On naturalism

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pantzergasse, Winter (c) 2016 Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When I paint, I am ever torn between two conflicting intentions. I am driven towards what we might call naturalism, the honest representation of things as they appear to me in the natural world, but I am constantly diverted by the lusciousness of paint and by my own systems of manipulating that substance that I have cobbled together from things learned and things discovered. As I stand before my canvas, I anticipate how convincingly naturalistic my finished painting will be, but my brain immediately sets to work in undermining that intention by ordering what I see into a complex system of relationships. In short, I cannot paint what I see, because paint promises the possibility of depicting things in more suggestive ways, and because it also imposes certain physical limits, within which I try to condense my understanding of what I see.

This leads me to survey my work with dismay: my paintings positively glow with an unearthly artificiality. The objects and people that populate them are glaringly constructed, and set under a contrived light, though observed from life. I see a more naturalistic painting and I despair at my own artifice.

Selbstbildnis

But I do not despair for long, because I quickly turn to questioning naturalism itself. And on this point I am persuaded by two claims from Ernst Gombrich. In Art and Illusion, he argues that ‘all representations are grounded on schemata which the artist learns to use’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264). And very quickly thereafter, he points out that the very ‘stimulus … is of infinite ambiguity’ (Gombrich, 1959: 264-5). ‘Naturalism’ is something of a misleading idea because it disguises how variable nature and our own visual experience of it is. At the very least, we might demand that the term be broad enough to admit many types of representation that aim at capturing something honest about the natural world. But one breed of naturalism tends to prevail as the most correct or ‘realistic’ in our modern eyes: the kind that makes us mistake paintings for photographs. We have permitted photography to become the unerring benchmark for ‘reality’ in the visual realm. Photography conditions our experience of sight.

Photography, it must be pointed out (for it is often forgotten), lets us down on many accounts. It fails to match the rich spectrum of colours our eye is able to enjoy, or to exhibit such a fine sensibility towards tonal gradations; it is not binocular, and does not have the luxury of flitting around a scene just as our ever-active eyes devour it, composing a view out of collected fragments. A photograph, an arbitrary slice of time, is often precisely the ‘wrong’ slice that we feel does not represent us, caught blinking or speaking or chewing. Focal lengths distort perspective, bending our physical constitution. As a measure for ‘reality,’ photography makes a fairly poor standard, and probably a worse one for coming so close and deserting us when we least expect it. If we are ignorant of its shortcomings, our conception of ‘reality’ is itself swallowed up by photography.

Selbstbildnis 2

I do not want to attempt to define reality, for this is an immense task I should not like to claim responsibility for. But I want to suggest that our own vision is more remarkable than photography. When we judge the success of any representation, painted or otherwise, we might remark how near to our own complex visual experience it comes. And we might bear in mind that sight is one thing, and representations are quite another, and the camera, let us not forget, offers but another mode of representation.

And as Gombrich argues, every representation is founded on schemata. Painting that orients itself via photography imports the schemata of photography into painting. The schemata of photography are not simply felt in the work of artists who copy photographs. They permeate the work of many who work ‘from life,’ who directly observe the world, but whose strategy in painting is to organise what they see just as a camera would. They crush dark tones together, even ones that are not actually shadows. They blanch and flatten light areas, uninterested in the undulating forms of the voluminous object before them. They impose a high tonal contrast—very dark against very light—to great dramatic effect, but utterly without nuance. Softness and blur takes on the uniform flavour of the lens, unlike the scattered haze that bleary or myopic eyes encounter. But when refining a surface they disguise lack of structural understanding with microscopic precision: paying painful attention to the blemishes and creases and stray hairs that are prized as ‘detail.’ ‘The artist’s starting point will determine the final product,’ cautions Gombrich (1959: 92); ‘The schema on which a representation is based will continue to show through the ultimate elaboration.’

self-portrait-2

Put differently: choose your influences, guide your aesthetic. A painter is constantly growing and adjusting her schemata according to what she pays attention to. It was at this point in my reflections that I realised my paintings are bound to become jubilantly vivid and muscular: I feed on a steady visual diet of Baroque paintings. What I relish are full forms, highly energised compositions, three-dimensional rhythms flowing in and around each other, electrified but systematic application of light in its confrontation with colour. Rubens hands down his schemata which celebrate the writhing, swelling, interlocking qualities of the natural world, basked in vivifying light.

And thus, when I paint, I bring other concerns to my easel than the artist who corrects himself by the standards of photography. Uninterested in a snapshot moment, I wade into the confusing and rich task of melting together a multiplicity of moments. A painting takes time to make, and my eyes take time to wander over my subject, drinking in every shifting property and letting them settle into a sustained, unified impression. I continually consider the whole, the way the elements relate to and influence each other. I use line to investigate visually pleasing trails, and I use drawing to animate nature. I orchestrate the elements into a cohesive composition, uninterested in a ‘found’ image, but determined to take responsibility for the construction of this image from the very first.

hands-ink

I make tonal decisions—how closely to group my dark tones, while preserving a logical gradation; separating shadows from halftones so I can meaningfully describe the way light plays over the surfaces. I consider the gamut of colours available to me in my paint choices—how a cadmium yellow and a pale rose red can stretch it further than a yellow ochre and a deep transparent red. I know that no matter what, paint does not have the reach of light, and it is not possible to match the full range that I see. So I establish my limits, reserving the highest chroma available to me for where I most need it, and correspondingly dulling the rest. I impose a logical system of neutralising colour with the falloff of light, conceptualising the relationships between colours as a three-dimensional space that I can move through with increasing fluency. When I vary yellow, I factor in the way purple neutralises it, and what that would mean in my picture, and I consider the ‘vertical’ shift I want to make in tone and in chroma as I transition from one colour to another.

hands-ryan

I think about the brush in my hand, how stiff or springy its bristles are, how splayed, how neat and flexible, and I invoke textures by the movement of my hand. Those textures hang in relation to one another, I must reserve certain techniques for smooth objects compared to coarse ones. And everything must fit into the system dictated by the quality of the light: whether it is diffuse, grey natural light, or blue unclouded daylight, or orange-yellow artificial light, or something else. ‘Every artist has to know and construct a schema before he can adjust it to the needs of portrayal,’ Gombrich (1959: 99) is right to insist. And my schema, derived from many places, but notably not from photography, is reasonably sophisticated.

hands-ink-2

 

 

Painting the ever-shifting natural world demands visual acuity, but also a mental acuity. For as painters, we do not merely observe and transcribe, but we organise what we see. When we paint, we establish relationships, and the character of those relationships—of light to dark, of vividness to neutrality, of smoothness to coarseness to softness to brittleness—directs the quality of the painting. Painting is not, as Gombrich (1959: 78) argues, ‘a faithful record of a visual experience but the faithful construction of a relational model.’ All painters construct relational models; it is only a question of what the model is based on, and how well the painter understands that model.

self-portrait-7

And the crucial point is whether a painter is passive or active. Because an artist worthy of our attention and respect does not work mindlessly, or randomly, or uncritically. She tests every new observation, and wrestles with it until she finds a way to work it into her system. She pushes her system to do more and more, to cope with greater ambiguity, to suggest more with less, to reflect the shimmering richness of the natural world. To do that, she will probably have to move away from the sufficient but sorely limited laws of the lens, to embrace the sticky willfulness of paint and to try to subdue the chaos in new ways, even if they are unsuccessful at first. ‘[The artist] is the man who has learned to look critically, to probe his perceptions by trying alternative interpretations both in play and in earnest,’ (Gombrich 1969: 265).

My paintings are a head-on struggle between what I see and the beautifully restricted medium in which I work. They document the hard-won schemata that I continue to grow as I bounce between the natural world and the teachings of other artists living and dead. ‘Naturalism’ in painting should never be fettered to the camera, for photography is only another means of representation, with other limits that painting can be blissfully free of. We are mistaken to find a painting more ‘realistic’ the more its relationships match those we are familiar with through photography, because, as Gombrich (1959: 75) puts it, ‘there is no neutral naturalism.’ Paint offers so many subtle and lively possibilities that approach the rich and nuanced experience of sight in ways that photography never will.

Selbstbildnis

 

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion. Phaidon: London.

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Sight & touch

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Tea and sympathy (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The eighteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder penned some truly delightful thoughts on Sculpture that make my fingers itch to knead and shape wax or clay. His observations, dripping with unexpected warmth and vitality, dip and meander through many themes, some more credible to our modern intelligence than others.

Sight and touch, he begins without delay, are fundamentally distinct, and we stand to gain very much by teasing them apart (Herder 2002: 33). Not least, we might gain a deeper understanding of beauty, a heavily sight-oriented notion (Herder 2002: 39). Touch demands something more solid of beauty than does sight, something more connected to purpose and to strong and healthy forms than to the shimmering and retreating effects of light. Touch searches out truth. This truth grounds us in the world of physical bodies, of living beings and of complete forms, discoverable even in the dark. ‘The dark of night’ even comes to the aid of our sense of touch: ‘with its sponge it removes all the colours from things and obliges us to attend to the presence and existence of an object’ (Herder 2002: 81).

Leave it to the other arts, urges Herder, to chase after ‘breath and speech,’ after the breeze that animates hair and drapery, after ‘the fugitive butterfly of wit and abstraction’ (Herder 2002: 97). Sculpture, like the very stone or wood or clay from which it is formed, is too weighty for such preoccupations—lovely though they are. ‘For this the statue is too true, too complete, too unified, too sacred’ (Herder 2002: 97). Let us touch on each in turn.

Copy after Rodin in wax

Copy after Rodin in wax

 

Too true

While sight allows us to swiftly estimate beauty, it only permits us to assess a surface, as it were. The physical world, as delivered to us by sight, is far more comparable to a flat picture than we commonly admit: sight gives us shapes, and only the ones revealed by light: we see but ‘a continuum of things placed alongside one another’ (Herder 2002: 35, 36). If we have learned to see bodies, to understand that they occupy space, that they consist in a substantial volume that is not at all times present to our eyes, we have learned to supplement our sight with touch, argues Herder (2002: 40): this ‘is not something we can learn through sight.’ It is merely that since childhood we have quickly learned to use these ‘sister’ senses together, such that they have all but fused together in a seamless partnership (Herder 2002: 39).

Sight affords us many excellent things, of course. What is present before our eyes is perceivable in an instant, and does not die away as do sounds. Because of this, Herder describes sight as the most philosophical of the senses, if the most artificial; it coaxes us into meditation and contemplation (Herder 2002: 39).

Rodin

‘Sight gives us dreams, touch gives us truth’ (Herder 2002: 38). The more we concentrate on the surface features of an object, on the shapes revealed to us by light, on the flattened field before us obscured by roving shadows, the less attentive we are to the physical body before us (Herder 2002: 81). ‘It is remarkable how rarely a person appears to us,’ he (2002: 82) writes, ‘that someone embraces another person and holds him in such affection that he carries the person with him and gives him eternal existence.’ Touch uncovers the object, the person before us, by revealing to us how she consumes space, how her masses flow into each other, how they integrate and how they jointly operate. Light glancing off a shoulder tells us nothing of the fleshy functioning of the shoulder girdle, nothing of the astonishing flexibility of the clavicle, nothing of the tensing and softening machinations of the pulsing and breathing body before us. Touch gives us our first shocking awareness of substance.

And once we admit something substantial into our presence, we are able to inhabit that other form, as it were: ‘inner sympathy alone, feeling and the transposition of our entire human self into the figure we touch, is the true teacher and instrument of beauty’ (Herder 2002: 78). Observation is not enough, insists Herder (2002: 79; 81); we must also exist and feel in order to approach truth.

Riemanschneider

 

Too complete

Herder summons the Greeks and their arguably unsurpassed sculpture to demonstrate the strength of the whole in sculpture. The soul ‘expresses itself through the entire body,’ (Herder 2002: 79; 81) and each feature, each limb, each mass, each connecting joint displays the bearing of a person, all united to honestly convey something about the inner workings of that person. And conventions play no part here, Herder insists. Beauty consists in inner perfection, betrayed by the completeness of body (Herder 2002: 77):

‘The sublimity and beauty of the human body, whatever form it may take, is always an expression of health, life, strength and well-being in every limb of this artful creature.’

Herder takes us on a sensuous tour of the expressive parts of the body, describing how each reveals some inner truth about the person before us. Some suggestions are rather fanciful, but others quite profound, no less for an artist, who, in learning to construct the body, finds that no part exists in isolation. Even the humble foot, far from being a simple load-bearing base for the body, is ‘animated through to its smallest parts.’ The dedicated student of anatomy will attest that one does not simply learn to draw a foot, but ever thinks of how the block of the ankle, though quite distinct, flows seamlessly from the tibia into the prism of the foot; how the outer bump of the ankle is none other than the end of the fibula which stretches inflexibly up to the knee, where the hamstrings—some crossing two joints, reaching down from the pelvis—latch on to it. Our divisions are arbitrary: the foot ‘is not detached from the rest of the body and pulled on as if it were the shoe of a worm, but is one with the whole, which flows into it and is supported by it’ (Herder 2002: 75).

Von Stuck

 

Too unified

Painting has opportunity to explore abstractions, ideas, relations and stories, but sculpture, Herder argues, is not only too direct for such preoccupations, but is too pared-back and concrete. Sculpture gives us the person as a unified whole, divested of complex relations and extraneous props and setting. ‘It is never abstract love that stands before us, but the god or the goddess of love’—‘a single ensouled whole’ (Herder 2002: 97; 100). Sculpture suffers when it ventures into allegory, into weak and faceless ideals; it grows in strength when it presents a real, grieving woman to us rather than a vague and anonymous Pietà. Sculpture cannot cope with ‘the butterflies of wit and meaning,’ with the divisive interplay of multiple personalities in a group (necessary to depict a story), which rend the form with jarring wedges of air (Herder 2002: 100, 101).

Figures

And in more formal terms, a sculpture is unified in its independence, in its fierce solitariness. Herder (2002: 93) beautifully asserts:

‘A statue does not stand in light, it creates its own light; a statue is not placed in space, it creates its own space. … Sculpture does not possess a viewpoint: it explores everything in the dark, following the shape of limbs and forms.’

Too sacred

We sensuous human beings are so susceptible to touch. But a gravity accompanies sculpture, where a picture would stir our easily aroused imaginations. The truth embodied in sculpture, argues Herder (2002: 92), must encourage the graver failing of idolatry. An imposing physical form comes alive in still and solemn moments, in darkened and deserted rooms; ‘the daemon that animate[s] it [is] also present to the senses.’ Faced with such seductive, convincing, powerful forms, we must decide ‘either to pray to them or to destroy them.’

Though, Herder (2002: 92) notes, this spell does not last forever. The Italians’ long cohabitation with sculpture demonstrates the inevitable decline of art: ‘their extreme and exalted feeling would, with time, have resolved itself into art; art would have resolved itself into taste; and taste into disgust and neglect.’

Alex as statue (oil on linen--grisaille)

Alex as statue (oil on linen–grisaille)

Sight and touch, so often united, pull us in different directions. Sight is ever quick to carry us away, to adapt to new conditions of light, to new arrangements of colour and shape, to stimulate our fancy by seductive paint or by gleaming pixels, or by the very play of light rays reflecting off the natural world as if it too were nothing but a flat panel, a high-resolution display. Touch is simultaneously solemn and seductive; it returns us to the flesh, it grounds us, it makes us press ourselves up against truth. Painting is a playground for imagination; sculpture is the art form that ‘is able to hold us fast to substance and to reality’ (Herder 2002: 98). Should we accept such a distinction, we would have access to a deeper kind of beauty anchored in substance—in health, in content, in function, in truth—rather than appearances.

 

Herder, Johann Gottfried. 2002 [1778]. Sculpture : Some Observations On Shape And Form From Pygmalion’s Creative Dream. Translated by Jason Gaiger. Chicago: University of Chicago.

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Lernen & Lehren

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have begun to teach drawing. It’s a dizzying experience: a job for which I have full responsibility—in the content, the delivery, the managing of people, organisation, physical premises, money and the division of time. It’s a careful balance to pull everything together. I am a performer, I set the tone. It’s humbling to see people trust my guidance, trust in what I do. I see, plötzlich, how my own teachers felt falsely idolised when they knew the limitations of their own work. But I also see a logical way to lay out the learnings I have gathered from many places over several years, a systematic way to present them to others, to share the discoveries that blew my mind.

Ivo

And what is it that we teach? When I think over my own artistic education, all its variegations and approximations, all the extended drawings and prolonged investigation, all the gentle praise and gentle corrections, all the forceful criticisms and all the times someone else took my pencil and violated my page—I would have to agree with Wittgenstein about the importance of experience. Artists are constantly making judgements, and cementing them in material form. Some judge better than others, because their knowledge is deeper. And this, like the knowledge that enables one to judge ‘the genuineness of expressions of feelings,’ is certainly learned, but not ‘by taking a course in it, but through experience’ (Wittgenstein, 1953: 227).

Claudia

Drawing is ultimately about making judgements, and I firmly believe that you can make intelligent ones if you have reasons behind the judgements you make. My driving instructor used to say, ‘Driving is only a little bit about knowing how to operate a car. Driving is mostly about making decisions, and I can only show you how to begin to make those decisions for yourself.’ An experienced draughtsman draws on years of accumulated knowledge when he decisively puts a line down. The trouble is that this knowledge cannot be transmitted through words alone, even if it can be explained. Intellectual understanding of properties of prisms and spheres and cylinders, of perspective and anatomy, is not enough to be able to draw: you must constantly use this understanding, for drawing is an act. Only once your intellect and your motor skills align can you be said to have acquired this particular knowledge, and it is experience that marries the two.

Short poses

‘Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this?’ asks Wittgenstein (1953: 227). How does one go about transmitting this knowledge, about conveying these sublte things that one has collected over the years from many sources, from countless painstaking investigations? How is it that I can be so bold as to offer a course in drawing? Things that I know by sight are difficult to put into words; anatomical names fall away as I silently use the visual knowledge rather than speak about it. I hold tin cans and boxes at exaggerated angles and grasp clumsily at words to express something about an elusive three-dimensional rhythm through space, trying to argue that we can transcend reality and, through art, inject even more life into life itself—wait, what? I slow down: I can isolate tasks, and focus my students on one idea, and thus wrap their shaky hands around a steady tool, but their minds are more active than their wrists. Wittgenstein (1953: 227) remains hopeful about teaching one to recognise the genuineness of expressions of feelings, and I too remain hopeful about passing on the ability to draw:

‘Can someone else be a man’s teacher in this? Certainly. From time to time he gives him the right tip.—This is what ‘learning’ [Lernen] and ‘teaching’ [Lehren] are like here.—What one acquires here is not a technique; one learns correct judgements. There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right.’

So much is cast into the ether, so much grain scattered in the hope that one or two seeds will germinate in a fertile mind. I try to rain down tips on my students, carefully hung together tips, carefully organised and logically arranged, but I know that most will scatter like seeds and few will take root. Successful teaching, successful learning, demands the improbably fortunate meeting of a knowledgeable mind with a humble, hungry one, and even then most of the substance is lost, washing over the over-tasked student, who can actually only learn through active, sustained and repeated doing. The key is patient repetition, and providing a guided space in which to gain experience, gently corrected experience. I make my students draw as much as possible. All my clever explanations will come to nothing if they cannot discover the truths themselves through the very doing.

Copies after Bammes

Copies after Bammes

Besides smoothing the path and attempting to remove discouraging obstacles, besides dropping tips like crumbs, the best I can hope to transmit to my students is a love of drawing and for drawings. If I can invite them a little way into my private sphere where drawings and paintings work their intoxicating magic on me, I can bring them to the best teacher of all. For living in art is the firmest way to grow one’s experience; filling one’s head with it such that one’s hand can’t hold still, but itches to mimic those curves and to reproduce those shapes and in doing so to imprint the physical knowledge in one’s own body. As Rilke (2006 [1903]: 21) once urged a young poet, on recommending him his most treasured and life-changing books:

‘Leben Sie eine Weile in diesen Büchern, lernen Sie davon, was Ihnen lernenswert scheint, aber vor allem lieben Sie sie.’

‘Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all: love them.’ I will do my best to impart knowledge to my students, but more than this, I will encourage them to slowly, steadily, concentratedly build their experience, and most of all, I will try to show them what it is to love drawing. And I can only hope that tentatively inviting others into my private mental space will strengthen my own judgements and help me to stand by them with even greater conviction.

Bammes hands

Copies after Bammes

 

Rilke, Rainer Maria. 2006. Briefe an einen jungen Dichter / Briefe an eine junge Frau. Diogenes: Zürich.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Details about my classes are on my website.

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Habit and curiosity

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

There is an inherent tension between a painter’s sensory encounters with the world and her own habits. As I push myself to paint and draw with increasing intensity, I am driven by conflicting impulses to improve and to investigate. Improvement requires repetition and practice, but investigation tends to tear down all this dedicated work. My understanding and my repertoire broaden and deepen with investigation, but my improvement stagnates, or worse, everything I was so anxiously holding together comes completely undone.

Steffi drawing

In moments of doubt, I return to trusty Robert Nelson (2010: 121), who reassures me, ‘We all have habits.’ In his judicious way, he writes that habits have their advantages and disadvantages. Hard-earned habits through which we have assimilated knowledge ‘are at the root of our fluency, our readiness, our comfort in tackling the lofty task of representation by the senses and the hand’ (2010: 121). Without such dependable tools, we would face each new picture completely disarmed, unprepared and overwhelmed at the formidable task before us. And these tools, once acquired, need maintenance, and permit refinement, and generally positively benefit from regular and sustained attention.

