I taught a workshp for the last few days here in Cranford, New Jersey. It seems like a nice town, but it is a town. There are some pretty parks and the Raritan river runs through this heavily built up area just a half hour or so from Manhattan. Today we ended up in Hanson park. It was the lawn of a long ago burned or disappeared mansion. There were some gardens that were not in bloom and a few views of a small stream, mostly occluded by foliage.There were some stands of mature trees and a view across the river to a canoe rental business with a new cement bridge leading into the picture. I had to paint something and I chose that. One of the skills I pride myself on is being able to pull a picture out of places that are not obviously good candidates. I just spent a couple of weeks in the desert mountains of West Texas, that was easy, there were dramatic views everywhere. This view in the city was a challenge.
I painted the thing in divisionist color, or colored rice, as I like to think of it, and it came off pretty well, considering what there was to work with. The painting sold to a passerby. I extracted a lesson from that for my class and I will tell you what I told them.
A painting needs Raison d'etre, that is, reason to exist. When my pictures fail it is because they are matter of fact. They are well enough drawn and colored, but they are matter of fact. There is nothing special about them. I see lots of plein air paintings with that fault.
Imagine you and I were driving along looking for somewhere to paint, we round a corner in my sleek and powerful Lincoln and I pull to the grimy curb. There in a field is a giant red circus tent, with pennants flying. Impatient elephants the size of steamshovels rock from side to side at their moorings and a horsedrawn calliope painted in electric colors plays Ravel while teams of drunken clowns dance crazy mazurkas in the failing light as screeching pelicans wheel in squadrons low overhead. THAT is subject matter. If you can just get it onto the canvas you are home free. It is a natural subject, the raison d'etre is the subject matter.
Out on the corroded plains of the American West painters set up their gear before crenelated mountains wreathed in clouds. THAT is subject matter, just transcribe it onto the canvas and you have a painting. Here on the East coast though, our mountains are small and the locations are liable to be a lot less grand. In fact, the history of New England painting is one of extraordinary paintings made of ordinary places. To make ordinary scenes into fine paintings requires the artist to make up for the deficit of grand subject matter by substituting something else to make it interesting for the viewer. The painting needs a reason to exist. There are many ways to do this, but all come from the painters imagination and not the location. The painter might use broken or heightened color. He might choose an unusual angle or use unexpected choices of pigments. He finds a creative "treatment" to fill in for the lack of natural grandeur of his location. He finds a way to do SOMETHING to the picture to make it have raison d'etre. He may use paint handling, or expressive design but it is not transcription that makes the painting interesting. The "weaker' the subject, the more the painter need to fill in the missing excitement.
When you are in front of a scene that lacks dramatic possibilities you must find a way to do something interesting to it. The successful painting made in an ordinary place works not because of what it is a picture of, but HOW it is a picture of. The artist has filled the deficit of subject matter with his personal creativity. The artist asks himself not "what does it look like" but "what can I do to it?"