Wednesday, July 30, 2008

More on Art and Originality

I'm still thinking a lot about Kenneth Baker's commentary on the Dale Chihuly exhibit.  The questions are many: what is Art anyway?  How do we read any given work of art in relation to the histories and traditions of art?  And what is the relation of Art to the general mass of products of skill and imagination?  Clearly Baker feels that there's Art and then there's all that other stuff: from "luxury items in department stores' home furnishing sections" to the kinds of paintings I and many other professionals and amateurs make.

Here's a picture I painted on site in the high Sierra.  It's a view of the mountains above Carson Pass from Hope Valley, south of Lake Tahoe.  I painted it in late spring 2006, when the snow was still heavy on the mountains but the valley floor was green and lush.  The Carson River was clear and cold.

In his essay, Baker quotes Hannah Arendt, who defined artworks as "''thought things,' that is, things that materialize thought, things to be thought about and, in rare cases, things to help us think."  I take Baker's point to be that the role of the artist is to put spectacle together with consciousness and awareness: not only the thing made but the thing in its commentaries vis a vis the world at large and artistic movements and traditions.  OK, I'll buy that.  I honor Artists engaged in the struggle to use their skills, crafts, ears, eyes, and hands to talk to the world in the best of ways.  I know that the personal is always political, and I know that there is an overt rhetoric to art in addition to the covert or "skill" rhetoric I discussed a few postings ago.

Fine.  But where does this formulation of the Artist leave the artist, someone like me who's interested in using an artistic medium "merely" for the purpose of recording a zen moment, making something beautiful to enjoy looking at, or using as a spiritual practice?  I am OK with being an artist rather than an Artist.  But too I hold my own ambitions and opinions.  My paintings are "thought things" too, especially embodying the thought that the older aims of art as a discipline and a preoccupation are far from defunct and obsolete.  I am far from alone, as the growing atelier movement indicates.  

I enjoyed painting this mountain scene, and I learned a lot in doing so about how snow lies on the flank of a Sierra peak.  

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Art and Originality

Today in the San Francisco Chronicle, art critic Kenneth Baker writes a defense of his snarky review of the current Dale Chihuly glasswork exhibit at the de Young Museum.  Several readers had objected to the review - especially objecting to Baker's denial to Chihuly's work of the status of Art.  I found Baker's defense fascinating.

I did not read the original review, but in it apparently Baker took Chihuly to task for his "cheery insularity," meaning his iconoclasm and lack of interest in commenting with and against wider contemporary art: "I was looking for redeeming linkages between his work and art - sculpture - of canonical stature, and could find none."  For Baker, there is a right and a wrong sort of originality.  Chihuly's "disconnection from the main lines of thought around the visual art of the past century places it on the same footing as the luxury items in department stores' home furnishing sections."


Well, my picture of Stefanie (whom I said I would introduce in a previous post) is certainly not original, and it's certainly not much of a commentary on modern painting in general or in specifics.  Apparently like Chihuly, I am not interested in Baker's kind of originality, at least not now or not yet.  I'm interested in making something beautiful with artistic media.  I think "making something beautiful with artistic media" is a pretty good on-the-street definition of "Art," so I guess I accept the guilt of association with Chihuly.  

As I said in a previous post, Stefanie is a lovely young woman whose poses are sublime in the old sense of the word.  It's intoxicating to paint her, and I've really liked several of the paintings I've done with her as our model - this painting especially.  It's a pretty good portrait of her, and I love the shadow work here.

In my next post, I'll write more about Baker and Chihuly, I think.  There are some ideas here that I wish to track down.  I find that I do wish to be taken seriously as an artist (and Lord prevent me from ever being subjected to a brutal or dismissive critique by a major respected American art critic).  But thankfully, I have few ambitions as an artist, and none more urgent than to learn more about my own humanity and the humanity of all of us, including wonderful models like Stefanie.

Friday, July 25, 2008

More on Seeing

This crab - which I'm nearly certain is NOT a dungeness crab - was dead and lying on a big rock on the shore of Tamales Bay.  I painted it a couple of years ago while on a solo picnic.  I have a beautiful handmade book full of sheets of bristol-type heavy paper, and in that book I have often jotted down "notes" like this one.  It's something I would like to do more: use watercolor as a seeing tool in the pure scientific sense.

Before I painted this crab, I did not realize that some crabs are green.  Nor did I fully understand the way the back two legs attach to the body (carapace?), and I certainly didn't think about how many joints a crab's legs have or how the pinching claws articulate.  The pointy projections at the front of the crab's body came as a big surprise to me.

