22 March 2015

What Would Artists Paint If.....

Against The Wind - 9x6" - Oil on canvas
What would artist's paint if they knew no one would ever see their paintings?

This question has been pondering me lately. I think I am at a kind of crossroads, where I'm questioning what I'm doing as an artist. Why am I painting? What is the purpose? In a world overflowing with art, what do I have to add? Some of these questions I can answer on simple terms, but there are more complex answers beneath the surface that I am just starting to scratch.

Why I paint is answered by many artists with "because I must", and that is true for me as well. But why must I? This answer is not so simple. I find joy in the process, but also angst and unbelievable frustration. I get satisfaction from producing something tangible and sometimes beautiful. I believe man was born to create, but why art for me? Why not beautiful gardens, architecture, or clothing?

What is the purpose? That's a harder question to answer. I would like to think its purpose is to help society understand what matters, but is that just a grandiose egotistical thought? Who am I to determine what matters? Matters to who? Me? You? The world? Is the purpose of painting to share the joy and beauty I see with others? Is it something more?

Perhaps that is an honest enough reason, but then that reason makes it important for others to be able to see and enjoy my work. Which means I will either need to get my work into public displays, sell it, or give it away. Getting it into public displays and selling it creates an environment where artists are tempted to paint for ulterior motives and move away from the purity of creating from the soul. It is here we start to be riddled with angst and self-doubt, striving not to satisfy ourselves, but painting to the standards of someone else.

Willliam Reese, in his book The Painters Process, says:
"Beware of the taste of the masses, they are for the most part untrained and all fickle. Most of those professing to know what art is have only been interested in art a short time and will be moving on to sail boating or something else shortly. Don't paint down to their level. Paint over their heads and make them rise to the bait. Only a few will understand but they are who you are painting for. Chain restaurants have aimed their product at the masses and we all know what this has gotten us."

There is so much noise (and pressure) about marketing art, which naturally leads to conforming to a fickle trend in style or subject and moves many artists away from that place of creating for the simple joy of it without concern for whether it be judged good or not. How many artists have been tormented by trying to gain acceptance as an artist, or trying to make enough money from painting to support themselves and their families. What has been lost to us as viewers, and to the artists, because of striving for financial or personal recognition?

I recently watched The Impressionist's, a BBC mini-series focused on Monet's life and that of his comrades; Renoir, Manet, Degas, and Cezanne. Some struggled greatly to be accepted in the Salon shows, and to earn a living from their art, some were from wealthy families that paid them an allowance allowing them to paint as they saw fit, yet there was a still a struggle for acceptance. But these artists still had the courage to experiment with personal styles that did not conform to the popular art trends of their times.

The Harvesters - Pierre Auguste Renoir - Oil - 1873
Rejection was a big part of their struggle as artists, despite whether they needed public acceptance for financial reasons or not. Why is it important? Is it because the artist, like the writer, is trying to tell people something through their paintings? To make them see a hidden beauty? See into the soul of its people? Is it because the artist sees and understands things that aren't part of the normal senses and vocabulary of people, and the only way to tell that story is through the painting? For the artist, no matter how many words exist, or how much is written, there is still something we can’t communicate through words alone.

What I am trying to translate to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the implacable source of sensations.
- Paul Cezanne

Does acceptance mean other people are willing to embrace the invisible forces of the artists subconscious? Does the painting act as a conduit in connecting the souls of the artist and person who falls in love with that painting? If so, what does rejection mean?

To do something different, be it in painting or life itself, will always meet with resistance and criticism. Most people naturally gravitate to sameness, and following the masses will always be a safer road that forging on alone. But being true to yourself and following your soul, as an artist, may take you on unfamiliar, lonely roads. Go there anyway for the discoveries you will make will only help you to understand yourself. 

The spirit of rejection finds its support in the consciousness of separateness; the spirit of acceptance finds its base in the consciousness of unity.
- Rabindranath Tagore

What would the history of art look like if artists across the decades were able to paint as if no one would ever see the work? I think the answer to this question lies in the work of the Impressionist’s and Post-Impressionist’s. What courage it must have taken for painters like Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Cezanne, and others to reject the style of the French Academy with their historical and mythology based painting, in favor of their own personal discoveries and expressions.


If you ever find yourself struggling as an artist, it is a worthwhile activity to go back and read the histories of the artists from that time period who were forging new ground and creating paintings so hated at that time, but unimaginable not to treasure today.