There’s an old joke from grade school that I still remember. It’s rather dumb, but the punch line turns on a thought that has relevance. Maybe that’s why I remember it. Two guys on an island. One is a millionaire smoker who has a ton of cigarettes but no matches. He’s freaking out. The other guy has a book of matches and says to the millionaire smoker, “I’ll give you my matches for $1,000.” The smoker jumps at the chance, hands over $1,000 and the guy with the book of matches rips out the matches from the book and hands them to the smoker. “That’s not fair,” implores the smoker. “I still can’t light a cigarette. I have no striker.” “So true,” says the guy with the empty book of matches containing the striker. “But I will sell you the striker for $50,000.”
Let’s call this the “striker phenomenon” or SP for short. SP occurs when someone controls, often a monopoly control, some single thing that substantially impacts the life chances of another. Okay, are you still with me? Enter Pissarro.
Pissarro, as you know, was the philosophical leader of the Impressionists. What historians wish us to remember is that the Impressionists broke the rules of traditional painting and came up with a new aesthetic. This isn’t wrong. But this emphasis trivializes, to say the least, the Impressionist contribution. The Impressionist contribution that is much more relevant to painters today was not their rule breaking aesthetic. Instead it was their brilliant way of avoiding the SP or to say it another way, they devised a way to sidestep what was an aristocratic state-controlled monopoly over exhibitions (think distribution) of their work, i.e., the Salon. In short, the Salon of mid-19th century Paris required that artists paint certain themes and in a certain way (in order to make noble and moral the vast accumulation of wealthy by a few). If you didn’t you would have a hard time surviving. The genius of Pissarro et al. was in devising an institutional response to an institutional constraint on the freedom of artists. The model that Pissarro came up with was based upon a baker’s union: the Impressionists (called “intransigents” at the time) launched a series of independent exhibitions, gained control over the exhibition/distribution of their work and, hence, the production of their work as well. Or to put it in plain English, they became free to paint whatever the hell they wanted in the way they wanted.
But alas, the story doesn’t end well. Yes, the control by the aristocratic state faded away, but a new control over the exhibition of their work (and hence their production) arose in the guise of the private entrepreneur or dealer, the most famous of which at the time was Durand-Ruel. To be sure, Durand-Ruel was credited with opening markets, especially internationally for the Impressionists and for a time, especially early on, was praised by the painters themselves. But the SP, unmistakably, reasserted itself. Pissarro, ever alert to the control by another over his direction, would lament, as he struggled financially, that he had “to please Durand.” Resigned to his fate, Pissarro wrote to his son when he was 68, “Durand-Ruel, who has given me the same prices for ten years….It is true that he takes all my work, but on the other hand, he has too much power over me.” The Impressionists, jumping out of the state-controlled SP frying pan, jumped into the fire of the private enterprise SP.
And how does Angelina Jolie fit into this story? As noted above, she underwent a double mastectomy because tests showed that were she not to do this, she would have a high risk of developing either breast or ovarian cancer. The tests in question are tests that can identify the mutation of specific genes, and it is this mutation that could lead to life-threatening cancer. But here’s the rub: the private SP is back in spades. There is private monopoly control over these tests:
“A Utah biotech company Myriad Genetics owns the patent to BRCA1, the so-called “breast cancer gene” responsible for Angelina Jolie’s decision to have a preventative double mastectomy. They also own the patent on a similar breast cancer gene called BRCA2. Moreover, these gene patents also give Myriad a monopoly on testing for these genes.
At present a suit cancer groups have filed to invalidate these patents is being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. Cancer advocates argue that it’s illegal and unethical for biotech companies to patent nature. Joseph Stiglitz has written in Slate that allowing Myriad to hold exclusive patents for BRCA1 and BRCA2 removes the opportunity for other scientists to come up with better and cheaper tests. In this way, they make the tests less widely available and possibly prevent women from knowing they carry these genes and taking preventive measures”.
In the U.S. a full test for each of these genes costs about $3,000. Private insurance policies may (or may not) cover the cost. But this highlights the problem. Access to those things that give us life, be they medical tests for someone like Angelina Jolie or creative processes as in the case of Pissarro and painters, are less likely to be controlled by the state in the western world today, and more likely to be controlled privately by those seeking to maximize profit and market share. Myriad Genetics is the Durand-Ruel of the gene world. They seek, in all their creativity, to control the distribution of golden eggs so that they are able to control the goose that lays them.
