Monday, June 6, 2011

Raison d'etre

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?"


T Arthur Smith said...

I know just what you're talking about, and here's an artist who does just that: Staats Fasoldt.

jake gumbleton said...

That's a wonderful post stape! I have been struggling with this myself. Have you ever seen Joseph zbuckvic's dvd ? The magic on his paper compared to his actual subject matter is stark contrast.

Johan said...

Probably the hardest part about painting, for me anyway. said...

You are so right. (hey, that would go for painting rectangles too). It's not always about what you paint, it is how you paint it. A great question to ask in the middle of a painting is " so why am I painting this. what am I bringing to the party here."

I see so many paintings just painted on " automatic".

Philip Koch said...

I often tell my students "it's just as much about HOW you paint as it is WHAt you paint."

The reason what Stape is talking about it true I believe is that reality has a surprising, unexpectedly vivid side to it. Getting some of that into one's painting is the point. Fortunately when we're insightful, opportunities to find this even in ordinary material abound.

Mary Byrom said...

Totally right on ! That's why its so much easier to paint in those spectacular western places - heck what's not awesome ? And you in Cranmore...indeed. I actually think that if a painter has to work on making that painting you become a better artist. Its about "painting language"...your own. I've had painters want to paint with me at certain locations after seeing something I did there. Then when they got there they were...What? This is the place? I didn't paint the place I painted the thing the place reminded me of...and just used the props in that location to depict that.
Nice photo ! I've been the only painter at that famous spot surrounded by a hundred photographers waiting for that magic moment of light...I didn't have to wait. They all were laughing and joking about how great it was that I could do exactly what I wanted...while they hung around switching lenses, etc. while waiting for the light to hit those peaks...

JAMES A. COOK said...

I learned alot from this post STAPE. Some times the scene and subject mater in front of us is to boring, to plane and unentersting. We as artist have to construct a composition that works. Take what we see and make a picture that talks to you .That has a statement. I think this is what you mean?
Thank you STAPE .

Eden Compton Studio said...

Great post Stape - valuable advice!

billspaintingmn said...

It's sort of like the punch line to a joke. You set it up, then knock it out of the park. If it's good, people cheer.

Aliye Cullu said...

Thank you for this instruction. Where do I sign up for one of your workshops? I have learned to stop saying, "I'm bored with North Florida," and find something that captures my imagination here. I think an attitude of gratitude comes into play, too, for the beauty around me and ability to make something with paint. I bow to you.

Anonymous said...

Oh Stape, I had an experience last evening that your comments have struck a paradyme shift for me! I paint a lot of figures, I love the way flesh takes on surrounding colors, here near Palm Springs I am surrounded by great scenic panoramas...I never look at my back yard for a painting. I walked out on my lawn to enjoy the cool temps we have been having, 75 vs 100, and looked towards my neighbors yard, there was an old eucalyptus tree with the bark peeled off, downslope, backlighted by the afternoon sun. The sun shining on the slope was reflecting into the shadows on the trunk all the colors of the surrounding flowers and ground and also the sky...I ran and got my easel, the effect was changing so fast I grabbed a palette knife just to mix the colors I saw quickly...the trunk had the look of flesh transparent beautiful. It's kind of abstract but it captured some of the feeling I experienced, now I am looking at my patio and yard with new eyes, for a few moments I felt like an 'artist' making magic. It's amazing to me how often during this blog you have put words to my experience. Thank you again, Terry

Antonin Passemard said...

The impressionists that called themselves the realists before really did that. They painted common places with a straight forward technique but really focus on the subject which was light and color.
Each time I see their masterpieces I am so humble by it. So simple so obvious but yet perfect !

Jim Oberst said...

Stape, I'm learning a lot from your blog. Thank you! Can you talk briefly about how you price demos sold to students, or how you price plein air paintings sold to passers-by. What are the price relationships to your "normal" prices? Thanks.

Unknown said...

Well, I was just sitting staring at two plein air works I started. They are okay, but they do not have any poetry. I was just thinking, "what can I do to make these special?"
This post didn't answer that question, but it does definitely relate to my current predicament.
You've said before, it's not WHAt it is a painting of, but HOW.
and that's the tough part! I am ready to throw everything I've painted in the last 6 months in the trash.

barbara b. land of boz said...

HEAR HEAR....well said Stapleton. Paintings, just like life are what you make it. Sometimes it just, "Is what it is".

Stapleton Kearns said...

T Arthur Smith;
Thanks for the link.

Stapleton Kearns said...

jake gumbleton;
No I don't know of him. Heres a true confession. I have never watched an artists DVD. I have tried, but they all bore me to ears. But I seldom watch movies either. I don't like sitting around.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Johan Derycke;
We could just move to Montana and be done with it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip Koch;
I should do a post of tonalist painting. They specialized in painting ordinary places.

Stapleton Kearns said...;
I have spent too much time on automatic.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mary Byrom;
Mary, congrats on appearing in Plein air magazine!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey James, good to hear from you. Yeah! you got it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Eden Compton;

Stapleton Kearns said...

I can never remember jokes.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Aliye Cullu;
I will be announcing a new one to take place in the fall.
But it is a long way from you, sorry.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Paradyme shift.Redline the tach.

Stapleton Kearns said...

They did, didn't they.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jim Oberst;
Maybe I will do a blog post on that. Just as soon as I know the answer.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I throw LOTS of stuff away. It is cleansing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

barbara b. land of boz;
Paintings are hopefully a lot more interesting than life.

Plein Air Gal said...

Great post, Stape! Something we all need to remember when faced with "boring" subject matter.
I suppose that even though you were forewarned about the delightful subject matter in Cranford, NJ you couldn't quite fully imagine the problem until you saw it for yourself. LOL! The saddest part of the problem is that everyone there truly believes it IS wonderful and beautiful and that there's a painting on every corner (which it is by comparison to some neighboring towns, for sure)!

gail said...

I watched Stape do his magic at this location. He described the locals challenges well but he found one of the few slivers that worked. The painting with the "painted rice' was exciting to see it come together. I learned a lot.