The world or the picture


In Languages of Art, Nelson Goodman undertakes an analytical investigation into precisely what qualifies as aesthetic. His search leads him on a rather arduous journey through some linguistic problems in order to conclude that it might be more helpful to suggest symptoms, rather than criteria, of the aesthetic (Goodman 1976: 252). In short, what he finds rather a hindrance is the persistent intuition that the cognitive and the aesthetic are by nature divorced from each other. This lingering ‘vague yet harsh dichotomy’ distracts us from seeing that the emotions, admittedly of special importance to the arts, ‘function cognitively’ (Goodman 1976: 254-5, 248). Goodman (1976: 264) suggests that by approaching aesthetics analytically, we are encouraged to leave behind our prejudices and discover some pleasant affinities between art and science (without attempting to say that the two are equivalent). His efforts to account for the emotions and their accompanying philosophical difficulties are laudable, but are distorted by the breadth of understanding he demands of art.

Setting aside his broader project of clarifying the nature of the aesthetic, let us concentrate on a ripe branch thereof. The aesthetic experience marks our intersection with art, as artist or spectator or both. Goodman, a symbolist, proposes some very strong aspects of that experience. We each carry about with us a personal symbol system through which we organise and make sense of the world around us, says Goodman (1976: 260; 265), and we expand and adapt these systems as we encounter new symbols. The aesthetic experience is accordingly an inquiring, inquisitive one that requires us to read an artwork—in our case, a painting (Goodman 1976: 14).

Tizian Danae

The aesthetic experience, Goodman (1976: 241-2) asserts, is active. ‘It involves making delicate discriminations and discerning subtle relationships. … The aesthetic attitude is restless, searching, testing—it is less attitude than action: creation and recreation.’ Goodman is right to demand such attentive engagement in an encounter with a painting; he gets rather carried away when he assigns the spectator a creative role. His enthusiasm leads him to declare that ‘nature is a product of art and discourse,’ (Goodman 1976: 33) and from here it is a swift descent into relativism, which he fiercely argues for.

He is lured into assigning the spectator a disproportionately creative role by the false assumption that preserving the picture makes us passive. We must, as he requires, certainly approach a painting attentively, engage with it inquiringly. Wollheim (1987: 22), who indeed argues that the picture is fixed, similarly demands that the spectator be ‘adequately sensitive, adequately informed’ when attending to the canvas. But Goodman’s (1976: 112) tone becomes palpably frustrated when he belligerently describes ‘the time-honoured Tingle-Immersion theory,’ which is how he characterises positions like Wollheim’s, ‘which tells us that the proper behaviour on encountering a work of art is to strip ourselves of all the vestments of knowledge and experience (since they might blunt the immediacy of our enjoyment), then submerge ourselves completely and gauge the aesthetic potency of the work by the intensity and duration of the resulting tingle.’

This view that the ‘direct apprehension of what is presented,’ the direct encounter with a painting, amounts to ‘passive contemplation of the immediately given’ to the exclusion of all else is to crudely caricature a position that respects the stability of the painting and the intentions of the artist (Goodman 1976: 241). Wollheim (1987: 44; 185) indeed insists that the spectator cannot tamper with the meaning of the painting: such permissiveness would embrace the idea that ‘the picture would have to gain content after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant alteration to its marked surface.’ And closer to Wollheim’s (1987: 95) central thesis, the spectator need not tamper with the meaning. His more subtle account emphasises that the painting already contains a rich font of information, expressively inscribed in paint, ready to be discovered by the inquisitive spectator. It is a careless and distracted spectator who discards the contents of the painting for his own interpretation.


But let us indulge Goodman, and ask what concerns him so much about a static picture. I see two concerns. The first is the varied understandings we have of the same paintings. The second is that our emotions never quite seem to align with those prompted by the painting—they are usually ‘muted and oblique,’ or even reversed (Goodman 1976: 245). Goodman (1976: 245) is bursting to tell us that ‘any picture of aesthetic experience as a sort of emotional bath or orgy is plainly preposterous.’ I would contend that few artists are carried away by such ecstasies, let alone respectable gallery visitors, and inducing such heightened emotion can hardly be the point of painting. Wollheim (1987: 45; 80) treats this question of the emotions as a matter of ‘expressive perception,’ which captures both the expressive treatment of what is depicted and the ability of the sensitive spectator to perceive the emotions infused therein. Wollheim (1987: 129) goes so far as to posit a mediator, an imaginary protagonist, whose position we step into and whose emotions we savour at a safe distance—a useful device that permits the dampening of emotions. And regarding the first concern: Wollheim (1987: 101) simply argues that the spectator can be correct or incorrect. He does not permit flexibility of the painting, and thus does not permit flexibility in the spectator; should differences arise, Wollheim is not afraid to call someone wrong. He refers ever back to the intentions of the painter, who has sought to embody some idea in paint (Wollheim 1987: 86).


