The Laws of Nature

Monday, March 1, 2010

Your Portrait or Mine?

Wayne Thiebaud

Art Without Compromise by Wendy Richmond
Chapter 3: "Life Support"
section 5: "Your Portrait or Mine?"

I prefer to get to the point of this section of Richmond's book rather than wander through all aspects of it because there's something profound here about how we artists produce our work. The question "Your Portrait or Mine?" refers to a project she assigned to students of the Harvard Graduate School of Education that involved creating expressive portraits. These students faced the problem of how to exert artistic control when confronted with the challenge of representing their subject's view while expressing their own as artists. And, due to the complexity of the project, they faced even greater challenges that are related in the book.

When I read Richmond's thoughts about this project and the difficulties that her students encountered, my mind began to race from the text to personal experience. Maintaining artistic control in portraiture can be difficult since representing the subject requires the ability to create a particular likeness while revealing the subject's personality. However, the artist always views the subject through her own lens, which automatically imposes other qualities upon the subject. This is what brings authenticity to the work. Since I'm not much of a portrait painter, I'll extend this notion to all subjects.

To me, artistic control means that the artist speaks in his/her own voice, and if that voice is repressed then the work isn't authentic. So, I began to think about what makes us relinquish artistic control; things like paying too much attention to the opinions of others, lack of confidence in one's own voice or ability, trying to satisfy the marketplace instead of self-expression, and so on. And, once we've been hijacked, how difficult is it to regain control?

This ties in a bit with some of our earlier discussions about the importance of using our intuition when we work. Relying on our intuition to a certain extent gives us full control of artistic expression because it springs from our subconscious. It's a delicate balance, and in this section Richmond includes a great quotation from artist Wayne Thiebaud: When an artist or viewer feels involved in a work, they relate to that work as a living thing, with a sense of exhilaration and freshness of spirit. It is primarily an intuitive process that can give the work a life force. In contrast, finishing off demands an intellectual process, a neat tying together of things in a way we 'think' is correct." Thiebauld strives to forestall the absolute resolution of a work which can be dangerously close to the art of taxidermy, writes Richmond.

So, when I ponder the thematic question "Your portrait or mine?" I consider who's in control of my work and the importance of the intuitive process.

Your thoughts??


Stan Kurth said...

I do self portraits now and then (my avatar: "Self Portrait with Scarf & Tie") because I have the freedom. I can take the abuse. Creating art to me is not a matter of selling art, it's a matter of creating art. I want it exposed, but not at the cost of compromise. Quite honestly, in the last post I said I didn't collaborate. I meant collaboration in what I consider fine art of my own. I do however collaborate all the time with the advertising art that I do. And I feel compromised with it, but it pays the bills.

Wayne Thiebaud pushed it. Seems most of what you see of his are the "deli" paintings and ice cream cones and such (close to taxidermy, but oh so much more). I remember a series he did of San Francisco landscapes that exudes the creativity that Wendy is writing about. They for sure were not taxidermy, you knew exactly what they were and I for one sure could related to them as a "living thing". IMHO

hw (hallie) farber said...

I'm with Haig--"I'm in control here," and like Stan, I usually stick with self-portraits. I'm drawn to the not-pretty parts and am only comfortable doing that to myself.

Representing the subject's view would be tough.

Myrna Wacknov said...

Ah, a subject I am very familiar with. I used to do commissioned portraits. Interestingly, how one feels about the subject shows up in the final result. It is impossible to do a pleasing portrait of someone you dislike. I gave up commissioned work because there were too many people who felt they had a say in the finished piece and everyone sees someone in their own way. I cannot work worrying what someone else will think about it. My self portraits are about something other than a good likeness. Everyone seems to think portraits, even self portraits, are about flattery. That is the farthest thing from my thought process. I like it best when the viewer feels compelled to create a scenario to go with the image.

Unknown said...

Hi Stan - yes, the Thiebaud S.F. landscapes are fantastic! I agree with your assessment of them. Other than your avatar, I haven't seen your self portraits. Are they posted somewhere? Good thoughts ...

Hi Hallie - your self portraits are great!! Hope you keep doing them.

Hi Myrna - I was hoping you'd comment. You're the perfect example of someone who exerts total artistic control over portraiture. Your work is truly fantastic!

Stan Kurth said...

Oh and did I mention: Wayne Thiebaud also was born on the same day of the month as Georgia O'keefe and self. That's as close as I can come to any comparisons though.

Dan Kent said...

Well, I know a little something about intuition. When I begin painting I am thinking carefully about the colors, and things look nice and neat, pretty much like many folks out there. Then if things go right, something kicks in, and color starts being scattered about. And aside from leaning back a bit to see if it all seems balanced, I am relying pretty much on intuition and the picture is all the better for it. If I never get to that point, the picture, as Thiebaud said, might as well be dead and stuffed.

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M said...

It's nearing one o' clock and I should be in bed not reading blogs. Anything I type in response to this topic would be incoherent so I'll spare you.

I finally received my book today so I will be reading along and maybe ahead being the keener that I am. Some good chapters coming up.

Celeste Bergin said...

Wayne Thiebaud was a "commercial artist" prior to being a fine artist...and his work has always had the beautiful graphic quality. All of his work totally "lives". My portraits generally suffer from the everyone-looks-like-me syndrome. I seem to paint myself into so many of them. My self portraits have run the gamut of too pretty to very overly frumpy. I think only 25% of them "live".

-Don said...

Wow, this is a timely discussion on so many levels. First, I'm in a very similar boat as Pam, having just gone thru every piece of art I have ever created and kept - sorting, weeding, organizing and analyzing. (For now they will all stay tucked away. I don't have the time to photograph and catalog them - someday, maybe...)

Most of the portraits I've done have been self, and I almost always have infused some type of humor into them. I figure if people are going to laugh at me anyway, I might as well be the instigator of the joke. The only other victims of my portraiture in the past 20+ years have been my family. They get the 'love' treatment, and I think people react to them in just that way - they see the love.

When I'm creating for a client as a graphic designer I listen to their voice and soak in their inflections. I then create a piece using my interpretation of their voice which is infused with a strong helping of my dialect.

When I paint, I paint for me. Every decision comes from me. The voice you hear from my work is mine, and mine alone - although it has picked up many dialects throughout the years.

I like the last thought about Thiebauld striving to forestall absolute resolution. That is the very ideal I strive for when I paint. I like to have the viewer "finish" my work for me. It's my way of getting them into the conversation started by my voice.

OK, I'm out of voice analogies for now...


Unknown said...

Gee Stan, you were destined to be a great artist!!

Hi Dan - your paintings are always so lively and expressive, so your intuition is good!

Hi Pam - I'm truly saddened to learn of your mother's recent passing. Please accept my condolences, since I know this must be very difficult to deal with. The shedding of your quilting life is a strong response, and also difficult. I agree with your thoughts about examinng influences and finding your authentic self. To me, it's very important and a continual journey. Thank you for sharing this!

Hi Margaret - so glad your book arrived. I'll be starting Chapter 4 next. Get some sleep :-)

Hi Celeste - I have a book on Thiebaud that I read years ago, and thought it was very cool that he was able to utilize what he knew as a commercial artist and apply it to fine art. I like his work very much. I've seen some of your portraits and didn't realize that they contain elements of you in them. What I've seen looks great!

Hi Don - all great comments! In particular, your observation about allowing the viewer to finish your work is a good one. If the viewer is willing to invest in doing the work of finishing your work, then it's a success!!

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Unknown said...

Hi Pam - a tragedy, to be sure, but you've learned from it and are beating a path to new and wonderful ways! We're all rooting you on :-)