The Laws of Nature

Saturday, October 5, 2013


by Katharine A .Cartwright
watercolor, 26" x 20"
Last month, I was reading a book about Niels Bohr and came across a short discussion of his principle "complementarity." I needed to paint this for my "Laws" series because I was so inspired by his idea. So, here's my aesthetic interpretation.

This painting, along with dozens of others in my series "The Laws of Nature" will be exhibited at the UConn Art Gallery in Stamford in June 2014. Hope to see you there!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Most Common Question Is ....

Weaving the Fabric of the Universe
by Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
watercolor, 26" x 20"
The most common question people ask me is "How long did it take you to paint that?" I could supply a variety of answers, like:

  • All of my life
  • 61 years (which is all of my life)
  • About 45 hours
  • 45 hours, 26 minutes and 34 seconds
  • I have no idea; I'm losing my memory
  • What did you say? I'm losing my hearing
Just ignore them altogether.

However, since most people really want to know the answer, I usually opt for the approximate hours or weeks/months. But, that really isn't an accurate answer, is it?

In fact, "all of the above" would be correct in my case.

What's the question people most commonly ask you about your work?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Exhibiting in China

Fourier's Law by Katharine Cartwright
watercolor, 26" x 20"
My painting, Fourier's Law, has been included in this year's Shenzhen Watercolor Biennial in China. This exhibition will be hung at the Shenzhen Art Museum on December 10th. An international panel of jurors selected 260 paintings from 54 countries and regions for this exhibit, including 59 from the United States. I'm honored to be included! 

Here's where you may find more information about the exhibit:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Artistry at Its Source

Archimedes' Principle 
by Katharine A. Cartwright
watercolor, 26" x 20"
Dear readers,
I wrote this article for the National Watercolor Society's summer newsletter and would like to also share it with you here. - Kathy

 by Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS 

 Noted art critic, Arthur Danto, once stated that there are two necessary criteria for something to be deemed ‘a work of art’ – it must have meaning and it must embody that meaning. If that is true, then the process of making art must begin with the artist’s idea, or concept. Without that, we painters are prone to rely upon happy accidents, mimicry, and technique. Reliance upon happy accidents leads to frustration and hinders mastery. Mimicry prevents us from speaking in our own unique voice, which is really the only chance we have to produce authentic original work. Reliance upon technique makes us good painters or technicians, but should not be confused with artistry.

 In order to produce original and meaningful art, it is important to recognize how we, as individuals, uniquely perceive the world around and inside of us. This requires introspection and a complete willingness to trust our own instincts. Quieting the voices of others, the influences we’ve come to trust aside from ourselves over the years, is essential to this process. It is also a very difficult step because, from youth, we are trained to follow the advice and opinions of others in authority. We learn to trust others above ourselves to develop habits, attitudes, and skills. But, in making art, there is no greater authority than oneself. Only we, as individuals, know our internal thoughts and perceptions. And, as artists, expressing our unique selves is the greatest contribution we can make to the global dialogue in art. It is also the most personally rewarding.

 Earlier, I used the term “quieting the voices of others” rather than silencing. The voices of our instructors and peers are essential to our development as artists. We carry those lessons with us throughout our lives. However, the process of maturation requires each of us to develop our own voice, which means that the voices of others must become quieter. This is why I paint alone, silently and intently, following the guidance of my intuition.

 As a painting and creativity instructor, I give great consideration to how I influence my students while helping them find their own voices. I believe that effective teaching begins with listening. In other words, my students teach me how to teach them if I’m more concerned about what they have to say rather than imposing my ideas upon them. This is a time consuming but very necessary step in the process. Annually, the students who fly or drive in for instruction have the same expectation: to make a break-through, to find meaning and relevance in what they paint, and to make their work unique. Therefore, we don’t paint for a few days. We talk. Rather, I should say that my student talks and I listen and ask pertinent questions. I allow plenty of time for reflection and then we engage in even more conversations. Once a student clearly identifies the intended idea for a body of work, painting begins. This process cannot be rushed. Without depth and clarity of thought, there is no chance for a breakthrough that is meaningful and relevant.