By contrast, Goodman wants to permit a plurality of interpretations, ones that depend on context and personal experiences, and that take their cue from symbols embedded in the painting. The artist merely provides a stimulus for the spectator, who, on Goodman’s account, is the real creator—the agent to assign meaning. The spectator, ever refining his personal bank of symbols, is shaping the world itself in his encounter with art: ‘interpreting works and reorganising the world in terms of works and works in terms of the world.’ (Goodman 1976: 241; 260). And each encounter bears new fruit, not because we have been more attentive to the painting and the richness already contained within it (as I would argue, in sympathy with Wollheim), but because ‘what we read from and learn from a symbol varies with what we bring to it’ (Goodman 1976: 260). Because of our ever-evolving conception of the world, and to support our continual reconstruction of the world, Goodman (1976: 43; 231) argues for the full relativity of representation. Paintings are but carriers of symbols, and a symbol, he explains, ‘is only representational according to its own relationships to other symbols in a given system’ (Goodman 1976: 226). We are left with nothing firm beneath our feet: the world is completely awash.


Goodman proceeds to unpack the concept of representation. At first he suggests it might be a kind of denotation, which makes it similar to verbal description—though only as an analogy (Goodman 1976: 40). ‘A picture that represents Churchill, like a predicate that applies to him, denotes him’ (Goodman 1976: 58). Unlike Wollheim (1987: 22), who sees expression as bound up in the very marks that represent the thing represented, Goodman (1976: 46) separates representation from expression. He finds them irreconcilable upon logical analysis: they run in opposite directions. To express is not to denote but to metaphorically exemplify, or to possess and demonstrate an array of properties (Goodman 1976: 85). These properties, says Goodman (1976: 85), may be as diverse as colours, feelings, and thoughts, and the feelings and thoughts may be those of the artist or those of the spectator alike.


Goodman’s appeal to logic sounds authoritative—especially in the face of someone, like Wollheim (1987: 8), who turns trustingly to the painting when in doubt. But I find his explanation of expression problematic, not least in that it is so divorced from representation. Expression can hardly be so arbitrary—a thought or feeling must be expressed by someone, in an intentional way. A colour is certainly exemplified, but I find it troubling to treat emotions as the same type of properties as colours. As a spectator, I might encounter a picture that, by chance, ‘possesses’ the same emotion as me at a certain moment. But the painting hardly expresses my emotion, because there is no connection between me and the painter, who inscribed that emotion in the painting. At best, I could say that the picture ‘captures’ the emotion that I am also and independently feeling. The causal connection is not there; and in fact, I could understand the painting without mirroring the embedded emotion, whether accidentally or at the suggestion of the painting. I am far more persuaded by Wollheim, who weaves expression into the very manner of representation: lively, giddy, thick brushwork or diffused, foggy edges betray much of what is to be expressed, and are inseparable from the very representation of the thing represented. ‘The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator’ (Wollheim 1987: 22). Wollheim (1987: 39) concedes that ‘adopting the perspective of the artist requires us to give pride of place to what the agent does.’ But he continues: ‘it does not require us to ignore or reject the point of view of the spectator. It requires us only to rethink it.’

Dissatisfied with his initial explanation of representation, at any rate—because he cannot find a way to distinguish representation from other modes of denotation—Goodman (1976: 225) argues that an analysis of symbol systems allows us to be clearer on the nature of representation. ‘Representation,’ Goodman (1976:226) argues now, ‘is relative to a symbol system’—‘nothing is intrinsically a representation.’ A painting is thus completely in flux, and its meaning is bound up in every individual spectator’s own personal web of symbols. Further, a symbol is representational only in terms of ‘its own relationships to other symbols in a given system’ (Goodman 1976: 226).


By Goodman’s account, only the symbol is preserved, and our relationship to the symbol and its own relationship to other symbols is relative and variable, and the painting is merely a vessel for symbols. Wollheim (1987: 306), too, gives the imagination a lot of range, but tries to preserve the picture and its intended meaning—our relationship to that picture can be correct or incorrect. This difference traces back to the type of meaning sought: should the painting merely be a tool for understanding the world and our place in it, it is uninteresting as a fixed, self-contained entity.


When Goodman considers meaning in a painting, he steps right back and asks what the painting means in the world, how it contributes to our understanding of the world. His scope of understanding is very broad. The role of the artist is to ‘remake our world.’ She looks for new configurations: ‘And if the point of the picture is not only successfully made but is also well-taken, if the realignments it directly and indirectly effects are interesting and important, the picture—like a crucial experiment—makes a genuine contribution to knowledge’ (Goodman 1976: 33). The physical painting, which thus offers a plethora of meanings, remains relevant only as a vessel: ‘Discoveries become available knowledge only when preserved in accessible form’ (Goodman 1976: 260). Goodman (1976: 258) draws our attention to the purpose of symbolisation: ‘the drive is curiosity and the aim is enlightenment,’ he declares, ‘use of symbols … is for the sake of understanding; … what compels us is the urge to know, what delights is discovery.’


Wollheim, by contrast, narrows his scope to the painting itself. Wollheim wants to know what the painting means, to read the meaning contained within the four borders of the frame. He dignifies the painting as a self-contained statement—a complex, nuanced statement—originated by a thoughtful artist driven by particular intentions. I’m reminded of Friedrich Waismann’s (in McGuinness 2011: 198; 205) deference to Kafka as an artist of great prowess, able to shape language in order to carry the reader into unchartered mental territory: ‘The edges of Kafka’s world are lost in darkness; or, to put it differently, we come up here against the ineffable. … Perhaps, after all, that is the most interesting thing about Kafka: his attempt to say something for which we have no proper language. … It all seems patent nonsense. And yet, as I was reading, it came with a curious impact upon me, as if I had known these things before and forgotten all about them. … I was haunted by the novel. I was sure that there must be something behind it, and yet I was utterly unable to say why.’ It is Kafka, the creative agent, who is able to express these nuanced things, and who gently guides the reader into that particular aesthetic experience.

Poussin khm

In thus respecting the intentions of the artist, Wollheim lessens the role of interpretation, and offers other ways of dealing with the fluctuations of understanding and emotion, namely by calling for more attentive, more knowledgeable apprehension of the picture and the ability to perceive it expressively. His position is more attractive: it gives greater expressive power to the tools of the painter—such as composition, texture, design, edge treatment and other formal qualities—than symbolism allows.


To his credit, it is admirable that Goodman does not refer us to a fixed dictionary of symbols. His symbol systems attempt to account for the more delicate reading of a painting than such simple transcription would allow. But his symbol systems, in weaving the specatator and his experiences of the world into the meaning of the painting are too fluid and stray too far from the intentions of the artist. He makes this dramatic leap because he believes the painting offers us a means of understanding and recreating the world (Goodman 1976: 265). It becomes clear why we must be certain what kind of meaning we are pursuing. A painting may have its own internal meaning, as carefully explicated by Wollheim, or it may be a fragment of a greater context, and thus a tool for helping us understand the world. I stand by the integrity of the work, and urge fellow artists and spectators not to abandon the meaning of the work itself, lest our own unpredictable vacillations plunge us into the bottomless depths of relativism.



Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed., [Nachdr.]. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett.

McGuinness, Brian, ed. 2011. Friedrich Waismann: Causality and Logical Positivism. Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook 15. Dordrecht ; New York: Springer.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.


An unlikely protagonist

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Aschersleben (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

In Painting as an Art, Richard Wollheim (1987: 85; 101; 183) assigns himself the seemingly insurmountable task of binding together two startling yet attractive claims: that emotions are central to painting, and that a standard of correctness should nevertheless prevail. This means that we can look upon a painting and discern a certain mood, detect that the painting is expressive of some emotion—and that we can be correct or incorrect in this judgement. The intention of the artist is crucial to an accurate reading of the emotional content of the painting, which, in turn, is pivotal in grasping the meaning of the painting. When we speak of meaning, we acknowledge that the artist has embedded some discernable content in the painting.


