Even artists who confess no particular belief in God, cannot deny moments or periods of inspiration. Inspired art however continues to be decried by the critics as something to be downplayed. The opposite of de-bunking any kind of inspiration is not painting at all until a supernatural feeling or image is conjured.
Living near the California coast I often watch surfers. They will surf set after set of mediocre waves before catching anything good. They might be out there day after day waiting for a truly good wave. They know however that they must practice on the average to be ready for those which have excellent shape and length. When an experienced surfer catches and rides really good waves it is truly wonderful to see.
It seems to be an inspired moment but perhaps I am stretching the meaning to broadly.
Being inspired means experiencing something quite beyond our normal range of awareness. We see something we never quite saw before. We are able to follow a line of nature that had eluded us, a particular hue is mixed that was unattainable before, a look or feel is imparted to a painting that goes beyond a natural ability. In between these apparent bursts of insight are often long periods of mechanically working out a composition. We follow principals, work on balance, symmetry and contrast for effect. We are like the surfer catching all those mediocre waves while trying to perfect technique.
Inspired art translates into all phases of life. In business we come up with a solution we never imagined before. It just comes to us. It seems to have been inside us all the time, but from beyond us as well. We see inspired moments in sports, in music, in carpentry, in architecture, in the way a nurse treats a patient. There is a certain joy we experience. Because it is so illusive, it is a waste of time to seek after it. All that we can do is be about our task, pay attention, concentrate, be aware. It is the process that we must enjoy…the journey.
If God, a supernatural understanding, the Muse somehow pays us a visit and expands our experience, then all the better. Regardless, inspired art comes in remarkably small portions. If we are not paying attention it might elude us time after time. If we are not busy with our craft we will of course, never notice at all. It is my feeling that even the greats like Delacroix or Picasso or Rembrandt, out of the hundreds and hundreds of completed works, count to themselves but ten or twelve they hold especially dear.
In the creative visual arts world there tends to be an inbalance which leans heavily towards inspirational force. Technical skill becomes undervalued. It is the great theme, the inspired idea which is paramount and true skill in handling becomes the third rate cousin to the creative process. I have become increasingly fascinated with comparing the visual art process with all the other arts such as music, dance, writing and architecture. Can you imagine a wonderfully choreagraphed dance where the dancers clearly lack experience and technical skill to execute the choreograph movements? The performance would be a failure. Imagine a majestic piece of music where the pianist clumsily transitions between notes, or an inspired idea for a story but the author lacks the ability to create simple and proper sentence structure. Especially as we mature as artists then we realize how critical ‘technical skill’ to the success of a painting. In fact, it might even be said that a mediocre idea for a painting, if skillfully rendered will be perceived as evocative and even beautiful.
Especially in the past several years I have developed the habit of consciously pulling out paintings which were conceived several months prior. I consider it a period of gestation. The original painting was put down with the intent of keeping intact an original idea, a first impression. I find it is often difficult to get an idea ‘set’ and then also to carry it out with all the technical skill necessary for full completion. They often comprise two fairly distinct efforts. A form may be put down accurately but the edges are not refined or they do not blend in with adjacent forms. Choice of the original color hues may often need refinement. An area that is a wash may need to become completely opaque or line quality needs to be rendered more carefully. This is the second effort relying now on the artists technical skill. The beginning artist therefore must be patient in developing these necessary skill sets.
There is much to be said and appreciated for that initial inspiration, that great bust of energy that brings an artist to the canvas in the first place. I love the story of how Frank Loyd Wright kept putting off the design of the now famous Falling Waters Home. When the owner grew impatient and announced he would be driving up to the architects studio in six hours Wright brought his apprentices in to the studio. They kept sharpening his pencils as he furiously drew out the concepts for Falling Water. When the client arrived and Wright presented the drawings the couple were astonished. No doubt Wright had been pondering and conceiving of the structure for months prior to actually drawing it out on paper. That was the inspired moment, the inception, the spark but it would be many months later when finally the technical drawings were completed. In terms of technical skill the builders and carpenters and masons had to then re-create those drawings in to a three-dimensional world. Architecture in my view is an almost perfect example of the fairly sharp distinction between the ‘concept development’ and the requisite technical skill that must follow. Good and skillful workmanship must accompany good architecture.
