Art is definitely a formal affair.
I keep painting the same picture over and over. And I don’t even know I’m doing it. Here’s an instance. I discovered quite by accident, as I was photographing one painting (posted earlier) that another painting, portraying an entirely different subject, looks rather like it.
Here details of both paintings with their edges juxtaposed.
In moments like these you realize that the meanings of paintings go deep indeed. The forms as well as the content reveal aspects of the self.
Would you know thyself? Take up a paint brush.
The light from trees refracted through the glass panels of my balcony look a little like waves upon a tree lined pond. Since the panels are manmade, I suppose this is a different way of depicting.
Anyway, it’s certainly very pretty. Also, it’s a reminder always to be alert to the visual metaphors around you. (They are everywhere.)
[photo by the author]
Here’s the latest version of the painting in progress that earlier I had posted here. It looks entirely different. Of course.
One wonderful aspect of the first incarnation was the white of the canvas around the first masses of the image. Well, alas, that had to go. But the dark masses have a different charm. And hopefully the finished painting will be best of all.
Wish me luck.
Draw, place colors, think about apples, look at the unexpected lines and structural arrangements that arise from the blunt facts of material nature sitting there on your table. Consider that you can get the idea of their forms with a most concise kind of line or you can probe down to what you imagine to be the molecules with a very loving, lingering observation of the fine nuances of color and tone.
Have no thought about “style” at all. Forget that such a notion was ever uttered. Think only about the reality before you and your earnest efforts to grasp it. Absolutely no originality is necessary. Indeed, just the opposite frame of mind would be most helpful at this juncture. Simply paint as though you were Nature’s walking, talking Xerox machine. Your own nature is as deeply a factor as that of your apple’s nature and it will express itself if only you do not interfere. Let yourself simply exist with as much materiality and spiritual durability as this apple and have Nature be the author who addresses us through the alternating gestures of your fumbling or your certainty.
And, as Van Gogh once said so grandly, if you hear a voice that says you are not an artist, “paint my Boy” (or Girl) “and that voice will be silenced.”
[illustration: author’s photograph of apples in a compotier]
The great artist of the future doesn’t need my advice about painting, but of course I’m happy to offer it anyway. The same technical advice that she does not need will have hidden inside it many healthy measures of encouragement; and as with other recipes, the finesse of the product cannot be reduced to its discrete items. We must take it whole and let its effects filter themselves out like a savor of something ineluctable.
So my first advice to the young artist of the future, who perhaps is just now beginning to paint (at his or her reading, if not at the time of my writing): my advice is to portray the most ordinary thing you can find. You must learn your chops. A certain kind of painting (which is also a wonderful sort of painting) is to the artist what well practiced scales are to the musician.
So take something like a group of apples, place them on the table in no particularly special arrangement, and start painting them with all the alacrity of a surgeon about to perform a major surgery or of a world leader upon whose judgement depends the outcome of an international crisis. Consider the possibility that you are solving the mystery of the ages.
Oh, but don’t forget to have fun too.
Somewhere out there is a young artist who I hope will eventually find these words. All the writing I do is directed to this person, who quite possibly hasn’t even been born yet — or who perhaps celebrates a first birthday even as I write. This artist is not like most artists because he (or she) is “destined” to become a great artist. And I am keenly desirous of writing to this young person, not because I have anything essential to tell him since a great artist comes already fully equiped, straight from the factory (who is Mother Nature, after all) with all the innate essentials for greatness intact. What the young great-artist-to-be really needs most of all is encouragement.
Many are the people who would divert you from your path because — well, there are several reasons. One, they do not believe greatness is actually possible — or not anymore — and so you shouldn’t make the attempt, you should instead go with the flow and master all that is hip and happening now. Second, are the people who believe in greatness, they just don’t think you’ve got it. Why? Well, because they know you. The “great” artist cannot be anyone that we know personally since “great” people are always afar off, somewhere else. They are exotic. They live in Paris (19th century) or New York (20th century) or in some other “important” place. They could never live in Delft (Vermeer) or Provence (Cezanne) or in Maine (Winslow Homer). And if you think you’re great, then you’re just conceited. Shame on you. Hipness hubris — since hipness and greatness are joined by an equal sign these days.
[The drawing of asparagus was made by my young, great artist at age 9.]
Back when the old masters were in charge, you could copy another artist’s work. Indeed during the long eons before photography, the only way to disseminate images was through drawings, prints and copies. “If I’m going to be famous, more than three guys need to know about these paintings” was the worry. And thus the print was born. But copies, of course, were even better. You’ve got the color and scale too.
A young artist or admirer was, of course, expected to ask permission first. (Please ask was the most common thought bubble at the time.)
Now, alas, we have copyright laws. Bah humbug. Happily there are ways around it, though if anybody asks I’m admitting nothing. Look to the example of the great Peter Paul Rubens. His work is a veritable Rhetoric of ideas about drawing and invention. Not the least among them is the Battle of Nude Men, a drawing at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. (Readers can chastely click here.)
The Battle of Nude Men is a complex work based on copies of two images by Barthel Beham. Julius Held tells the story of this drawing in his book Rubens: Selected Drawings. Though taken from the Beham prints, the figures are arranged “freely.” Moreover the drawing is composed of several sheets that have been cut up, and reassembled, presumably having been differently ordered before their cutting. So, it’s an early collage!
Anyway, the rearrangement of images taken from other artists (don’t worry Beham was copying too — notice a strong Michelangelesque quality to Rubens’s drawing) was a particularly beloved way of cutting a new coat from old cloth. And what we learn from this today — let’s lower our voices now — is that you can take another artist’s work and if you alter it sufficiently much, you can pay tribute to the artist from whom you steal (using the sincerest form of flattery), while creating an entirely new and original work.
And that’s exactly what I’ve done above, using a photograph — I cut it up, rearranged it, created the spaces between the pieces, began inserting my own invented fishes based upon the cropped fish parts that were visible around the edges, and am on my way to creating my own Battle of Nude Fish.
Who says the old masters aren’t the most modern guys around?