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Sweatshop Challenge: assembly line fine-art painting

Originally posted on August, 18, 2007

"Dancing Tree", oil on canvas, 65cm x 50cm, August 2007.

In case you missed it, a couple of years ago attention was drawn to one of China’s most unique export businesses, fine-art painting (see link and also link). Or, more accurately put, cheap art. I am sincerely happy that tens of thousands of poor Chinese painters have found employment. I am not happy that they are doing this for near starvation wages. One painter estimated that he earns 18 cents U.S. for a painting that may sell for several hundred dollars in Europe or in the U.S. How’s that for sweatshop labour?

It is not known exactly how many paintings, or how many container loads of paintings are being exported. We do know that it is a big number. One community (Shenzhen) which is the largest paint factory town has an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 slave painters. They are part of organizations with the largest having 500 to 600 workers. Collectively they are exporting more than 5,000,000 paintings each year. Another community Xiamen, has about 7,000 working painters doing close to this amount. The paintings are sold to the art dealers by the container load and are shipped to Europe and the U.S.

I want to backtrack about 40 years to the end of the 60’s. Close to where I was living in the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., a new art gallery was being installed. It was well located, large, and smartly remodelled. I talked several times to the apparent owner. He took a liking in me and decided he wanted to recruit me to run the gallery. I declined the offer for many different raisons: one being that I could not determine if he was legitimate. I talked to people who believed he was a Mafioso or in the CIA or both. The reason I bring this up, he explained to me how his art gallery was going to generate a huge income. The paintings were imported from Europe: probably Italy. Where exactly they were painted, he did not say. They had an eastern European or Russian feeling to them. They were representational paintings done in a classical style. And they were costing this guy just a few dollars apiece, nicely framed. A money laundering business?

Apart for the obvious disadvantage in which the current honest artist finds himself is the blatant unfairness of the whole thing. It is one thing not to honour and respect creative effort. It is another thing that we have a system that does his best to sabotage it.

A last word about the Chinese imports: some of them appear not to be of bad quality. Considering the conditions under which they are done this is an amazing achievement. On the other hand they are not very good quality either. The message hear, if you are an artist or painter, you need to dig ever deeper for quality; sharpen the “message?.

Long life the artist painter.

Published in french as Défi des ateliers de la misère : chaîne de montage de la peinture artistique

Excellence vs. Not Cheating

Originally posted on July, 29, 2007

What do painting and sports have to do with each other you ask? Writers, or, at least people used to write about painting. Not much anymore. You can only beat dead horses for so long. Today, people do write tons about sports. Of course, there are plenty of problems in the sport world. There always has been. You have to ask the question: “How much the writers contribute to the proliferation of these problems?

Very serious questions of ethics are the rule rather than the exception. In the US, it is absolutely crazy. All of the major sports: football, baseball, and basketball are in trouble to the point of their survival being seriously questioned. Two days ago, in France, the news paper “Liberation” called for a moratorium of several years on the tour de France so that it could be cleaned up. We have problems in Formula F1 racing with the apparent stealing of technological secrets. And so it goes.

Read the rest of "Excellence vs. Not Cheating"

Painting Instruction: Finding the Words

Originally posted on July, 14, 2007

«Walk in Provence», Oil on canvas, 65cm x 50cm, July 2007.

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 ?

Recent Thoughts

Originally posted on June, 24, 2007

Hopefully, as we become more intelligent, our intellect leads us to more enjoyment. Asking questions is a process of refinement and simplification. In a natural way it leads to understanding that it is the process itself that is the important thing: direct experience with life. This implies that we have a direct experience with the natural world.

Artists and children have much in common: curiosity and the spontaneous joy of discoveries. I want you to do a little experiment. Please go get a piece of paper and pen or pencil. Now sign your name as you always do.

Okay, now I want you to sign your name alongside the original signature. This time do it carefully trying to make it exactly like the original.

We could go into the psychology of what took place. The main point, however, is when we become self-conscious our performance is not the same. I will leave you to your own conclusions.

In life and Art,

Published in french as Pensées Récentes

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