn't pay off.)  My reader had to follow this miles-long, tangled string I had reeled out in the labyrinth of my writing.   Was there any quicker way to get feedback?

Yes, I discovered, in painting.  A painting isn't made up of one string but of many layers of strings, all interwoven, all visible.  Because you can see all of it in a single moment of study, it provokes an immediate response—sometimes visceral and dramatic, othertimes cautious and tentative, but there's always something.  This initial response is often followed by a more considered one; a painting can contain a world of complexity in that two-dimensional surface, a complexity as involved as any novel's plot, a complexity that requires time and effort to understand.  But it is that initial response, that quick kick, that the painter wants and gets.

And that's one reason why I'm a painter.

But these days, as I age, the quick reponse is losing its savor.  I'm more sure of myself and don't crave—or even really need—the instant response.  What's more, I'm now chewing my food more slowly and with more thought.  Painting has become a more-considered effort, not so much a sandwich slapped together but a fine meal with many courses.  And I in the drawer I do have a couple of half-written novels.  I've a mind to start thinking about them again.

But in the meantime, I will keep on painting—right now, it's the way I digest the world.

*Curious about what I've published?  Besides poetry here and there, I've had science fiction and fantasy published in small magazines.  My claim to fame is a story, "The Stone Wives," that Marion Zimmer Bradley took for the last volume of an anthology series that she personally edited before her death, Sword & Sorceress XVIII.  I've also self-published my novel, Dream Sector, under my pen name, Mac Braxton, which you can get from Amazon.  Here's the cover:

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Is Anyone Listening?

"Rising Tide"
9x12 Oil
Available Here

"Too warm—cooler!"
"Too blue—greener!"
"Not dark enough—lighter!"

The casual passerby might hear me mutter phrases like these as I paint.   Talking to myself might be a sign of dementia, but not in this case.   It's a habit of constant narration that I've developed as a teacher; students find it useful because it gives them my thought process behind the painting.  But I find it useful when I paint alone, too.  It's all part of what I call "mindful painting," which I discussed in an earlier post.  Analyzing my choices out loud keeps me focussed on the task at hand.  Each statement serves as an evaluation of the brush stroke I just laid down, keeping me on track.

The muttering also seems to serve another purpose—curious folks keep their distance.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Should You Donate Art to an Auction?

Where I have my summer studio, paintings of lighthouses are popular auction items.  Here's one that is not going to an auction.  But, you can buy it at a reasonable price!  Here are details.

I've been asked to participate in many local art auctions over the years.  At first, I felt honored to be asked and also glad I could help.  Usually, the groups sponsoring these auctions tout a good cause for which I have an affinity, such as historic preservation or the preservation of wildlands.  But I eventually stopped participating.  Why?  Because they always wanted to put a very low starting bid on the work—one that was much lower than I could sell the art for outside the auction.

And almost always the art sold for much less than retail.

In my mind, this approach cuts two ways.  First, it devalues my work.  Second, the sponsoring group realizes much less.  The group would make more money if it started the bidding at or near the retail price.

Of course, in some places, there is no real art market, and art just doesn't sell for much, auction or not.  In these cases, fine art should not be included in the auction.  Instead, less expensive items should be offered.  On the other hand, in an area where there is a real art market, an auction that sells items for below market isn't doing anyone any favors—especially if the auction is a fundraiser for a worthy cause.

Have you been asked to donate your work to an auction?  Let me know of your experience.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Hey, It's Exposure

"Acadian Prince" 18x24 oil/canvas

Do I really want this $2800 painting hung over the buffet and subject to splashes of gravy?

"We'd love to hang your art in our restaurant."
"We'd love to hang your art in our corporate office."
"We'd love to hang your art in our hospital lobby."

Usually, these statements are followed by another:  "Of course, we can't pay you, but you'll get plenty of exposure."

What's the value of exposure?  Certainly, someone may see your artwork in one of these venues, but quite often, purchasing art is the last thing on that person's mind.  Seated in a restaurant, I'm more interested in the menu and my fellow guests.  If  I'm a worker in a corporate office, I'm usually looking at my computer screen or headed to the coffee machine.  If I'm waiting to see a doctor, I am focused on what ails me.  In each of these situations, I may see the decor and may even enjoy it, but I'm probably not buying it.

As a painter, of course, I have a professional interest.  If the painting looks interesting, I'll walk over to it, examine it more closely and maybe even check the signature and price, if there is a price tag.  (There should be, and with your contact information, if you want to sell it.)

If I'm asked by a business to hang my work for free, I would first ask if they have a decorating budget.  I'd make them a deal if they buy the work.  Failing that, I'd ask if they would be interested in renting the work.  Failing that, I would say "no."

Yes, sometimes hanging your painting for free in such a venue may sell it or entice a buyer to look at your other work.  But I think it's very rare.  I'd love to have you share your experiences in the comments section below.