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

My attention has turned rather feverishly toward copying: with religious zeal I am flooding pages and pages of my sketchbook with wholly unoriginal drawings; copies of old master paintings, copies of anatomy drawings. It can be a very passive way to draw: the burden of having an original idea or making an original investigation is gently taken away from me. It could yet be investigative—with due concentration, I could, through such copies, begin to unpack the decisions of the artists who produced the originals. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just copy, pleasantly pulling my pencil across the page, enjoying the motion, and daydreaming a bit. This pleasure drawing has its advantages: the habit of going to the gallery, of plunging into the anatomy book, means I give time to some form of drawing with dedicated regularity. And each time I start, there is the possibility that my brain will actively engage. The act itself, begun unthinkingly, can trigger thought.

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

But as I practice and practice, investing in my favoured media, becoming more accustomed to their limitations (and my own), I fall into patterns of working, and the patterns lead to ruts and their accompanying frustration. What looks like fluency and adeptness and confidence to outsiders actually feels like being stuck. Showmanship can get in the way of honest engagement with the physical world, and instead of turning afresh to sensory experience we rely on mechanistic motions. ‘By and large,’ writes Nelson (2010: 130), ‘a mechanical application of directional gestures is about superficially looking flash or stylistically sophisticated, or emotionally confident, or artistically full of panache and bravura rather than serving exploration and curiosity.’

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

And so despite the benefits and even necessity of forming (hopefully good) habits, Nelson cautions the painter against a ‘mechanistic’ approach, a mindless, formula-driven mode of working that crowds out the possibility of active picture-making. ‘Making art from habit,’ he writes (2010: 121), ‘has questionable consequences.’ For we are not simply producing polished products, little one-man factories. We are constructing pictures by means of a certain kind of logic: an organic, integrative logic that brings together all of the knowledge we have collected about tone and colour and gesture and space and texture and so on (2010: 117; 124). Though we can separate out each element and map out distinct stages of a painting through time, the most thoughtful pictures are those that weave everything together, and this unity, argues Nelson, has its origin in the sensory experience, and not in well-oiled mechanistic habits. ‘All of the painting is about building, constructing forms, constructing spatial relationships and constructing rapports in colour; and these are integral to looking, seeing, remembering and imagining’ (2010: 124).

‘The painting conceived in this way replicates, on a somewhat clumsy and grandiose scale, the process of perception itself, constantly gauging relationships and skipping all over the field in order to assess the spatial calibre of what is observed.’ (2010: 122-3)

Such alertness means we have to sacrifice some of our hard-won ability. Confronted with a real subject, with differing light conditions, with the air shimmering at the horizons of the forms, with compositionally compelling shapes that compete with descriptive and meaty forms, we find our assortment of tools to be lacking. What served us well in countless previous situations is not up to the task at hand. The world is ever lavishing new sensory experiences upon us, and the genuinely curious painter responds to the experience, indulges his senses, rather than repeating his well-rehearsed performance.

American girl

And this is the tightrope we walk: trying to furnish ourselves with tuned and ready instruments that are fit for the sensory experiences we are constantly greeted by, but remaining open to those experiences, adaptive, and seriously investigating them. It’s no good to throw away what we’ve learned and start from zero every time, but we must also open our eyes and engage our brains. Nelson (2010: 129), ever eloquent, describes the clash of habits entrenched in the body and the inquisitive encounter with the world thus:

‘The brush is constantly invoking the seen: it requires a certain nerve, a zeal for finding out what is perceived or imaginatively solicited and then for correcting what is conjectured. Unless somehow designed with a Platonic conceptual remove, it is all chop and change at a sensory and intellectual level. Add to that the co-ordination of the hand by impulses, the way that the process draws upon the muscles and uses the body: it demands a stance before the canvas and a rhythm of subliminal choreographic vibrations.’

It would be foolish to be dogmatic about either emphasis, for both are crucial. Each destroys the other, but only to rebuild it more firmly, and more enmeshed with the other.

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Integration

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve been fortunate to be having some serious brain time with Ryan Daffurn and Scott Breton of late. We’ve been discussing, from our own viewpoints and languages, our common understanding of the role of the painter, which is to pull the visible world apart, inspect it, learn it, attempt to understand it, and then to reassemble our visual knowledge into constructed, tightly orchestrated images. Scott is perhaps most clear and persistent in his language, and I will adopt his term here: painting is about integration.

Life drawing

Ryan’s recent work is an ambitious amalgam of observation, collection, reinvention and imagination, in a manner I’ve found difficult to explain to others because they are not ready to hear such ideas. When people have seen his representational work, they have asked such questions as, ‘where is that?’ And I’ve realised that people are approaching realistic painting with a very limited perspective, thinking it can only be a rehashing of something once seen. In fact, the painting in question began with a fascination for a bizarre playground in Berlin, which lodged its oddity somewhere deep in the recesses of Ryan’s brain. It developed as he redrew it from memory, drawing little thumbnails and growing new exploratory configurations out of his brain, organically and freely. On transitioning to the canvas he referred to photos collected in Berlin, but these photos were always subordinated to his own design, and subjected to new physical constraints: the effect of an unnatural green light, like that accompanying a hail storm, completely imagined; the removal of black from his palette, to set hues off against each other more thoughtfully, to create a more meaningful colour contrast rather than an overbearing tonal one. In the end, ‘where’ is not really an inquiry relevant to this painting, which is ripe with fascinating things to talk about. But people are not primed to talk about these things, and it is to these things I hope we can redirect their attention.

