Monday, November 21, 2016

The myth of mastery

“I’m still afflicted with the malady of research. I don’t like what I do, and I paint it out, and paint it out again. I hope that this mania will come to an end. . . I’m involved in lots of things and not one of them is finished. I wipe out, I start over, I think the year will go by without one canvas . . . I want to find what I am looking for before giving up. Let me look, I have gone too deeply into the series of experiments to give up without regret . . ."
Pierre-August Renoir      

Art is not an endgame. There are no goal posts. Art is a journey. The myth of mastery implies knowledge and craft with a beginning and an end. The idea of mastery places too much emphasis on craft and not enough emphasis on creativity and expression.

Art is nothing if not an exploration of life and living – how we think, how we feel and how we see. Art is not just what we see in front of us. It is not just the present, but a reflection of what came before and what is yet to come. A painting of a tree in winter bears witness to a season, but it is just as much a testament to the brilliant fall color that was, and the new life the coming spring will bring. Art is a reflection of the past and present and a promise for the future. It is what we have learned, what we can learn and the possibility of learning more.

Art is a reflection of life and life is not static. While we may want the world to be linear and absolute, it is, in fact, arbitrary and complex. Our need to order and categorize is more likely to be based on a desire for control than on a want to understand.
The image of a painting has to live and breathe. It needs to imply possibility, wonder and awe. It needs to foster reflection and self-reflection. Art is an inspiration, not just a career. There are no answers, only more solutions.

“If I know what I shall find, I do not want to find it.
 Uncertainty is the salt of life.”
 Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

In order to better understand art as a journey, we need to acknowledge and understand the pattern of art throughout history. The history of art is a testament to change. This record of change is one of perception, not just change in technique and skill. The Greeks said that to marvel is the beginning of knowledge and where we cease to marvel we may be in danger of ceasing to know.

The great art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote extensively on the pattern of change in art through the centuries.He noted how the Egyptians did not render in three dimensions but instead relied on what they knew rather than what they saw. "Greek and Roman art breathed life into these schematic forms; medieval art used them in turn for telling the sacred story, Chinese art for contemplation. Neither was urging the artist to ‘paint what he saw’. This idea dawned only during the age of the Renaissance . . . but every generation discovered that there were still . . . strongholds of conventions which made artists apply forms they had learned rather than paint what they really saw. 

The Impressionists "proposed to make a clean sweep of all these conventions . . ." They challenged the rules of academic painting and claimed their paintings were more 'scientifically accurate.' As Gombrich pointed out, however, their claim was only partly true. He wrote, "We have come to realize more and more that we can never neatly separate what we see from what we know."

“In fact, as soon as we start to take a pencil and draw, the whole idea of surrendering passively to what is called our sense impressions becomes really an absurdity. If we look out of the window we can see the view in a thousand different ways. Which of them is our sense impression? "It is not the ‘innocent eye’. . . that can achieve this match but only the inquiring mind that knows how to probe the ambiguities of vision.” (Art and Illusion, E.H. Gombrich)

Good art is not done by how an artist sees,
 but by how an artist chooses to see.

If we lose the drive to question and explore, not just what we do, but how we do it, then we run the risk of becoming secondhand hacks only capable of copying someone else’s idea of art.

While skill and knowledge are important in any endeavor, the idea of mastery in art implies a skill set to be acquired and a path to be followed. For many this path becomes one of fidelity to the latest vagaries of the art market and the most popular trend in art. The parameters of acceptability narrow and the range of expression becomes limited. Too many artists get lured into the idea of picture-making and neglect the search for creativity and expression. When we choose the path of conformity and ignore our personal search for visual meaning, we negate the very idea of what art is and what art can be.

I am reminded of the struggles of so many artists who worked long and hard, not to master a skill set, but in a  personal search for visual expression.

Claude Monet wrote, “I’m hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects (grain stacks), but at this time of year the sun sets so fast that it’s impossible to keep up with it… I’m getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I’m looking for: ‘instaneity’, the ‘envelope’, above all, the same light spread over everything, and more than ever I’m disgusted by easy things that come in one go.”  

