Manet's Berthe Morisot (detail)
Recently a participant of my online workshop noted that I painted many landscapes. She wanted to know if I could help her paint portraits too. I answered that I could and briefly spoke about the universal approach to painting irrespective of the subject. It was a good question and needs a fuller response.
My workshop covers many aspects of painting, but there is perhaps one central theme. Learning how to see like an artist. This has to be learnt through conscious practice over time. Innate talent is within us all. To unleash this talent effectively requires intention and practice.
Nobody can teach originality or style. Those qualities are the happy burden for each artist to carry. But learning to see like an artist can be taught to the willing student. How does this relate to portrait painting? Simply this - a portrait or figure study is an arrangement of shapes in various hues and values. There is also the gesture of the person although this covers more than technique. Most students will be focused on technique at first and this is fine to begin with.
Not convinced? Painting landscapes is challenging. There is good reason why so many great artists have spent so much time painting the great variety of subjects that nature provides. Light, seasons, colours and moods fill our natural world with variety on a daily basis if not hourly. No wonder that we love landscapes so much. Look closer and it is clear that an artist must be able to see accurately, evaluate and make decisions about shapes, hues and values not to mention placement of brushstrokes. If painting plein air then these decisions must be made quickly. These skills apply to portrait painting too.
Yes there is some license given to the landscape artist to leave out elements that distract and if a tree is "moved" for better composition then this may be forgiven too. However painting a likeness in a portrait requires accurate recording of shapes in their proper place. This is when the hours of training the eye to see accurately will help the artist. Manet's portrait of Berthe Morisot is an example of painterliness that conveys a likeness and intrigues us with shapes of colour and brushwork when viewed closer. The bold contrasts between light and dark shapes is an important approach for every landscape artist too. It bears mentioning that Manet was also an accomplished landscape artist.
Another benefit to the landscape artist is the ability to work with a larger brush to carve out planes and surfaces. A comparison to sculpture with a brush instead of a chisel is helpful to illustrate this approach. This avoids the overly rendered photo-realist approach that in so many cases results in a dull surface (note the protests over the Dutchess of Cambridge's portrait). Would Manet's approach have been better to capture something more intangible?
Colour notes placed carefully yet expressively in shaping a portrait is, to my view, more desirable and interesting than overly-rendered realism. But that is a matter of choice. It must also be said that painting from life instead of a photograph will give better results. Many landscape artists have developed this skill outdoors. There can be no messing about with fiddly details outdoors. This helps in portrait painting too. Give it a try.
Painting is an adventure and any limits are self-imposed. Paint what makes you joyful and try many different subjects to really grow as an artist.
There was a time when being a specialist was the ideal. We were told that specialised training and university degrees were the ticket to lifelong prosperity. At least we would be comfortable and have a good pension plan. If you had a problem then a specialist would be called in to solve it. This was good. Everyone knew the rules.
But things have changed. Suddenly it seems that the specialist looks out of place. The man in the shiny suit and tie looking dazed at the interest rates on the mortgage bond account. I have read that one must be able to select something, anything, and be really good at it. An expert. But is that enough? I suspect not. These days you need to be more than an expert in one thing. You need to be an expert is something and very good in many others and still competent in even more areas. This will mean being able to do your primary claim to fame, market yourself, master technology, fix the leak in the roof, mend the door and cook a healthy meal. If you cannot do these things you may need an artist.
No really. What is an artist? He or she need not be a painter or singer (although they could be). A true artist is an enthusiastic problem solver. Take painting for example. Every painting is a series of problems and corrections until finally the artist is satisfied with the solution. Once the painting is completed the solution is not forgotten. Then the painting must get to market and be sold so that the artist can buy paints and pay the electricity bill. Problem to be solved - how to market and sell in a hostile economy. How to thrive in times when uncertainty prevails? How to update your website gallery? These are complex problems and require multiple skills to arrive at a solution.
How does this apply to the world today? simply this - every person today needs to up their skills. The general practitioner in life will prevail while the specialist will become vulnerable. What happens when your employer demands that you relocate to another city. Can you refuse and keep your job? If not you are vulnerable unless you can find a solution within your skills and other abilities.
