Saturday, July 25, 2009

A delicate balance

Manet, Olympia, courtesy
An example of how a great painter can design a figure painting so it is not some chick with no pants on. The difference between noble beauty, and vulgarity is DESIGN.

A fine painter sent me this question via email yesterday, I will answer it in tonights post.

I agree with some of the things you say but only to a point. Here is my problem, I see too often the description you use to justify a painters lack of sensitivity and ability.
“Why does that tree look like a frog?”
“Oh, I designed it to go with the bushes that look like sheep.”

Why did you paint those mountains pure dioxinine purple?
Oh well I could paint the subtle gray violet they really were so I designed them to be more colorful to express their mood better.

At what point do you just stay inside and make everything up to be exactly what you want it to be like a Wolf Kahn with purple grass and yellow trees?

Any concept in painting can be pushed until it becomes ridiculous. I think the artificiality of some of the depression era painters like Thomas Hart Benton and John Stuart Curry, are examples of design in the landscape pushed until all naturalism is lost. But these were skillful painters who pursued an artistic extreme that became a dead end. There were others who had similar stylization's who I think kept them in check and produced better art. Reginald Marsh, OK I know I am out on a limb here and Paul Manship for example.

This may sound a little like zen, but there is a balance needed with most artistic ideas. In fact a lot about artistic decision making is about balance. For instance observation makes a painting have truth, but a slavish copying of nature is dull and artless. There is a balance that needs to be hit between natures color and the artistic tweaking that a painter might do to make a more evocative image.

However the examples you cite, and anyone who has taught a workshop will remember teahing some of these artists. These students lack the skill to do an adequate painting, the integrity to admit it, and the wisdom to learn from a teacher who offers useful advice. For the most part we as teachers are too polite to call them on their deception, so we smile and shine them on. In a serius atelier they would be confronted by their fellow students and eer ressure would either correct their attitude or drive them out.The massive workloads in an atelier would generally not be accetable to a student like this anyway.

This attitude is a defense against instruction. What are you as a teacher to say to that? It is usually a sort of self satisfied lethargy, if they really believe that. I smile and offer some useful comment for them to ignore and then go on to another student who IS open to instruction.

The majority of amateurlandscape painters work in the studio and not outside. I think that is the most common reason students fail to progress I always tell them


Most of those who choose to paint like Wolf Kahn do so because they are terrified at the prospect of having to learn drawing. They see Wolf and think, I can do that, and then I wont have to learn how to draw. The great majority of people are not going to be willing to do what it takes to became a knowledgeable painter. They shear off into a schtick that will allow them to be an artist without having to learn the hard stuff. Dont let this happen to you. Learn the hard stuff and then forget it if you find it useless, which you wont. The great majority of would be artists, get a simple schtick and stay with it, so they can claim to be an artist without doing the really hard stuff.

More tomorrow.


Deb said...

Good, honest, instructive post. I am up WAY too late, but for some reason, can't get to sleep tonight.
I think you're exactly right, Stape.
Most people don't want to do the hard stuff. And there just aint no shortcuts out there for real improvement. It's work, hard work, and it takes time. I wish I'd started 30 years ago. Then, maybe by now I'd be a little better.

ps. Yes, I've seen geoducks. They are just about the grossest living thing I've ever laid eyes on.

"progy" gifted painter, no spell check.

Richard J. Luschek II said...

I just wrote a blog post that touches on this. It reminds me of all the ridiculous 20 second figure drawings I did in college. A bunch of punk kids covered in paint and charcoal slinging around a fat stick of compressed charcoal for fast expressive ends, that are not really even drawing- if you say drawing it the interpretation of form.
I begs to ask, what does the trained painter do these days about being lumped in with all the cousins that everyone has that "can draw stuff that looks like a picture". You are lumped in with all the other "Artists" whose only success in the long struggle to become a fine painter, was to go out and basically buy the correct materials at Hobby Lobby. They may even have a studio they pay rent for. Hell, they may even have work in a gallery.
Fast expressive sketches hide a multitude of sins. These days, expression is the way to explain away any of your artistic ills.

Expression is great when merged with good training and hard work.

The poor homeless fellow that stands on the corner screaming obscenities at a telephone pole is expressing himself. I am not going to hire him for a speaking engagement any time soon.
I bet if he painted it would be a picture of trees that look like frogs and bushes that look like sheep. There might even be purple grass.
If this poor fellow were singing a medley of tunes based on the F word to the trash cans in front of your house, you would call the cops. If he paints, he gets a museum show.

Hmmm, I may cut and paste the above into a new blog post of my own. said...

Hmmm... when people ask me if I am an artist, I say: "What is art? I am a painter. I know what a painting is."

Anyway,I had a teacher, Barney Rubenstein, rare realist, at SMFA who told me "Think of art as a tree. Art is the trunk and we as artists, all go out on different limbs and some artists go so far out they fall off."

I'd like to throw a design driven landscape artist into the conversation, if I may. Please look at the work of Tom Thompson. Tom Thompson was Canadian and painted as part on "The Group of Seven". I came across his work while in Algonquin Provencal Park, Ontario Canada last year. It's where he painted and died.

This work is highly designed, he uses color only suggested by nature and it is very expressive. The painting is pushed but I feel he kept a balance and enough naturalism in his work that can speak to many artists across the board. He painted all studies on site. Other opinions please?

Jo-Ann Sanborn said...

Agreed, doing the hard stuff in drawing, design, and art fundaments is critical to good art, and yes, an artist should never stop practicing the fundaments.

That said, it saddened me recently to read of an art school where everyone followed a "master" The works all looked the same in color, subject and execution. Too bad. Those students were never allowed to grow beyond the master's vision and develop their own.

An artist still needs to be thinking about, learning and expoloring new methods and techniques and studying what others have to offer in order to accept or reject it.

Sometimes the landscape shows you fantastic things and there are many ways to express it. It's a big tree, with many different limbs to climb on or fall off.

Todd Bonita said...

I agree with Deb, great, honest post. It's this kind of honest art instruction that I have personally longed for. It would behoove any young student who wants to learn to really see, draw and paint to seek out such instruction. I wish I had found a reputible atelier early on rather than art school. The arc has a great list of atelier broken down by region. It's never too late to take steps in the right direction.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am often up real late too. I get too wound up to sleep.
I wish I had started 6o years ago. In another 45o years I am going to be really good at this.

progy Small meat filled pastry

Stapleton Kearns said...

I did those 2o second figure drawings in art school too. Even when they had a longer pose they allowed the model to slump in a big ugly overstuffed armchair with arms on it that blocked my view of the figure.In retrospect I think they deliberately set us up to fail. They wanted to make sure that no one could make an academic drawing. I still remember rooms full of dirty charcoal drawings with overstated halftones and no heads or hands on newsprint that yellowed and crumbled as you worked on it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Tom Thomson. great Canadian ainter. I think of him as a sort of Canadian Van Gogh. Except I like him better. Wild color and a real feel of wilderness. Tom died under mysterious circumstances,and some say he was murdered. I wasn't even born, so don't look at me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think it is OK for students to emulate their master as they learn. But they need to grow out of it, a good master gives the students the tools tom do whatever they want. A teacher whose own work is very idiosyncratic often can only show a student how to make his own art. I think broad generalists make the best teachers.

Jeremy Elder said...

Just catching up and learning tons. You are my anti-art school! Thanks for addressing my questions.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think some of the new ateliers are great. Paul Ingebretson in Manchester has a proven track record of turning out professional painters,