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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The squirrel

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

Hyndland house © Samantha Groenestyn, oil on canvas

 

Sometimes it would be really excellent to have access to an art education, but sometimes you have to find a way to educate yourself. At times like this, the answer might come from Jack White, via a squirrel. ‘Take all your problems and rip ’em apart’: isolate, master, and finally, integrate.

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Venus and Adonis ( / Jack White) by Abraham Janssens

Taking a class means you have a structure imposed on you, regularity and routine, and are fed ideas in a logical sequence. But in the event that you are not enrolled in a class, you can still find plenty to chew on, and with enough discipline you can create a solid routine. The important things are to be excited, to follow the trail and to be persistent. Travel affords one the perfect opportunity to get outside and work from nature, eyeballs twitching from all the spectacular new stimuli. But nature is hard: full of bugs, dogs, shrieking children, nosy people, trees, changing light and other painterly woes. One works with an urgency that can be shaken in the private peacefulness of the studio, but at the same time one finds the details mounting, crowding out the picture, looking rushed and untended to. I, for one, include too much, and struggle to keep the main design at the fore of my decisions.

Tree 1

George Clausen, whose Stone pickers (1887) I was fortunate enough to encounter in the Laing in Newcastle, expressed similar pains in his lectures to the Royal Academy (published as Six Lectures on Painting; 1904: 45): ‘Everything in nature is moving—not necessarily quickly, but nothing stands still for us; this sense of life and movement must be given in a picture with the measure of detail which may be necessary, and the result reveals the artist’s mind, showing on which qualities, and in what degree, his attention was fixed.’

Tree 2

So I have happened upon an approach that lets me both practice the elements and work at the broader design. Every afternoon I head out into the world with my sketchbook and choose something to devote my attention to. Perhaps a scene will strike me, and I will sit down for an hour, two, as long as it takes, and interrogate this setting from a design perspective. These drawings are fluid, scratchy, built of simplified masses, and usually paying attention to form, reducing trees to bulbous sphere-based monstrosities, and paying careful attention to perspective in the prisms of buildings. In these drawings I’m developing a notation for three-dimensional objects, as well as forcing them into pleasing arrangements. Many of these drawings go nowhere, but some form the basis of paintings. Mostly, they reveal what the smaller problems are, and demonstrate that tackling an entire landscape all at once is too big a bite just now.

Tree 3

Other afternoons I linger in a sunny park or bunker down by a swamp and draw the trunk of a tree. These organic forms produce surprising twists, and let me explore drawing quite fluidly and more freely than when drawing the figure with its predictable anatomy. Plus, they sit still for longer, so you can while away hours investigating in as much detail as you care to, and never run out of variations. As Harold Speed (1913: 106) reminds us, ‘Nature is the great storehouse of variety; even a piece of coal will suggest more interesting rock-forms than you can invent. … And it is never advisable to waste inventive power where it is so unnecessary.’

Tree 6

For reals, this tree exists.

Mornings, I like to start with a drapery study. My kind friend Elizabeth has let me pillage her scarf drawer which means I have an endless variety of fabrics—stiff, wispy, heavy, floaty, wiry and bunched—at my disposal. It’s a nice reminder that there’s not simply drapery, but that all fabrics have their own manner of drape; that they bunch differently, fall differently and fold differently. I started out with ‘drapery sculptures,’ complex creatures to test my accuracy. But I got more excited about the puzzles of fabric, and began to explore its incarnations: table drapery, hanging drapery, folded and twisted drapery; the little pockets and cones that form in it. And besides wrapping my head around the ‘mechanics’ of this mouldable form, I found these exercises to be an invaluable means of practicing modelling. My earlier drawings are harshly seeking out the cross-contours; my later ones, even after only a few weeks, are finding a more elegant way to express the softness of the surface of my subject.

Drape 1

And here comes the exciting bit. Having broken all my problems down and gnawed away at them, varying and repeating the tasks, following my nose and trying to solve the new puzzles that arise out of them, I see just how connected they are. For a tree is a person is a drape is a composition. The ripples of the surface of the drapery find their way into my trees, and the muscularity and counter rhythms of human limbs translate into those of trees. The design-oriented sweeps through boughs—always planted firmly on the ground—resurface in the capturing of a human pose, feet rooted just as surely. And a thin piece of cloth has forms as full as any living thing, and is not simply a web of shapes dovetailing together.

Drape 2

As ever, trusty old Bammes accompanies me on my explorations, and a little such guidance never goes astray. For it’s nice to work independently, but it’s also nice to receive tested wisdom and gentle reminders: ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision’ (2010: 222).

