A few posts ago I explained how to begin a painting, using Monet’s Sunflowers as an example of something we could copy in imagination. I wrote a rather longish account, and still I could only draw my theme in the most sketchy way. To really paint, you must look deeply into the image — peering into its details discovering relationships between the parts and the whole.
To learn to see your aim should be to set up a motif that challenges you to notice as much as possible. Eugene Delacroix described the goal as “to prolong the sensation.” Obviously choosing a subject that can engage your thoughts and feelings in the fullest way has the greatest potential for inducing you to look deeply. Choose something you love. Choose something you find enchanting. Not every painting has to be of this challenging sort, of course. Different paintings aim at different things. But an artist who wishes to see as much as possible in nature has to seek the challenge that stretches his or her powers of observation.
One aide to the goal is time. Setting a time limit means that you don’t pound your visual cortex against nature’s photons indefinitely. You know that if you strive as rigorously as you can that, after a session, the gong will chime, and you’re done. Closure offers this psychological boost that cannot be underestimated. In tandem with setting a limit, it’s also helpful to make a rule of not being too fussy. Moving a picture along, even working as quickly as your skills allow, helps too. You force yourself to “aim and shoot,” again and again. Working a little bit fast means that rationalizations have little time to interfere. You try to make the connection between eye and hand as seemless as possible. You allow a few “mistakes” to creep in, if they must, for the sake of the larger goal of seeing intensely and recording directly.
Certain subjects in art will prod you along mercilessly if you let them. I used to paint bunches of flowers from the yard or from the florist. I found that the most time I could ever spend upon them was four hours, maximum. After that, all the blooms had drooped a little — or they had shifted so much from their initial positions, even the hardiest, as to comprise an entirely different ensemble of relationships by session’s end. Shadows, of course, change too. Nature has its own clocks that make an artist nimble. You should use these clocks to help you. They are great forms of discipline.
[Top of the post: Lilacs in a Vase, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas]