Monday, August 25, 2014

Myths and realities of creating a painting

On August 22 I did another interview with Linda Fisler.We had a great conversation and both Linda and Sarah Allspaw did a fantastic job hosting the interview. Here is the link to the recent interview on Art Chats with Linda Fisler:
Myths and Realities of Creating a Painting

A while back Linda interviewed me for another Art Chat talk on edges. This one can be found at Mastering Edges with Carolyn Anderson.

For some more artist interviews by Linda Fisler check out her website at

The interview on the myths and realities of painting addressed some of the problems and concerns I have encountered over the years teaching painting workshops. Linda started out by asking what myths do I consider as false or misleading and what problems do we have when dealing with these myths. I answered that question with three "myths" I feel create some of the most confusion when painting. Here they are:

MYTH: There is a list of rules to follow.
This one leads a lot of people astray. Creativity and possibilities are lost in the quest to follow the rules. Trying to follow someone’s idea of rules may be the path of least resistance but it is not necessarily the path to success. There are numerous so-called rules and most all of them can be considered suggestions, not rules. A few are factual, such as warmer light-cooler shadows, cooler light, warmer shadows (this is based on the science of color). The idea of working from dark to light is equally valid. Most people paint on canvas that is light to middle value. Why would you want to start making marks with anything other than a dark? Question everything and ask yourself if what you are reading or being told is written in stone.

One very common misconception is the belief there is a “rule” to never, ever, place anything in the middle of canvas. I have seen far too many students create compositions that make absolutely no sense because they are deathly afraid of breaking this one. As always there is a kernel of truth. We do not want to create equal balance. Unequal balance is not only more interesting but far more dynamic. This, however, does not mean a subject or for that matter, even the suggestion of a horizon, cannot ever be placed in the middle. How we use value shapes and color is what determines balance.

MYTH: Paint what you see.
This is another one with a kernel of truth. The problem here is with the seeing. This is a seeing problem which often turns into a painting problem. We absolutely do not see everything in front of us. Our brains process information on a need-to-know basis.  We do not easily quantify all values and colors and we certainly do not observe and quantify the variety of edges in our visual field.  And sometimes, information – whether value or color, or even objects -  needs to be modified. Just because you are seeing something doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in your painting. Seeing more information means we have to edit more information. I am not a great one for moving mountains to compose a painting, but I will certainly omit or modify information if I feel it is necessary. Sometimes we have to add more information, sometimes we need to delete information, and sometimes we may just have to modify information. Ultimately, whether or not your painting looks right to you is most important, not that you have copied all the information you are seeing.

MYTH: What we think we see is the whole truth.
Another aspect of the seeing problem . . . The reality is we are wired to make sense of the world and we will go to great lengths to reconcile discrepancies in our perceptions. Your everyday brain can have fits over seeing purple lights or shadows on a red apple and will simply ignore or discard color information it deems unnecessary or unnatural. It is likely you will not see this information. Your artist brain, however, should leap at the chance to explore unexpected color relationships. Accepting visual information without question shuts the door to seeing more information. Unless we accept there can be more information, we do not look for more information, and therefore we never see it. We can easily miss the nuances of value, color, shapes and edges. And the best way to see and quantify information is to COMPARE-COMPARE-COMPARE.

We cannot isolate and identify information as separate pieces.  Our brains will work overtime to find a pattern. Remember, verbal language (which actually compromises how we see the world around us) is object dependent. Visual language is relationship dependent. Realist painting may depend on the object, but how a painting is constructed is completely dependent on relationships.

If you want more information about how our brains work and how we see I suggest “Vision and Art, the Biology of Seeing” by Margaret Livingstone. Also National Geographic has an interesting show called Brain Games. And for a brief and interesting lesson on art history try “The Annotated Mona Lisa” by Carol Strickland.