Welcome to my blog! I'll be posting thoughts about art, photos, happenings, and other things that strike me--and hopefully my readers--as interesting. And please visit my website by clicking the link to the right--thanks!
Also please check out my second blog, The Painting Archives to see older (pre-2004) paintings for sale.
A friend recently asked me, somewhat rhetorically, how do you teach about abstraction in a workshop? It's a hard question...although in the few days allotted to me, I show the work of a number of abstract artists, talk about my own process and ideas--and, in my Level 2 classes, address conceptual concerns directly--there is no time to delve deeply into this topic.
Yet without background knowledge and a context in which to place it, abstraction can seem fairly meaningless… limited to moving paint around until something looks cool. Which is certainly a start, but where to go from there?
A conceptual basis of some sort seems to me the key to working in a fresh and original way –the work needs to arise from a personal center —perhaps rooted in specific, definable ideas, but more likely in a synthesis of source material of multiple origins...personal experience, memory, emotion, intriguing aspects of the visual world, perhaps some area of study such as science or mathematics...plus an awareness of art from other times and places, and that of accomplished contemporaries. (See last week's post for further thoughts on the importance of knowing a bit of art history.)
The artist must also bring into play all the basic elements of art—color, composition, alignment of form and content, and all the rest--since technical accomplishment is a given for strong work.
To me it is this synthesis that marks a mature artist. The ability to create an interesting visual stew from the many ingredients of a complex life is a skill that takes years. It’s a compelling challenge—at its heart is the powerful idea of creating meaning out of one’s own experience.
Sean Scully’s work (above) is an excellent example of this synthesis of many aspects of life, distilled into powerful painting. It works as strong formal abstraction, as process oriented painting, and as personal expression. His sources for ideas are as diverse as the stone walls in the Irish Aran Islands, the way that Irish society has in his words become more “chequered,” his many travels worldwide, his sense of spirituality, impressions of historical painters, human relationships, and many other aspects of life--some of which I'd guess are difficult to define, if he is anything like the rest of us! (For an interesting, in-depth interview, click here
Knowing something about how Scully works and thinks opens up a broad view of abstract painting that is inspiring and energizing. It is this exciting, encompassing view of what abstraction can address that compels my own work.
(Above, a recent 20”x16” painting, as yet untitled…sources for this painting are in the process itself, the rich textures of the Irish landscape, rust and weathered wood, thoughts about aging...)
My paternal grandmother was hardly the benevolent or cuddly sort--she was stern, imperious and more than a little scary. She certainly commanded respect, and in turn she would occasionally grant it--even to a child. She always called me Rebecca, for example, rather than the nickname by which I was better known, and when I was 12, she gave me one of the most important Christmas presents I ever received--Famous Paintings: An Introduction to Art
, by Alice Elizabeth Chase, the book that is shown in the photo above. She gave it to me as an acknowledgement of my emerging interest in painting, and I remember being awed by the honor of such a gift.
This book made a huge impression upon me, and I pored over each page many times. It is arranged by themes, and illustrated with a variety of relevant examples from almost every era and many styles of art. Two pages each are allotted for such topics as "The Cold World in Winter" (featuring a page from a medieval illuminated manuscript showing a farm with people huddled by their fire, and Bruegel's Hunters in the Snow) and "The Smile" with (of course) a color plate of da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and a wonderful portrait of The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals. The text discusses aspects of how the artist expressed the theme in terms of basic art elements and interesting anecdotes. In all, over 100 themes are covered--this boggled my adolescent brain with the possibilities of what painting could express. The emphasis on universal themes also made me see that painting is an activity that unites people across time and place, which was very appealing to me. I felt connected emotionally to many of the paintings in the book, and it seemed completely logical and necessary to then make my own (I was given this book around the time I first started oil painting.)
In later years when I'd see one of the paintings from my book in a museum or on a slide in art history class, I would feel a happy jolt of recognition. And as I became familiar with the chronology of the various eras and movements of art history, I could understand where these old friends fit in. So this book was the first step in learning to appreciate all kinds of art, and it launched me in that direction in a very natural and pleasurable way.
