The Big Argument

"Still Life #71"
watercolor on Arches paper, 15" x 22"
The art world is filled with artists who believe that the subject of a painting is what makes its worthiness. I vehemently disagree!

A subject or object or group of objects is nothing more than a beginning point for a startling, captivating design. Mind you this could be a landscape, portrait, still life or what have you. It does not matter. It is the interaction of line, direction, color, value, shape and texture that arouses us. Granted, that is an abstract way to think, but it is precisely what happens.

The word “PICTURE” has crept so deeply into our vocabulary that we synonymously connect the word to a mental image of a photograph, or an image of SOME THING OR PLACE. Pictorial accuracy seems to be some critics’ measure of ‘good art.’ I disagree again . . .and loudly! It isn’t the picture or the thing or the realism that is so wonderful in a painting. . . . .

It is what the artist does with the paint to lure the viewer into the concentrated observance of the art and the surface. While an image does provide a starting point for shapes and value structure, it is not the exactness or the accuracy of those things that entertain us as art viewers. Matisse proved this over and over. So did Van Gogh and the Impressionists. There is beauty in the paint! There is emotion and mood in the colors, values, textures and directions. What counts is what the viewer FEELS while viewing the work. Just get a look at “Crows Over a Corn Field” or “Starry Night” and you’ll get what I am saying immediately.

Yes, realism can and does communicate a feeling. BUT, that feeling does not come from the accuracy of the work. It comes from how big dark and light differences are arranged. It comes from the artist’s use of color and texture. Hopper’s work is a perfect example of this. His mood of melancholy and emptiness hits a viewer hard, but it seems to be ‘accuarate.” Some of Winslow Homer’s work had strong threatening feelings and sense of danger. And those paintings were in watercolor! The “happy medium.” Riiight! His and Hopper’s designs were absolutely deliberately set to affect MOOD or “content.”

There are plenty of artists out there who can reproduce a photograph. So what!? How many millions of photos are there in the world? How many have you seen that you vividly remember? Few, if any, is my bet. (Mind you, art photos are something else all together. I am speaking of the every day snapshots that are slavishly copied.) Yet, when a painter builds up color and texture on a surface and it is remindful of, or directly stating something about, a subject with both drama and subtlety, we are engaged with it. It holds our interest because the image or the arrangement of color, value and texture are so unusual and unique. It is this uniqueness that holds the viewer’s attention. . . . . .not the fact that the painter was able to make a pretty “picture.”

As a painter, I work in series. Maybe not as faithfully as some artists, but series work draws out boredom and forces the artist to create something more than representation of a subject. It is through using the same beginning idea over and over and over again . . . .this still life set up for example . . . . . . . .that the artist is forced to make something different each time he paints it. That purpose or that cause is what brings to light the strength of his work. It is the stuff that comes from within . . . .the stuff that sets his or her work apart from all other artwork or images which entertain us as viewers. It is what he or she does to stimulate contrasts and harmonies. It is what her or she does to deliver a sense of space or surface that holds our interest. It boils down to how the colors and values react to serve up visual stimulation. That is the CREATIVE aspect of the work.

This idea of making something different is the frustrating part of making art. (Not the only one, though! There are plenty more frustrations!) We, as humans, tend to be easily influenced by other artists methods or “the how” or what we believe to be “the rules.” All those things make creating new, different art even more difficult. They influence us to avoid showing that which we would do without coaching. By the virtue of that point alone, when an artist creates something unique, which especially connects with our emotions, then we MUST honor the work. That artist probably went through mental hell getting there.

And that brings up another aspect of making art that gets in the artists’ way . . . . .the desire to make a masterwork. And how trying too hard locks us up. But that is another subject for another day.

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