Precisely how the artist inserts such meaning into a painting is of supreme importance to Wollheim. The idea that one can read a painting in a linguistic fashion irks him: being a sympathetic appreciator of art does not involve decoding a string of symbols. Symbols exist, undeniably, but—argues Wollheim (1987: 139)—they are but a small part of pictorial meaning. Ask a painter, and they will likely describe to you a complex and nuanced balance of technical factors, an arrangement of formal qualities that answers to some vision of what is coherent. Should this be too bland and technical, or too abstract, Wollheim offers a humanised solution: we could, he ventures, conceive of these loose formal decisions as a person, with a personality, with thoughts and biases and predilections, with feelings that colour their vision.

Yes, Wollheim (1987: 129) surges on, let’s posit a character, just like a literary protagonist, to mediate between artist and spectator! And while this suggestion seems at first rather metaphysically extravagant, there are several reasons we might seriously consider it. As already mentioned, the humanising quality makes it more palatable to non-artists, who might find a smattering of loosely held together formal properties impossibly tedious to attend to. Rather than becoming an expert on painting, one might appreciate painting as one commonly appreciates literature: by identifying with a character.


A second reason is more pressing for Wollheim (1987: 89): that all the information necessary for understanding a painting is contained within the painting. Everything that can be known about this character is enclosed within the picture ‘through the way in which the artist depicts whatever it is … that this spectator confronts’ (Wollheim 1987: 164). Wollheim is insistent on this point, because should we need to know something of the artist, her biography, to unlock the painting, the painting would be insufficient. And should our own arbitrary interpretation be tied to its meaning, the painting ‘would have to gain content after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant attention to its marked surface’ (Wollheim 1987: 185). Subjectivity is problematic for undermining the whole idea of meaning in painting. The very content of the picture would have to vary with each spectator, or even with each viewing by the same spectator (Wollheim 1987: 102). A painting would cease to ‘mean’ anything, and be reduced to nothing more than a stimulus, provoking our own chains of thought. Painting can lead us down rather delightful paths of reverie, but to state this as its primary purpose would be to fearfully undermine the artistic import of painting. Surely painting, just like books and theatre and music, can impart something to us rather than just provide a backdrop for our own thoughts.


A third reason is most compelling to me, which is that such a character imposes a comfortable distance between artist and painting, and between painting and spectator in turn. Neither artist nor spectator need directly identify with the content of the painting, but each experience it at some remove. That this is important becomes immediately apparent to anyone who has ever looked at a painting and failed to be moved by it. We might stand before a painting, perhaps a Caspar David Friedrich, and identify a heavy melancholy drenching the mountaintops, without ourselves feeling the least bit wistful. Rather than trying to take on the sadness of the painting, we can acknowledge the emotions contained within the picture by attributing them to our imagined character, and still discover the sense of the picture from our safely non-melancholy vantage point. ‘Imagination,’ writes Wollheim (1987: 129), ‘without inducing the experience I imagine, delivers the fruits of experience.’

But this distance is equally valuable in the other direction. The artist, as she paints, might paint expressively without expressing her immediate experience. Certainly, she must express something—and perhaps that something is an emotion she harboured in her chest for some lonely, stormy hours. But the restless night has passed, and her painting remains propped upon the easel for another month, perhaps two or three. Like a landscape, which infuriatingly shifts with the lengthening sunlight and with the intermittent cloud cover, an emotional shade must be painted partly from memory, for this internal condition is rarely sustained long enough to be able to paint it other than in a hasty and truncated manner. The artist can, however, construct a character who eternally embodies this emotion, who eternally sees the world through the thick fog of despair, or through the radiant sunshine of glee. But not only this—the character might be a vehicle for thoughts, opinions, worldviews, philosophies. This invented person, distinct from the artist, then embodies a thought experiment. The artist can investigate the world through these ideas in a hypothetical way, visually. She need be no activist, declaring, ‘I believe the world is ugly and broken,’ or ‘I find beauty in small things.’ She can simply entertain such positions, as though through the eyes of another. She can work as a visual philosopher, probing any possibilities in her search for her own convictions.


Who, then, is this spectator? Distinct from the person standing before the painting, whom Wollheim labels the ‘spectator of the picture,’ and distinct from the artist, who also periodically steps back and takes on a spectator role during the production of the painting, this spectator is also separate from any ‘spectator in the picture’ who painted within the frame and witnessing the main event of the picture. Wollheim (Wollheim 1987: 102) describes him rather as ‘an internal, an unrepresented internal, spectator.’ Should we return to the moody landscapes of Friedrich, we might clarify: this spectator is certainly not me, neither is he Friedrich himself, nor is he the windswept wanderer on the mountaintop whom I stand behind and whose shoulder I peer over. But when I look at the picture, I lose myself temporarily in the inner life of someone else, ‘the nature-artist of early-nineteenth century Pietism,’ suggests Wollheim (1987: 133).