I mention this book now because for months I've been pondering the topic of art history and appreciation, its importance, and how one learns about it. In contrast to my own lifelong, gradual accumulation of knowledge about art in the context of history and culture, I started to realize that many artists I meet have had very little exposure to this topic--usually, because they didn't go through a degree program in art. Though plenty of self-taught artists pursue this knowledge on their own, it's admittedly a huge, daunting subject to dive into and sort out. In a typical four year college studio art program, a student starts with a survey class and then takes one more in-depth class each semester until graduating. Those who have had this experience may have groaned over memorizing slides and sorting out Manet from Monet, but most probably appreciate that base of knowledge--I know I do. For those artists whose formal education went in some other direction, effort is needed in this direction, at least in my opinion.
I advocate that we all keep learning, keep trying to understand the roles that visual art has played in our world over time--the styles, movements, individual artists, and groups of people we may not be familiar with. That means reading artist's biographies, visiting museums (and not just the contemporary wing,) watching documentaries, buying or borrowing illustrated art books. I also think that exposure to, and appreciation of the incredible riches of our shared visual history is probably more important than trying to piece it all together in terms of chronology or theory--unless that appeals. If that's too daunting, just look and wonder.
Without stretching our awareness to other eras and places, our sources for ideas and inspiration become limited...when we seek out what is unfamiliar and unknown, our work is enriched. In my own art life, I've been intrigued by everything from medieval manuscripts to African American quilts, from 19th century photographs to megalithic carvings. It's not that I am an expert on any of these things...my interest is mainly in what aspects of visual interest, style or content fit with my own aesthetic intentions--but the stories of these works of art, and where they fit in the context of history also fascinate and draw me in.
(For anyone wanting a comfortable route into art history and appreciation, the book my grandmother gave me is still available
--a few used copies are online at Amazon.)
I've been working on plans for a new workshop, called Critique Class, that I will be offering for the first time for two days in late April at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, WI. This idea has been simmering on the back burner for years and I am happy to bring it forward this spring. The class will be open to artists working in any 2-D medium, and will focus on developing methods of self-critique, getting the most out of studio visits and formal critiques, and being able to offer constructive criticism to others.
While "critique" is a word that tends to imply heavy baggage, my goal is for everyone in the class to practice communicating about their own art and that of other class members in a non-threatening, direct and helpful way.
My interest in teaching this topic comes from a belief that self-evaluation is one of the most essential skills for artistic growth. Figuring out some clear goals and fair standards for your own work leads to healthy self-regard--feeling confident and unafraid, yet also humble. Neither insecure nor arrogant. Just "this is where I am...and this is what I believe is important and will continue to seek in my work."
Almost everyone runs into harsh or self-serving criticism at some point in an art career, and the knowledge and confidence that comes from self-evaluation can be strong protection. At the same time, this knowledge allows an artist to be open to criticism that is credible and constructive. A self-aware artist is in a good position to understand the context of criticism and whether it fits and is useful.
Sensitivity to the nuances, strengths and weaknesses of your own work is also helpful when a friend or colleague asks for feedback. It's a lot easier to be articulate and compassionate with another person when you have had similar conversations in your own head.
I speak from experience on all of this...I'm a strong critic of my own work, but not a harsh one. Although of course I have frustrating and infuriating times in the studio, I try to have patience, trust in the process, and an understanding of what I'm after in the big picture.
(The painting above, Ireland #2
, 10"x8," has met my self-imposed painting criteria...)
in the studio
It's now over three weeks since I got home from Ireland, and I'm starting to see some new directions unfolding in the studio. The saturate color of the rainy, misty countryside that surrounded the Tyrone Guthire Cenre, and the textures of rough stone, lichens and megalithic carvings are exerting an influence.
I've been experimenting with layers of colors that do not initially seem compatible, but through glazing and the use of neutrals arrive at complexity and depth. To enhance texture, I've been allowing some of my initial layers to set up longer before going back over them, and using additives like sand and powdered marble. All of this is leading to tactile and richly colored surfaces that resonate with my memories of Ireland.
Although at times my attempts to express such a complex experience seem like grasping at dream memories--elusive and fragmented--I'm pleased to see an essence of those days in Ireland beginning to emerge.
I'm working on a series of small paintings that work well for these experiments. (Slieve, above, is one of these--10"x8.") I also have a number of larger paintings in progress, some of which are visible in this studio shot.