There is an an artist within everyone. This is a fact that can be seen in people a century or two ago. Before production lines and timer clocks made us helpless. We have to face a new time where self sufficiency is needed to survive. We need to become artists once again.
Liberty, n. One of Imagination's most precious possessions.(Ambrose Bierce)
When the governement or other established power base starts to challenge any art form, including freedom of speech and information, I see weakness and desperation in that government.
When art is accepted at best and tolerated at worst it may suggest a healthy society. People get on with their lives and can think for themselves (without the powers that be trying to control these thoughts). Artists are happy to accept or ignore different opinions on what they produce. That is the way it should be and everybody gets on with life. But when art is condemned by a ruling power then there is poverty of leadership.
Recently I was researching impressionist art. One of the books spent time on the revolution in art and ideas that gave birth to impressionism. (See my little slideshow summary). One major catalyst of course was the art academy trying to control what art when on exhibition at the annual salon. This official recognition was critical to making a living as an artist. If you were rejected you quite literally could starve unless you gave up art and took up another trade. Modern self-promotion and galleries did not exist. Understandably when the world started entering modern times artists started to resist these shackles. Change was inevitable.
Fast forward to 1930's Germany. The Nazi government tries to stamp out art forms it terms "degenerate". At first the Nazis try to do this by humiliating the artists. The Nazis seize the paintings and mount a travelling exhibition in Germany and Austria. Tens of thousands flock to see the art that is verboten. Why is the art so popular? Sure many are simply curious, but is there something to art as a catalyst for ideas and a symbol of freedom when this human right is under threat. Why were the Nazis so fearful of artistic expression that did not meet their approved propaganda? Is art powerful after all?
As time has moved forward with greater technological change it has become easy to laugh off art as a weekend activity. A hobby. Art students are tolerated and even pitied for being naive. We need professionals and engineers. So why is it time for artists to recognise their power? What is missing in this modern society?
For one thing people feel that their back is against the wall. Regulation of everything, massive price increases, no job security and tough competition means everyone must look out for themselves. Technology can mean freedom or enslavement. It is up to the individual to choose and choice can be scary.
When we see government attacking an artist's work, attacking free speech in television adverts, threatening journalists with action if they seek the truth then perhaps we are seeing a new appreciation for the power of ideas. Ideas expressed in art has power when we recognise that all is not well in our daily lives. Art can jolt society out of its torpor. Art is creativity in action and it does provoke at an emotional level. Tyrants know that ideas are dangerous.
What is this brief rant about? Simply this - do not trust authority when it attacks art. When it tries to control arts and media. When it tries to ridicule artists. Art cannot be imprisoned. Art is within us. Art is freedom and art is critical to the world today. The next time leaders with feet of clay cry out indignantly at an artist, do not fall for it. The emperor does indeed have no clothes.
Forward to a friend. Start a movement. Pick yourself. Your creativity can make a difference. Let's commit to doing our best art starting today!
To mark the launch of my Facebook page I have put a painting up as a prize. All you need to do to take part is visit the page and Like something. Easy!
There will also be three vouchers for participation on my online art workshop free of charge. Closing date is 28 February 2013. The winners will be announced by 07 March 2013.
The past few months has been a learning curve for me. There have been challenges in the technical side of things setting up my new online art workshop, considering the diverse needs and goals of fellow artists as well as my personal development as an artist. The challenge has not been the lack of time, although I have had to manage that issue carefully. As far as getting the work done I tend to just put one foot in front of the other. Doggedness has always made up for other shortcomings. The real challenge has rather been about managing doubt.
Author Seth Godin suggests that the watchword of a sane artist is: "Shun the nonbelievers". That is important. Artists need to focus on their work and have faith in themselves when others do not. I have spoken before about the risk of art. The risk of putting your work out there for possible rejection or even worse, indifference. But it is important to remember that no one asks for your art. This does not mean your art is not required. You give it and share it, because that is your path. Once your art is released your calling demands that more art be produced.
Vincent Van Gogh faced the non-believers. Sadly in his day there was little sympathy for artists trying something new - artists who tried to make things happen. Has anything changed? Yes there has been a massive change, but we need to take advantage. The opportunities and tools to create and publish have been opened to all of us. The challenge now is to face the doubts, look within and do the work.
