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.

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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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Positive learning

Kaffeehaus

The pace of Vienna immediately imposes itself on me: after the bustle of travel, of train connections and ever-changing beds, Vienna lures me into Kaffeehäuser and time drifts to a standstill. Vienna invites you to think, to take time, guilt free. Our ideas can’t settle in a frenzy of activity, and to return to Vienna means to luxuriate in slow days—enforced late starts, inattentive waiters and friends hungry for deep conversations late into the night. Overwhelmed at the scheming ahead of me, the plans and hopeful ideas, Vienna has lulled me into an unworried place and whispered, ‘Kein Stress; collect your thoughts.’

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

And yet, I’ve kept my hands and mind well-occupied. Shortly after my return, my painter friend Philip arranged a week-long pose with a model. This was an excellent chance to test some of my recent thoughts on memory. During this week I thought a lot about two contrasting modes of learning, which I came to think of as positive and negative learning. Many of my peers in Vienna lack, and desperately crave, a teacher—as do I. Yet our approaches to commandeering our own learning are like night and day. I sat down in the weeks before and wrote myself a plan. I decided what to investigate, how I would go about it, how I would limit myself, and how I would test myself. I set something clear to aim at, and prepared myself to achieve it. I saw that my studio colleagues, meanwhile, were seeking to improve themselves largely by inviting criticism and adapting their work accordingly. The trouble is that everyone has an opinion and these haphazard offhand comments are unlikely to resolve themselves into a harmonious picture.

Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Oberes Belvedere, Wien

I appreciated anew the generosity of my teachers Scott and Ryan in Brisbane, who teach in a giving, positive way. Rather than waiting for me to fail and knocking me down, they set me a fresh task each class and helped me concentrate on achieving it. And they taught me how to make my way without their instruction; how to set and evaluate my own tasks. Outside criticism might be useful to a point, but largely irrelevant if the bestower of criticism is ignorant of my goal. And, in my experience, willing critics do not consider even asking what you might be trying to achieve.

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

So, this being my second ever full-figure painting from life, I decided to concentrate on three things: translating the fluidity of drawing into paint, consolidating some anatomy, and testing my memory. I did not intend to make a charming finished picture, or a genuine portrait, or to get too lost in colour. While all of these things would be nice, I would at best consider them happy by-products, and not let them carry me away from my focus. If the colour lacked life, so be it. The drawing must have life, and I must find a way to energise the paint with it, and not let the paint stiffen my drawing. Part of this would be to not be afraid of painting over the drawing, but to trust myself to be able to redraw, and redraw better, knowing I was ever more familiar with the subject. And anatomy, of course, is always a challenge to locate under the skin of a real and wholly individual model. Memory would permeate this as well, as I would be forced to recall what I knew as I tried to locate it. And hopefully the finding of it would cement it further in my memory.

Nude2

To orient myself, I brought in a large pad on the first day and set to work making a detailed drawing. I went slowly and lightly, at first feeling for the gesture of the pose, feeling the cramp through the hunched torso, the stretch through the extended leg. I found myself excellently situated in a spot with almost full-light, able to see every muscle which was turned towards me, and to concentrate on the anatomy and the forms. I spent two days on this drawing, modelling it with fine hatching. In between, at home, I had my anatomy book out and made little practice sketches of the pose, searching out the probable locations of the muscles I had identified in the book, to compare with the model later, or trying to identify unknown lumps I had observed in the surface of the model’s skin.

Classic3

When I returned on day three with my freshly-stretched linen towering above me, the figure was so ingrained in my mind that I quickly and freely drew him up directly in paint in the first session. The rest of the day was spent carefully observing colours and tonal relationships and blocking in as much colour as I could. I decided to keep the contrast softer. I worked simply, with one mix for light and one for shade for each colour.

Classic4

The next day I went in more firmly with the shadows, and spent some time fitting them within the context. By the fifth day, things were getting serious: making decisions about the flesh, how to colour it, how to model it, and how to make it lively. I was given all sorts of advice about contrast, about whacking in some arbitrary blue bits, about how dull and flat my figure looked. But I persevered. I had a plan, after all. By the end of this day, I was satisfied that my figure felt full and that he expanded into a three-dimensional space, and that I could explain all of the ridges and swellings. No lies here.

‘But this has nothing to do with erratic, ‘skilful’ negligence or any alibi for covering up what has not been resolved. The perception-related attributes of this activity go together with the ability to filter out and select anything not immediately essential to the fundamental realisation of subjects and ideas.’ (Bammes, p. 240).

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Having worked very broadly up until this point, and ever keeping the construction of the body at the fore of my mind, I was now at liberty to refine my picture. I only adjusted things in small ways, trusting my earlier and hard-won decisions. Clark (p. 133) would approve: ‘The average student cannot make a success of this procedure because accident is more attractive than substance. He seizes upon tricks of style, and overlooks essential structure.’ I introduced more pink at the extremities, mixed more neutral colours for the furthest limbs, and set a point at which the light fell the strongest on him to work out from.

Classic7

Suddenly our seven days were up, and I had to cart this guy, still wet, home on the U-Bahn and through the fog, via another life drawing session. I set him up in my own studio and worked a couple more days. Seeing him in natural light was extremely helpful. I was pleased at having thought everything through systematically, for my decisions held up under a different light. At home I worked from my drawing. I had already paid such close attention to the hands, feet and face that the simplified planes I had established in paint were readily transformed into fingers and toes and features.

Classic8

 

Ash

Ash

But then—the test! Not only had I intended to consolidate some anatomy, and translate drawing into paint, I wanted to use this week to push my memory. Ryan had boasted that he could redraw entire drawings from memory if he had been working on them long enough. Incredulous, I was determined to do the same. And so, at my desk, with my painting turned to face the wall and my original drawing tucked away, I set about redrawing him. And really—I had been staring at one man seated in one pose for a week; if I couldn’t recall him then I could not have been so attentive. The pose came out easily, but the more I got into specifics, the more difficult it got. In general terms, I remembered where muscles belonged and where they should go, but not necessarily how limbs overlapped. The gaps that were revealed—the squashed chest, for example—showed up things I could guiltily admit to not understanding so clearly, like how the pectoralis and the deltoid meet.

Drawing from memory

Drawing from memory

It became clear that few of my fellows enter such a scenario with a clear idea of what they will investigate. They are desperate to learn, but not purposefully approaching their learning, or taking charge of it. Their strategy was, rather, to rely on the critique of others, and as such they seemed disproportionately eager to dole out criticism. Their defensive drawing and painting strategy makes for a wholly negative learning experience—draw, fail, and be corrected.

Volksgarten, Wien

Volksgarten, Wien

 

I realised how fortunate I’ve been to receive a great deal of positive teaching. My teachers have long since instilled in me the approach of dreaming up a challenge, a strategy, and working toward it. It is focused and limited. To muddle me and burden me with anatomy corrections far too advanced for me would only have distracted and discouraged me. Instead, they always kindly directed me towards something, and made their generous corrections in sympathy with this goal. And, perhaps most importantly, they taught me that I didn’t need them to set tasks for me. They taught me how to set my own tasks.

Musikverein, Wien

Musikverein, Wien

 

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.

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

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The devil

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

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

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens

Holy fuck, detail of Peter Paul Rubens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

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

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

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

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Detail of Veronese, Judith

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

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

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

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