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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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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Good art

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The October night © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

When one is persistently critical, sometimes people tire of you at parties, and they demand a positive explanation rather than a judgement. I’m in favour of such a broad, visionary task, but it depends on the genuine interest and attention of the questioner, because it is far more demanding and far-reaching than simply dealing with the artwork to hand. Nevertheless, when you are at a party, and someone impatiently drops the question, ‘What is good art, then?’ you feel an immense weight descend on your weary shoulders, and the magnitude of the task makes your beer-soaked brain tremble with fatigue. You scratch around desperately for somewhere to begin, but you are gripped by the certainty that you cannot bring this person to the place where you are— (T. S. Eliot):

And would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
‘That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.’

Wittgenstein felt the futility of expounding such an explanation. When we talk about the arts, he (1966: 7) says, ‘the word we ought to talk about is “appreciated.” What does appreciation consist in?’ What happens to us when we stand before a painting, and it weaves its spell on us, and the mysterious effects that belong to good art take possession of us? ‘It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible,’ Wittgenstein (1966: 7) declares without apology. ‘To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.’ He knows that this question is facetious, that the questioner cares little for the totality of the environment, and turns decisively to criticism as a more productive approach. He is correct, of course. But perhaps we can magnanimously respond to the genuine questioner with the beginnings of a broad, positive conception of things that contribute to the ‘goodness’ of art.

Copy after Titian

Copy after Titian

I would propose three categories of ‘goodness’ in painting (my favourite art, you’ll forgive the preference), each of which would demand long treatises to clarify just what their whole environment consists in. But their domains are helpfully distinct. The first is the technical brilliance of the work, the second is its poetic brilliance, and the third is its successful communion with the viewer.

Technical brilliance encompasses an understanding of all the elements of painting: composition, colour, texture, form, line, tone, properties of light, gesture, design, perspective, anatomy—it would be no small task to give an exhaustive list, and to deal with each component in turn. Nathan Goldstein has given much attention to this task, with admirable results. But this colossal body of knowledge is only that which any serious artist applies herself to, and finds that she needs a lifetime to master and to integrate.

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

Copies after Ryan Daffurn; Titian

It is in this domain that we might speak of a painting as being ‘correct’: ‘A good cutter won’t use any words except words like, “Too long,” “All right.” ’ (Wittgenstein, 1966: 7). And a good painter makes similar corrective remarks at the gallery, consumed as she is by the technical construction of a painting. Thanks to her immense conceit, she can look at any Old Master as a mere human rival, and lament his shortcomings. But we would do well to name her an expert in this domain, since her judgements are based on knowledge of and experience in her craft.

Technical brilliance seems to be in some way evident to non-painters, but perhaps they are unable to explain exactly why. And perhaps, because of this, the real genius of a work will forever elude them. Perhaps they ought to take responsibility for learning something about the building blocks of painting in order to be able to intelligently engage with paintings, and to be able to tell a poorly-constructed painting from a well-constructed painting: ‘We want to be able to distinguish between a person who knows what he is talking about and a person who doesn’t,’ says Wittgenstein (1966: 6) unceremoniously. ‘If a person is to admire English poetry, he must know English.’

Copy after Van Dyck

Copy after Van Dyck

But technical brilliance should be at the service of some loftier aims. Ideally, a painter has such skills at her disposal when she has some profound poetic insight—perhaps in being deeply moved by an observation or an experience. Then she is fully equipped and fully prepared to capture, to notate, to describe that insight. Her work is not simply well-executed, nor merely expressive: like an elegant equation it gracefully and satisfyingly grasps the essence of that insight. It is poetically brilliant for expressing it in an eloquent way. There is nothing forced, or stilted, or lacking; nothing fussy, nothing overstated. All the technical elements that are used weave seamlessly into each other and strengthen each other in a wholly integrated way.

Importantly, as the ever exacting Adrien reminds me, it is not only artists who are capable of such insights. But as he explains his painfully recognised inability to grasp the significance of such moments, of lacking a means of savouring them and perhaps saving them and sharing them, I begin to see that the artist has some responsibility to meditate on these themes on behalf of everyone else. She is no more insightful than anyone else, but perhaps she is particularly attentive to the profound in the mundane, particularly sensitive to the poetic in life, and, as noted, has a means of distilling them into an object, with the aim of planting these insights into souls of others.

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

Copy after Adriaen de Vries

And here is the final measure of ‘goodness:’ the painting’s capacity to work some effect in the viewer. We speak in metaphor: the painting moves us, it touches us. That insight, so poetically captured in the luscious strokes of paint, carried in the marks, is recreated in the mind of the viewer. Wittgenstein is firm in separating the satisfying way something is constructed from the profound way in which reaches into us. He writes (1966: 8):

When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct. It plays an entirely different role with us. The entire game is different.

Ideally, the good painting, too, transcends its technical proficiency, and does more than record a private contemplation, reaching into the thoughts of the viewer and having an irresistible sway over them, moving the viewer and giving his thoughts a heretofore unrealised expression. And this two-way communion is significant: the painting does not simply implant a thought in the viewer, but merges with the thoughts of the viewer. He needs to close the circuit: he needs to make the connections, be they technical or poetic. He needs to seek out the linear rhythms, acknowledge the deliberate variation of edges, perhaps, or consider the subdued contrast in tone; he needs to recognise with what economy and fluency the picture was created, to read the sure hand of the painter. But he should equally bring his own thoughts to the painting, for it is this private reverie that the painting seeks to connect with.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens–tracing them connections

We undoubtedly share common mental experiences, and a good painting unites us in savouring the grandeur of these private moments. A good painting speaks for all of us, where ‘es fehlen uns die Worter’—‘our vocabulary is inadequate’ (Wittgenstein 1953: 159). Good paintings constitute a different language for those quiet but shared insights for which ‘we lack the words.’

Copy after Brueghel

Copy after Brueghel

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

Goldstein, Nathan. 1989. Design and composition. Pearson: Boston.

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

Wittgenstein, L. 1966. Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. Ed. Cyril Barrett. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

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Eine ästhetische Erziehung

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have been reflecting on the endless hours I’ve spent acquainting myself with the contents of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Belvedere in Vienna, and feeling grateful for the riches I carry around in my memory as I drive Brisbane’s visually polluted highways. I revisited those galleries like the lines of a familiar poem. I adopted those visits as a daily ritual, as habitual as drinking coffee. I seized those delicacies as daily necessities. Reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses that he presented to the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, I grasp all at once how valuable those seemingly idle hours were, how integral to my learning (Reynolds, 1997: 98):

‘Whoever has so far formed his taste, as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters, has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected, as if it had itself produced what it admires. Our hearts frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour.’

Reynolds’s discourse on imitation (VI) strongly defends the relevance of ‘the antients’ (sic) and the mastery of ‘the old masters.’ Rather than stifling our inventiveness, he considers an ongoing communion with the time-honoured masters the only path to inspired invention—‘however it may mortify our vanity’ (1997: 106). ‘Invention is one of the great marks of genius;’ he (1997: 98) writes, ‘but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.’ The artistic poverty of our time and locality may have less to do with dedicated arts funding and more to do with a disdain for ‘the antients,’ a malaise that even Reynolds lamented in his own time and situation. He ‘venture[d] to prophesy, that when [the ancients] shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish, and we shall again relapse into barbarism’ (1997: 106).

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

It cannot be denied: Brisbane lacks the cultural riches of Vienna, and a native Australian painter is debilitated in her artistic education unless she transplants herself to Europe for the daily nourishment her chosen career demands. Sheer optimism and hard work are not enough: the mind needs substance in order to grow, and it grows toward that which it focuses on. Joshua Reynolds (1997: 98) cautions us, ‘The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.’

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

It is of utmost importance, then, to give our minds every opportunity to be enriched. If we permit ourselves mediocre habits, our efforts will soon follow. Reynolds (1997: 98) is very firm on this: ‘It appears, of what great consequence it is that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.’ I’m reminded of Delacroix’s (2010: 20) chiding himself on lapsing into trivial distractions, writing in his journals, ‘Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind (c. 1390/1400)

Australia’s focus on employment, activity, early rising, physical exertion, and contempt for any who dare to think they are ‘above all that and better than us’ sucks one into a cycle of inconsequentialities and mental tiredness that offers very little nourishment and even less opportunity for tending to one’s thoughts. I realise with greater certainty that being in Europe is no luxury, but an indispensible part of my education. Without this first-hand contact with Titian, with Rubens, with Van Dyck, with Raffael, I would not know what painting could be. I would turn to inferior teachers, and unknowingly trust them with my education. I would observe the work of my peers and take notice of their race to absurdity in their pursuit of novelty. I would bring my questions to walls of badly-applied paint, poor drawing, and punch-line titles instead of to excellence, and my work could only suffer. A familiarity with real excellence is indispensible in one’s aesthetic education.

