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.


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.’


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.



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


Gnädige Frau

Edith Schiele in gestreiftem Kleid, Egon Schiele (1915)

Edith Schiele in gestreiftem Kleid, Egon Schiele (1915)













Sometimes life forces you to consider what it is to be a woman—what it is to be strong, or weak; made of flesh; delicate, desirable, dependent, but harbouring a secret energy, perhaps afraid to brandish that energy, afraid to even look at it. Our bodies establish us as the weaker; our learned timidity keeps us so. The Belvedere exhibition on Die Frauen is probably intended as a feminist statement, somewhat ironically presented through the eyes of male painters. But statements aside, being enclosed in that space with all the loveliness and misery and secrecy of womanhood is a comforting experience.

Marie Henneberg, Gustav Klimt (1901-02)

Marie Henneberg, Gustav Klimt (1901-02)

Klimt is delicate with his women, barely dusting their flesh with airy flecks of paint, as though too respectful to touch them directly. His hatched paintings are among my favourite of all his work, and seem to be an exploration in the way colours converge and diverge as he sets different hues against each other and watches the interplay between them. You experience them differently at close range and at a distance. From afar, Marie Henneberg (1901-02) and Hermine Gallia (1903/04) dissolve into smoky purple salons, at one with their sumptuous surroundings, but up close their skin and rippling dresses are a confetti of oranges, blues, greens, purples and pinks. Most colours are neutral, and the most unadultered are some moderately used cobalt blues and pale oranges. Staring at them reinforces my conviction, acquired from experience, that purple is brown—this gentle gradation of neutrals that shifts the ratios of red and blue and yellow. My best purples always contain yellow—counter-intuitively sabotaging their vibrancy with their complementary. Klimt playfully explores these fluctuations with these floating strokes laid side by side.

There is something so satisfying, then, when you get near enough to see Frau Henneberg’s eyes and their lively chestnut brown leaps out from the other purple-browns, rich and chocolatey, far more vivid than the subdued though deep brown of her hair. Klimt has found the threshold between purple and brown and knows how to make them sing. At a distance, silvers emerge from the purple, but these greys are so controlled, so luminously coloured. The slightest shift toward orange gives them an entirely different character to the purple, though one only sees it as they begin to melt into each other.

Nach Klimt: Hermine Gallia

Copy after Klimt: Hermine Gallia

These women are as ethereal as the lace they are draped in, their skin shimmering, arms ‘braceleted and white and bare [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]’ (Eliot, 1966: 13). But none of their finery—pleasingly designed as it is—compares with the grace and dignity of their hands and faces. Frau Gallia is like a droplet of water, plunging heavily to the ground, but wholly self-contained; one liquid shape. And the undersides of chins, thrusting the squareness of the matured womanly jaw, projecting the distinctive shape of the downturned and slightly-parted mouth that Klimt draws obsessively again and again—this uncommon view is seductively condescending. There is something submissive in it, but something defiant. Besides which, the shapes are irresistible.

Copy after Klimt: Goldfische (1901/02)

Copy after Klimt, Goldfische (1901/02)

It’s wonderful to see walls of drawings by Klimt, all lightly scribed onto aging brown paper. But there is a certain carelessness in his drawing, as though he is impatient to paint. He finds the edge with cloudy scratches, defining thighs and knees with dark negative space instead of positively asserting the body itself, and even then without conviction. Perhaps because these hurried visual notes are not conceived at all in lines but in shapes and textures. And indeed he captures some deliciously-shaped forearms, put down with great simplicity. For Klimt never seems to trust his lines, or perhaps never cares for them. He must be thinking in paint: in ill-defined expressive edges which can never be pinned down in pencil.

Edith Schiele, Egon Schiele

Edith Schiele, Egon Schiele

Now Schiele—das ist eine andere Sache. The boy is all about the lines. Every line is raw with passion, deliberately ravaging the page or the canvas. There is no delicacy in Schiele, even when he tenderly tries to put down the sweetness of his wife. His tenderness still brews from a deep violence coursing through him. His paintings burst with a subterranean fury: confronted with them in the flesh, I feel like he didn’t so much paint them as form them from the very earth. Despite the purity of the pinks and oranges and blues, the whole surface is a muddy terrain of paint with a very physical topography.