lifedrawing1

We are drawing from the model regularly, and returning to my sketchbooks I see with satisfaction how much of a workspace they are. While people have dogged me to make more finished drawings, and to reconsider my ‘style,’ and to think about what my preferred audience might respond to, I am pleased to see that I have wholeheartedly claimed these drawings as a working zone. Each life drawing session presents a new opportunity to investigate something new, and it’s not always a piece of anatomy. Recently I’ve been attentive to the way I make a mark, and how to train myself to make such marks. There are the soft lines that tentatively feel out the forms, and then the brazen, dark sweeps that claim them. I love to use a tiny butt of a pencil that fits inside the palm of my hand so I can ruthlessly stab the page with decisive marks, and every single week I practice this decision-making to varying degrees of success. And having uncovered some older drawings, I’m pleased to note that there is a greater elegance to my lines, but also that this elegance is laid down with such confidence and certainty. It is not only the weight of curves set off against each other that I am practicing week after week, but the very manner in which I lay them on the page. Nothing but sheer repetition and practice cements such things. As Sir Joshua Reynolds (1997: 281) writes of Michelangelo:

‘The great Artist … was distinguished even from his infancy for his indefatigable diligence; and this was continued through his whole life, till prevented by extreme old age. The poorest of men, as he observed himself, did not labour from necessity, more than he did from choice. Indeed, from all the circumstances related of his life, he appears not to have had the least conception that his art was to be acquired by any other means than by great labour.’

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Ryan and I talk about the student’s perpetual search for surprise and freshness in their own work, the constant chopping and changing of media in an effort to chance upon something that they simply have a knack for, or that reveals something new—the apparently overriding fear of staleness. While this exploration is not without merit, it seems to prevent giving any one problem due attention. We have both remained faithful to the humble pencil, and reverent of its unlimited potential. While other media open up new thoughts, our ultimate goal is a deep and intimate understanding of and facility with our chosen medium. What we’ve learned via pencil can be transferred to many other media, but other media won’t substitute for the ability to set new tasks and doggedly pursue them. Actually, in stripping every problem back, in setting stiff parameters, we give ourselves a chance to isolate each task, to puzzle over it with clarity, to observe every minute shift in our approach and thinking. We have complete control over our learning and exploration, because we are so finely tuned into our chosen tool. We trust that accidents will never approach the rewards of systematic understanding.

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The pencil lets us isolate, struggle with, and hopefully resolve distinct problems. But those problems are never really discrete, and are actually far more intricately bound with problems of colour, texture, light and atmosphere. But the life drawing studies demonstrate an important part of being an artist—the determination to pull apart and investigate—the indispensable precursor to being able to reconstruct, to compose an image, to integrate our knowledge into a wholly new and meaningful design.

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Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

For a more regular drawing fix, have a look at my Tumblr! x

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A rich inheritance

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It is, of course, extremely unpopular to paint the way that I do—representational pictures, ‘stuff that looks like stuff,’ images thoroughly stripped of their purpose by the speed and apparent accuracy of photography. Though I’m finding pockets of representational painters around the world, we are undeniably on the periphery, and perhaps rightfully so. Different demands are made of art now, and art must adapt accordingly. I cling to what I do because it is the most satisfying thing I know to do, and because the roots of it run deep and strong all the way back through our Greek heritage, a heritage of which I’m proud and a willing inheritor. I see this akin to a respect for our philosophical tradition and its Platonic genesis. This is where we have come from; this Greek impulse is part of our cultural and intellectual makeup.

Enabler (composition study)

Enabler (composition study)

And the Greeks, as Gombrich points out in a chapter on ‘Reflections on the Greek revolution,’ may be credited with a truly remarkable deviation. ‘There are few more exciting spectacles in the whole history of art than the great awakening of Greek sculpture and painting between the sixth century and the time of Plato’s youth toward the end of the fifth century B.C,’ he (1959: 99) writes with palpable enthusiasm. It is no coincidence that at the very time Plato was penning his timeless philosophical observations, Greek artists were asking new questions of the physical world and expressing wholly new observations of it in their work. Plato himself challenged this frighteningly unbridled power art was summoning, famously equating illusion with delusion, for this revolution unfolded during his own lifetime.

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For until the Greeks invented mimesis—the attempt to ‘match’ the visible world, which Gombrich (1959: 99) contrasts with the more widespread and primitive impulse simply to ‘make’—equally impressive civilisations were demanding something wholly different from art. The Egyptians, the Mesopotamians and the Minoans were concerned with a fixed, eternal art. Uninterested in particulars, their art rather ‘held out a promise that its power to arrest and to preserve in lucid images might be used to conquer’ the ‘irretrievable evanescence of human life’ (Gombrich 1959: 107-8). Keats expresses the deliciousness of such a timeless power in his ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’:

‘Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.’

