This Is What I Teach In My Painting Workshops: Part 2
A Plein Air Painter’s Manifesto
Remember when we learned cursive writing (back when it was taught!)? Our concentration was on the exactness of how we wrote each letter. The “a” goes up to the first line we closely observed, the “b” to the third and so on. In other words, we would be thinking about the results or the standard against which we were measured, as we wrote. Now, when we write, we think about what we want to say. As opposed to thinking about measuring up to a standard, we merely express ourselves.
The method is somewhat like that. The effort to scumble correctly(for example in the Underpainting stage) or to identify where values separate (in Construction and Reconstruction) eventually becomes second nature for the advanced painter as did her understanding of where the letters go in cursive writing. She doesn’t see the thing before her. She doesn’t think about the steps. She doesn’t think about how the work is coming out or finish because the process creates the work. She doesn’t even know where it is going or when she will stop (for me, this happens when I’ve said all I want to say or I’m tired or simply when the spell is broken, then I’m finished).
Matisse believed that “the invention of photography had released painters from the need to copy nature,” that they were then free to “present emotion as directly as possible and by the simplest means.” Van Gogh explained to his brother Theo: “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly.” Monet wrote about his endless effort to “render his feelings” as he painted. These artists are telling us that our task is getting to the rush of feelings. Then we express those feelings. Rush first, painting follows. That simple order was the priority of late-19th century painting. But if we do not cherish our feelings, if we do not understand that the measure of a painting are the feelings we have as we do it, or we are clueless about being captured by sensations and carried away, then painting methods are stripped of their soul. They no longer are means of expression but the mechanical means of manufacturing “luxury items,” as Wolf Kahn reminded us. The point of painting, added Kahn, is to enter a realm where we feel “larger.”
Here’s the problem. Over the past 100 plus years, the self-understanding of many great painters who worked at the turn of the last century, why they inveighed rather sharply against a rising commercial culture, for example, has by the 21st century passed from consciousness. Notice the insight of Alfred Sensier, close friend and biographer of Barbizon painters Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, who wrote of the the way the Forest of Fontainebleau impacted painters: “They had reached such a pitch of over-excitement that they were quite unable to work…[they were] intoxicated….They were, in truth, possessed (emphasis added).” Now, if I were to say to you that you have a choice: in the upcoming workshop you can either produce and take home 10 saleable paintings or you can learn how to get possessed. Which would you choose?
Some of you will have figured this out; namely, that if you do learn how to get possessed, it is likely that you will have produced 10 saleable paintings along the way. Robert Henri, as stated in The Art Spirit, taught his students (Robert Brackman among them) that the key to painting was getting to what he called “extraordinary moments.” These moments drive the process, Henri argued. Brackman passed along this overarching concept to Schultz, and Schultz to me. To be honest, it took quite awhile before this larger purpose began to sink in for me. One reason is that such ideas, while always hovering about in the background of the classes I attended, were never really spelled out. So let me do that now. For plein-air artists who might see the advantage of learning how to enter realms of being where we see beyond the ordinary, the following points function as a manifesto:
- Understand That The Activity of Painting is Not About Production, That It Is About Expression: Painting is less about imitating what we see (making a “picture of”) or depending on the beauty of the subject matter for the beauty of the work and more about exercising and thus discovery our powers. We need to inject a life into a painting; otherwise, we might as well take a photo. Modernity turned on the notion that people are not defined by others (or larger cosmic orders) but are self-defining. Through the activity of painting, we demonstrate that we are capable of self-articulation. Through articulating what we find within us is to make who we are manifest. It is a bringing out of something to be.
- Use a Process That Produces the Work: Our loyalty to the work compels us to create a process that produces the work. This in turn allows us to slip into a realm of being where our sense of wonder is revitalized, where we are charmed. We journey into a set of connective feelings that lie just below the surface of ordinary perception. The painting just happens along the way.
- Don’t Master Nature, Surrender to It: When we attempt to master a living thing, we objectify it. We separate ourselves from it. When we surrender to a living thing, we become one with it. We allow it to speak to us, to capture us, to carry us away. And we do not know where the thing is going, where it is taking us. This is why we paint. (This is why I found it interesting that Sensier, above, observed that the painters were possessed by the forest.)
- Make Sure the Painting is Complete in Every Stage:[i] When the painting is always complete we are able to live in the feelings of the moment. To look for results constantly is to hold feelings in. Looking for results, wrestling a painting into a preconceived notion of finish uses up our emotions. Then we have less energy to invest in the present moment. All considerations that relate to the future, all external measures that hover over us as we paint subvert where we want to be, in moments of pure presence where we suddenly notice the marvelous specificity of things.
- Become Who You Are Most: When you have a formula or brand that works, it becomes a style. It satisfies the demands of the agent but we die in the process. Each painter has an original path. Our obligation is to live up to our originality. We do this by continually risking who we are most.
- Let Go of the Work: We give birth to the work, but the work is not who we are. We have to be willing to let go of the thing we create. As we grow, older work no longer speaks to us. Paintings are the rocks we grab on to as we climb higher.[ii] We let go of them, as we move forward. We aren’t in the same place for long. Don’t repeat what you do well. That is posing. Constantly move forward – push, risk, reach, go deeper. Failure is in the posing, not the falling.
- Be One With the Subject: As we surrender to nature, each of our touches on the canvas with our brush are parts of a conversation. Allow your subject to propel you beyond the realm of ordinary perception. We are always asking the work where do you want to go? What do you have to tell me?
- Respond Only to Sensations: We do not see the thing in itself (a house as a house, for example). We see only sensations. Our task is to learn new ways to be free, to be open to sensual prompts. We are artists, not merely painters; therefore we break the sensations of our visual experience into sensual pieces, where each piece is a passage into the realm of enchantment. We go through that passage – that exit – and then we put the pieces back together according to the poet within us.
- Play: Give greater expression to play. This means that we need to get back to innocence so that we again feel our childlike excitement about life. After all, we have mastered the means of expression. Now it is time to let the world know and feel who we are.
- I’ll end with an admonition from my teacher, Bill Schultz: “From the first stroke to the last, be an artist.”
Let me conclude with a look again at the schematic of the method, which in the previous blog, I called the “means of expression.” But this time let us look at it with the above discussion in mind. You will see that we may now think of the activity of painting as a set of opportunities. Each stage of the painting process is an opportunity to exit our ordinary realms of perception and functions as passage to that realm of enchantment where we feel larger and more alive – and yes, with any luck, possessed!
[ii] This is a metaphor that was used by David Viscott, a psychiatrist, who gave a workshop on creativity in the 1990s. I don’t believe his thoughts on creativity have been recorded anywhere. He died in 1996.