Is this painting "beautiful"?  I like it, certainly, especially the mottled green back and the legs oddly splotched with red.  If it's beautiful, it's beautiful because crabs are beautiful - beautiful and miraculous in and of themselves, I suppose.  

Sometimes I think scientists are the ultimate artists.  I suppose this idea is a logical consequence of the aquarellist religion.  Scientists are out to learn the truth of things in the world as it is, just as I am as a realist painter.   A scientist's media are calculus and algorithmic modeling and observation-derived "laws" and, yes, words and images.  There is of course a minor industry in scientific illustration - the key word being "illustration" rather than "art."

But if art is the creative attainment of beauty (an obviously debatable proposition), and if beauty is as nature is, then the scientist is indeed the ultimate artist.  Let us assume there is a God, which is the Creator and Author of all.  The scientist, in her quest to know intimately and accurately the ALL of nature, is and can only be on a quest to know God, who can only be pure beauty, grace, light.

So the realist painter and the scientist are both artists, falling in love again and again with the world as we receive it, in sunsets, in elegant equations, or in crabs.  In struggling to capture the contours of a little dead crab, I was employing my mathematics.  

Certainly the crab had a clear geometry.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I think it's cheating to invent a new noun as the title of your blog, but guilty I plead.  What do I mean by "aquarellism"?  Here's an attempt at an answer.

Many people have written about the zen quality of watercolor painting.  Watercolor painting - aquarelle in French - is an intense and intensive art form that requires you as the artist to watch very closely, move very quickly, and attend very intimately to what is happening on the paper.  It is (or can be) a fast painting medium, a painterly haiku.  I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that time stops for me when I'm working intensely on a painting - or rather, I lose all sense of time, lost as I am in the present moment of painting.  

The first time I went to a life drawing class, I felt as if I had tasted Nirvana.  I've learned since that it didn't hurt that the model was a lovely young woman named Stefanie, whom I'll introduce in a later post.  But the core of the experience was in the spiritual practice of it.  I remember thinking that night that I had seen as many faces of God as I had seen poses: the practice being one of opening the heart to the too brief reality of mortal human beauty.   That night was a usual Wednesday night class, with poses lasting as short as three minutes and as long as twenty.  It was the universe demanding that I watch and see what was really there - and then to watch again - and again.

While I haven't always experienced that same in-the-moment depth of practice in my life drawing sessions or my landscaping, I've found that that depth is always available - as in the night I painted this twenty-minute sketch of Will, an old guy with a white beard (it felt like I was painting Gandalf).  I really love this sketch, which was meditative for me in its creation and is meditative in artistic result.  

So aquarellism is a life-philosophy grounded on using the tool of watercolor to stop the world and make it sit still so you can really, really see it as it is.  Trying to capture the way shadow sculpts Will's right kneecap is a practice of creating the entire world entirely anew.  

There's that hubris again.  But  the practice does not feel hubristic.  It feels like a form of prayer.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Portraits 1

Here's a portrait of Yerevah that came out of the Thursday afternoon life-drawing class I've been attending.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, portraits are a bear for any artist.  I'm convinced that the reason why has to do with our minds and how they're built.  Put it this way: how does a mommy chickadee recognize a daddy chickadee?  To my eyes and ears, chickadees seem pretty much alike.  Thus chickadees must have some incredibly acute recognition software or hardware that enables them to tease apart minute differences in a lineup of chickadees.

(At the moment, we have a wonderful colony of Chestnut-backed Chickadees visiting our feeders, and they are a hoot to watch.)

How do humans recognize other humans?  Our own mental and emotional "wares" are geared incredibly finely to the recognition and reading of human faces.  These attributes enable us to recognize friends, foes, countrymen and -women, and strangers as strangers.  

You get how acute these recognition powers are when you're painting portraits.  Move that eye one millimeter upward or downward, and suddenly the face is wrong; change the shape of the mouth a bit and it's not the wife you know and love.  And don't get me started on hair.

Usually when I'm painting portraits I use the grid system, which enables me to capture the face pretty well.  In this picture I'm pushing myself to work more freehandedly, and I'm pretty happy with the result.  This looks quite a bit like Yerevah.  She was a pretty young model who wore fairy wings and a deep blue dress while sitting enthroned on the modeling stage like Titania.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Upper Echo Lake, Summer 2005

This is one of the best plein-air paintings I've ever done, I think - not that I think it's that great.  Sigh.