So what’s the point of all this? The point is that painters today are quite aware of the great boogie-man of “censorship” when it is government doing the controlling. But what we totally ignore are the private enterprise controllers who shape what we do, how we do it, and who we are. Not long ago I was explaining to a painter the method of painting that I teach. One of its virtues, I offered, was that it affords the painter “a great deal of control.” My artist friend recoiled at the mention of the word “control.” It was as if I had said that the method I teach gives you a deadly bacterium. “Control” over what a painter does, painters will declare, is to be avoided like – well – like the plague. And so it goes: painters today, unknowingly –or perhaps I should say unreflectively – embrace practices that control the very creative processes that could give them life. “To be an artist today,” I heard someone say recently, “you really need to get into marketing.” No, I thought to myself; that would be an entrepreneur (who bends every creative urge to meet the schedule, aims, and interests of a myriad of agents and investors and consumers), not an artist (whose only interest is taking the next step in her unfolding). The entrepreneur is someone who plays the private enterprise game, establishes points of market control – monopoly control if possible, and is someone who is both market and profit driven. The artist is someone who seeks freedom from the control that market-driven entrepreneurs, market-driven investors, all those people who control exhibitions-exposure-competitions, and all those people who grab you by the short hairs require.
“Here’s the work I do to make money. And here’s my own work,” is the refrain of so many painters. Oh crapola. What kind of creative people are we if we slink along as a servile folowing half the day and during the other half hope to find ourselves? “Freedom” was the clarion call of the Impressionists, be it from public or private centers of power. But guess what? We are taught that the only source of censorship is public; private enterprise is always good. We are taught, too, that the Impressionists were about the end result, the brush strokes, or the mode: going outside. This is not surprising, but it is appalling history. Here’s the deeper truth: the Impressionists said screw you to power – both to the state and the entrepreneur (whom they politely referred to as the bourgeoisie). We know our self-worth, they declared, and we will find an independent means of entering upon the scene of history. The scandal that still instructs us today was not about their paintings. It was about their disobedience.
Flowers are great to paint. I love painting them. But, and this is a big fat BUT, if you are not careful, they will quickly destroy the artistry within you. Let me explain.
I should alert the reader that I am writing from an Impressionist point of view. So let us recall some basic principles of Impressionism. Virtually to a person, they were explicit in their condemnation of the literal, which is to say, their paintings were not intended to be stories or social commentary (despite the gazillions of books to the contrary. The tendency is to assume that all realism is a kind of photo-journalism; hence, it must be literal. Or the converse, that if it is not literal, one must paint out of one’s head. Students of Impressionism would do well to pay more attention to what the artists themselves said. Pissarro lamented, for example, that most people only see the “subject” in his paintings. Monet talked endlessly about his need to convey his feelings. “We paint not to paint the subject,” Cèzanne reminded everyone, “but to realize sensations.”
So here’s Principle Number 1, so often articulated by Monet: Don’t see the thing before you. Or to put it another way, there are no flowers, just line and color that become prompts for us to respond to emotionally and realize feelings in the moment that our brush touches the canvas. If one loves flowers and wants to paint flowers, one is already in trouble because one will try like crazy to make a picture of flowers. So challenge Number 1, when you paint flowers don’t see flowers.
The second challenge in painting something that one is so focused on is that one is apt to neglect everything else. Principle Number 2: there is no such thing as background or tabletop or vases that play supporting roles. There are none of those things. There are no supporting roles. There is just line and color. Every square inch of a canvas ought to look as though the painter was fully involved with that square inch. Challenge Number two: everything else in the painting ought to reveal a fascination and an infatuation equal to the blasted flowers.
Principle Number Three: We are artists so do not paint what everyone else can see, ie, the obvious. Degas said that we don’t paint what we see but what we make others see. Okay, everyone can see the beauty in a sunset or a young child and, you guessed it, the “beautiful colors” in flowers. So what is an artist going to make the viewer see beyond the obvious? Challenge Number Three: say something about flowers that most people don’t see, and about that which moves you.
Let me give you some examples. First, I will show you some of my work (not the best example but it’s handy) and then I will show you some images by Monet.
The details on the left were taken from the image above. I chose these to show you that I was not seeing flowers as much as color and movement. In other words, I didn’t draw with the color but placed bits of various colors on the canvas as I engaged the subject emotionally, not seeing flowers, not looking for results but just enjoying my vision and moving through the process. Notice also that I have left parts of the canvas open in order to kick up that sense of light.
