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Towards a Personal Painting Approach

Originally posted on December, 7, 2008

In my last post I attempted to give some ideas about painting in contrast to photography. Those thoughts directly apply to what I want to talk about here.

For many years my preparations before I pick up a brush have been the same for most of my paintings. Many painters used this approach. It is the “prepare like a turtle and paint like a rabbit” methodology. The time spent actually painting is brief in comparison to the non-painting time. This, of course, was the traditional way. When technology by way of the paint tube made direct plein air alla prima painting practical many painters followed that direction. Without going into details here, the point I want to make is this: I think that what was lost to a very a large degree was an appreciation of the value of mentally digesting the painting, and, most importantly, absorbing those primary sensations that initially sparked the interest.

Okay, here is the thing: we need to spend some time talking about this. It’s important. Traditionally, the Chinese where deeply involved with nature. They would study it for hours and hours on end. But they did not pick up a brush outside. Plein air painting did not exist for them. They did not work on the motif, nothing. They just absorbed things.

Well I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Eastern thought. I’ve known some Chinese painters. And I’ve tried to understand how the great painters thought about their approach to painting. I do not want to get caught up in a theoretical discussion. First, even if it were possible to explain what goes on in the artist’s mind before he paints — which it is not — I do not think it would necessary help us to be better painters. But there are a couple of very pertinent points: Firstly, there is the Zen art of the controlled accident. The Masters contend that talk of what takes place here is useless. They do, however, acknowledge an order, (the second point), an organic pattern if you will, in things considered pleasing. An example would be the pattern to be found in good pieces of jade.

Now those two points above: Shall we call them concepts? For me, they set the parameters of creative activity. In painting it is possible to play a personal game along these lines. On the one hand we are passively receptive to the flow or order of things, and on the other hand, we actively intervene. The two modes play off each other in some kind of mysterious dance which very few people understand. And it is at this point that we are able to distinguish a major difference between the art of painting and the art of photography. Suzan Sontag explains how the photographer actually “takes” a photograph. Also, she talks at length about how the showing of photographic images to the public can aggressively intervene in the way they are able to think about the subject at hand. But this is another story.

So, these two processes painting and photography are each radically different from the other. It is like comparing apples and oranges. Both painting and photography deal with images on a two dimensional surface. Saying anything beyond that is virtually meaningless. I should add that of course this assertion is my humble opinion. In my opinion almost everything I’ve read by the self appointed authorities (i.e. the critics) on naturalism and realism in painting has been pure bunk.

I greatly digress in preparation to say a few simple things about a personal approach to painting. In our preparation to begin a painting, we first of all need to not rush into it blindly. Otherwise it becomes like throwing dice. By the same token, over intellectualizing sucks the life out of the painting.

When I’m out and about, whether with a sketch book, a camera or both, I’m pretty much in a Zen state. I’ve done and continue to do much painting directly from nature. Today, for the most part, I want to simply observe the sensations visually received. When something captures my interest, my primary concern is to make note of it! And absorb it as fully as possible. It is the way of the Chinese Masters. If I have a camera, photograph will help serving as memory aids. The act of photographing does not interrupt my focus or receptivity. I want to emphasis that I do not jump into ideas or thoughts for a painting. It is simply an experience of nature with an appreciation that highly values the sensations invoked in the experience. Questions and deeper reflection follow latter. Recognition of the interest was the first step so to speak. If I observed well the sensations I’ve taken a big step towards knowing what the connected feelings were. That’s the key thing: I’m not looking for ideas. Feelings are the key to the entire process. How do I convey to those feelings? That question is what, for me, good painting technique is concerned with.

Published in french as Vers une approche personnelle de la peinture

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