It’s hard to decide whether Schiele lovingly traces Edith’s jaw or forcefully defines it himself. In drawing, in painting, he dominates her, he aggressively creates her for himself; she is at the mercy of art and of the artist, terrorised by his violence. He brutally coaxes out the wild creature inside the woman, urging it with the monster inside him. When I look at his sure, sizzling lines, I feel certain that we can never see ourselves except through the ruthless description of an artist. And yet, I think it would be limiting to say that Schiele’s work is simply ‘expressive,’ despite the force of his gaze. I am sure that Schiele really sees, and really exposes something of the sitter. He seizes the defining factors in an instant—the sloping brow, the crooked nose—and his own charged insights hang from this honest scaffolding. I am sure that Schiele saw Edith’s pain: it lingers in her eyes, in the corners of her mouth. Nothing escapes his sensitive gaze, however fierce his pencil.

Nach Schiele

Copy after Schiele

His drawings always present a deeply satisfying unity. He sees the parts and he sees the whole. Each breast, the pelvis, thighs and calves, all individually carved out with such a sense for weight and balance, and yet arranged as interlocking shapes into one carefully balanced shape. As in the Mastubierender Akt mit grünem Turban (1914), which seems to hang sideways, giving her the impression of floating blissfully through the air, he is willing to assert her delicious curves in all their forceful simplicity. You feel her, you feel her stomach sucking in, her legs tensing, the balanced unity of her weighted parts.

Mastubierender Akt mit grünem Turban, Egon Schiele (1914)

Mastubierender Akt mit grünem Turban, Egon Schiele (1914)

It’s hard to look at Schiele’s drawings without feeling violated. Naturally, they are overtly sexual, but more than this: they pierce the soul of the subject. Sometimes it is like looking at an animated corpse. The rich, brown, leathery skin, full and lively, galvanised, but stiff and arranged unnaturally. The hands are the most arresting. All these women with meaty, bony, monstrous hands, the joints bloody and red. His women cannot be inactive with such square-knuckled, muscular hands. They are almost a challenge to action, a defiance of supposed feminine delicacy, of fragile wrists and gently tapering workshy fingers. Schiele reflects women back to themselves as something stronger.

Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?


Eliot, T. S. 1966. Selected poems. Faber & Faber: London.




The more I work, the more I realise how crucial a tool memory is to the painter. In circles of representational painters, it is a point of pride to paint from life rather than from photographs, and yet this reliance on what is physically before us is of course imaginatively limiting. If our ultimate goal is to so master our super-power that we can uninhibitedly create boundless worlds through our brush, a competence with copying arrangements before our eyes will not be enough. It is simply a step on the way to omnipotence.

Computer time

Our language is visual, and working from life allows us, if you will, to build our visual vocabulary. It forces us to slow down, pay attention, and battle through each problem of light, volume and texture, of colour relationships, of atmosphere, of design. It demands that we are wholly present and alert to the very substances of the physical world: we must pry into the construction of things in a way that word-languages do not. Where our word-brain is content to recognise a chair by ‘some legs and a horizontal bit and sometimes a back,’ our visual-brain needs more information. It notes the turned legs, the crossbars, the torn padding, the ridges, the carvings. But to simply note down these specifics is little more than dictation. Our still lives, if driven by an effort to remember, can serve us more than the image we are currently creating. Draw that chair, paint that chair, and attempt to own it forever.

Sleep time

Much of this remembering is physical, in our bodies, learned through motions and repetition. The artist can achieve astounding facility in drawing by nurturing a muscular memory that is not consciously directed by thought. And so, it is not enough to draw; one must redraw. There is no brilliance in fluking a great image, or in transferring a lucky design and colouring the shapes. Repetition cements what we have seen, both in our minds and in our hands. We do well to draw again with greater understanding, greater confidence, a better feel for the image. Through repetition we fuse part of the physicality of an image into our bodies, we store it in the movement of our arms and wrists.

Tiny hands1

I have started to think of my learning in terms of developing multiple selves, concurrently. This might be as crazy and complicated as it sounds. But it becomes more and more evident that progress in drawing and painting is not strictly linear. Drawing, for example, is not simply the precursor to painting, though solid draughtsmanship is unendingly helpful in painting. For even once we apply our drawing skills to painting, we can continue to improve our drawing. I imagine three selves with three fundamentally different approaches, each supporting and reinforcing the other.

