Isolina Maldonado - Spanish Dancer by Robert Henri, 1921
The Art Spirit by Robert Henri
Henri devotes large portions of his book to painting techniques interspersed with theory and philosophy. For those of you who are reading along, he discusses “backgrounds” on pages 38 through 44. I think that there are many layers to his words that we could explore here, so I set up a dialogue between Henri’s practical advice and my interpretations:
RH - Do not look at the background to know its colors or shapes. Look at the model. What you will see of the background while looking at the model will be the background of the model.
KC - As artists, we must use our own background, which makes us who we are, to inform our work.
RH – We are instinctively blind to what is not relative. We are not cameras. We select. We do this always when we are not painting. When you are sitting in conversation with a young girl and are thinking the while how beautiful she is, suddenly stop and ask yourself what has been her background. Surely it was not all those incongruous things that are now leaping into your consciousness from behind her. And surely, too, while you were sitting there and thinking her so beautiful you had created (unconsciously) out of chaos a wonderfully fitting setting which was back of her and around her and fully sufficient to her.
KC – Consciously and unconsciously, we selectively transform and color the backgrounds of our lives in a way that’s personally pleasing and understandable. How we transform ourselves is directly linked to how we transform what we paint.
RH – the head in space creates its own background. That the background becomes an extension of the head, and that it is all the canvas that is the head – not just that part the material head occupies.
KC – We paint how we perceive the world around us and our place in it. Every inch of the canvas is about the artist.
RH – All things change according to the state we are in. Nothing is fixed.
KC – How I paint an eggshell, or any other subject, today will change as my perceptions change. My work evolves with me.
RH – The background is more air than it is anything else. It is the place in which the model moves. It is the air he breathes.
KC – There is a space between the artist’s intention (idea) and what she actually paints. In that space, the idea is altered by the materials used, the limitations of our dexterity, and often the opinions of others. That space is invisible, like air, but has a profound role in our creation of art.
RH – There are backgrounds so well made that you have no consciousness of them.
KC – When an artist creates a cohesive body of work that demonstrates consistency in technique and form, viewers are not conscious of the artist’s struggle, of what went on in the background to create the work.
RH – A background is not to be neglected. It is a structural factor. It is as important to the head before it as the pier is important to the bridge it carries. The background is a support of the head.
KC – Who I am as a person (my background) is very important to my work. From it I define who I am, thereby imparting to my work a unique and meaningful quality.
RH – Nothing is right until all is done and a total unity has been accomplished [between the background and subject] .
KC – My work must unite who I am and how I perceive the world around me with how I express myself in a painting.
RH – A weak background is a deadly thing.
KC – Enrich your life: live, learn, experience. Our paintings are enriched when we broaden and deepen our knowledge of life.
What’s your conversation with Robert Henri??