And, indeed, such ritualistic art never lost its attraction. ‘In the time of Augustus,’ Gombrich (1959: 124) notes, ‘there are already signs of a reversal of taste toward earlier modes of art and an admiration of the mysterious shapes of the Egyptian tradition.’ The middle ages, rather than a period of decadence and darkness, might be seen as a time of reaffirmation of this powerful mode of art. Clear, schematised, generalised, symbolic motifs executed with primitive clarity work a sort of magic that is difficult to resist. Gombrich (1959: 124) argues that it is misleading to describe art’s history in terms of progress or decline, and considers the Greek ‘revolution’ a true innovation, a notable break in the story, but he argues that the reclamation of schematic art ought not ‘be interpreted as a fresh revolution in favour of new ideals. What happened here looks much more like another process of natural selection, not a directed effort by a band of pioneers, but the survival of the fittest; in other words, the adaptation of the formulas to the new demands of imperial ceremony and divine revelation. In the course of this adaptation, the achievements of Greek illusionism were gradually discarded.’ Artists overwhelmingly produced what they were required to.

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The appeal of such ‘conceptual art,’ as Gombrich classifies it—and this arguably applies equally to the reductive abstract art of our own time and more recent history—is not difficult to account for. ‘What is normal to man and child all over the globe is the reliance on schemata, on what is called ‘conceptual art’ (1959: 101). The art which today holds sway appeals to universals, to the general, to broad human experiences in an amusingly primitive way. ‘With the beholder’s questioning of the image, the artist’s questioning of nature stopped’ (1959: 124). It is the Greeks alone who have demanded something altogether different of the image: ‘[Egyptologist Heinrich] Schäfer stressed that the ‘corrections’ introduced by the Greek artist in order to ‘match’ appearances are quite unique in the history of art. Far from being a natural procedure, they are the great exception’ (Gombrich 1959: 101).

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The nude is central to the Greek tradition, and has survived in western art even until our own time. Yet I am not clear on what its role should now be, stripped of its Greek philosophies of embodied ideas, of godlike perfection in supple human form. The role of the nude has changed dramatically since its invention by the Greeks. As Clark (1985: 337) writes, the workshops of the middle ages which trained artisans—manual workers—gradually gave way to academies which urged more intellectual pursuits. ‘When this old discipline of grinding colours, sizing panels and copying approved models was removed … what new discipline took its place? Drawing from the nude, drawing from the Antique and perspective.’ The nude became inextricably linked with cleverness in art, with intellectual abstractions (Clark 1985: 337-8):

‘Instead of the late Gothic naturalism based on experience, [drawing from the nude] offers ideal form and ideal space, two intellectual abstractions. Art is justified, as man is justified, by the faculty of forming ideas; and the nude makes its first appearance in art theory at the very moment when painters begin to claim that their art is an intellectual, not a mechanical activity.’

The Greeks made an unprecedented leap in grasping after mimesis, in matching their observations. But as Gombrich (1959: 121) argues, ‘we mistake the character of this skill if we speak of the imitation of nature. Nature cannot be imitated or ‘transcribed’ without first being taken apart and put together again. This is not the work of observation alone but rather of ceaseless experimentation.’ Here the Italians emerge, smug in their mastery over nature, with their newly intellectualised painting, built around the worship of the nude: ‘there is no doubt that the Florentines valued a demonstration of anatomical knowledge simply because it was knowledge and as such of a higher order than ordinary perception’ (Clark 1985: 340).

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The nude persisted throughout the twentieth century, but she was shamefully ravaged. The fact that the nude became almost exclusively female is significant, and Clark (1985: 343) links this change to the Florentine pride in knowledge. ‘No doubt this is connected with a declining interest in anatomy (for the écorché figure is always male) and so is part of that prolonged episode in the history of art in which the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a sensuous perception of totalities.’ Art, of course, grew in its intellectual aspirations, forced its way (perhaps unjustifiably) into the universities, and discarded anything tainted by technique, scrambling instead after a pitiable faux-philosophy, loosely held together by sensual feminine curves.

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What are we to make of the nude and of mimesis in our own time? Can we turn back to our cultural origins and embrace the Greek intent? This feels false in the wake of Christianity and its accompanying shame for our bodies, our gothic repulsion to the human form, our appetite for punishment and decay. And there is something surprisingly appealing in the ruthlessly grotesque German representations that Greek perfection never touches. The Judeo-Christian tradition is equally a part of our cultural fabric and our western attitudes. Perhaps, then, the nude is a private and academic exercise, and once mastered it serves only as a support to our other representational endeavours. Perhaps the interest in the nude that has resurfaced in the modern ateliers is a propitious start, but is not justified in being considered art. Ryan has spoken warily of the present-day ‘cult of the student:’ the misdirected celebration of studio nudes as ends in themselves. I’m inclined to agree.

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Certainly, the Greeks began something wholly European, a complete anomaly in the story of art. Our thoughts, our perception are unavoidably influenced by their invention. I will be so bold as to say there is something worthwhile in this, something worth preserving and carrying forward. Something beyond the schematic, conceptual art that even children are capable of, that every other culture has independently produced. ‘What most of us lack in order to be artists,’ argues Dewey (1934: 75), ‘is not the inceptive emotion, nor yet merely technical skill in execution. It is capacity to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of some definite medium.’ Far from teaching us how to be human cameras, the Greeks taught us how to override the schematisation and simplification our brains naturally strive for and gave us an intelligent way to think with our hands. And I have no desire to abandon such a rich inheritance.

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Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Keats, John. 2006. Selected poems. Ed. Deborah West. Oxford University: Oxford.