Drape 3

Clausen empathises further (1904: 54): ‘The student’s greatest difficulty is to find himself; what it is that he really wants to express.’ He observes that we are more inclined to seek our place amongst our contemporaries, to stay attuned to current creative trends and market-driven demands. But Clausen urges the student in her ‘search for general principles:’ ‘He should try and arrive at principles, and to that end study also the work of the old artists, who have travelled the whole road; depending on nature for his inspiration, while referring to them for guidance.’ Clausen suggests a delicate balance between personal encounters and struggles with the natural world, with observation and private deduction—just as a mathematician might privately prove axioms to himself as a sure footing for further creative problem solving—and a devoted study of the masters. In this light it is not simply a dreamlike privilege to be in Europe, with daily access to world-class galleries, but a minimum requirement of the student of art. One does oneself no favours by remaining in a cultural backwater, relying only on reproductions in one’s investigations into the great work of the past. Clausen (1904: 54) argues that such study gives us a belt of tools—of insights, ideas and trains of thought—to bring to our own battles of taming nature to the canvas. ‘For we train ourselves to see and understand, by studying the work of the masters, which help us to form our judgement before nature.’

Drape 4

This idea that we distill the principles for ourselves is, to my mind, paramount. No master of any field simply reads the elementary textbooks and gets on with making bold discoveries. Many a physicist has divulged to me that they have returned again and again to the foundational principles, oiled their minds with them, looked at them from every angle, picked them apart and pieced them back together unaided, and, after a number of years working on highly abstracted concepts, have seen these principles in a new light as their specialised understanding deepens. We need the surest, securest foundation for our endeavours, and however elite and respected and coveted our school, it can never simply feed us such a foundation. We must work through the smallest of problems for ourselves, and make each discovery, have each profound epiphany, at our own hand.

Drapes

And no less than the mighty Leonardo da Vinci will back us up on this. In his notebooks he admits to being no scholar, but to owing all to the mistress of experience. ‘Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy:—on experience, the mistress of their Masters. They go about puffed up and pompous, dressed and decorated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own. They will scorn me as an inventor; but how much more might they—who are not inventors but vaunters and declaimers of the works of others—be blamed.’ (1888: 16-17).

Gnarly tree

In having the humility to search out general principles for ourselves, and becoming familiar with them inside and out, da Vinci argues that we will face our creative problems with clarity of mind. ‘These rules will enable you to have a free and sound judgment; since good judgment is born of clear understanding, and a clear understanding comes of reasons derived from sound rules, and sound rules are the issue of sound experience—the common mother of all the sciences and arts.’ (1888: 19) And so, artist or scientist, let’s not neglect the small puzzles, or rely on others to hand solutions to us. Let’s tear apart and then rebuild our own enduring foundations, one little acorn at a time.

 

You can snag most of the books cited free online!

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing. Search: Kent.

Clausen, George. 1904. Six lectures on painting. Methuen: London.

Speed, Harold. 1913. The practice and science of drawing. Seeley: London.

da Vinci, Leonardo. 1888. The notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Trans. Jean Paul Richter.

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The devil

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

It’s undeniable that the Dutch and Flemish painters particularly relished detail. When I look at their paintings I see the glee that sparkled in their eyes, thinking of the heavy texture of a rug and the crystal gleam of glass, the rumpled satin and copious strings of pearls—almost without a thought for their sitter. Every corner of the painting is precious space to be maxed out in all its textural glory. One squints in wonder at the precision with which paint is applied, with, one presumes, unimaginably tiny brushes. I’m a sucker for this. I don’t care if it’s showing off. I want to discover more and more.

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens

Holy fuck, detail of Peter Paul Rubens

There is a point, though, when detail becomes garish and visually distressing. It’s one thing to satisfyingly distinguish between course woven carpets and soft skin and silky garments, but another to be forced to train one’s eyes on pores and individual hairs and knuckle wrinkles. Hyperrealism is a visual torrent of truthful information that our eyes, when grappling with the real world, graciously blend into one viewpoint. We can’t concentrate on everything at once, and such paintings ask the impossible of us, forcing our eyes to train, hawklike, on every aspect at once. I’ve seen ceiling-high paintings that are like frightening projections of microscope slides of old people’s noses, and I have to say that I don’t think they are very clever. Has the artist a scientific interest in dermatology? Are they a failed biologist?

