The Laws of Nature

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Ideas & Technique

The roses in Central Park by my house are in full bloom now, so I thought I'd share them with you. They're a good reminder that no matter how busy we are, we should take the time to "stop and smell the roses." I've been doing that every day!

Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

We've reached the next to last chapter in this book, and it looks like we'll be finishing up by the week's end and then move on to something new. Chapter VIII "Conceptual Worlds" is packed with important ideas that require careful consideration, so I'll begin with the first section on "Ideas & Techniques."

This section opens with a zinger: Writer Henry James once proposed three questions your could productively put to an artist's work:

What was the artist trying to achieve?
Did he/she succeed?
Was it worth doing?

As viewers, we can only guess at the answer to the first two questions because only the artist knows what he/she was trying to achieve and if the outcome was successful. However, it's a good learning tool to try and figure it out. Providing an answer to the third question is impossible, in my opinion, because we can't determine "worth." If I apply this question to my own body of work I'd say that every painting I've ever done was worth doing because it helped me grow and laid the foundation for future work.

But, the authors have a bigger point to make: Provocative art challenges not only the viewer, but also its maker. Art that falls short often does so not because the artist failed to meet the challenge, but because there was never a challenge there in the first place. I completely agree with this statement. Before I begin a series of paintings I set up three challenges for myself: 1) develop an original concept for the series, 2) develop an original way to express that concept, and 3) master a new medium or technique while painting the series. As you can see, the challenges I devise are based both on ideas and technique.

Artists who need ongoing reassurance that they're on the right track routinely seek out challenges that offer the clear goals and measurable feedback - which is to say, technical challenges. The underlying problem with this is not that the pursuit of technical excellence is wrong, exactly, but simply that making it the primary goal puts the cart before the horse. We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than anyone else. We remember those who made the art from which the "rules" inevitably follow. (p. 95)

How many times have you seen work that's technically perfect - demonstrates virtuosity - but lacks content? It has nothing to say other than the fact that the painter has gained mastery over technique. The work fascinates us for a little while and then becomes boring. Is that all? Did the artist have nothing to say?? Personally, I think that artists who worry more about technique than content are doing themselves a disservice. Why agonize over creating perfect work and suppress your own voice at the same time? It makes no sense to me. The most fascinating aspect of artwork is looking at the world through the artist's mind and eyes: seeing what he/she feels. We want to connect at an emotional level with the artist.

Simply put, art that deals with ideas is more interesting than art that deals with technique.

This is the first principle that I teach in my painting workshops. We can't begin to paint until we have an idea of what to paint. And, the what must be important to the artist.

Your thoughts?


Carolyn Abrams said...

Yes, yes and Yes. I can attest to the difference in making art for arts sake and then creating art from which my voice speaks. Definitely more rich, more creative, more everything!

Thank you all for your many comments on my new work. I appreciate the encouragement...and this from someone with no academic training but someone who just plain had the passion and the desire....and of course Kathy as a mentor, teacher and friend!!

Anonymous said...

Lovely photo Kathy! Gorgeous roses- just gorgeous.
The line you wrote that says it all for me is: "We want to connect at an emotional level with the artist." It's hard to connect with perfection- perhaps I can appreciate it as you say- but I can't truly connect to it. Thanks for the reminder.
Carolyn- your passion is evident!

Celeste Bergin said...

When I was a young adult in the 70's I saw a photo- real painting that I've never forgotten in all these years. The subject was a door latch and I was so confounded by it I wanted to touch it just to see if it was really a painting or an actual door latch. (I didn't, of course, but I sure wanted to!) But that was the last photo-real painting that ever "swept me away". I love most art...but photo-real leaves me cold...probably because of what you've written about here...too much emphasis on technique and too little on "heart". I am in love with outdoor (plein air) painting for it's authenticity. No matter if my painting comes out appealing or not..the painting usually carries the feeling of the day. That's my "goal".

Unknown said...

Hi Carolyn - You've definitely found your "voice" in art and it's wonderful to witness the way in which you're developing it!

Hi Pam - good point. I can't connect with perfection, either!

Hi Celeste - I agree with you about photo-realism. It seems to me if that if an artist just wants to exactly copy a photograph, then he/she should take a picture and leave it at that!

hw (hallie) farber said...

I agree that art that deals with ideas is more interesting--probably why I like seeing a title when I'm looking at art.

-Don said...

One of these days I hope to find something interesting enough for me to do a series about... ;-)

I love Pam's comment, "It's hard to connect with perfection." Excuse the pun, but it's perfect!


Sharmon Davidson said...

