The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Selection and Extract

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

I know that we've discussed this topic plenty of times here, but I like the way Henri expresses it:

When a student comes before his model his first question should be: "What is my highest pleasure in this?" and then, "Why?" All the greatest masters have asked these questions - not literally - not consciously, perhaps. And with them this highest pleasure has grown until with their great imaginations, they have come to something like a just appreciation of the most important element of their subject, having eliminated its lesser qualities. With their prejudice for its greater meaning, their eyes take note only of the lines and forms which seem to be the manifestation of that greater meaning.

This is selection. And the result is extract.

The great artist has not reproduced nature, but has expressed by his extract the most choice sensation it has made upon him.
An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic. (p. 82-83)

We've had many discussions in the past about how to define fine art. In a way, Henri has done so here. The artist, unlike the mechanic or craftsman, utilizes imagination to select the elements that express his/her pleasure in order to produce something that is an extract of reality. Reality is transformed through the psychological filters in the artist's mind.

The degree of transformation influences the quality of the art, in my opinion. I'm a little turned-off by literal interpretations, where the artist feels the need to replicate exactly what is seen. (I say that having been guilty of it in the past). For me, the greater the transformation, the more my interest is piqued. I like to figure out what the artist is getting at and to find layers of meaning. I like to think about why the artist focused on something in particular while neglecting all the rest. What does this say about the artist and how he/she perceives the world? How does it relate to me?

Sometimes it's easier to relate to the extract than to the entire vat of ingredients.

Your thoughts??


Margaret Ryall said...

This quote
The great artist has not reproduced nature, but has expressed by his extract the most choice sensation it has made upon him.
An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic. (p. 82-83) had a profound impact on my practice when I first read Henri's book. It gave me direction and a kind of permission to paint what was important to me in a way that worked for me. My Reading a Garden series relies very much on selection and extract. What I focus on and eventually compose and re-compose is very personal to me. It is a synthesis selected through the process of recombining and adding new elements. I like to feel that no other artist would
come up with the "angles" I have in the series - the garden filtered through my senses.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Hi Katharine, I particularly like this quote because it is what I have been trying to learn to do through my abstract paintings. For me, coming from a long detour into realism, studying under Patricia Whitty, I found myself getting so intrigued with the details in trying to make things realistic that I started to lose track of not only the ultimate importance of design over content but also what I actually liked in my subject.(not through any fault of Patricia Whitty of course) I knew what I liked in other peoples work and my surroundings but couldn't seem to figure out why I didn't like my own work. I'm still working at it but have been so much happier going to my studio to work now that I have a different focus and purpose. I also find that I like my representational works better as well and they are more fun to do. The great thing about art, is you are always learning and growing.

Mark Sheeky said...

All painting is abstract. I'm influenced by photography; One of my rules is to paint what cannot be photographed! But I -try- to do it realistically.

hwfarber said...

Yes--I like the extract of reality.

Mary Paquet said...

Like others, I agree with Henri about extraction. All of my paintings are extracts; none simply replicate the subject.

What is especially interesting to me is how the members of the drawing class I attend all render the same simple still life set up by our instructor. These days we use pastels over charcoal. The goal is to learn to draw a three-dimensional form and render values accurately. I know that improved drawing skills improve my paintings so I dutifully create the still life on paper. However, the results are an extraction.

Bob is a pretty realistic painter, but I see how he too extracts what is important to him. For example, he often says don't paint every hair on the head. Each of us renders the same still life, and each looks very different. We distill the essence of the still life through our personal filter. The result is not an exact reproduction of every detail, yet all are "accurate" renderings.

Kathy said...

Hi Margaret - I was thinking of you when I typed this blog because I can see the selection and extraction process in your work. It's interesting to learn that it was Henri's words that sent you down this path.

Hi Tonya - I took a similar approach as an artist, beginning when abstract expressionism was all the rage and then moving much later toward realism, and now back toward a hybrid. I agree that it's great to keep learning and growing. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks, anyway ??

Hi Mark - I've felt the same way: why bother to paint what can be photographed?

Hi Hallie - you're very good at it, too!!

Hi Mary - good point! If our worked all looked alike there'd be no reason to paint anymore, and we all bring something different to the same subject. The importance is in the artist's viewpoint, not in the subject.

Stan Kurth said...

An artist is to poetry, as a craftsman is to prose. Stan Kurth


An artist who does not use his imagination is a mechanic. Robert Henri

Kathy said...

Hi Stan - interesting analogy!

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Celeste Bergin said...

well. I do like paintings that look painted. I have never understood why people want paintings that are photo-real. Sometimes a person thinks they are giving an artist a great compliment when they say "oh, that is great...I thought it was a photo". UGH! To me, paintings are paintings and photos are photos. Why pretend to be a photo--when you are a painting? To each their own--there is plenty of space in the world for all kinds of art..but the painting that shows the marks made by the person will always be preferred (by me)!

-Don said...

My favorite extract from this post is, "...the manifestation of that greater meaning." To use my tools, my eyes, my media, my experiences and my imagination to find that "greater meaning" which manifests physically in the final work and then manifests psychologically in the viewer creates one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment in me as an artist. I create to satisfy a basic need in my psyche, but to have someone respond to my work on any level - reading their own "greater meaning" into it - is a high beyond description.

Yes, Pam, studying the mechanics is BORING. I'd recommend finding ways to extract your own "highest pleasures" in the rendering of the class assignments. Have fun with them. Maybe even infuse some of your humor into the finished projects. As a word of encouragement, I'd like to point out that your work has shown a tremendous growth in just a short time. Those boring mechanical instructions are already starting to inform your own personal "extracts". Kudos...


Kathy said...

Hi Pam - I think that Mark and I were commenting more about using our painting as a means to express what can't be photographed, and not to criticize the wonderful art form known as photography. I agree that some photographs can be hauntingly unforgettable and amazing.Celeste's following comments are on target with my opinions.

Hi Celeste - I completely agree!!

Hi Don - how true; it's a thrill when someone else not only "gets" my art, but sees something else in it that's truly personal to them. And ... good advice!