Claude Monet 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Lunch with the Mad Hatter

A friend and fellow artist (who will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) agreed to let me share the following texts about a particularly challenging painting commission. The insights, observations and comments turned this misadventure into a hilarious ride through the dark side of portrait painting. And for the record, no, I do not paint commissions. See postscript for why not.

Monday, March 14
Well, here’s how my lady painting turned out. Most of the family members are happy. I think it could be better/looser/more interesting, but I have no idea how to balance that with the family’s wishes. Not even sure where I could take it at this point, so, I’m done. The Grand Dame of the family has not weighed in. I don’t really care though.

Now I’m going to go read “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.”

Tuesday, March 15
Well, woke up to a list of things that the Grand Dame of the family wants me to change in the painting. Wider neck, add more wrinkles . . . (seriously??) . . .  lower the eyebrows . . . They are actually higher and even more arched, but I just eliminated them a bit and left the rest to the imagination. Sigh. I worked on it all day because one daughter has driven over from out of state and I’ve got a command invitation to the home of the person in the painting tomorrow. Not that the daughter loves the work, but she wants me to watch her and get a good understanding of her facial expressions. Shit, I don’t have time for this. This is a good likeness. Her children, siblings, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and friends far and wide saw the painting on FB, with no indication of who it was, everyone recognized her instantly.

To top it off, when the daughter called to tell me to be at the lady’s home at 2 p.m. it was like an inquisition. “What does your husband do? Where did you grow up” What did your father do?” I wondered if she was going to tell me to bring my tax returns for the last 10 years. I was a bit evasive . . . none of that is her damned business. Sheesh.

I give up. Someone hand me a white flag to wave! I can’t get any closer to a likeness unless I add more harsh lines and shadows.

So I’m hoping tomorrow is better. But tomorrow I must attend the inquisition, so . . . who knows how that will be. I think the old gal and I are both being yanked around by a bunch of surly siblings. I’ll try to be kind, for the sake of the older lady, but I may not stay long. As I understand it, the old gal is in a tizzy that I’m coming over. Insists on having her hair done, but is concerned that her pin curls will be wound too tight. I think it’s her offspring that are wound too tight!

Wednesday, March 16 – 10:14 a.m.
They want me to paint 10 more “just like it” for the children and grandchildren.

Now they want me to leave the wet painting at a family member’s house so the extended family, kids and grandkids can see it. It told them it has cadmium in it . . . so that’s a no.

Word to the wise: Never do commissions!!

2:13 p.m.
Inquisition over. Now just need to paint new nose, eyes, mouth. Daughter wants the features to be momma’s as they were when the daughter was little. Daughter also said, “We all just love that photo we gave you to paint from, except we think she looks tired so her face isn’t animated” My challenge is to paint the momma as her many offspring imagine her. The mother, subject of painting, was an absolute delight. Loved her!

9:58 p.m.
Sooooooo, I just got a message from the daughter. She has sent me a bunch of photos and wants me to paint the right eye from one photo, the left eye from another photo, the nose from yet another one AND wants me to put the mouth together with the bits and pieces of several mouths in several photos. All of the photos are taken in different lighting, from different angles and from different decades. I have done my best, with PLENTY of words in my sentences, to explain that it isn’t possible to arrive at one cohesive facial expression this way. H.O.L.Y. C.O.W. this gal is nuts. It is absolutely comical at this point.

My husband wins the prize for the best remark! “SEND HER A PAINTING OF MRS. POTATO HEAD!!!” he said as he rolled on freaking floor laughing.

Now, more wine. I deserve it.

Thursday, March 17
Other than a lot of “fraudulent” stuff on the painting, and the fact that it is so stinking over-rendered, I’m having a hard time figuring out how to bring the likeness to what they want. They want something that doesn’t look like her – they each want their romanticized notion of the never-aging mother . . . but an image that they recognize as “just like” what each sees in the photo. Yet none of them see the same thing.