I think that many people, including beginning students, are often taken in by art that is technically proficient, without really thinking about content or message. It's easy for a student to be overly impressed by technical skills they don't yet possess.
When I was working on my BFA, I had a painting professor (one of the good ones) who said that students become distracted by technique. Coincidentally, there was a woman in our class who had almost no technical skill, and I'm ashamed to say that most of us thought she wouldn't make it through the program. She had been in a mental institution for years, and painted with about the same level of proficiency as a fifth-grader. Ironically, by the end of the semester, she had developed her own very personal expressive style, full of emotion and rich in meaning. Everyone was floored. The technique still wasn't there, but the content was. And her work was a hundred times more interesting than that of someone who spent years working to paint with extreme photo-realistic technique. Just goes ta show ya.

Dan Kent said...

I was surprised to see that with each series you are to learn a new medium or technique. This, to me, is very bold and very exciting.

To everyone else I say "ditto", because I too have seen many boring though proficient artists. Voice is everything.

Unknown said...

Hi Hallie - I agree: "untitled" isn't very interesting.

Hi Don - you've painted an amazing series!!

Hi Sharmon - a perfect anecdote for this discussion. Thank you!

Unknown said...

Hi Dan - for me, it's really a matter of creating a difficult challenge just to see if I can do it. And, if I do, I get lots of satisfaction from it and it advances my artmaking a great deal. If I don't meet the challenge, then I try something else. In art, we're our own boss so we set our own standards. My boss is impossible!!

Elizabeth Seaver said...

Doesn't that bit about technical mastery with no content go back to the title of the book? It's very scary to put pieces of yourself out there for others to take potshots at, right?

But the key is that if it is "real" and in your own unique voice, even if someone doesn't like it or want to own it, it must command respect for its authenticity.

Thanks so much for your visits to my blog, Kathy. I really appreciate your comments.

Stan Kurth said...

technique |tekˈnēk|
a way of carrying out a particular task, esp. the execution or performance of an artistic work or a scientific procedure.
• skill or ability in a particular field : he has excellent technique | [in sing. ] an established athlete with a very good technique.
• a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something : tape recording is a good technique for evaluating our own communications.

We all paint illusions. It's pigment for crying-out-loud, that we smear around on a surface. That in itself is a clue to what painting is about. Some paintings convey ideas, some are pretty pictures and some are both. There must be a semblance of technical ability as well as great content, a marriage of the two.

Unknown said...

Hi Elizabeth - yes, it is sometimes intimidating to expose our art to what could be ruthless criticism and misunderstanding. However, I've learned to develop a thick skin to that over time since, as you say, my work is authentic. Thanks for making that important point!

Hi Stan - yes, of course, the two must be married and a painting without technical skill hampers the expression of content. Conversely, technical skill without content is emotionally vacant. As you say, both are necessary.

Eva said...

I often paint a tight realistic painting just to prove to myself that I still can and for those who think all abstract painters can't. However they rarely have the emotional content, or intrigue for me that my creative and abstract work has. With that said a Vermeer or a Rembrandt will always hold a sacred place in my soul. My eyes never tire of them.

Unknown said...

Hi Eva - I think that Rembrandt and Vermeer are very expressive and evoke strong feelings from their viewers. That's because they didn't paint like contemporary photo-realists. They edited and made content-rich work. The same can be said of Wyeth who was unfairly criticized during the 60's-70's for vacuous realism. Just isn't so.

Casey Klahn said...

Wow! Great reading these comments. Very illuminating.

You've said something well, here, Kathy. I have seen art that is technically perfect, but it seems to lack that certain something. OTOH, I often question myself and wonder if I'd get more patronage if I were to add that extra amount of realism to my work (which I am fairly capable of). I can take comfort that Matisse struggled with the same problems all of his life.

"Distracted by technique." I like that.

Unknown said...

Hi Casey - the worst thing you could do would be to alter the way you make art for the purpose of appealing to the general public. Don't do it! Stay true to yourself and your vision. It's more important than technique and the only true way to be authentic in artmaking.

Kelley Carey MacDonald said...

I think I wanted,in the begining of my career, to be ABLE to paint supre-realistically. With education and growth of my own art, I have grown to feel that simply being ABLE to make something look 'real' can still leave you with a dry and empty painting.

But I struggle with 'having something to say', because many times what I have to 'say' is just "Wow, look at this (view, still life object, figure), this is so interesting to me!" I don't have a 'message', or anger, or issues, just love for the visual world, expressed in my own way.... is that off of what you're saying?

Unknown said...

Hi Kelly - thank you for joining our conversation! I can fully appreciate what you're saying. I think the point is creative authenticity. If you're expressing what you genuinely feel in the way that best represents who you are, then your work is authentic. The problem with photorealistic paintings, in my opnion, is that the main goal is technique and the voice of the artist is lost. So, the work is empty - devoid of content.