The Laws of Nature

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


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??


Carolyn Abrams said...

I never really considered a background in this way and probably never will again. This concept sheds a whole new light on backgrounds and negative shape for me both physically and conceptually. Interesting!!

-Don said...

This is a great conversation with just the right blend of practical painting theory and practical philosophical theory. I think I'll stay a passive reader on this one and digest all the wonderful nuggets you laid out for us today. Thank you.


hw (hallie) farber said...

I felt I understood what Henri was saying about backgrounds only because I've studied David Leffel's book, "An Artist Teaches."

Now you have added another layer to what I read and thought.

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn - thanks so much for lending me your copy of Henri's book! I'm enjoying it.

Hi Don - you're welcome :-)

Hi Hallie - I haven't read Leffel's book; another one for my list. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I read your post this morning and have now read it again this night. I like how you and Henri intertwine in your discussion the idea of a background being multi-layered. It is not only the tangible background but the intangible background. Very interesting.

Stan Kurth said...

Still doing a background check. New series may reveal something.

Unknown said...

Hi Pam - thank you; I try to look for the layers of meaning when I read.

Hi Stan - your new series is wonderful!

Dan Kent said...

I love your dialogue - at times it seemed like an argument.
"You should do this with your background."
"But I gotta be me!"
"You should do that with your background."
"But I gotta be me!"
"You should do that other thing."
"But I gotta be me!"

Backgrounds have always been annoying to me (in real paintings, that is.) Something to be done. When I read your post, I ran to the bookstore to get the book. Unfortunately they didn't have it.

RH Carpenter said...

"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." What you said here was the most important aspect of this post, for me. That space can cause great joy or great disappointment when we see the finished piece. I think I'm trying to narrow that space so that what lies between intention and final output is more true, more narrow, less likely to cause disappointment. Thanks so much for the post!!

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - I love your summary!! Fun. Hopefully, you can find a copy of the book soon. It's a good one.

Hi Rhonda - thanks for commenting on my ramblings. That one, in particular, I've been thinking about for a long time and, like you, trying to remediate.

Casey Klahn said...

For myself, since I am wandering into the figure genre, this is food for the soul regarding backgrounds. I'm glad you approached it this way, as Henri was a little too dense for me.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - as I read Henri's book, I must make it relevant to my time and practice. That takes a little doing, but some of his messages are timeless. Thanks!

Mark Sheeky said...

Your gorgeous Cavitation in your future post, which was coincidentally about the future, shows that foreground and background sometimes don't even exist!

Unknown said...

Hi Mark - yes, that was an interesting challenge that I set up for myself. Thanks!