 My process begins in the same manner that I teach my students. For instance, The Laws of Nature is a series of watercolor paintings that began two years ago after I spent much time reflecting on the idea. The overarching concept for the series is to comment on the physical laws that constrain man’s attempt to harness and utilize the energy and materials of the universe; hence, making impossible our quest to create the perfect machine run by perpetual motion.

 The challenge in creating this series is to rely upon my intuition to design each painting rather than physical references. The result is mechanical mindscapes that express individual physical laws. Each one is unique, and the series is entirely like no other. This is only achieved by trusting and following my intuition while rejecting, as much as is possible, any outside influence. To accomplish this, I spend hours to days contemplating a single law of physics. When a notion or image pops into my head, I quickly draft it onto a full sheet of watercolor paper in one or two hours. At the end of that time all the forms that will appear in the final painting have been drawn. This stage must be accomplished quickly so that my intuition controls my hand.

 Next, I develop a color strategy that unifies the complex design. To do this, I select only four to five hues. By limiting my palette I am able to unify the painting and create a more harmonious appearance despite the complexity of the competing forms. Color and value are employed in a manner enhances the flow path for the eye of the viewer. Although the painting style for this series is precise, I work very fast to facilitate intuitive control over the work.

 It is my reliance upon intuition that yields the best results and elevates my work from largely derivative to unique and meaningful. My voice, not another’s, is expressed. This is what makes the work unique and meaningful. Painting in a series allows both my voice and technique to mature. This particular series, which now numbers twenty-five works, will continue for many years to come and will end only when I have nothing more to say about it. - KAC June 2012

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Paradigms and Purposes

Occam's Razor
watercolor on paper
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS
prints and cards are available,
see link above
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

Chapter 2: Paradigms and purposes

Moving right along at my present pace, which seems to match that of a snail, I’ll tackle Chapter 2. The opening sentence is a real attention grabber: contemporary artists who create work using blood, urine, maggots, and plastic surgery are successors of past artists who took sex, violence, and war as their subjects. Really? Is the correlation actually that close?

Freeland needs to find a theory that applies to these works. In this chapter, she devotes the next five sections to five periods in art ranging from fifth-century BCE Athens to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box in 1964. Here’s a very brief synopsis of the evolution of “what is art?” according to Freeland:

1.      Greeks – art is an imitation of nature or of human life and action, including tragedy.

2.      Chartres and medieval aesthetics – art and Gothic cathedrals (the repository of art) must emulate the characteristic of beauty which is a property of God. The three key principles of  gothic cathedrals: proportion, light and allegory.

3.      Versailles and Kant – The Greek classical motif is revisited at Versailles in architecture, craftsmanship, and gardens. Kant emphasized the idea of “purposeviness without purpose.”

4.      Richard Wagner– his opera Parsifal celebrates suffering; the rebirth of the tragedy in art.

5.      Andy Warhol – his Brillo Boxdemonstrated that anything can be a work of art, given the right situation and theory. Art that embodies meaning becomes the new norm.

So, it appears that Warhol and his avid supporter, noted critic Arthur Danto, opened Pandora’s Box (although I might argue that Duchamp did it first). Most everything is art now, and most everything hangs in our museums of contemporary art.  Beauty is no longer required.

I’ve spent time reflecting upon this idea and can agree intellectually, but not emotionally. When I create art, no matter what the overarching concept for it, I still try to make it aesthetically pleasing. I’m enthralled with design and color. Yes, I begin with a concept and it’s not always a pleasing thought, but the art that expresses it is usually something beautiful to look at.

So, the question for me is not whether it’s art, but whether I want to paint it and look at it.

How about you?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What's your emotional range?