‘He is a person, or a kind of person, who, disentangled from the exigencies of material life, gains a certain detachment from nature, which he then makes use of only so as to return to nature and make it the object of profound and devout contemplation. Through study and meditation he arrives at the secrets of nature, which are in effect the secrets of its maker.’

Friedrich invites us to try on this guise, to stand before nature, humbled, quieted, thoughtful, just as he tries it on. As a painter, Friedrich likely thinks more directly through the technical tools available to him to induce such a position: viewpoints that seem adrift in mid-air, with the ground rushing from beneath our feet; ghostly, transparent paint; atmospheric effects of tone; vast, crushing, empty space. But combined, these painterly decisions colour a painting with a certain emotion, and not only an emotion—a perspective, a manner of looking at the world. Taken together, we might indeed see them as contributing to the solemnising tendencies of the pious nature-artist that Wollheim suggests. This character exists purely in paint, we see him only through the way he sees what he sees, through the way Friedrich paints.


This suggestion is remarkable and important for the alternative it offers to symbolism. It diverts us from the usual manner of ‘decoding’ Friedrich, from all the ink that has been spilled over Friedrich’s powerful symbolism (Wollheim 1987: 138). When we stand before a painting by Friedrich, we need not reflect, ‘a ship means this: an anchor means that…—rather in the way in which a sentence gains its propositional content on the basis of what the individual words mean, and of how they are put together’ (Wollheim 1987: 138). Rather, we may indulge in the sense of foreboding the picture gives us without access to any such pictorial key. The unrepresented spectator certainly sees these objects, but they are full of import, argues Wollheim (1987: 139), because of the way he sees them, which is expressively. While Wollheim (1987: 138) recognises a role for symbols in painting, he argues that ‘the method misconstrues expression in painting. It treats pictorial expression as though it rested upon a lexicon linking represented elements to emotions and feelings.’

In order to be a character, our character requires some visible traits, something that Wollheim (1987: 129-130) calls a ‘repertoire’ or a ‘rich inner life.’ Not all paintings carry such a spectator, and we know we have found one when we begin to piece together elements that frame a cohesive and compelling outlook that differs from our own, that invites us to savour what we see in a new—and likely stirring—way.

To look at a turbulent painting and feel lighthearted and happy would simply be wrong—it would be to disregard everything that the artist has so carefully and expressively painted. Where a painting has emotional content we can correctly or incorrectly apprehend it. Wollheim delicately introduces an intermediary who helps us bridge the disconnect between our own feelings and those embedded in the painting. This allows us to preserve a standard of correctness in what would usually be considered the swampy, subjective realm of emotions. His unrepresented spectator in the picture, then, is by no means extravagant: we only summon him when faced with this disconnect (Wollheim 1987: 182). This palpable character with whom we can empathise is a bridge to understanding a painting, clothed in familiar human form.



Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.


Sight & touch

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

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

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

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

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

Copy after Rodin in wax

Copy after Rodin in wax


Too true

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

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


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

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



Too complete

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

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

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

Von Stuck


Too unified

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


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

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

Too sacred

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

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

Alex as statue (oil on linen--grisaille)

Alex as statue (oil on linen–grisaille)

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


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


Painter virtues

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Selbstbildnis als Philosophin / Self portrait as philosopher (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Painter virtues stray a little from those of ordinary people. I have been devotedly following in the footsteps of a very dear painter who perhaps doesn’t realise how firmly astute he is, how perfectly disciplined he is, how resolutely he holds onto the very virtues that divorce him somewhat from the rest of the world, but that render him as sharp and penetrating as a painter may be. He leads by example, by folding me into his tranquil space, and I lose the impulse to write, and succumb to the all-consuming desire to paint.