I must have fallen down the rabbit hole. Preparing for lunch with the Mad Hatter.

She finally sent me a thumbs up and a smiley face. Maybe the odyssey has ended. Maybe it’s tea time for Alice.

Saturday, March 19
BTW, the people I’m doing this painting for want all the brothers, sisters and spouses to have an appointment to “preview and critique”. Shoot me now.

Finished. They can have it or not, but I’m moving on to more interesting work.

Sunday, March 20
Interesting. I’m getting FB friend requests from ALL of the extended family members of the “portrait lady’. Feeling creeped upon! I think they are wanting to the see the painting and my FB page isn’t public - only friends can see it.

Monday, March 21
Well, this morning I got an email from the family. They are thinking that they would rather have the charcoal drawing that I did earlier. When they first saw it, they hated it because it had been drawn from a photo that no one liked. Now that they are not crazy about the painting, they have come to like the drawing. I know it is just because they’ve kind of camped with that image for a while and are accustomed to it.  It’s on newsprint and I’m worried it won’t hold up.

Sheesh . . . family just sent another photo reference. I am so done.

Monday, April 5
I heard from the Grand Dame and the Brassy Little Sister. They think they “might” like the painting if I repaint the face in different shades and put the mouth back like I had it in the first place. (This makes me want to choose really novel different shades, just sayin’.)

There are so many layers on that painting that it begs to be considered sculpture at this point. Really . . . the burn pile might be the best answer. I could start over . . . but I won’t. Maybe I died and this is purgatory.

Postscript: The family finally decided they loved, loved the painting and purchased both the painting and the drawing. This was definitely a win for persistence and endurance on the artist’s part.

The reason I don’t paint commissions: The answer is fairly straight-forward and also explains one of the main differences between fine art and illustration.  Painting commissions (and illustrations) are controlled by someone else’s expectations and requirements – not the artist’s. I have a hard enough time trying to avoid regurgitating someone else’ idea of what a painting is or should be. I do, however, respect and admire those artists who take on the challenge.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Color: fact, fiction and perception

John Singer Sargent painting using cooler light and warmer shadow.

Richard Schmid, in his book “Alla Prima”, described colors as “slippery devils with a logic all their own.”  He also warned us to be “wary of quaint beliefs, fears and expedient little rules.”
There is so much information and misinformation regarding color in painting, it’s difficult to decide what is important and what is not, but let’s give it a try.

First, to see color we need light. Light is a physical entity. Color is a perception. 

Seeing color is a response created by the brain interpreting light waves that hit our eyes. Our eyes have three types of cones, often referred to as red, green and blue. A more accurate description describes the cones’ responses to the wavelengths of light – short, medium and long wavelengths.

Here is an illustration of the wavelengths of visible light. Red has the longest wavelength and violet has the shortest wavelength. Note: This is NOT a scale of color temperature. Do not confuse wavelength with color temperature. We can, however, recognize how one color can turn into another by the change in wavelength. This is important.

The cones in our eyes are used to process color and luminosity during daylight conditions. Rods are used only in low light conditions. When it is dark we don’t actually see color since the cones are not active in low-light conditions. The exception is at the intersection of light and dark (e.g. dusk) when rods and cones can be active at the same time. At this brief time we see colors differently than during daylight. We do not see different colors but what we do see seems to be more saturated. This difference in color perception is probably because of a change in luminosity due to the activation of the rods.

Our inclination to associate some colors as warmer or cooler than other colors is not a scientific explanation of temperature. 

The distinction between warmer and cooler colors is based on a perceptual and psychological tendency to associate heat with warmth. We consider red, yellow and orange to be warmer than green, blue and violet. Color temperature is not an absolute value, as in warm or cool. It is a comparative value  of warmer or cooler (as compared to). So if you want to know if a red is warmer or cooler, to which red are you referring, and exactly what are you comparing it to? Alizarin is cooler than cadmium red, but it is warmer than ultramarine blue.