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

For as original as we strive to be, we are always influenced by our surroundings and by those we associate with—we constantly imitate. Reynolds (1997: 99) suggests it would be better to absorb the thoughts of old masters than what is currently fashionable, or attempting to turn inwards. ‘The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on his own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.’ We need a deeper source than ourselves, a more reliable one than our peers.

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

Our individuality comes not from ourselves alone, but is formulated by our own perspective on the work of others as well as what we see in the physical world. Instead of a narcissistic cycle of imitating our own work, we might gain from the successful labours of others. We might accelerate our learning by discovering the physical world through the eyes of the masters. And we might truly challenge ourselves by taking them not as gods but as rivals. Raffael was but a human being, and we have the advantage of being able to learn from him and to push further than him. Reynolds encourages more than unthinking plagiarism, but a ruthless competition, an outstripping, a struggle to steal from the past and improve on it. Having thought their thoughts, we bring our own hand and conceal our theft in our own inventions. Our brush borrows shamelessly, but our thoughts are combined in a way that is entirely our own, and it is from here that our originality stems. Reynolds (1997: 96) leaps to our defense: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention, is produced.’

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

‘We behold all about us with the eyes of those penetrating observers whose works we contemplate; and our minds accustomed to think the thoughts of the noblest and brightest intellects, are prepared for the discovery and selection of all that is great and noble in nature,’ (Reynolds, 1997: 99). So let us not take our situation lightly, for nothing of consequence comes out of isolation and mental starvation.

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

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

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

I began the above self-portrait on my arrival in Vienna two years ago. It has suffered many iterations, growing and transforming with my own ideas and observations and abilities. My constant struggle with this painting became somewhat representative of my own aesthetic education, and its thickening layers of paint akin to my deepening understanding. The yellow Reclam book is, natürlich, from Schiller. x

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Composing as emotional construction

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve spent some time lately in the galleries trying to come to an understanding about composition. Not really knowing what I was looking for, I took my sketchbook and pencil and set about collecting some information, reducing it, simplifying it, hoping to see some sort of pattern emerge. In fact, many different patterns emerged from my little thumbnails.

Composition thumbnails 1

In Van Dyck’s Gefangennahme Samsons (1628/30) the heavy weave of the fabric of the painting showed a tightly constructed image, the whole picture electrified with energy and motion, though the frenzy offers no relief for the eye. His Mystische Verlobung des Heiligen Hermann Joseph mit Maria (1630) concentrates the action into a similarly dense knot, with figures and drapery tangling together, but the rhythms run three-dimensionally, not confined to the flat pictorial space. An oval slopes deep into the picture, running through the loop of arms at the centre. Similar retreating ovals swing through Rubens’ Heilige Ambrose und Kaiser Theodosius (1615/16) and Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum (1630/32), intersecting with the two-dimensional arrangement.

Titian’s Diana revealed complex braids of arcs through the dizzyingly busy picture. Actually each curve is a wonderfully simplified statement that seems to keep the picture in motion, a liquid in suspension, not snagged by unnecessary points of elbows or knees. And Degas blares out as the most unselfconsciously shape-loving painter, with his charmingly intimate square pastels, both Nach dem Bad, almost pieced together from strong, insistent shapes rather than representations of interiors. And yet, despite the prominence of these shapes, Degas never relinquishes the fullness of forms.

Composition thumbnails 2

While these investigations turned up some interesting ideas, the jumble of thoughts they produced in my mind left me no clearer of how I ought to approach composition. And despite the importance of concrete examples, I was looking for a more unifying, fundamental way to grasp the concept. It was at this point I returned to Robert Nelson.

The main point to hold in your mind when thinking about composition is that it is, at heart, about construction. You’ll forgive my constant sideways remarks about photography, but our aesthetic vision is currently somewhat obscured by the lens, and in the matter of composition, by the viewfinder. ‘Photography as a process, certainly in its documentary incarnations, might be described as a roving rectangle in search of a motif,’ writes Nelson (2010: 99), continuing sympathetically but firmly, ‘The nomadic and scavenging character of documentary photography makes for an art of great complexity; but it is essentially different from the constructed technologies of the past.’ As a painter, I know my own understanding of composition was clouded by this idea of finding and framing. Yet the painter suffers no such constraints: she is at complete liberty to compose, exactly as the musician may draw notes from his mind and not wait to capture them. Dewey (1934: 75) compares it to the ordering of thoughts of the writer: ‘As the painter places pigment upon the canvas, or imagines it placed there, his ideas and feeling are also ordered. As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.’