And I paint slowly, as I always have. When I retreat into the realm of vision, I permit myself to tread carefully, sagaciously, deliberately. There are many pauses, there is much stepping back, sitting down, daydreaming. As an unobtrusive presence in Ryan’s studio, since the early days, I observed that there is at least as much idleness as activity involved in painting. One must devote a lot of time to looking and evaluating. There is a moment when you realise you are able to paint much faster than you normally do. And then you realise that the slowness is an integral part of your work, making room for ordered thoughts. Rilke observed the same unhurried attention in Rodin, in his beautiful little book on the sculptor. ‘‘Man muß sich nicht eilen’, sagte Rodin den wenigen Freunden, die um ihn waren, wenn sie ihn drängten. (Rilke 1942: 14). ‘‘One mustn’t hurry,’ said Rodin to the few friends who were around him, if they pressed him.’

da vinci

The breaks stretch out languidly as the afternoon sun yawns and stretches deep into my studio, and sometimes books steal my attention. And not even in a scholarly way, but in a guilty, indulgent way. This is the best kind of reading, and probably the deepest well of ideas. I think of Käthe Kollwitz with her Goethe, of both Delacroix and Rodin with their Dante. These writers who lodged deep inside the hearts of those painters and ever held the power to renew their weary minds and reinvigorate their work. It can hardly be surprising that Rilke, a poet, would apprentice himself to a sculptor, when that sculptor maintained a lifelong apprenticeship to a poet. Rilke (1942: 18-19) recounts of Rodin that ‘Er las viel. Man war gewohnt, ihn in Brüssels Straßen immer mit einem Buch in der Hand zu sehen, aber vielleicht war dieses Buch oft nur ein Vorwand für das Vertieftsein in sich selbst, in die ungeheuere Aufgabe, die ihm bevorstand.’ ‘He read a great deal. One was accustomed to seeing him in the streets of Brussels ever with a book in his hand, but perhaps this book was often only a front for being absorbed in himself, in the immense task hanging over him.’


Rilke suggests that all this reading enables the reader to inhabit the ideas well before one turns to clay or paint or copper plate. Books that really awaken the mind and animate personalities, archetypes, heroes and monsters, do much of the work in our idle, daydreamy hours before we begin to work. Rodin’s mind was fertilised by Dante and Baudelaire: ‘Seit jenen Tagen blieben diese beiden Dichter ihm immer nah, er dachte über sie hinaus und kehrte zu ihnen zurück. … Später, als er als Schaffender diese Stoffkreise wieder berührte, da stiegen ihre Gestalten wie Erinnerungen aus seinem eigenen Leben, weh und wirklich, in ihm auf und gingen in sein Werk wie in eine Heimat ein’ (Rilke 1942: 20) ‘Since those days, both these poets remained ever near him, he also thought about them and returned to them. … Later, when he touched on this subject matter again as creator, their forms rose like memories out of his own life, painfully and truly, out from inside him and entering into his work as if into a home.’


In my mind I see Ryan as a figure deeply absorbed in his sketchbook. I never knew another person to love drawing as deeply as he does; I’ve never witnessed such simple and honest devotion to drawing. One can talk about drawing forever; Ryan disappears wordlessly into his sketchbook and enters another universe. Should the sea turn to paper, I fear it wouldn’t satiate his urge to draw. I’ve come to learn that only the act of drawing proves my love of it. And I’ve come to realise what an indispensible support this act is. How steadying it is, how each hatched line helps sift a thought until my head grows clear again. Drawing is an act that restores balance; to think of it merely as a preparatory work is to undermine the pivotal position it plays in our lives. Everything turns on it. It loosens the mind and weaves it back together in an orderly way. A visible amble across the page; a scribed daydream.


Again and again I defend the use of my time: time spent reading, drawing, looking is never wasted. The painter can never apologise for her idleness. She needs, above all, a clear head, and that clarity is only reachable with ample time and space to follow every thought without the pressure to produce. Our practices are often compared to—or sometimes explicitly linked with—meditation, but I think this is a false connection. The painter’s focused and penetrating dissection of the world, grounded in observation, carried by a heightened alertness, inescapably chases after meaning and order, not the sort of egoless abandonment of thought prized by meditation. The painter rather invites a thousand times the stimuli of an ordinary person, and takes the time to sift them for gold, reviewing them one by one, delighting in them, arranging them in meaningful ways.


This delight cannot be overestimated. As I travel on long, winding roads through the Czech Republic, I indulge in the visual feast that unfolds—unfurling hills and forests and rivers melting in and out of each other, and the light that shifts in hue and angle as hours pile upon hours. I feel like I could explode when I see the blue-grey clouds against the golden sky in the mist of a light rain. I see that Ryan is equally absorbed in the neutral blue of the shadowy trees that back on to grass bathed in an unearthly yellow by the oblique evening sun. It’s then I realise what motivates us: we seek not to reproduce pleasant scenes, but to reproduce the staggering wonder at the visual relationships we stumble upon in the real world. Sometimes something as simple as the shocking harmony between two colours captivates us, and it is this delight that we are driven to transmit, more than anything else. ‘Look!’ we cry, stabbing our canvas with the brush, ‘Look how excellent the world is!’


