Over the years I’ve been approached many times for advice and instruction. For me it has never been easy or clear as the best way to proceed. And it has not been often that I’ve undertaken the task to give much advice or attempt to teach. It is just too dammed difficult. Thinking about this problem has been with me for a good long while. And I am not comfortable seeming to be aloof.
The main problem, it seems to me, is the emphasis which has been placed on technique. It is as if most people have a cookbook approach to doing things. Here is the crux of the matter: the huge gulf between what is known and direct immediate experience. Abstract first principles are substituted for intelligence. Our world is now threatening to become opaque and unintelligible. It is so opaque that some contemporary writers describe our society as a hologram.
Since Plato, the painter and particularly anyone audacious enough to teach painting have been considered marginal members of Society. If Gestalt Theory is correct, and I believe it is, seeing and thinking are not separate processes. Perception is intimately involved with how we learn to think. It is nothing short of criminal that this has not been addressed in our educational systems. We are literally teaching our young people to be stupid. The painter has much to teach and much misunderstanding to overcome.
As an aside, last week we were spending a couple of days in a chambre d’hôtes in Alsace. We had the TV on in order to catch the weather forecast. On “Who wants to be a millionaire” a man was asked “in which century was impressionism born: the 17th, the 18th, the 19th, or the 20th”. He did not know the answer. So does the 50-50 option. This gives him a choice between the 18th and the 19th. He still doesn’t know. It was for 12,000 € and he quits. I was dumfounded. I wonder if he had ever heard of Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Degas, or Renoir? Does one need to be part of the cultured elite in France to have this inside information?
Getting back to the subject at hand. Seeing and thinking are not separated activities. When you see a tree there is a time lag between the stimulus on the retina and the recognition “tree”. We tend to think that this time lapse is unimportant. It is a big clue that there is something going on here (See Robert Pirsing).
The good news, getting back to helping someone is that if you understand the problem well enough it is possible to help others. You can help them to understand the difficulties connecting with direct immediate experience. It may be more difficult than teaching painting techniques but I believe it is worth the effort. For me, I am slowly reaching the point where I understand well enough to find the words.
Published in french as Conseils pour peindre : comment trouver les mots ?