The Laws of Nature

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