We admire the masters because they tirelessly mastered their craft, became skillful with the brush, with design and with proper justapositions of color, hue and harmony. The so-called simple and straightforward portraits by Rembrandt are spellbinding because of the great technical skill he employed in manipulating paint and light on the surface plane. I admire the brilliant watercolors by Sargeant because of the great skill he employed in rendering light in nature. The history bending painting, Nude Descending the Staircase has a remarkable luminosity and harmony that had not been seen before and this could not have been succesful without unusual skill with the brush and without an uncanny eye for color. It appears rapidly executed but was in fact rendered with great care and skill and intention. For those of us desiring to improve our own work, we can take heart. By tirelessly devoting ourselves to improving the quality of our brushwork, the consistency of our lines, the blending of forms and backgrounds we can transform even a common representation to something that truly is art.
I occasionally talk with beginner painters, some students who cannot seem to start a painting. How to start a painting is in my view an actual process. There is the inevitable fear of getting a good start which some students cannot deny. It may also be the lack of legitimate idea or concept. Following a particular process can be very helpful.
In almost every case I first prepare the canvas or panel before there is even an idea in mind. Because I used primed panel this is a fairly tedious process of buying, cutting, priming and then installing struts but regardless of the material, prepare your surface. Have it fully ready. This would include your brushes, the oil paints, the thinner or medium, rags, the pallette. Have it mounted on an easel. In other words, be completely ready. This is the first step in the process.
As they say, ‘sleep on it’. Think about that white canvas and imagine what might be painted. It is not unusual to dream about the painting. One time I had a painting in mind and I had it fairly worked in conceptually. I even had made some drawings. I was going to start it the very next morning. That night I had a dream and woke up with a completely different idea. While it was still fresh in my mind I went immediately out to the studio and began to paint from my memory of the dream’s image. I painted solid for six hours to get it down accurately. If the panel or canvas had not been prepared I would have missed the opportunity – that spontaneous burst of insight which artists so desire to experience.
Once the panel or canvas is ready, when all the mateials are ready I often suggest preliminary sketches. The beauty of sketches on paper is that they are only sketches – you are not locked in. Keep sketching until something really resonates for you. When it does I will often transfer this loosely on the canvas with graphite pencil or even with a small brush dipped in thinned umber. It is remarkable how drawing with a small brush can bring the idea alive on the canvas. Keep looking at it. Come back to it the next day…keep studying it and eventually the moment to begin painting will arrive.
Still lifes for Beginners may seem like an innocuous title for an article but the practice can yield comprehensive results. It is also an excellent way to chart your progress from year to year. Try to do five or six every year. They don’t have to be large paintings and use just common items around the house or fresh fruit, or vegetables or flowers are always a fun challenge.
What will you learn by painting Still Lifes? You will learn several distinct and important aspects of painting in oils. First you will discover what is good and not so good composition. As you progress you will find better ways to place objects in space. You will discover that there is a certain energy between objects and placing them side by side, forward or back is an important part, even a critical part of painting. You will find it helps to have large and small objects in the painting – this will add interest and you will learn about ‘scale’…that is, relative scale and how large to make things appear on your canvas. A look at Cezanne’s Still Lifes will be revealing in that regard.
The other important aspect of Still Lifes that will help you as a painter is the subject of shading. Irrespective of color, the dynamics of shading is vitally important to the success of a painting. Make sure you establish a distinct light source. If you cannot come up with a natural light source then by all means create your own with an incandescent bulb off to the side. By learning to paint from dark to light and then from light to dark is greatly facilitated by the relative innertness of the Still Life. Personally when I look back at my early paintings I rarely included enough contrast…that is, my darks were not dark enough and my lights were too insipid.
