Sunday, April 10, 2011

Notes on becoming an artist... part two of two

This is part two of a two part series talking a bit about my journey as an artist. The first part is found here.

Why do I paint what I do now?
When I look at the art that has influenced me over the years, I see a common thread that runs through each of those periods, and still resonates to this day. This thread has attributes that I would call values or principles. They are things that I respond to in a painting, and by extension work to bring to my own art.

This is the raison d’etre of a painting: the thing that it is about. The story can be overt, (i.e. this is a picture of a person reading, or the ingredients of a meal), or the story can be subtle (the gesture of a sweep of spring onion stems, or the interplay of values). Elements can serve as a stand-alone story or be combined.
These are a few of the storylines I use most often, followed by an example. This is not a comprehensive list.
Gesture (...the energy and movement of the subject 1)
Subject (the essential nature or substance of something as distinguished from its attributes 2)
Sense of time/place (...results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties 3)

I just can’t abide by poorly made art. Poorly made means poorly drawn (the thing I hate most), poorly conceived, lacking an appropriate ‘presence of mind’ apparent in the piece. A good craftsman must be intellectually honest and hardworking: to be otherwise is cheating both yourself and your audience. I feel like I have far too often been guilty of violating this value; I should work harder, be more prepared when I produce a painting. A high level of craftsmanship is a constant struggle, though one that gets easier the more you apply the things you have learned through experience and education.

Over the years I have found that I respond to the manifestation of ‘energy’ in a piece. You can see it in the line quality of the comic book artists I favored as a kid, in the explosive movement lines in illustrators I love, and the brush strokes of the painters I pour over today. I don’t particularly care for a lot of academic painters (like Bouguereau ) because their paintings lack a surface energy, or a dynamism in gesture.
Alla prima as a discipline appeals to me as the nature of painting in a single session drives urgent energy into a painting. I like to see some bravura element of brushstroke in piece, or a distinctive gesture that excites.

I almost called this value ‘pedestrian’ but that word has too negative a connotation. Basically this means I like art that isn’t too snooty. I don’t care much for art that is too cute by half in its conception, execution, or treatment of subject matter. I like art that references things of its time, its era. Even some of the folks in my inspiration list (Dan Gerhartz, and Jeremy Lipking I’m talking to you) go too esoteric/cliché for my taste.
Being of the era also means being grounded in the Real—I like to paint real places, real people, and real things in a manner that is recognizable.

Finally, art needs to be consumed. It is fundamentally an act of creative communication, and as such that connection is only truly complete when someone else takes possession of a piece. The purchase of a piece of art is the ultimate act of making that connection—someone put enough value on the piece that they are willing to part with hard earned money in order to own it. To be humble with that is to keep prices at a level low enough for real people to afford it.

If you’ve read Notes on becoming an artist... part one of three you’ll notice that most of the artists who I consider influences are figurative painters. If you apply the values mentioned above, I think you’ll see how they fit. Almost all artists included have an element of story or narrative as a key part of their art. Their pieces abound with a sense of energy, and they are consummate craftspeople. For the most part they painted or drew the people of their day and age. Gil Kane’s comic characters from the 70s look era appropriate as do Paul Oxbourough’s subjects from the 90s. The strongest of the artists worked from life almost exclusively—or were trained to work from life. People are endlessly fascinating subjects, and at my core I consider myself a figurative painter.

Realities such as having day job and limited studio space are factors that have affected my ability to paint people from life. Instead I generally have relied on photography (photos that I shoot, not taken by others). I have tried to compensate in a myriad of ways; sketching, deep observation, color and value correction, etc, but at the end of the day, photo source just isn’t as good as having the real thing in front of you. Most of my heroes painted predominantly from life, and if I want to be true to their spirit, I need to do the same.

Additionally my absolute favorite artists were what I call 'triple threats': they worked still life, figures, and landscape. To be the artist I want to be means to try and follow in their footsteps.

People like Duane Keiser and Julian Merrow-Smith have been doing work that fits the values outlined above, and when I found an aesthetic/conceptual approach (Painting A Day) in 2007 that met my own affinities and needs I was pretty hooked. Still life and plein air painting offer a great way to work on direct observation skills without requiring large studio space. Working small means time is more easily managed. Painting still life that is modern-- not stuffy or looks overly posed has turned out to be a joy. Plein air painting is less a joy, but has still become a love.

Next week we’ll look at my progress in the last five hundred paintings or so and maybe speculate on where the future might lie.

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