Expression, habit, technique

detail of something or other, hatching


Technique — the prize of art pedagogy, the thing that artist’s manuals promise to teach, is (for my money) the thing best understood after the fact, maybe after a century or two of fact, but it’s something that clutters the mind if you’re striving to look at the motif in front of you in any sort of new way. Technique is “how a thing is done.” If a violinist plays a sonata and you hear the technique, the sonata has failed because technique is not supposed to announce itself. What you’re supposed to hear is music, what you’re supposed to see is the painting. If, on the contrary, the painting looks like the artist first did this, then that,  as a series of steps, it has definitely failed.  The more its stages are visible, the more epic the failure.

Hendrik Goltzius detail of his engraving of the Farnese Hercules


Technique that succeeds is hardly recognized as such. If it produces things that seem as though they simply belong, if the still life looks like it just appeared on the canvas, and technique is invisible, that’s art. The paint might be very apparent — as paint. Or strokes of the pastel stick, as lines and marks. It’s kind of hard to hide the graphite in a pencil drawing. The shiny graphite is the beauty of a pencil drawing. Before it’s even a thing, there’s the beautiful graphite line itself. The technique that is invisible doesn’t hide the medium, it hides the process.

If the artist doesn’t know how he did something, the viewer isn’t likely to know either. That’s one for beginner’s luck. A truly clueless rookie doesn’t know how to do anything, and if he concentrates with laser focus on striving to get a picture to resemble the reality he sees, he might just make something astonishing. Making discoveries in art is like making discoveries in any other field. It’s about finding new knowledge. The problem is that once we know a little about art, it’s hard to get that rookie innocence back.

Albrecht Durer drawing made when the artist was 13 years old.


Getting innocence is a very worthy sort of striving. The visible world is marvelous, and we only suppose that we know and understand it. We should allow ourselves full tourist status in this life. Gawk at everything. Why just the sky alone …

La peinture, c’est très facile quand vous ne savez pas comment faire. Quand vous le savez, c’est très difficile.”  Edgar Degas

Painting is very easy when you don’t know how to do it. When you know, it’s very difficult.

(I don’t know what Degas meant. But his words tell me that knowledge, though essential, also imposes barriers to experience.)

Habit is something that you do over and over again without awareness. Habits are necessary formations. Without habit a person would face each experience like Adam at the dawn of creation. Having a habit means being able to act with naturalness and grace because you act without conscious thought, or you think “I will do thus” and then you do it. Intention and action flow together seamlessly. Habits are only a problem when they’re bad habits or when they’re no longer useful to the context. And the best way to rid oneself of bad habits is to over-write the bad habit with a better habit.

Expression is where habit and technique meet reality. You know how to do something, you have a well-learned way of doing it (your habits). Maybe it’s color mixing. Maybe color comes to you so effortlessly now that you see the color and begin mixing it without even thinking about it. Expression involves the decisions that you can make in the moment when you have skill and decide that you want to do something. Expression is purposeful action. But by expression I refer to something that links us to experience like our skin links us to the air. Expression is the thing that can be immediate. It can contain technique. It can over-ride habit.

early Van Gogh drawing


Expression is like doing a thing a certain way every day, and then one day abruptly changing your mind and doing the thing in an entirely different way. Expression is about choosing.  So even the rookie, maybe even especially the rookie, has expression because he’s saying “I’ll do this, then this, then this.”

These are just some random thoughts. If they make sense to you, terrific. If they make no sense, ignore them. I’m not even sure myself what I’m talking about. Sometimes one rambles. The argument against technique might sound like an argument against refinement or classicism or virtuosity, but I don’t mean it that way. Ingres’s drawings, full of difficulties, are miracles of art. Sorting out technique, habit, expression — they are words, ideas, strivings.

Il faut d’abord qu’il copie et recopie les maîtres avant qu’il lui soit permis de peindre un radis d’après nature.  Degas

It’s essential first of all that he copy and recopy the masters before he’s permitted to paint a radish from nature.

Of course, I’m not going to let Degas stop me from painting all the radishes I want.