In these details I wanted to show that I did find other parts of the subject matter fascinating, certainly as fascinating to me as the flowers. Wait, there are no flowers! You see, and this brings us back to Challenge Number three: I am saying to the viewer, I want to make you see the beauty of the cloth and the colors of the grass and the reflections and colors in the vase: they are not separate from those red and white things in the vase. It’s all alive. It’s all dancing. And it’s all there, available to everyone. But if you think you are painting flowers, you will see none of it.
Now let’s go to a real painter and look at details of some of his work. Okay, Claude, you’re on:
It’s pretty obvious. Monet isn’t seeing flowers but realizing feelings. He’s intensely alive, which comes first, and so is his work, which then follows as a by-product of the experience.
Second, you can see even in these details how he is enamored with everything around the flowers. No supporting roles here. It’s all one thing. And it’s in virtue of his non-literal approach that he is showing us something we may not have seen had we been standing where he was: flowers are movement. They are swirling around, dancing, along with everything else.
I hope you don’t misinterpret all of this as instructions on how to paint flowers. You paint flowers the same way you would paint a nose or water or pavement on a city sidewalk. You see, painting is not about the subject matter. Painting is an activity where one lets go in her own particular way, realizing feelings that only she, as specific individual, could possibly realize given her age and experiences and needs. Yes there are techniques to learn, a craft to learn, but if you were only to get very good at those things, your work would look competent and probably boring. Painting is about learning new ways to be free and by that I mean new ways to be more you, more sincere, even if that means marching to your own drum.
Let me leave you with Monet’s thoughts that make contact to what I’m trying to suggest here:
“Paint as you see nature yourself. If you don’t see nature right with an individual feeling, you will never be a painter, and all the teaching cannot make you one [emphasis added].”
Often I will hear someone say, after looking at a painting of mine, “I love your palette.” The underlying assumption is that were someone else were to use my palette, the colors in their paintings would be about the same. Not true. The colors that one sees in a painting are the colors that that painter sees or makes up.
In my case, I paint only the colors that I see. So if one were to like the colors in any given painting of mine, a more appropriate comment would be, “I like the colors you see.” Were I to use a different palette with different colors, I would still try and mix the colors I see. So here’s point number one: in developing a palette that will work best for you, choose colors that will make it easier for you to mix the colors you see, or make up – if that is what you do.
My palette is similar to that of Monet’s (although I use more colors). The colors are called prismatic because they are, more or less, the colors of the rainbow or the colors that compose natural light.
Brands That I Use
Were I rich enough to afford my first choice, I would use Old Holland. They are creamy and the variety of choices is extraordinary. However, the brands I do use, Gamblin and Rembrandt, are quite good. They’re not too expensive and they are nice and creamy too. I do not use student grade brands, like Winton or Georgian. Student grade brands aren’t bad but they substitute synthetic pigments for the more expensive ones like cobalt or cadmium, hence the much cheaper prices. So for example, if you mix a Winton cadmium orange hue (hue means fake) with a little white and do the same with Gamblin cadmium orange, the latter will retain that sweet pureness, while the Winton will gray down a bit.
Thoughts on Specific Colors
As time goes along, I often discover colors that I can’t do without. I once copied, in a museum, a haystack painting by Monet – right in front of me – and discovered emerald green. I really thought that I couldn’t do without it, but now I really don’t use it that much. Now one of my favorite colors is cadmium lemon yellow (not shown on the palette above). I find that I can kick very light and bright yellows up a notch with lemon yellow, more so than if I were to use yellow light. Wolf Kahn introduced me to quinacridone. Again, it isn’t that because I love a color, independently of what I see, that I use it. It’s just that after having mixed a little quinacridone with white, I almost stopped using alizarin to get that rosey veil of atmosphere that I seem to see everywhere. Whereas alizarin is a very cool red, quinacridone is slightly lighter and warmer. Hence, the rosey veils that emerge from quinacridone seem to sing a little more.
I stopped using cerulean blue when I discovered Sevres, made by Rembrandt. It has that rich “sky” blue quality that trumps cerulean. (Note: as nice as these rich, pure colors are, I rarely use such colors without mixing. I wouldn’t want to lift my subject matter out of an atmospheric haze, even when I’m painting in the studio. Sometimes in the bright sun and up close, a little dab of such colors will, indeed, “do ya.”)
Sometimes, I will substitute sap green for viridian, if I need something more earthy and less transparent. But one can get those dark warmish greens, too, by mixing yellows with ultramarine blue.
Dioxin purple is the best purple, but like purple passion statements, must be used sparingly if at all.