Tiny hands3

The first self is very literal and rooted in the physical world. She first comes at drawing and painting by observation, and makes great progress with the model or the still life before her. She comes to know what to look for and how to notate it. The external world offers her an abundance of information, stimulus, truths and complexities. Rubens himself was one such dedicated student (Clark, 1985: 133):

‘Rubens copied everything which could conceivably add to his already overflowing resources. For the nude his models were, of course, the Antique, Michelangelo and Marcantonio. Titian he copied for his colour, but altered his form… he drew from the Antique and copied from his predecessors till certain ideals of formal completeness were absolutely fixed in his mind.’

If we neglect this observational self, our visual store is weak and our vocabulary shamefully sparse. All the clever ideas in the world will not make up for our appalling inability to express them visually. Yet the element of memory remains crucial. Ideally, we are not only repeating what we see, but repeating it in order to remember it, so that later we can work from our vast store without needing a model, a chair, a light-source before us. Delacroix (p. 208-9) insists, ‘The only painters who really benefit by consulting a model are those who can produce their effect without one.’

Copy after Titian, Girl in a fur

Copy after Titian, Girl in a fur

The second self turns away from the physical world and creates her own, from memory. She is the test of how much we have really internalised. And yet, frustratingly, she starts out almost as frail and helpless as the first did. She draws infuriatingly badly, makes stupid mistakes, forgets seemingly obvious bits of anatomy, and generally lags painfully behind. For this reason it can be easier to smugly rely on our observational self to keep producing lovely pictures. But without abandoning our observational habits, we can also begin to nurture this little self and watch her drawings improve and find to our utter delight that she only strengthens our memory.

Tiny hands4

A wonderfully modest yet accomplished Berlin painter who demonstrates how powerful such training can be is Ruprecht von Kaufmann. There is a lovely video of a talk he gives to some American students, during which he is repeatedly asked about his ability to paint from memory. They incredulously inquire after his reference material, bewildered at a convincing and detailed chair. ‘Oh yeah,’ von Kaufmann explains off-handedly, ‘the couch is really a rip-off, because one of my most favourite artists is Lucien Freud and he has leather couches like that often in his paintings, so … I sort of looked at how he did it and then translated it into my own way of painting.’

Copy after Raphael

Copy after Raphael

The observational self thus never leaves us; never dissolves or transforms into the imaginative self. Rather, she continues to turn her eyes afresh on the physical world, unrelentingly fascinated. And having trained her memory so well, she might not even need a pencil to own new observations, as von Kaufmann further explains:

‘When I see things that I know that interest me and that I want to use in a painting, I look at them very consciously, trying to break them down into the most simple thing that would allow me to memorise how to put that into a painting and how to represent that.’

And not only can we learn to recreate observations from memory, but, as in the case of Rubens, our observations can be ordered by our imaginative intentions, as Clark (1985: 133) describes. ‘The more we study [Rubens’ nudes] the more we discover them to be under control.’ Once the aforementioned ‘ideals of formal completeness were absolutely fixed in his mind,’ when he approached nature he ‘instinctively subordinated the observed facts to the patterns established in his imagination’ (1985: 133).

Tiny hands2

And far off in the distance I begin to detect a future self who, supported by her sisters and their razor-sharp memory, no longer needs to prepare with repetition, with fully-resolved studies either from life or from imagination. This self will have such a fount of sure and reliable knowledge, such a fluency with weaving her visual vocabulary into intelligent images, that she will be able to work directly onto the canvas. Her ideas will be well-formed enough in her head, and the movements of her wrist so well tuned to her thoughts that she will be bold enough to investigate in the final medium. And though I’ve no doubt she will struggle as the first, and begin weakly and uncertainly, she will grow in power as she trains her ability to imagine and realise a work.

My most pressing challenge on the way to painterly enlightenment is thus to develop my memory in terms of these differently-focused selves. My recent projects have involved a great deal of memory-exertion, and I will share these with you soon. To be a fully-abled painter of the calibre of Michelangelo depends on ‘a confluence of mental activities, calculation, idealisation, scientific knowledge and sheer ocular precision’ (Clark 1985: 57-8). The burden, then, is on us to look, to really see, and to remember.

Copy after Franz Hals, Catharina Hooft, Berlin

Copy after Franz Hals, Catharina Hooft, Berlin


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

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.