What about self doubt? Many people say that they wished that they had time for their art, or that they are not good enough or feel frustrated because they just cannot get motivated to start after a break from art. All of these reasons put forward point to self doubt. It is difficult to respond to these excuses. Encouragement is met with a smile at best. As weak as these excuses may sound to some they are significant obstacles to the artist herself, because they point to a massive hurdle. The same hurdle faces people trying to break a bad habit. It is tough to take the first steps then even tougher to make it a part of your life. In the back of the mind is the fear of giving up and facing the truth. You just did not have the fire to see it through. Self doubt does that to you.
I faced plenty of self doubt about an online art workshop. Before that I had doubted other things too, but the doubts were unfounded once the work was done and published. I had reached the top of a hill and could look over the valley, admire the view and get ready for the next hill. Yes more doubts will crop up, but they become milestones if you look at them differently. Proof of progress in a journey. One foot in front of the other.
So my appeal to artists is to face the doubts, walk past them and never look back. Ignore the nonbelievers and shun the negative news that cloaks our world in apathy and fear. Instead take charge of your own world where you can make a difference. Take up your art, create and do so again and again. We need more art ... your art ... and please start today.
The artist who can make something happen is you.
If at first you do succeed, try not to look astonished."
My wife and I came across the above quote the other day and it gave us a good laugh. You know one of those tension relieving laughs that you really need to break the mood? Well it was one of those. Anyway you had to be there...
Of course you are familiar with the original version that says: "If at first you do not succeed, try, try again" This is often quoted by well meaning folks when you have struck out and suffered a setback. It builds character and you are supposed to pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again. True enough, but does it encourage you? Maybe it warns you about the perils of doing something risky and scares you off? After all once burned twice shy. Okay no more cliches!
I prefer the anonymous quote. All too often I am reminded that good things do happen when you do the work. The positive work that makes you feel good and helps other too. This is not mere sentiment. Real work whether it is painting fine art or restoring a chair or anything that you want to do really well. It is all art in the broad sense. It is also self evident to the viewer what has been done with artistic soul and what has been knocked off without a care.
All of these great moments of artistic endeavor only have true meaning when they are shared with others.
To share your art is risky, but necessary for the artist and for the viewer. It is not pride or ego. It is the absence of pride or ego that makes us share art. That is important for the artist. The other part is what the viewer can take from the experience. Either move on if the art does not appeal or learn from it and share the energy and enjoyment.
Above all - do your art!
Set aside the time and do not trust anyone who tries to persuade you not to. Many feel threatened by your desire to create - to these it would be more agreeable to watch another movie or browse in the mall than seeing you spend a few hours on your art. Persist - we all need you to create and for the love of art - show someone, because that is when the art is complete.
It is easier than you may imagine.
They say you should never meet your heros. You may be disappointed to discover that the superstar turns out to be a regular person. No silverscreen, no photoshop retouching, no special effects or cheering crowds. I have never met a big movie star, but I have met a few sports stars. Aside from a few exceptions they do look like regular folk, talk the same and are often rather shy. The exceptions being a few giants (literally speaking) in rugby, but they too were just people.
Except they have all done something special. They all took a risk and changed the ordinary into something extraordinary. It is a gamble - sticking you neck out I mean. Chop! So why did they do it. Why risk humiliation? Why give strangers the opportunity to tear into you if you fail?
I suspect that people who take a risk are different, because they work through the fear that is hardwired into each of us. Nobody likes to make a hash of it - especially in public. But it is in public that heros are recognised. Whether on the field, on screen, at work or even online. The fear was overcome and the risk taken. That is the hurdle. From there it is out of your hands and you take the next risk. On and on. Whether you are ignored or praised is not in your control, but going onward is.
Artist's must decide on one thing above all else. Do they go on with their art or do they stop. Nothing else. Only by going on can the ordinary become extraordinary. Stopping is failure - going onward is heroic. Stopping because of what others say or do is failure - our heros decided that stopping under those circumstances would be unbearable -and it is!
Let us all resolve to do our art today and just maybe we can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.