Cobalt blue? Can’t live without it – and it is expensive too. But necessary. No skimping when it comes to cobalt. Other than white, I probably use more cobalt blue than any other color. Don’t ask.
White must be goopy; in fact, the goopier the better. Grumbacher used to make a “soft-white” – I think they said it was for underpainting, not sure why, but it was super goopy. Hard to get though. Permelba is okay. In Italy, I have found a brand that is rather cheap (Classico) – student grade probably, but sufficiently goopy to have become my default titanium white.
And lastly, my new love affair: vermilion. Good-bye cadmium red light, hello hot-orangey-red. Where have you been all these years?
No. I never use mediums. I use paint thinner to clean my brushes. That’s it.
Keep It Clean
The one thing that it seems most painters do is not clean their palette. Yuk. I couldn’t possibly begin a painting if my palette looked like a pizza. I generally place my colors on the top border of my palette or on the side as well (from cool to warm), depending on the size and shape, but each and every time I stop painting, I scrape off the mixing area with a palette knife and then, with some paint thinner, wash off the remaining paint so that my palette, when I return to it, has that nice middle value warm-gray patina. That way, as I mix colors, I can more easily judge the value of the color I am mixing and its relationship to other colors.
Brushes too: I clean each of them, as I paint. No pizzas. No gunked up brushes in my hand or in the tray. No rags dangling about with fifty million colors oozing and bleeding, just waiting to mess me up.
Order and cleanliness are all part of palette and brush protocol.
And goopiness. Don’t forget that.
This is the third blog in a three-part series: one of the thoughts that I have been suggesting, implicitly perhaps (as so many other artists have), is that the “subject” of a painting is never the subject (at least it ought not be), that painting as an activity is the expression of self and, therefore, a process of self-realization, a process of “becoming.” This process at its best, therefore, is joyful given the sense of fulfillment one feels as one realizes one’s powers and unique shape – and yet it is always fraught with degrees of torment given that it is a kind of rebirth, where one keeps shedding skins, keeps growing. So we find, for example, Monet’s most important teacher, Eugene Boudin, explaining his love of painting skies this way: “To swim in the open sky…what a joy.” And then he adds, “…and what a torment.” To understand what Monet is doing we must probe further this linkage between exhilaration, triumph, and joy on the one hand and torment on the other.
One of my favorite insights of Robert Henri is relevant here: “The drudgery that kills is not half the work that joy is.” I made mention of the Henri quote to a friend (a non-painter) once, as we were sitting at a café on the shores of Lake Como while we were both sipping prosecco (the Italian version of champagne but not considered hoity-toity in the least.). The weather was perfect, the day glorious. My friend, seemingly with great ironic pleasure announced, “I’m feeling rather joyful right now and I have no sense of working, let alone a sense of drudgery. ” Somewhat deflated, I responded, “Well, there’s joy and then there’s joy.” Unimpressed, my friend smiled back at me and ordered another prosecco.
I was trapped by the very language we shared, a language that has but one word for all the possible kinds of joy one might experience. Let me then make a distinction that American English, at any rate, does not admit. The joy of which Henri speaks is not the joy that arises when we are passive and something pleasurable happens to us: sitting in the sun and drinking prosecco, or going shopping, enjoying a grand meal, or receiving gifts; rather it is the kind of joy that comes from not only acting in the world, but a kind of acting we might call resistance, a clarifying of who we really are. Our true shape, our unique spirit or being comes into clarity when we push against our surroundings, when we “let the world know and feel who we are.”
This isn’t easy. When we push against what surrounds us – a kind of “putting ourselves out there” – we are not only made more visible, we are made more vulnerable. And yet, this is the stuff of creative expression. This is what Manet meant when he reminded us that “one must risk oneself entirely and anew each time.” Yes, of course we make paintings. But let’s get the order straight: more fundamentally when we paint, we are making ourselves, allowing that song from within to be heard. The paintings follow.
Okay, back to Monet. Take a look again at his own descriptions of what he is feeling as he goes through the process of painting:
I get disgusted by what comes too easily at first try, I am literally driven mad by the need to render what I feel.
I am feverishly engaged in what I am doing, and every evening I am eagerly waiting for the next morning to do still better….
It was all bad. I have erased what I did…the approach was wrong, the feeling was wrong too.
I have been working every day on the two same canvases and yet have been unable to achieve what I wanted, it will have to come but with what pains and labor.
I always want to do better…and yet I simply cannot, I keep trying.
I have been working on fourteen paintings today….If I were living in Rouen, only now would I start to feel my subject.
