Thursday, January 10, 2013

Magic and Influence

Sycamore Shadows - 9x12, oil
Who was my influence for this painting?

One common question I get from workshop students as well as from other artists is:  Who are your influences?

This is a hard question to answer.  I'm a sponge, drawing from many sources.  My answer usually consists of the names you'd expect and ones to whom many plein air painters look for guidance:  Edgar Payne, John Carlson and Emile Gruppé.  These deceased artists wrote books that comprise the accepted canon of plein air painting wisdom.  Payne has his Composition of Outdoor Painting; Carlson, his Guide to Landscape Painting; and Gruppé, a variety of books including my favorite, Brushwork for the Oil Painter. (Actually, the writer of Gruppé's books was Charles Movalli; Movalli is a fine painter in his own right.)  Another painter, living, is Richard Schmid.  His book Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting, might also be included in the canon.

But are these and the other painters I'll list in a moment truly "influences"?  What is an "influence," exactly?  And am I being immodest in thinking that my work is mature enough to exhibit any such influences?

I always enjoy a piece of representational art if it demonstrates good craftsmanship.  This goes for art all the way from Roman times through the Renaissance and to today's newest generation of artists.   But as much as I like, for example, the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the other Pre-Raphaelites, my paintings are nothing like theirs.  I don't paint figures in a tableau of highly-romanticized, stylized landscapes.  I like many artists, but I may not paint like them.

But beyond well-crafted paintings, there are certain pieces that speak to me personally and on a higher level.  These conjure up not only an emotion but also a strong desire to paint something similar.  This is, in fact, why I wanted to become a painter:  I wanted to create that kind of magic, too.

As an aside, I will offer for your consideration this:  Every piece of artwork I enjoy has an effect on my own work, however subtle.  Everything has a hand in shaping me - even Rossetti.  But artwork that creates magic is large and powerful, and when we speak of influences, this is what I mean.

I would define an influential artist - or better, an influential body of artwork, since an artist's style and subject changes over the course of his lifetime - as having qualities that I borrow and incorporate into my own paintings in some way.

When I paint, is borrowing some of the magic a conscious or an unconscious act?  It is rare that I actually study a piece of art.  It's not my nature to do so.  Instead, I experience the painting and remember the feeling it creates.  If I were a better student, I would make a list of what appeals to me and what tools the artist used to create the magic.  Although my method of non-study sounds inefficient, it works for me.  When I am in the studio painting, I am following instincts that have been honed by looking at work that inspires me.

To come up with a list of influences, I must first categorize my work.  I've painted in many styles over the years with many subjects.  (I like to tell the story of a client who came to my studio gallery once.  He took a few moments to gaze at the walls and finally asked, "How many artists do you represent?"  Just me, I said, but I paint with ten different personalities.)  I'll forget the distant past, though, and focus on my work of the last few years.

The following definition is long-winded, but accurate:  I paint representational (realistic) landscapes with a degree of abstraction, emphasizing tone (value) over color.  I use mostly realistic color but tend toward expressive color.  Finally, I emphasize distinctive mark-making.

So who else are my forefathers in this line of shamans?

I've studied under some good painters, and they, of course, have left their mark on me.  These include Albert Handell, Doug Dawson, Bob Rohm and my mentor, the late Ann Templeton.  I think about their methods and remember key bits of their wisdom every time I hold a paint brush or stick of pastel in my hand.   By the way, I chose these teachers because their paintings create magic for me.

Now, you may look at the artists I've mentioned and say, "His work looks nothing like theirs!"  Well, I don't take the magic wholesale, but in bits and pieces.  I may, for example, use Ann Templeton's approach of abstracting the landscape but not, perhaps, her use of color.  Or I may use Albert Handell's vision of tree shapes, but not, perhaps, his way of working from the center of interest out.  I am a witches' brew of this and that.

With that thought in mind, here are more from my list of influential artists, and I leave it up to history to determine what I have borrowed and what I have not.  If it's any help, I have written next to each artist's name what appeals to me about their work.

There are many other deceased painters whose work I enjoy and think about.  I'm not sure if I have borrowed anything from them yet.  Here's a short list:

and the list goes on.

There are also many other painters still living today whose work casts a spell over me, and many of them are friends.  Some of them are Tim Gaydos, William Wray, Ray Roberts, Lois Griffel, Kate Starling, Curt Walters, Wayne Thiebaud, Jeremy Lipking, Casey Baugh, Matt Smith, Skip Whitcomb - and again, the list goes on.  (And my apologies to all the many excellent artists I know personally but whom I didn't mention here!)

Is it immodest of me to list influences before I am dead?  Perhaps, but I have had the question asked of me, so clearly someone thinks it's important to know.  But even so, it is good to think about one's influences.  I think that this essay has been a useful exercise for  me, and perhaps it will lead me to deeper study of the work I like and to an improvement in my own.

At the top of this post is a recent painting - I'd be curious to hear who you think my influences might have been for it.


Marsha Hamby Savage said...

Fantastic thoughts here, Michael. I can see how you feel it was a good exercise that could help you further. I will share this post on my Facebook ... good job!

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thank you, Marsha!

violetta said...

There is an old book called Stranger in a Strange Land, about an alien to planet Earth. He "groks" things, it means more than understanding or learning or feeling, it is more like absorbing, your article just reminded me of this book, artists are like that alien,in the nicest possible way!

James Gunter said...

Thanks for this thought provoking post. "Bits and pieces" describes how other painters influence me, too. There are Painters who have a strong influence on my own work, yet there'll be other qualities in those same painters works that just don't grab me (at least not at this time.) I think I tend to latch onto those qualities that fit my psyche at this particular place in my career.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, James! It's almost like the proverbial "nailing Jello to the wall."