Book Review

Kirschhoff's First Law
watercolor 26" x 20"
Katharine A. Cartwright, NWS

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1: Conclusion
After presenting the case of Serrano and his precursor Goya, Freeland moves us toward concluding statements by pointing out that a lot of recent art work incorporates horror. I would agree. My trips to the galleries and museums of New York City gave me insight into this. Quite frankly, sometimes I understood it but mostly I wondered about the motivations of the artists.  It’s kind of like viewing Hollywood’s high-body-count movies (HBC’s).  After awhile you wonder what is the point?
So, this chapter in Freeland’s book interests me. She begins by trying to help us understand horror in art through the lenses of two competing theories:  1) art as communal ritual, and 2) aesthetic theory a la Kant and Hume.  The first theory doesn’t explain this trend, and the second only marginally.
Freeland writes: By pointing back to works of an important artist from the past, Goya, I have argued that contemporary ugly or shocking art like Serrano’s has clear precedents in the Western European canon. Art includes not just works of formal beauty to be enjoyed by people with ‘taste’, or works with beauty and uplifting moral messages, but also works that are ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content.
This means that Freeland will next discuss content. My favorite subject!
The questions I have for those of you who wish to comment are: What is your reaction to horror in works of art and do you incorporate it in your own work? Do you concern yourself with conveying feelings other than pleasant ones in your art? What is the emotional range of your self expression?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Goya - a precursor to Serrano?

Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 6:   Goya – a precursor?

Freeland moves us into a discussion – a “prequel” if you will – that gives us further insight into Serrano. She leads us into the past world of Francisco Goya y Lucientes (1746- 1828), a contemporary of Hume and Kant.
The official painter to the King of Spain, Goya’s life endured political upheavals and wars. His works sometimes showed it in battle scenes, symbolism through martyrs, slaughter, and so on. His work was confrontational. It wasn’t meant to provide a pleasant viewing experience, but rather to make a statement – to, at times, depict moral depravity.
He said of himself:  Censoring human errors and vices – although it seems the preserve of oratory and poetry – may also be a worthy object of painting.
Goya personally witnessed atrocities and he had a viewpoint to express about them.

Evidently, later in life, Goya became deaf after a serious illness. The aesthetic result of this was his “Black Paintings” which were painted on the walls of a room in his home. This is his most disturbing work (take a look at Saturn Devouring One of His Sons). Freeland writes of these works: It would be sheer dogma to deny that Goya has stopped being a good artist because such works are painful or because their moral point seems obscure.

So, this brings us back to Serrano and Lippard’s defense of his work (see last post). Both artists exhibit skill, training, thought, and careful preparation. So, I ask myself, does this make it art? Yes, I say. Does this make it “good” art? What’s “good” art???

And, what are your thoughts?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Defending Serrano

Andres Serrano
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 5:   Defending Serrano

OK, so we’ve discussed Serrano’s work on this blog before, but this time it’s worth revisiting. Art theory is one of those disciplines that sometimes seems like an intellectual cloud to me. The reason I began this blog several years ago was to understand art theory/art history a little better. I did this by reviewing books one section at a time and asking you readers to discuss them with me. You did a great job and I learned a lot! Those years were important to my present understanding. But, there’s always more to learn.

What I learned from you readers a while ago was how much most of you dislike Serrano’s work, particularly Piss Christ. So, what defense does Freeland offer for this work?
She cites critic Lucy Lippard who wrote an article in Art in America in 1990.  Lippard’s analysis  of Serrano is based upon (1) his work’s formal and material properties; (2) its content (the thought or meaning it expressed); and (3) its context, or place in the Western art tradition.

I’m in! These three criteria are the basis for defining art.

So, Piss Christ is actually a photograph (Cibachrome)  - a large one  (60”x40”) - made using Serrano’s own urine (that part doesn’t impress me). Lippard’s adjective-saturated description of this work makes it sound great and offers a somewhat palatable interpretation. It represents rebellion and transforms the iconic crucifix by placing it within a different context (urine).

OK, I’ll buy that as well.