I think it would be a terrible mistake to read these passages and infer from them that Monet is simply frustrated, as anyone might be, in not achieving a certain result. Over and over Monet keeps saying how he wishes to “render” his feelings. In fact, he is “driven mad” by this need. But to render one’s feelings is to realize one’s feelings and to realize one’s feelings is to realize and come to know one’s powers, one’s shape, to really begin to see and feel – to clarify – who one is. Thus it follows that if the painting comes easily, there is no real clarification and the feeling is one of “disgust.” When he says that he must “keep trying” and “do better,” in the context of this intense need to render and realize his feelings more profoundly, he is telling us that for him painting is a process where he, Claude Monet, as a unique being, is emerging. The process is a kind of unfolding. Stated another way, Monet is telling us that his commitment is to become more Monet, to the person he is most.
Monet may paint haystacks, cathedrals, and water lilies but the subject is always Monet. We say “that’s a Monet.” But here is what I’m trying to draw your attention to: that to become Monet is to become Monet as against the values and constraints of the way of life that he inherited. He is not “becoming all that he can be” (to quote that American TV jingle) where achievement is measured in the standard sense, where the institutional set of opportunities made available are adopted or identified with unreflectively. On the contrary, he is explicit: the accepted understanding of what it meant to be an artist for him was “unhealthy.” Were he to have accepted the standard measures of success, he would have had to become less Monet, he would have had to die a little in the process.
I have recounted my own experiences along these lines to students many times. After a decade of rather serious study, I had mastered, as it were, the mechanics of painting that I had been taught. And yet, my work, while correct, always struck me as dead on arrival. My problem, I discovered later, was that I had viewed the act of making paintings much like everything else I had done – or made – in my life up until that time. As a kid, for example, the measure of any work I did that had been assigned to me was the evaluation – by some authority – of the results. Did I do it well or not depended on meeting some unquestioned external standard that I, personally, had nothing to do with. Perhaps it was my father’s judgment of how I cut the grass. My self-worth too was tightly woven into these measures. Ditto with school work. Grades were everything – the feelings I had during the course were essentially irrelevant. Results were everything. Production was everything. My place in whatever hierarchy in which I happened to be implicated was everything. So when it came to painting, I was results-driven, focused on the product, desperate for some measure of approval by my teacher or that implicitly granted by the almighty sale or by the acceptance to a gallery; and from there a new hierarchy would insert itself. Was the gallery a good gallery? Was my way of painting considered by “the experts” to be important or was it (and me along with it) considered passé? Was the job a good job? Would the position be sufficiently worthy of announcing it to friends and family or was it evidence that I was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill guy that women everywhere would shun? Would my salary be sufficient to purchase the sorts of things that proved that I was not the person I feared I might be?
The threads of a way of life run through us, envelop us, shape us and are largely invisible to us. As those same threads carried over from a way of life organized around ever greater horizons of production and ever more interwoven sets of hierarchies found their way into my process of painting, I was utterly oblivious to the fact my autonomy had been eviscerated. And, frankly, had someone explicitly pointed this out to me, I know I would have shrugged the whole thing off. I mean, why probe such nasty, inconvenient truths? Why rock the boat? Why stop the music and dig around? It won’t help me, right? To hell with it. My little career path was unfolding properly. Yet the cancer that devours one’s personal and independent creativity was, for me at that time, at about stage 4. I had become, to use the parlance of psychiatry, a “production freak.” Well, there you go. I was normal.
Now, to become conscious of all of this, to understand, to cite just one example, that my feelings during the work process mattered – over and against the results or product, what do you suppose I had to do? I had to become aware of all those social threads that ran through me. I had to stop and reflect upon normal ways of doing things. I had to dredge up my assumptions and see if, in fact, they were valid. I had to push against my surroundings. I had to get some distance from the myriad values and expectations that I had inherited and had embraced as my own.
When, for example, I read that Picasso argued that the concept “finish” is an inappropriate category in determining when we stop painting – it’s just fine for making a cake, a car, or a house – do you think that that was an idea “I got” straight away? What was worse was the fact that to pick away at one idea invariably brought into question yet an array of other ideas, each linked to one another, each now percolating up to the surface. There was always a sense of relief as this happened, as in “I don’t have to carry that baggage around anymore,” but at the same time, as I began to slog through the examination of one idea after the other, the more powerful feeling was one of opacity and anxiety. What am I doing? Where does this lead? Am I sure? My family is going to go beserk.