A broad simplification of this matter is summed up in the dichotomy of detail versus structure, which Nelson probes with some scepticism. Whence this dichotomy, he asks? Does it have its roots in ‘romantic versus classic? Instinct versus discipline? Liberal versus anal-retentive? Modernism versus tradition?’ (p. 145). I’m reminded of this Western inclination to equally partition things, divide them into ‘us and them,’ as Alice Jardine (in Walker 2009 p. 46) notes: ‘The question of “the couple” has become the object of contemporary philosophical fascination, where all metaphysical couples are in the process of being discoupled, recoupled differently and urgently: active/passive, form/matter, speech/writing, conscious/unconscious.’ Whether or not this coupling project is useful, it seems to hold our fascination, and has certainly been in my mind as I flit between the Dutch-German-Flemish and Italian-Spanish-French wings of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, unable to help engaging in comparative study.

Wöllflin (Nelson 2010 p. 145; 148) put forward this particular artistic and culturally ‘normatively informed’ coupling. According to his proposed division, Renaissance artists of the northern and more liberal regions are swamped in a glittering frenzy of detail, while their southern counterparts soberly attend to the structure of the entire image. Or perhaps the stiff and accurate detail is sober, and the giddy motion grows out of a compositional frenzy. In Nelson’s (p. 145-6) summarisation, ‘Whereas artists like Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin and Dürer fill their busy rectangles with copious detail in an even and democratic spread, artists like Giotto, Masaccio, Piero, Michaelangelo and Titian are interested in a single spatial proposition, with a key volumetric argument, usually centralised and tending to command a perspective of an ideal and single viewpoint.’

My own investigations have led me to believe it is not so simple as this. Certainly, I was amazed at the stiff simplicity of Titian’s (non-fur) drapery—the simple and ungraduated laying down of three tones in awkward triangular shapes. Where his faces were careful and smooth, his compositions focussed and kind to the viewer, his textures seemed sometimes a mere afterthought, an irrelevant feature that would only distract from his main pictorial assertion. And there is no denying the narrative motion inherent in a stunning painting by Strozzi, of the widow and her son with Elias, in which the textures are dampened and softened to great effect, letting the eyes marvel over the weight and presence of the subjects. And the Dutch brazenly flaunt the golden weave of baskets and the pink sheen of satin, and carefully delineate every leaf of a tree. Nevertheless, it seems more a question of degree and emphasis.

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Where Van Dyck paints incredibly subtle yet expressive faces and positively floating angel garments, the detail in which he revels is supported by a strong and intentional composition. I am in awe of his Vision of the blessed Hermann Joseph with Mary, the centre of which forms a diagonal rectangle between the faces, with a three-dimensional convergence of the arms of Mary, Joseph and the helpful angel. The fourth head to the left completes a satisfying arc through the four, closing off the design in a tight fashion. Detail does not interfere with or stand in isolation from the structure; the two function far more dependently.

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

And when one considers the phenomenal Rubens, and his overwhelming visual cacophony of flying babies and intense if idealised character types, with their cascading hands, lavishly surrounded by exotic fruits, it seems that composition is equally in his mind, only with grander, more complex visions, interlocking countless tiny narratives. The voluminous flesh of his figures demonstrates more of a virtuosity with respect to the human form than a strict adherence to the truth of perception. His detail seems largely driven by questions of motion, unlike the more believable individuality of Van Dyck’s figures. A Rubens hand is above all engaged in some action, and mightily idealised; a Van Dyck hand belongs to its owner alone. As Nelson (p. 147) argues, the northern artists isolated by Wöllflin ‘nevertheless organised their fields fastidiously.’

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Veronese expertly directs the viewer through the narrative of the painting, but not at the expense of lavish decoration—heavy brocade, gleaming jewels, deftly-woven golden hair—his Judith and Lucretia are in fine murderess getup (homicide or suicide), and this brings a certain theatricality to the tight but expressive compositions. One’s eyes feast on the jewels at their shoulders, drawn to the most brightly-lit part, and unquestioningly follow their arms—symbols of action, I speculate—to the bloody acts at their fingertips, cloaked in darkness.

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Nelson wisely draws our attention back to the fact that the decisions we make as painters are based on perception, but ought not be enslaved by it. Every painter makes those decisions not only based on preference, cultural affiliations or schooled traditions, but in response to the stimulus itself. Perceptual art, he argues (p. 150), ‘is a poetic process of interpreting perception in order to make paintings and drawings. … The interest will always be in the strength of the image, the consistency of vision, the poetic agreements between the technique and the perception.’ Whichever camp sways you, your debt is to the subject alone.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Walker, Michelle Boulous. 2009. ‘Writing couples: Reading Deutscher on Sartre and Beauvoir.’ In Crossroads IV(1): pp. 45-52.

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