John Constable, The Cornfield, courtesy artrenewal.org.
I was asked in an e-mail how I went about deconstructing or analyzing a painting that I saw in a museum or gallery. Thats a big question, but I will take a swing at it. This might take several posts, but I will get a start on it tonight.
There have been occasions in my younger life when (under enormous social pressure) I became willing to drink large amounts of different forms of liquor over the course of an evening. After about 16-20 drinks the delicate connoisseurship I had practiced early in the evening became blunted. One whiskey tasted pretty much like the next. Sitting became tiresome, standing worse, and reclining, ideal.
The same thing happens to me in a museum. I can spend a whole day in the museum for enjoyment, but I am really only able to "see" paintings at my peak efficiency for about an hour or two at the most. After that it is pretty much recreation. So I generally walk into a museum with one period of painting I really want to see and I will go there first. I will probably see hundreds of paintings in a day but there are always a few I really want to study and remember. I try to attack those when I am fresh and haven't looked at other paintings all day. After a while in the museum my senses get dulled.
1) I will stand in front of the painting and look at it as an abstract, as "only an arrangement of lines and colors that set one another off". I don't really look for the subject or the niceties of drawing or atmospheric perspective, etc at first, but just, "what does the picture look like? I look at the way the lights and darks are arranged, what the colors are and how they relate to one another. This is for me, the root thing, if the painting fails at this level, I am off, nothing else on the canvas can save it in my estimation, this has to "catch me". If the "look" isn't there, no amount of social relevance, historical significance, gratuitous nudity or wooley skirted docents earnest prattle will recommend it to me.
2) Then I tend to think about what time in history this thing was painted. I know a little about each of the important schools and groups of painters from various times and something of what they did and what their aims were. This keeps me from faulting a sublime and highly balanced Raphael for not having the kind of broken color I like in a Monet. Paintings need to be understood in the context of the time in which they were made. You wouldn't fault a baroque painting for not having the high key brightness and color of a mid 20th century painting.
You need to know something about art history to have an idea what you are seeing. It is not enough to just stand in front of a painting and ask yourself, "How does it make me feel?" At least not if you want to really understand it, and learn from it. You might be entertained that way, but not informed.
I know a few painters who are only interested in painting from the late 19th century forward. They have no interest in renaissance, Dutch painting, or classicism. I think they miss a lot. When I visit the museum with them and want to look at Rembrandt or Rubens, they just don't get it. Often their measure of a painting is "does it look like a photograph?" and all painting from before about 1850 fails that test. No one would mistake a Rubens for a photo, yet it is great painting. So I think it is important to know enough about the different eras of painting to be able to appreciate them for their qualities other than those which are not characteristic of their times. Missing this is like faulting Coltrane for not having a drum track like Lady Gaga.
When I teach workshops I harangue the students about learning art history until the little eyes roll back in their heads.
IN ORDER TO BE A FINE PAINTER YOU WILL NEED TO KNOW YOUR ART HISTORY!
How are you going to make great art if you don't know what it looks like and why?
I will return tomorrow and continue with this.