When my teacher implored time and again to not look for results as I paint, that the pay-off comes in the moment of creation, in that moment when one realizes that he or she actually does see more, it was simply not possible for me to respond by saying, “Oh yea, sure. I get it.” It was not possible to simply become more on the spot, to jettison ways of being overnight. To jettison the ingrained compulsion to get into a good gallery or a good anything, to disassociate selling from self-worth, to see the ever present insistence, coming from every direction, to market my brains out as problematic or hollow, as a misdirection, or as a danger, really – is like the drudgery that kills. The transition to a more fulfilling way of approaching painting – that kind of joy - is unlike the rather quick simple joy that comes swiftly and easily. It is not like the joy of having found a better way, for example, when I dumped my desktop computer in favor of a laptop. The difference for me was that as I slowly grew out of my inherited way of being in the world and into one that was more of my own making, I had to risk putting myself out there “entirely and anew each time.” “To be free,” Henri reminds us, “…can only be attained through the sacrifice of many common and overestimated things.” But to cross all those thresholds! Ouch, the pain, the indignity. Crap, I was no longer normal!
And here we come to the crux of it all: when I was disgusted too with cranking out absolutely correct and acceptable work, I understood, deep in my gut, that my paintings were dead. I knew at some level that I had to get off the track which had been the track of my life since the first grade, a track I had been moving down breezily, a track that had been delivering to me those wonderful pats on the back for each and every little triumph. In short, I had to slowly but surely stop the music. I had to question. I had to drop out of the great success-competition-be-all-you-can-be-achievement-rat-race. I had to walk through the looking glass, leave that great journey of moving from working-class-ville-to-success and enter into that space where one is looked at – well let’s just say – askance. Oh, the torment. I can still hear my mother saying, “It’s really a shame. He did so well in school.”
* * *
“What would make a successful workshop for you?” I ask students when they arrive. “I would like to learn new techniques,” is the most common answer given. Do you suppose that that response is shaped by a culture that rewards innovative technology and efficient production? And when I respond, “It may be more fruitful to learn new ways to be free,” do you suppose that this competing notion is something that can be readily understood? Or will ever be understood at all?
What impresses me about Monet and his peers is the degree to which they were embroiled in the turbulent politics of their day, the way they met regularly to discuss strategy in the context of philosophy, literature, theater, and the history of their own profession, and how they identified with artist struggles past: “We followed on the heels of the School of 1830,” Pissarro noted in 1900. I also liked that they were influenced by a new understanding of what it meant to be an artist, one that was articulated nicely by Charles Baudelaire, in his The Painter of Modern Life, an essay that some have referred to as the “philosophical manifesto of the Impressionists.” An artist, suggested Baudelaire, is “a man [woman] of the world…who…wants to know, understand and appreciate everything that happens on the surface of our globe.” Artists toward which he felt scorn, instead, were those who were “no more than highly skilled animals…[whose] conversation, which is necessarily limited to the narrowest of circles, becomes very quickly unbearable…to the spiritual citizen of the universe.”
Whenever I see my friend with whom I was drinking prosecco that day, I say, “now remember, the drudgery that kills….” And I stop. And we laugh. It may be a rather elevated or dry or arcane or difficult conversation to jump into, particularly if all we want to do is to slip into a dreamy alcoholic buzz while sitting in the sun. But for anyone who wishes to render their most incredible feelings or realize their deepest creative powers and, thereby, become “spiritual citizens of the universe,” “drunk” like the child who “sees everything in a state of newness,” then, in that case, it is a conversation that one ought to insist upon having, don’t you think? We are trying to paint our own special poem – the poem of our lives – after all.
 “I’ve always said the subject is not the subject.” Wolf Kahn, ARTnews, December 2001, 89.
 David Viscott (May 24, 1938 – October 10, 1996), was an American psychiatrist, author, and media personality. While his commentary on creativity was brilliant (I possess old cassette recordings of a workshop he gave on creativity) I don’t believe there is any written or recorded material from this workshop that remains. If you go to Youtube you can see him do his on-air therapy, which interesting in itself.
 The quotes by Monet can be found in his letters; I took these from Claude Monet at the time of Giverny, edited by Jacqueline et Maurice Guillaud, Guillaud Editions, distributed by Rizzoli, New York.
 Monet is also explaining to us that the measure of his paintings are the feelings that he realizes as he makes them.
 For this reason we often refer to works of various artists according to their stage of becoming. Paintings by Monet of figures or streets, for example, might be called the early Monet. Whereas his water lilies would be called the later Monet. Much of this phrasing, “the self you are most” comes from Viscott.
 Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, 206.
 Quoted by Joachim Pissarro, Camille Pissarro, 4. The “school” in this context would be the artists pressing for democratic control over their work in the revolution of 1830.
 Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 6-7. If you google this essay, you will be able to download the relevant passages.
 Baudelaire, 8.
In Part 1, following a discussion with Mitch Albala, the question arose, why if the results of Monet’s work (particularly within his later work such as the Water Lily series) is so non-literal (see two “water lily” details below), does Monet constantly look at what he is painting (as evidenced by a rare film which can be seen on Youtube). One might think that to be non-literal one might do a fair amount of imagining or working out of one’s head, as opposed to a steady looking or engagement with the subject. In other words, if one’s work is very non-literal, almost to the point of abstraction, would one be painting more in the mode of – say – Picasso or the Abstract Expressionists? Certainly, that’s a possibility, but with the Impressionists and particularly with Monet, I would argue that something else entirely is going on.
But let’s take a look at what Monet has said about his way of painting.
1. Don’t See the Thing as a Thing
He once said to a friend that he “wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he could have begun to paint…without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him.” So for example, if you had just gained your sight and you saw the image above, you wouldn’t know if you were looking at Aunt Mary or a plate of spaghetti. It would have no meaning. It would just be sense data. So for this reason, Monet suggests, “When you go out to paint try to forget what object you have before you – a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact colour and shape, until it emerges as your own naive impression of the scene before you.”
Non-literal, for Monet then, means, simply, don’t see the thing as a thing.
2. See Only Visual Elements
So if you look at a house and don’t see “a house,” what do you see? Well, above Monet says he sees “a little square of blue…and oblong of pink; so he is seeing color, but not the thing (house, boat, person) as a thing. But notice also that often he speaks of a particular kind of color. Again Monet: “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value (emphasis added).”
What Monet is describing here is tonality, the unifying color that bathes everything. This is also known as atmospheric color. One cannot see a house (or anything else) except through the “surrounding atmosphere.” Note also that because the “appearance changes at every moment,” it behooves the Impressionist, at “every moment,” to look again to see what the subject is doing.
Monet calls this kind of steady looking “instantaneity”: “I’m getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I’d call ‘instantaneity’, the ‘envelop’ above all, the same light spread over everything the more I’m disgusted by easy things that come in one go. Anyway, I’m increasing the need to render what I experience….”
With his emphasis on the “need to render” what he experiences, we arrive at a crucial point.
3. The Realization of Feelings
We have arrived at what I think may be the most important aspect of Impressionism, but I caution the contemporary reader: remember, that in 1865, just as the Impressionists were grouping together, there were several strands of thought that cohered, ultimately became dominate both in Europe and in the US, and that provide, to a considerable degree, a philosophical foundation for our way of life today. Here’s the punch line: it is that bundle of ideas, which we have inherited, that the Impressionists passionately opposed. In fact, the way of thinking about creativity that was opposed is now so completely accepted as the new normal, things we simply assume to be true, that it makes it very difficult for us 21st century moderns to understand the view it replaced. To fill this out properly is well beyond the scope of a blog, but let me give you an example.
We may think of paintings as having an imitative function (they are pictures of something), as something nice to look at (they are pleasing), or as advancing our understanding (as in conceptual art which practitioners believe communicate extraordinary “content”). And in each of these cases, the artist has feelings about the success, or merit, or value, or worth of the piece in question. We may say that these kinds of feelings – those that depend upon the result – are, therefore, contingent and stand apart from the work. They are separate. This is not what feelings are about when the Impressionists expressed themselves or “rendered their experience.” Let us look at a typical passage where Monet ties together his notion of success, the activity of painting, and his feelings (translated of course):
“People who hold forth on my paintings conclude that I have arrived at the ultimate degree of abstraction and imagination that relates to reality. I should much prefer to have them acknowledge what is given, the total self-surrender. I applied paint to these canvases…bordering on hypnosis…. These landscapes of water and reflections have become my obsession. It’s quite beyond my powers at my age, and yet I want to succeed in expressing what I feel.”
It’s not about abstraction (the non-literal) or imagination as such, meaning he isn’t inventing or making things up. He defines success in terms of his ability to express what he feels which in turn is about the total self-surrender, a kind of hypnosis, that occurs within the activity of painting.
