Sunday 11 January 2015

More than the Sum of its Parts

colour pencils

Over the holidays, I visited the home of two graphic artists. In their spare time, they share a studio where they paint. One uses acrylic colours to render representational but imaginary landscapes; another uses acrylic pastes to get textures and overlays ‘skins’ made with acrylic gels, the imagery derived from photographs. They have quite a stack of paintings but as they pulled one after the other out to show me, they said apologetically, “It’s not finished.” It turns out that neither is ever satisfied with his or her work. He never finishes his; the she repeatedly paints over hers.
While both have taken many art technique courses, they work on their art when they have time, sometimes weeks apart. To them, it’s a leisure activity that they nevertheless approach with high expectations: their imagery should work; everything is in place for it to work, and yet they are frustrated and discouraged because it doesn’t. “What can we do to fix this painting?” they asked, showing me one with a background sky in a painterly, abstract style and a foreground tree in a graphic, narrative style. “You need not just to know the words, you need to understand the language.” I said, “And then you need to become fluent in it.”
It is pretty huge. It’s also daunting. People expect art to be easy, accessible, enjoyable, an instantaneous result of ‘inspiration’. It is that, at first, for the child artist encouraged to discover expression, or for the amateur finding the courage and the leisure to ‘just do it’; it is almost that as well for the professional after many years of painstaking work. The hard part is for the people in the middle, those with enough training and knowledge to have expectations but without the work ethic or the dedication to process to find a way to fulfil them.
To the two painters looking at the landscape, I pointed out the disconnection between the elements in the painting, between the subject – the tree - and the background – the sky. Two different ‘styles’ were being represented in the work and they were in conflict: the sky was painted with a flat brush and fluid gestures, the stormy sunset colours blending and separating without hard edges or still spaces. The tree, on the other hand, centred on the canvas, had a fixed trunk and a leaf mass created by the tip of a round brush dabbed onto the surface, each dab a bright, defined, static shape, one colour on or beside another. There was no storm and no sunset anywhere in the tree.
It looked like the artist couldn’t decide whether to ‘express’ the image or ‘describe’ it, two different aims of which the artists were totally unaware (I blame their education).
When questioned, the artist finally decided that the more painterly approach, the one that referred more to abstraction than representation, was the ‘right’ one. The task now was to help the artist re-think the tree, re-visualize it as an expression of a tree rather than its description. “How?” was the perplexed question.
We all ‘know’ a sky is ‘already expressive’, it moves and changes as we watch, it suggests movement and fluidity, and even when captured in a photograph it has no hard edges. How indeed does one express a solid object made up of fixed forms  - trunk, branches, leaves -  as having form but not fixed in place? How even to override the typical or familiar definitions of objects, in this case of ‘tree’, especially when one works from a photograph (usually a badly taken one, or an appropriated one), that denies actual experience, time and movement, to be able to perceive the tree’s growing energy, its dance with the light and the winds?
There is the crux of these artists’ problem. Art is as much about ‘gesture’ as it is about subject. By ‘gesture’ I mean a number of things: the lines of movement and energy in the subject; the physical way the subject inhabits its space, how it is affected by the energies around it, both physically and as ideas (a building, for instance, is a more complex reality than a box sitting in perspective on the ground). As important is the artist’s ‘gesture’: how the paintbrush (or pencil, or sculpting tool, or…) is held, how heavy or light it is, with what movement and force does it touch the canvas, how tight/loose, small/large, focused/sweeping are the artist’s movements as paint is delivered to the canvas; what level of stamina must the artist have to sustain these gestures and for how long; how to maintain focus during the most difficult or challenging moments…
In this ‘gestural’ way, art making is as much a sport as, say, javelin throwing or tennis or hockey, it requires a similar type of training, the re-calibration of body and mind in relation to tools, space and timing to achieve the best result. This takes time, what’s called ‘practice’. Why would a painter sit down at a canvas ‘cold’, expecting to create a perfect image out of thin air? Yet this is what many do; this is what these two painters do.
I gave the artist an assignment to answer the “how?” practically. First, since the tree image was derived from a photograph, I advised her to sit with the photograph but to look at it through a film, perhaps a sheet of Mylar or some wax paper from the kitchen. Then to draw it in graphite maybe ten or fifteen different times with loose gestures, trying to ‘see’ light and shadow through variations of speed and pressure as she worked quickly. Having done this, I advised her to stop, to go do laundry or have supper, but to do these things visualizing what she had seen happening on her paper. (this helps develop a deliberate visual/physical memory of the exercise). After awhile, or the next day, I told her to go do the same but looking at a tree in her yard, now trying to ‘see’ the relationship between the solid parts (trunk, branches, leaves) and the movement (clouds, wind, changes in the light and in the directions of elements). Lastly, she was to do the same two exercises, again with visualizing breaks, with coloured pencils or with pastels (though pastels generate toxic dust and must be used safely). The colours chosen eventually should be matched to the colours she wanted to retain in her painting of the sky/tree.
Having done all this, the artist had to decide to re-paint the tree in the painting with the same gestures used in the practices but from the memory of the results obtained, or to start the painting fresh thinking of sky and tree not as two separate objects in the same place but as related elements of the same experience. That second choice meant the artist had to understand what the experience was (A storm-resistant tree? The beauty and power of nature? A heroic stand against opposing forces? All of the above?) and what aspects of it the painting would express.
The more engaged people become with materials and subjects to make art images, the more they, and those who watch them create, expect from their work. However, without a sustained practice, without research and experimentations, without knowledge that increases with each failure or success, the more difficult it is for the work to live up to expectations. Process in art isn’t just about making a bit of time, clearing a little space, setting up a few materials, choosing a subject and beginning and ending an image. There is much more to it than that.
I saw some dismay in the artists’ faces because I’d not given them a quick fix for the image. I just hope they commit to the process. I look forward to seeing what comes of it. Maybe as a result, he will get to finish his images and she will resolve rather than erase her paintings.

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