These small visual treats furnish us with small tasks, and that is also enough. Rilke (1942: 17) writes of Rodin that ‘Seine Kunst baute sich nicht auf eine große Idee auf, sondern auf eine kleine gewissenhafte Verwirklichung, auf das Erreichbare, auf ein Können.’ ‘His art did not build itself on a grand idea, but rather on a small, diligent attainment, on the achievable, on a ‘can.’’ The grandeur grows out of the mastery of the small things; the big ideas emerge from the tumble of small delights rolling together and gathering momentum. Ryan’s comments, as he devours every mark of my painting, always lean towards the subtle treatments that most people overlook. ‘This is so subtle’ has come to resound as the highest praise as he deftly picks out the intricate decisions that most captivated me as I worked.


Our preoccupation with such small observations might make us feel we are getting left behind, that we are perpetual beginners, but this humility is the door to learning. Our inexpert trials and ill-conceived experiments, our genuine curiosity means many abortive paintings, some even dead-ends, as we try to instate order in our work. It can be lonely, and when people do speak with us, they miss the point of our efforts, they fail to see the driving impulse and the exploratory thread that weaves through our work. Rodin was rejected by the public for a long time, and when he emerged from his solitude, fully formed, he had already put himself through every test: ‘Jahre und Jahre ging Rodin auf den Wegen dieses Lebens als ein Lernender und Demütiger, der sich als Anfänger fühlte. Niemand wußte von seinen Versuchen, er hatte keinen Vertrauten und wenig Freunde’ (Rilke 1942: 18). ‘For years and years Rodin went along the roads of this life as a humble learner, as one who felt himself a beginner. No one knew of his attempts, he had no confidants and few friends.’ This is a double virtue: we can take our apprentice status and couple it with the sobering solitude that buys us more time to become. And the fruit of this lonely, self-testing time is an unshakeable confidence in ourselves, in our work, in every tiny detail of our approach. ‘Da, als man anfing, an ihm zu zweifeln, hatte er keinen Zweifel mehr an sich selbst. … In der Zeit, als er wurde, klang keine fremde Stimme zu ihm, kein Lob, das ihn hätte irre machen, kein Tadel, der ihn hätte verwirren können’ (Rilke 1942: 21). ‘Because, as one began to doubt him, he had no more doubt in himself. … In the time when he was becoming, no foreign voice sounded about him, no praise that would have led him into error, no reproach that could have confused him.’

We cannot forget the point of our painterly values, so at odds with the world of outcomes and products and services and profits and efficiency. As with any virtue ethics, we chase after excellence. Excellence as humans and excellence in our work. However we exist in the world and whatever we leave behind in it, let’s hope that everything glows with that unmistakeable sheen. I smile with satisfaction when I hear Ryan say again and again, ‘I’m sorry it’s not perfect.’ We will slow down and look and consider and try again until it is.



Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1942. Auguste Rodin. Leipzig: Insel.




Philosophy demands a certain arrogance. Clear and deep thinking requires a solid grounding in and familiarity with the thought of our forebears, as intelligent painting requires an intimate communion with painting of the past. But the type of philosophy that hovers over the past, circling like ravenous vultures, and only cautiously picking at things that have already been thought, tentatively offering patches for small tears in the fabric, or perhaps safely offering an historical overview of thinkers long deceased, is desperately timid.


This acceptable sort of philosophy, while courteous and respectful, seems to discard the real purpose of philosophy, the true inquisitive nature of it. Philosophy is a razor-sharp tool that can be turned upon the world to make incisive insights, to fundamentally change our view of it. Wittgenstein (1953: 47) says decisively and dramatically, ‘Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache.’ (‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’)


It’s difficult to imagine Wittgenstein diligently attending seminars on how to narrow the scope of his research questions, how to situate his small contribution among the multitudinous academic literature, how to structure his dissertation—beginning with the immovable words of some philosophical heavyweight, detailing the near impenetrable ideas and only at the end offering some humble amendments. Did Wittgenstein’s potential supervisors chide him, ‘Herr Wittgenstein, don’t be a hero’? Imagine the number of scholars who would be put out of work had Wittgenstein been deterred by advice that philosophy should not be visionary!