Sankt Marx composition

Nelson (2010: 95-6) argues that, despite the popularity of the idea, there are no ‘design principles,’ no rules to be taught, no natural laws to transform aesthetics into a science. Conventions of the past were simply that—conventions, not eternal ideals. Golden means and overlaid geometry reek of ‘numerological witchcraft’ to him. Yet composition remains vital to painting because of the deliberateness it entails. The painter actively arranges not only elements, but space and even, he (2010: 98) argues, ‘the way that you encounter the motif.’ The whole is a carefully contrived experience, deliberately built up from nothing.

Rather than groping fruitlessly after scientific justifications for the success of compositions, Nelson (2010: 96) suggests turning to the poetic. Composition, far from submitting to rules, is rather a matter of expression, and perhaps even, as Dewey suggests, of emotion. Dewey (1934: 70) writes of the deliberate arrangement of the whole: ‘The determination of the mot juste, of the right incident in the right place, of exquisiteness of proportion, of the precise tone, hue, and shade that helps unify the whole while it defines a part, is accomplished by emotion.’ The painter has complete control over how the stage is to be set, over how the experience is to unfold. The balance or imbalance is completely at her disposal; the weight of the tones may set the mood she desires, the space may be moulded or the shapes emphasised or the rhythms interlaced as best suits her own expressive purpose. Dewey (1934: 62) is quick to clarify, however, that this expression, however emotional, remains calculated and controlled:

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

In order to express something clearly, to honestly transcribe emotive experiences, the painter must keep the whole before her, and work in a flexible way. Her medium needs to be pliant enough to push around, to adjust, to exaggerate, to search out (Gombrich 1996: 214). Drawing is the most obvious starting place, offering a reductive description, a non-committal, experimental visualisation of the unborn painting. Without labouring details, the painter can think through the unity of the whole and observe the interaction of the ill-defined parts. She can crop and re-crop. She can design, she can grow the image organically. In keeping the whole at the fore, she can keep the emotional experience tight and true. Da Vinci (in Gombrich 1996: 213) confirms this fluid mode of working and the connection between emotion and composition in both his hairy drawings and his writings:

‘Now have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They do not trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines so as to make them better. So, painter, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your pictures rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.’

I expect I’ll continue to collect thumbnails at the gallery, but with renewed purpose: There are no codes to decipher and assimilate, no universal truths to unearth. There is only the deliberate hanging-together of the whole—directed by the emotional impulse of the author—to unravel and to admire. And my own emotional intent to orchestrate in my own paintings, beginning with my ever-pliable pencil.

Sankt Marx

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

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

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

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Memory

Drawing

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.

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Intent

© Samantha Groenestyn

(Preparatory thumbnail drawing for current painting) © Samantha Groenestyn

While people readily brand drawings and paintings that look like something (representational, rather than purely abstract, art) as ‘realistic’ or ‘classical’, or, god forbid, ‘photographic,’ a word I seldom hear is ‘naturalistic.’ Where ‘realistic’ makes an appeal to the convincing appearance of things, ‘classical’ seems more a turning away from progressive and modern ideas. ‘Photographic,’ the least inspiring, removes this art another step from reality and our physical experience of things and likens the art to a mechanical process of mortifying a slice of time. None of these sound appealing—to be literal, anachronistic, or technologically redundant.

Naturalism is historically associated with variations on realism, often in reaction against more lofty subject matter or aggrandised themes, and sometimes attempting to align itself with the objectivity of the natural sciences. To baldly generalise, naturalist art historically set out to represent the physical world accurately and convincingly, but the word seems to carry some useful nuances not regularly referred to anymore. There is no weight of reality, of an appeal to existential absolutes, of universal correctness. Reality is a philosophically contested concept, and to describe one’s painting by appealing to reality is a frighteningly bold claim, and most likely metaphysically extravagant. A much more sensible and intellectually guarded claim would be to simply say, ‘I paint as accurately as I can the external world as it appears to me through my senses.’ Whatever may or may not exist or turn out to be real or true or foundational, it seems perfectly reasonable to represent one’s experience of the world within the limits of one’s ability to perceive it. A word like ‘naturalistic’ seems to capture this idea, describing the natural process of photons hitting retinas as well as the image this process imprints on the brain.

