05 September 2015

I'm Doing It All Wrong

Benalto Farm - 11x14" - Oil on canvas panel

Art is subjective making it hard to find a definitive answer of what is great art. Sure we have answers from various experts on historical art and why it should be considered great; and even experts on modern art, but few of us will agree with those opinions. As a painter it is up to me to figure out my own standards. What do I like. What do I want my paintings to say and how do I want them to look?
We have at our disposable a wealth of opportunities to propel our learning. Workshops, books, DVD's, the Internet, the possibilities are endless, and the opinions and techniques varied. All this information can lead to confusion; worse yet, it can lead to bad practices and polarity of technique. Tonalist paintings attempted with bold high chroma colours, for example. So how does a modern painter intent on improving their skills proceed?

It's been suggested to pick one instructor and stick with them to avoid opposing techniques. If that's the case, one should also limit their study to only artists (past and present) who have the same techniques and ideals. While that may be sound advice, it may also be putting the horse before the cart.

In my quest to learn I've explored many different artists and techniques, but rarely do I like what results in my own work from experimenting with these different ideas. I've come to realize that I've approached learning all wrong. Learning should start with the question "What makes me love a painting". If I were to sit down and analyze art I love, and answer the question of "what makes me love this painting", I would gain more information than from reading a dozen books on painting.

So how do we analyze the art we love? We can use the theories of painting as a starting point by looking at the common techniques used such as, values (light and shadow), colour, shapes, edges, depth, composition, surface treatment or texture, and subject. If you track your answers and opinions a common trend should emerge. Only once you've found the common thread in the art you love can you progress to study. If you can't answer those questions how can you expect to learn in any kind of useful and informative manner?

For me it's a combination of subtle colour and painterly brushwork (value, shapes, edges, surface treatment). I love lost and found edges, and areas of ambiguity. I love having to solve the painting and being able to fill in some blanks.

One of the contemporary painters I admire greatly is Terry Miura, another is Ingrid Christensen (who I think is gem waiting to be discovered).

Terry Miura's Prologue - 16x20
Terry Miura's Prologue - 16x20" - Oil on linen
Looking at Terry Miura's painting title "Prologue" I see many lost and found edges. Look how the forward arm melts into the couch, and the bottom edge of the couch is indistinguishable from the shadow under the couch. With the face being in shadow, I'm left to fill in the blanks. There's enough information to judge it's a younger woman, but not enough to know exactly who. The painting feels contemplative, but really we get to make our own story. Maybe she's tired, maybe she's contemplative about just finishing a good book, maybe it's the end of the day and she's about to go to bed..... The colours are subtle but the broad value range makes it dynamic. Overall I love his brushwork.

Ingrid Christensen - Morning - 12x11.5
Ingrid Christensen - Morning - 12x11.5" - Oil on linen[
What similarities do you see between Ingrid Christensen's painting title "Morning" and Terry Miura's one above? Ambiguity, mystery, value contrasts, subtle but beautiful colour, and incredible brushwork. They are both figurative works. I could have just as easily chosen from the other subjects each paints, but wanted the same subject for an easier comparison.

I have many more painters, past and present, whom I love. The qualities are all (not so coincidentally) similar. Some may use thicker paint, some thinner, but in all cases the brushwork, edges, use of values, and colours are all very similar. They all employ obvious layering of paint. This is an area I still struggle with.

If I've identified what I love, my learning should now progress to how to achieve those techniques, and then the real challenge....how to apply them to tell an authentic story from my own perspective within my own subjects (landscapes).

This, I believe, is the right path to becoming a better painter.