But, as Lippard extends her argument to materials, I waiver a little. She claims that because Serrano’s cultural heritage is Honduran and Afro-Cuban, his Catholic beliefs include body fluids as a source of religious power and strength. I’m not Catholic, so I’ll have to take her word for it. So, she seems to think that the urine soaked crucifix represents the artist’s condemnation of the way that culture pays only lip service to a religion without truly endorsing its values. Really? Well, maybe.  Serrano did claim that his work denounced religious institutions that have been commercialized and cheapened and not the religion itself.

Maybe I can believe this. And maybe Lippard’s defense of Serrano’s work is pretty convincing, even if the work seems repulsive. But, who says art has to be attractive?

Next time, Freeland discusses Goya as Serrano’s precursor.

What are your thoughts?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Kant's Legacy

Holy Works
Andres Serrano
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 4:   Kant’s Legacy

Moving along, Freeland leads us into a discussion of Kant’s influence upon aesthetics and art theory, especially those offered by future art writers like Clive Bell, Edward Bullough, and Clement Greenberg. The viewpoints of all three overlapped with Kant’s ideas about aesthetics, but with a “twist.”

For instance, Bell felt that “Significant Form,” which is created through a particular combination of lines and colors, evokes our aesthetic emotions. He shunned the notion that art should address life or politics.

Bullough felt that you couldn’t experience art without “psychical distance.” He argued that sexual or political subjects tend to block aesthetic consciousness. I guess thinking isn’t allowed.

Greenberg (who advocated for Pollock) celebrated form as the quality through which a painting or sculpture refers to its medium and to its own conditions of creation.  In other words, don’t bother looking for content.

So, what is Kant’s legacy? The continued notion that art must be concerned with quality, morality, beauty and form. Of course, we know that isn’t the case. Look at the works of Serrano, Mapplethorpe, and others who express what repulses us. Their work is “art.”

Next time, Freeland writes in defense of Serrano.

What are your thoughts?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Beauty and Disinterestedness

Me at the Gaugin Museum in Tahiti
Book Review

Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Chapter 1, Section 3:   Beauty and Disinterestedness

Last time, Freeland left us with this cliffhanger:  Kant’s way of recognizing this [e.g. our ability to see beauty in an object] was to say that something beautiful has ‘purposiveness without a purpose.’”

In this third section of Chapter 1, she explains. We tend to assign “beauty” to an object that elicits pleasure within us rather than because of its functionality. And, we think that everyone should agree with our assessment. This is Kant’s “purposiveness.” He felt that the purpose of something was distinctly different from the pleasurable sensations it illicits, and that in order to appreciate beauty we must be disinterested in the purpose of the object.

For instance, according to Kant, my judgment of beauty in – let’s say – an apple would be contaminated if I ate the apple. I would need to limit my appreciation to viewing and maybe touching and smelling to derive pleasure, but not to the use of the apple which would be consumption.

Freeland uses a couple more examples to explain this point:

If a viewer responds to Botticelli’s “Venus” with an erotic desire, as if she is a pinup, he is actually not appreciating her for her beauty. And if someone enjoys looking at a Gauguin painting of Tahiti while fantasizing about going on vacation there, then they no longer have an aesthetic relation to its beauty.

Kant also believed that making beautiful art requires human genius: the special ability to manipulate materials so that they create harmony of faculties causing viewers to respond with distanced enjoyment.”

So, beauty is appreciated when we’re detached from (disinterested in) the purpose of an object and feel only an emotional response that satisfies our imagination and intellect.

I understand Kant’s viewpoint but don’t completely agree. I think that all the senses (including the taste of something) help us to define beauty, and that the functionality of something can be beautiful. In mathematics and science we often talk of “elegant solutions.” They are beautiful. Buckminster Fuller once said:  When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

What are your thoughts?
In the next section of Chapter 1, Freeland discusses Kant’s legacy. How did his philosophy affect society’s view of art and what artist’s produce?