If painting a number of Still Lifes helps you improve your ability to compose a successful painting and helps you to be skillful in establishing shade then you are definitely making strides as an artist. Take a look at Fantin La Tour who produced a very large amount of Still LIfes in his career, because after all it is not always possible to have a suitable live model on hand.
It is not uncommon for artists, especially abstract artists to discover ‘The One Painted Thing’ that the painting is about. The entire structure however large seems to exist just for that one ‘thing’ to become manifest. I have found this often to be the case. It is interesting when someone looks at the painting and discovers it also.
Rarely have I preconceived that ‘One Thing’ because it develops out of the sub-conscious in the process of painting. It is not so much a theme as a singular statement. It often is seen as a coalesence of the other forms and images or to say it more perfectly, the fullest expression of all the other forms. It is the pinnacle, though curiously it may often appear cloaked or partly hidden. It resides supreme in part because of a perfect shade, or shape.
That one special ‘Painted Thing’ even in its subtlety is like a magnet, a sun which all the other forms, all the other shades seem to revolve around. It might even be said that one of the purposes of abstract painting is to discover that One Thing, that essence of the painting that seeks to become exposed and discovered.
When a painting has excellent balance, when it is purely painted, when there is an inherent energy and then when a core genesis is discovered within the context of the entire painting something very special has happened. The painting develops and then the artist begins to realize what needs to be manifest. It is a distillation process. Then the One Thing is painted and sometimes quite by accident. The artist stands back, almost astonished. He realizes what has been achieved…as if beyond his own understanding. That ‘One Painted Thing’, that image irrevocably resonates. It speaks back to him. It is as if the artists has discovered a valuable part of himself. His psyche has been opened up.
When is a painting completed is a critical question you will be left to answer on your own. There is the story of John Singer Sargent and how he completed his paintings. After a work was 99% complete he would take it into another room. In that room without distractions and in different light he would study it from time to time, between other commissions. Then when he finally saw what was needed he would retrieve his pallete and brush and with just a few accents meticulously placed, the painting was finished.
The story might be just hyperbole but it gives some insight for the advanced artist as well as the beginner. There is always the burst of energy and inspiration and this eventually dissipates as the painting wears on. It is not always easy to maintain the initial thrust of the work. The tried and tested rules for a completed painting do not easily apply to abstract paintings which is my genre. We can say a few things however that will point distinctly towards a painting’s completion.
Firstly it certainly must meet your demands. Are you pleased with it? Did it in fact capture some or most of what you had intended? If accidents occur and they often do in abstract painting, are you pleased with them? If not, can they be corrected? Very often in my own work I ask myself if more contrast is needed and are the highs, high enough and the deep tones, deep enough. Can the contrast or tension be increased without sacrificing the overall look of the painting? Is there movement or is the painting for some reason just static and if it is static and flat, how can this be corrected? When is a painting completed will ultimately be answered by you alone.
Sometimes an abstract painting is done primarily through a spontaneous effort, even completed in a day. Going back and adding to or subtracting needs to be done with extreme care and attention, otherwise any corrections will look out of place. It is important to not ask yourself what someone else might like in the painting – please yourself only. If in painting there is an area that is remarkably effective and you feel you have exceeded your abilities then this is excellent. If the rest of the painting is not quite as inspired this is ok. This is progress. The fact that part of the painting represents something remarkable is a notable achievement. Sometimes small attenuations on the rest of the painting can even augment and enhance those high parts of the painting.
Certainly set it aside when you are practically complete. Bring it out in a week or two and maybe even bring it in and hang it on the dining room wall. Study it. What else could be done, if anything? I like my paintings to have a certain drama or force or energy. One painting that I did had very good composition, good balance, good movement but the colors key was too flat. I re-worked the entire painting with more intense hues and the painting was transformed.