If you are looking for the science of color temperature, you will end up in a rabbit hole of contradictions. The Kelvin scale (used to measure the temperature of color based on black-body radiation) shows red to be the coolest color and blue to be the hottest color. Kelvins are, however, useful in astronomy, photography and studio lighting. This leads me to the next bit of interesting information . . .

The sun is not yellow. Actually our sun is white light, a mixture of all colors.

drawing from The Secret Language of Color
When the sun is low in the sky, it may appear yellow, orange, or red. But that is only because its short-wavelength colors (green, blue, violet) are scattered out by the Earth's atmosphere and only the reds, yellows, and oranges get to our eyes. The reason I mention this is the pervasive belief among some artists that yellow is the "warmest" color. The most obvious reason for this is our perception of the sun as yellow. Now, granted, this is a perception, and painting is all about perceptions, but the problem with this assumption leads to another rabbit hole of contradictions regarding the color temperatures of greens, blues and violets.

The pattern of color we see is red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. One color becomes another. We perceive color as a continuous spectrum, not as something with a beginning and an end (implying opposition), but as part of a whole. It is misleading to assign absolute values to these colors that exist in harmony with one another. When mixing color I consider red warmer than yellow and consequently, ultramarine blue as warmer than cerulean or thalo blue. In turn, green would be warmer than cerulean, but cooler than yellow. Following this pattern allows a pretty straight forward approach to mixing pigments - lighter, darker, warmer, cooler. One color will easily transition to another. It is not difficult to see the pattern of connection.   Ultimately, this is all about recognizing patterns and making comparisons. Color temperature is not an intrinsic property of pigment. It is the perception of one color as compared to another.

Color does not jump around randomly. Light determines our perception of color. Warmer light has cooler shadows. Cooler light has warmer shadows. The color we see changes as the light changes. Our perception of color can change according to what is next to or surrounding the color. Color can be elusive, ambiguous and sometimes bold. Find the pattern, design the connections, and pay attention to the subtlety of change.

Painting by Joaquin Sorolla - note the difference in color from one side of bench to other side.

for more information about our sun
The Yellow Sun Paradox by Stephen R. Wilk

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A win for visual truth

In my last post, “Do facts matter or is truth just another possibility?”, I pointed out how clinging to an outdated color primary system isn’t doing us any favors. I also wrote about the inaccuracy of the world map we are most familiar with. The latest news on the technology and design front is a new design of a more accurate map. Here is the article from WIRED magazine.

This Weird Globe-Folding Map Isn’t Perfect, But It’s Close
by Liz Stinson, WIRED, November 4, 206

Creating a proportional map of the world is tricky because the world is a sphere and a map is flat. That creates visual distortions, which explains why Mercator projections shrink Africa and super-size Greenland. Designer Hajime Narukawa found a clever solution to this problem: triangles.

Narukawa’s AuthaGraph World Map, which recently won the grand prize in Japan’s biggest design competition, retains the proportions of the continents and oceans—so much so that you can fold it into a three-dimensional globe. Like magic! He achieved this by dividing the globe into 96 triangles and projecting them onto a tetrahedron, preserving the proportions of water and land. Then he unfolded the tetrahedron into a rectangle, where the 96 sections created a map resembling the surface of the original globe, only flat.

The general shapes of the continents are consistent with more familiar maps, but their orientation is not. On the AuthaGraph Map, continents curve upward like a smile. Africa and the Americas look like they swapped places. And longitude and latitude are no longer a tidy grid. But  all maps require tradeoffs. You want an equal area map? Prepare for distortion. You want a Mercator? You’re living a lie. The AuthaGraph isn’t perfect—the creators concede that it needs “a further step to increase a number of subdivision for improving its accuracy to be officially called an area-equal map” the project creators write on their website—but it’s pretty damn close.

For more information about how this map was created, click here.