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In pursuit of control

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Our happily proactive gang of painters in Vienna recently got together for a longer session with the model—eleven hours over four evenings. It was a great opportunity to bash away at a few things I have been trying to improve in my drawing. It has been a long time since I’ve troubled myself overly much with rendering, and I have instead been making crude visual notes about planes more than anything. I decided, therefore, that rendering would be my project. I want controlled lines, delicacy, and pure intent—no lazy, unthinking scribbles. And a little bonus anatomy and memory training never goes astray.

Alexandra1

We seem to have a never-ending supply of lovely Russian models in Vienna, and Alexandra graced us with a beautiful and complex knot of a pose. From every angle, a gentle sweep ran over the arch of her back and down her raised leg, her head tucked away. As I began to draw her, I kept this sloping mass in mind, as well as the slope at the bottom of the picture—her foot extending forward. Rather than strictly observing the jutting shapes, I pushed the unity of the drawing, clinging to big C-curves and using their rhythms to drive the composition. I loved the shocking right-angle through her head and left shoulder, but tried to subordinate it to the broader flow over the back. And what became quickly apparent as I drew was the importance of her right arm—it seemed to beg for all the attention. This was very fortuitous, since I had been studying arms, and here was a very clear and prominent arm to investigate, pronated and everything, with the radius pulling the extensor muscles over the forearm.

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After the first session, I went home and nerded out with Bammes and Goldfinger. Having noted down the bony protrusions and muscles that I thought I could see, observing the colour changes across the skin as the light hugged different forms in its predictable way, I did a bit of fact-checking. It helps to have battled with some real forms in front of you and only then to read all that involved text in your anatomy book, rather than trying to memorise everything first. You are already familiar with so much, and the explanation helps to make sense of the particular situation rather than a general one.

Arms2

My drawing felt quite stiff, though, and I was sorry that I hadn’t really warmed up with some quicker drawings beforehand. Perhaps I should have made a smaller practice one to get the feel for it. But, undeterred, I hoped I could bring some new energy to what I already had the next day. With this in mind, I made a very fast copy in my sketchbook, letting lots of things slide in favour of a looser, livelier drawing. Then I used this little practice drawing to work through what I had learned about arm anatomy as it applied to this pose. I very forcefully (in a feverish excitement, one presumes) marked in the muscles as I understood them.

Arm study

Returning to the model, I adjusted the arms of my larger drawing with the new knowledge fresh in my mind and the real thing before my eyes. This time I was searching for what I knew, and trying to subdue it according to what I could see, rather than just putting down what I could see. Satisfied, I turned to concentrate on something I had neglected for a long time: shadows. Obsessed as I am with form drawing, I haven’t made tone do much work for me in a long time.

Alexandra2

I marked in the terminators (the hazy, dark transitions between light and shadow as a body turns away from light—the form shadows) and the cast shadows (the neat-edged shadows that fall across the body because something else is blocking the light), paying attention to the masses and the way that light ought to work. Light obeys rules, because physics, and will always make certain shapes on spheres, cylinders, cones and prisms, which the human figure is more or less composed of. I wanted my shadows to help describe the form, not obscure or flatten the picture, and so I made sure to wrap them around the figure in clear, descriptive shapes. The shadow cast by the arm on the leg was a beautiful opportunity to show the gentle bulge of the thigh, meaning I didn’t need to do much to the lit area, but could keep it fleshy and soft. I tried to remember to vary the breadth of the terminator according to the curvature of the forms, and decided to keep the shadows quite light. This drives everyone mad, because they want to see me darken my shadows for maximum impact. But I potter away at my own little challenges, loving to experiment with how much I can say in a controlled and delicate manner.

shadow study

I did a bad job of this shadow business, I reflected when I got home. I made another copy in my sketchbook, enjoying the process of redrawing and my growing familiarity with this pose. I marked in the shadows again, and practiced rendering them, trying to keep the tone uniform and trying to do a better job of the terminators—expanding them appropriately, experimenting with how dark they should be. I played around a little with the transition into the light, practicing the strokes I wanted to use. I have been working so hard at hatching neatly and evenly, and I don’t know what the secret is except for probably hatching several million of those tiny lines. I’m never sure that they look any more controlled, but I live in hope that my untiring practice will reward me with superhuman dexterity.

Alexandra3

I went back on the third evening determined to take charge of those shadows. I forced myself to neaten the tone, making it uniform, and only allowing myself to knock back some subtle reflected light (only according to the form!) with my eraser.

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I realised that although the arm was the star of this drawing, I was presented with a very good opportunity to study knees. I couldn’t let this pass. A bent knee and a fully flexed knee! All manner of bony goodness to investigate. I returned to Bammes and his simplified conceptions of the knee—all blocks and planes and axes. I thought long and hard about how knees fit together. I copied out drawings of the widening gap between the femur and the tibia as the knee bends further and further. I made notes in my sketchbook so I wouldn’t forget: ‘Kneecap never slides upwards because anchored by the straight patellar ligament.’ ‘Skeleton accounts for greatest part by far of sculptural form of knee.’

Alexandra4

Armed with these mantras, I spent some time on the final day trying to match my understanding with what I saw. Then all that remained were the light zones. Having worked out all the forms, the most prominent anatomy, and the direction of rendering, all that was left to do was exercise a controlled hand and make the nicest little lines I possibly could.

Alexandra memory

Bonus exercise! The next evening I put my drawing and sketchbook away, and began with a fresh sheet of paper. I redrew the same drawing entirely from memory (without the hours of refinement!). This part really feels like magic. Have I really internalised all this information? This extra test really consolidates all the new knowledge and all the particular decisions that you have made when working with the model. And you realise what power you have when you understand the human figure, and can summon one at will.

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