Further, this seems an eternal project, as photons continue endlessly to pummel retinas, and people continue to experience the world through their senses and to depict that experience accurately. This isn’t something reserved for a particular time in history, when all the important a priori truths were hammered out and proved by means of classical logic by muscular toga-clad types, but it seems like an ongoing project in which people of all times validly express the experience of their intersection with the physical world at a particular place and time. ‘Looking, seeing and constructing are specific to each generation,’ argues Nelson (p. 25); ‘they are conditioned by factors proper to the times, by inventions in optics and mechanical reproduction, but especially by aesthetic and social expectations about what people want to see.’

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

Perhaps instead of describing our work with words that are rather ill thought out antonyms of whatever is currently the mainstay of art, we should begin with our own intentions. When I look at modern drawings that fall closer on the spectrum to what I do—drawings of people that look like people, of objects that look like objects—there is something undeniably of their time about them. These people look like they belong to our time. Rubens’ people do not look like people that walk the earth today. They take on a magical sort of quality, a dreamlike appearance quite disconnected from my natural experience of the world. Was Rubens not as good as, say, contemporary American draughtspeople? Did he not know as much anatomy, or capture the personality of his subjects?

It stands out quite starkly to me that Rubens had a wildly different intent to people currently exploring naturalistic image-making. In fact, ‘naturalistic’ is not nearly the right word to describe Rubens’ representation of the world. His work, while representational, is highly imaginative, as Delacroix (p. 207) ruminates in his journals:

‘Rubens is a remarkable illustration of the abuse of details. His painting, which is dominated by the imagination, is everywhere superabundant, the accessories are too much worked out. His pictures are like public meetings where everybody talks at once. And yet, if you compare this exuberant manner, not with the dryness and poverty of modern painting, but with really fine pictures where nature has been imitated with restraint and great accuracy, you feel at once that the true painter is one whose imagination speaks before everything else.’

The natural world is not irrelevant to Rubens, but it is not king. It does not bound his work, or dictate what it may be, or determine his success by how accurately he creates an illusion of it. The natural world is a point of departure, a point of reference, an inspiration and in many ways a language or a framework—his painted worlds aren’t so far removed that our minds cannot compute them, and for the most part laws of gravity are obeyed (except by flying babies) and light acts predictably and bodies do not contort more than we would expect they are able.

Delacroix (p. 209) argues that ‘the imitation of nature … is the starting point of every school.’ He likewise considers it a matter of intent: does one intend to ‘please the imagination’ or to ‘obey the demands of a strange kind of conscience’? Rubens is faithful to nature to a point, but he doesn’t simply diverge from nature. He begins, rather, with an ideal, and wraps nature around this ideal as he sees fit, fleshing it out with great flourishes and enthusiasm. This act of imagination can never be out-dated or a boring relic of the past. It is reinvented by every living artist who grapples with the human form and its relation to the physical world, and it is this imaginative vision that contributes something new and meaningful to the tide of work that came before her. I am convinced that even naturalism will not get us out of this dirty little bind we’ve found ourselves in, but that idealism is a far stronger starting point.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

In many ways, what I paint is certainly not natural, for I adapt the feel of the light to my idea of the mood of the piece, I morph the colours into a harmony that suits my purposes. I arrange the objects in improbable and thoroughly contrived ways to achieve pleasing compositional effects. I am not concerned with ‘capturing reality’ or presenting a truth to you. In fact, I openly present lies to you, carefully woven lies to manipulate your thoughts and emotions. Even in an interior, I am striving for an ideal, I am recreating my world through my imagination, and trying to show you the most fascinating bits of it.

And more—thinking this way changes the way that I draw, for my drawing ceases to be a task in accuracy, with nature as my assessor. Drawing becomes a powerful medium for new thoughts and new expressions; rather than functioning as a rather utilitarian exploratory tool it moves into the realm of visual poetry.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

The ever-eloquent Delacroix (p. 208-9) says it so clearly:

‘The only painters who really benefit by consulting a model are those who can produce their effect without one. …

It is therefore far more important for an artist to come near to the ideal which he carries in his mind, and which is characteristic of him, than to be content with recording, however strongly, any transitory ideal that nature may offer—and she does offer such aspects; but once again, it is only certain men who see them and not the average man, which is proof that the beautiful is created by the artist’s imagination precisely because he follows the bent of his own genius. …

If therefore you can introduce into a composition of this kind a passage that has been carefully painted from the model, and can do this without creating utter discord, you will have accomplished the greatest feat of all, that of harmonising what seems irreconcilable. You will have introduced reality into a dream, and united two different arts.’

Let’s not lazily and belligerently appeal to reality, but let’s call on nature for a purpose, after we have determined our intent.

 

 

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

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

 

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