Monday, January 11, 2016

Who are My Historic Influences?

The more I sit and paint in my studio the more I wonder where I fit in the great flow of art history.  I wonder where my thoughts come from, who has thought them before, who has been at this place before me and able to help me understand the next step?  I have been reading Herbert Read's book on Modern Painting. He basically covers from Cezanne to the early 1950's, approximately seventy years of painting.  I like this book because it only covers painting, not architecture or sculpture or other arts or crafts.  Being focused, the book gives a good overview of developments over those decades going from a discipline that was fairly consistent and organized for the previous hundred years to an artform that exploded into a myriad of approaches and styles.

What are the lessons from the past that have resonated with me?

First, I start with Cezanne.  There were two main organizing thoughts that came out of Cezanne (1860's - 1906), one inspired Picasso and sent him down the road of Cubism, while the other inspired Matisse and sent him down the road of color and pattern.  Prior to Cezanne, the art world was conservative and dominated by academies that taught a subscribed way to make art.  First, an artist would create a composition using classical techniques of composition based on geometric shapes and moving the eye throughout the canvas. Then they would make an under-painting in a neutral color, capturing the values of a painting.  Then the artist would build layers of glazes over the under-painting in order to capture color and create atmosphere and light.  This often would involve changing a color by glazing a complimentary color over it. The compositions of paintings prior to Cezanne were very reliant on values, darks and lights, to be successful.  Cezanne thought why do all this layering, why not create a color and then just put it on the canvas. If you need a dark shadow, why not just mix a blue and put it on the canvas with one layer of paint?  When you need a highlight on an orange, mix a sunny light orange color on your palette and paint it on the canvas in one layer.  Now this is a bit simplified, and it sounds as if Cezanne was a bit lazy, but this wasn't the case.  What Cezanne really wanted was the painting to work because the colors of the composition worked.  He did not want the painting to rely on value.  Blues have certain qualities, as do reds and yellows, and greens, etc.  Cezanne used the qualities of the colors to make his compositions and sense of space work.

Second, Picasso had a few periods early in his career where he was consistent in how he painted.  These are called his blue and his rose periods.  But after these periods, most people think that he began Cubism, did that for several years creating different types of Cubism and then went on to Surrealism, and Expressionism, etc.  But in actuality, after his early periods he painted a variety of styles all the time.  He was simply experimenting continually.  Art history has come along and categorized his work into different schools of thought, but his thoughts were anything but categorized.  He would wake up and paint a Cubist painting one day, and the next day he would wake up and make a Surrealist painting, etc.  Yes, there was progression in what he was doing, but the work was not slotted into styles and he simply was pushing the envelope wherever and whenever he could.  He really was quite amazing at taking a simple concept from Cezanne and then running with it to many extremes.

Why do these two ideas resonate with me? First, I have been creating watercolors for many years and have not been painting with oils.  In the last two years, I have built a studio space where I can make oil paintings again.  As I wonder who has been through my situation before me, I look to these two ideas for guidance in my next steps.  First, let the color do the work. Traditional watercolor painting, and especially the botanical genre that I was engaged in, is very value oriented.  With my oil paintings, I want the colors do the work and not rely so much on value.  Secondly, I don't want to stop experimenting and learning.  I know that galleries like to have artists with a distinctive style so they can market that work to their clients.  But I never have been in this game to produce product as much as to explore ideas and techniques.  I want to move forward in a manner that does not censor my own explorations and discoveries.  I believe that if you are doing good work, no matter the style, people will respond to it.  After all, there are a million styles and ways of painting out there that are selling.  If I am not learning something new when I am painting I am not enjoying it and it shows.  The only art that isn't going to sell, no matter what, is uninteresting art.

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