So we can see why Monet’s looking is so constant. But the larger point so often lost on us contemporaries who are locked within assumptions that have diverged from Impressionist thinking for more than a century is this: art is all about an expressive activity whereby we come to know our powers and who we are because as we express our feelings about sensations in the moment of making marks, we make determinant and clear who we are. In those moments we expand our existence. In fact, if we take the word “render” to mean “realize” (which would be supported if we listen to Pissarro and Cèzanne), our feelings or our sense of self, as we paint, can not be known before our marks are made. The feelings/experience that Monet describes and wishes to “render” (or convey or realize) are not incidental to the work, or a matter of indifference, but are experienced with joy or pain because in this position of self-clarity, Monet becomes what he has in himself to be and through the act of painting is, therefore, made free.
Let me put it a different way. This is not the “be all you can be” motto of the old US Army ad. In that sense of becoming more, one puts him or herself in tune with an external order, where success is measured by the degree to which one penetrates such an order. This is called “climbing the ladder.” But this is the opposite of what Monet is doing. Monet, since childhood (and many of the Impressionists along with him), had been struggling to realize who he was - as against his surroundings – or the received order. Do you see the difference here? In our way of thinking, we struggle to succeed within an order that we inherit and we have feelings about our work as it contributes or not to that penetration. I feel good about a painting or believe it was successful in that it demonstrates a certain value or level of accomplishment.
Monet (who is engaged in a total self-surrender, who states that his goal is to render his experience) is “obsessed” with discovering a self that unfolds from within him. His realization must be his own. In this respect the Impressionists were “intransigents,” fighting with moral passion against an art system, not unlike ours today, that compelled artists to embrace a self that was an illusory substitute for who they really were.
If all of this seems rather grim to the reader, know this: the unparalleled exhilaration of painting and sense of freedom that motivated the Impressionists also explains their method and the power of their work, work that today continues to move people more than any other art movement in history. Think of it this way: Monet looks, he receives the vibrating, ever-changing sensations of nature. It is as though he looks and is touched in some way. Something within him responds and a feeling in that moment is realized. I say “something” because initially his feelings would have been inchoate. He chooses a color, makes a mark on the canvas by touching it and only in that moment of touching, of expressing who he is, realizes a feeling, a sense of exhilaration that could not have been known before the touch occurred.
What is he doing? He is touched and he touches back. He is alive. He is free. He is becoming more Monet. And the painting? Oh, that. It’s happening. It follows along. But for goodness sake, if Monet pauses for a moment to look for results, to see if it measures up to something, or if he invents, the spell is broken. To paraphrase Henri, nature doesn’t reveal herself to those who are hell bent on accomplishing “external tasks” ((Pissarro and Manet), particularly those having to do with career.
When we paint for the product, the other, for results, we do not express ourselves but rather an illusory substitute, as I have noted. This point bears repetition because it is this inauthentic self, from the point of the Impressionists, that is a distortion, a mutilation of who anyone is, regardless of whatever outward “success” once may achieve. Hence, such environments and situations ought to be challenged, as the Impressionists inveighed against their institutions, with moral passion.
The Impressionist aesthetic, then, must be understood as an authentication of this passion. But contrary to the work of many scholars (to say nothing of how-to mimicry), one cannot understand Impressionism through a narrow and primary focus on Impressionist paintings. The paintings followed from a journey into a creative freedom that we could describe as becoming (that is, a commitment by these artists to become who they were most). Or to put it starkly, the paintings just happened along the way. It is their journey into a creative freedom, however, that is still both relevant and radical for it still holds out the promise of freedom for the contemporary artist.
In Part III, I will talk a bit about why torment is the underside of joy in this context.
 In a recent blog, Mitch explains how he works differently in the studio from when he is out of doors and why he never uses photographs as a source of color. http://blog.mitchalbala.com/?p=2789
 This is one important reason why working from photographs – at least in terms of color – is a problem. Light twinkles, constantly changes, is energy, and is alive. Photographs are not.
 Translation is no small problem. I do not know French, or French terms or dialect of 150 years ago. But were one to seriously attempt to understand how the Impressionist understood themselves, it would be necessary to know these things for the simple reason that translations keep pushing their ideas back into our own ways of thinking which make understanding their ideas difficult to start with.
 Recall Mary Cassatt’s fierce rejection of a prize she was awarded: “I am an Impressionist…I must stick to my principles, our principles, which were, no jury, no medals, no awards….Liberty is the first good in this world and to escape the tyranny of a jury is worth fighting for, surely no profession is so enslaved as ours.”
 The emphasis on the activity of painting as becoming is an emphasis also used by Joaquim Pissarro, great grandson of the artist.