I painted it sitting on the far shore of Upper Echo Lake, which is high in the Sierra southwest of Lake Tahoe, one day while I was on sabbatical.  I caught literally the last motorboat of the year across Lower Echo Lake and then walked to this lovely spot in front of a little island where a few scraggly pines clung to the granite.  If memory serves, the painting took me three hours or so to complete, from drawing to signature.  Then I enjoyed a gorgeous walk back to the boat dock at the bottom of Lower Echo, the sun glistening on the water every time I looked behind me.

Landscape is immensely difficult for the realist artist, for reasons related to issues I raised in my last post.  To put it simply, to the realist artist, nature is a mother.  A demanding one.  

Realists like me want to paint what's really there.  Fine.  But in a landscape like this one, with trees and clouds and rocks and lake-water, "what's really there" is immensely complex.  Have a good look at a fir tree sometime - even a faraway one whose features are obscured by distance.  What you might think on first sight to be a flat "green" object turns out in fact to have immense complexities in color, shape, and relation to what's around it.  Thus, painting a fir-wood, like the one on the lakeshore in the middle distance of this picture, involves getting very intimate with just how complex Mother Nature is.

All painters, I imagine - and watercolorists definitely - need to work more simply than the Creator of Everything had to.  In books we are enjoined to use the strengths and beauties of the medium to accomplish effects in a kind of shorthand that can provide the illusion of the complexities you're after.  This is the skill element of the art, or perhaps you might say the rhetoric of it.  I am all for this leap after simplification.  But the realist is left with two problems: one, developing those skills; and two, knowing that, however beautiful the results of good use of those skills, the resulting paintings still will not be "real" - they will be effects of the rhetoric of the medium.

I paint for a lot of reasons, but the most important reason is that painting makes me sit down and see the world as it is - as it REALLY is.  I don't really even want to see the world as only a painterly skill might reveal it.  Hence maybe I am doomed forever to create paintings that might be more "real" even as they are less beautiful as paintings.  Ultimately I think that will just have to be OK with me, and usually it is.  

But I sure do gnash my teeth over the number of boring paintings I make in an effort to capture the real.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Realism vs. Expression

I love this 20-minute sketch of Nicteha, which I painted last night at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.  It's certainly one of the best figure studies I've done during the year or so that I've been attending Jim Curtis's drop-in sessions.

My wife liked it too and said that it has the quality of expressing something rather than merely recording as an artistic exercise.  I agree.  Here's a problem for me as a realist painter.  The painter is expected to show something to the world, to "express" - to make a painting (or a photo or a sculpture or whatever) that does more than record a flat, unexpressed world.  I certainly wish to say something with my art, to make my own contribution to the image.

However, as an artist I also have the wish to be true, to show the world as it is.  Part of me wants to say that the world (and people and all the motley crew of the incarnation) are expressive enough.  It's a romantic attitude at base, one that says "the world is enough - it is everything it ever wanted to be [quoting Mary Oliver there].  Human interpretations, elaborations, expressions - these are all hubristic and foolish efforts that miss the point of the world."  Ultimately, of course, this attitude erases the role of the artist.  And maybe ultimately art is a disease or a distortion of the human role.  Many cultures and philosophies have thought so.  (I'll probably write more about this in a future post.)

So I love this little painting, but much in it is not true.  The yellow of the background, complementing the purple shadows on the figure's skin, was not really there - nor was the also-complementary blue on the other side.  Complementary colors seldom turn up side-by-side in nature (although now and then they do, as in the case of the orange spots on the beautiful blue butterfly I saw on Saturday up in the High Sierra).  It's a truism that an impactful artwork will do more than nature offers.  

But isn't nature enough?

Tunnels Beach, Kaua'i

I'm back from an amazing 8 days in Kaua'i - surely one of the most beautiful places on earth.  So many highlights: seeing the NaPali Coast from the sea, spending quality time with family, eating VERY well, watching the fish (and reptiles and mammals - saw turtles and a monk seal) with the aid of snorkel gear.  I love being in tropical ocean water, and it pains me that I live in a place (Northern California) that has glorious beaches that you'd be a fool to try to swim at.  

I made a couple of paintings while relaxing between snorkel episodes and while my wife was getting in her requisite beach-lying time.  Here's one of them.  I'm only moderately happy with this.  Certainly the colors are cartoonish and the washes are weak and boring.  No matter.  Every painting is a learning moment, I think, and the thrill of plein-air painting, whatever the result, is what it's all about for me.  

On this day it was hotter than hell.  I painted underneath the shade of a sea-grape tree (or relative); the shadow kept moving, and so then did I.