My philosopher friend Kim Solin (2013: 57) notes in his own dissertation that ‘there is sometimes an assertive tone in Wittgenstein’s writings, since the descriptions and objects of comparison need to be taken seriously, so that they will change the way we view things.’ Wittgenstein’s arrogance stems not exactly from disrepect or disregard for the past, but from a firm belief in how philosophy operates, and why. Unlike in science, Wittgenstein (1953: 47) is at pains to make clear, we are not proposing and testing some hypothesis with the goal of piecing together a theory. We do not need an army of lab-rats filling in gaps and completing Kant’s or Descartes’ or Hume’s ‘theories.’ Philosophy, rather, turns a light on the problems we encounter in life, be they moral problems or aesthetic problems, mathematical problems or political problems. It allows us, at a distance from the practical domain, to inspect the nature of those problems, to deepen our understanding and to help us find a new way forward:

‘We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its power of illumination—i.e. its purpose—from the philosophical problems. … The problems are solved not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.’

This healthy disrespect for restrictive academic processes is a sort of intellectual self-preservation: Solin (2013: 61) writes that it is not exactly that we lack respect, rather that ‘one should try to protect oneself from being taken into possession by [in his case] mathematics. … Showing some disrespect might just well be what is needed for that.’ The structures within academia attempt to preserve rigorous standards of thought. They prevent crackpots from publishing incoherent madness; they extend a tradition rather than permitting ruptures; they encourage common languages among scholars, rather than letting them rave unintelligibly past each other. I have nothing against this. But these firm structures should not paralyse us with fear—they should not possess us. We have something to say, and it might not only be a counter-claim. We are observing the world, too, and probing into the nature of problems. Our backgrounds—some practical, some theoretical—afford us different insights. Facing the wall of opponents we are expected to politely challenge, we feel nothing but an indescribable fatigue. Perhaps we can leave such work for others—perhaps we have some new and optimistic description to offer.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens

Of course, this does not mean the world is unbounded. We stand firmly upon the work that has gone before, we read and read, we learn to think by thinking through the thoughts of others. We set meaningful and useful parameters for our own work, we attempt to define limits. We strive after clarity and humbly keep quiet and listen when we meet an idea worth attention. Our attitude reflects Wittgenstein’s, as elucidated at the outset of his Tractatus (1963 [1921]: 7):

‘Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen. Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen, oder vielmehr—nicht dem Denken, sondern dem Ausdruck der Gedanken: Denn um dem Denken eine Grenze zu ziehen, müßten wir beide Seiten dieser Grenze denken können.’

(‘Anything that can be said at all, can be said clearly; and what one cannot speak about, one must keep quiet about. This book wants to draw a limit for thought, or rather—not for thought, but for the expression of thoughts: for in order to find the limits of thought we must be able to think on both sides of that border.’)

Copy after Maler

Copy after Maler

We do not deny the significance of what came before us, neither in art nor in philosophy. We do not seek to upend and discard everything and begin afresh. We only hope for enough room to advance our own ideas. We fear that, like Nelson (2010: 161), we might be forced to ‘come laden with contemporaneous references which plug up my case with footnotes, as though art were a leaky vessel, the flow of whose life-humours only art-historical paranoia can staunch.’ For we agree with Nelson (2010: 161) that ‘no number of footnotes carries as much intellectual authority as a poetic insight.’ And we do not forget that it was Wittgenstein (1963 [1921]: 7-8) himself, that revered pillar of philosophy, who brazenly commenced his work with a shamelessly visionary attitude:

‘darum gebe ich auch keine Quelle an, weil es mir gleichgültig ist, ob das was ich gedacht habe, vor mir schon ein anderer gedacht hat.’

(‘Hence I am also not providing any sources, because I am indifferent as to whether what I thought was already thought by another before me.’





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

Solin, Kim. 2013. The mathematician as mathematics: Theories of computation in light of Wittgenstein’s thought. Uppsala: Filosofika institutionen.

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

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963 [1921]. Tractatus logico-philosophicus Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung. Suhrkamp.


Lernen & Lehren

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Morgens / Mornings © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

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


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


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

Short poses

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

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

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

Copies after Bammes

Copies after Bammes

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

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

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

Bammes hands

Copies after Bammes


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

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

Details about my classes are on my website.


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.