The changing role of “acuity” in art

February 15th, 2017

Historically, art was the only means of recording images.  So, as I see it, through innumerable generations, in the absence of photographic imagery, artists were undoubtedly relied upon to produce representative impressions of their subject as accurately as possible.  This art often depicted or recalled stories of various types to a largely illiterate populace, providing iconic images in lieu of written communication.  It also served to portray individuals for other viewers at a geographical or chronological distance from the subject, or served as representative statements of an individual’s or a family’s culture or wealth.

The degrees of “accuracy” and “representation” varied greatly, according to cultural expectations of the time and the purpose of the specific images.  These were often influenced by the perceived importance of various aspects of the subject as much as by cultural expectations drawn from preceding works and cross-cultural influences.  Paint was expensive and precious, having, until the 19th Century, been created manually from hand-ground pigments, so was typically applied in thin, smooth layers on any of a variety of grounds. What remained largely unchanged was the importance of artistic acuity—awareness of what was important to express through a work.

As photography became more widespread, and paints started to be mass-produced, artists began to feel liberated to apply their artistic vision in more expressive ways.  As there seemed suddenly to be fewer constraints, a looser, more modern art came into being.  This change from a long-existing norm became generally apparent in the mid-19th Century, with the developing Impressionist movement.

Artists began to play with concepts of impression and expression more than abiding by the strict interpretation of “accuracy” or literal representation of their subjects. The artists’ acuity changed focus—to whatever aspects of art cried out to them for investigation or exploration.  Among various other approaches, artists experimented with the concept that the visual impression of a hue could be achieved through optical (as opposed to physical) mixing of other hues.  Some began to recognize that even roughly suggested shapes with minimal detail could be inferred as specific objects.  Thick, loosely applied paint didn’t need to be smoothed down and refined but could be allowed to lie as it fell in thick, irregularly applied patches of pigment, as an extension and expression of the artist’s emotional state.

Since then, innumerable additional artistic movements and approaches have developed, with much attention being paid, during the 20th Century, to the many varied approaches to abstraction.  Much abstract work did not attempt to be representative.  And even representative painting was often based on abstract or semi-abstract design.  Artists’ acuity had turned from focusing on specific subject matter to the abstract elements of composition.

Today, representative painting runs a gamut. At one end of the spectrum is thoughtfully conceived, refined, and polished work, relying on the artist’s acuity, like that of the classic painters, toward what the image should express to its viewers.  Farther along the spectrum is a looser handling of the subject (often referred to as a “painterly” approach) that both relies on the artist’s acuity about what specific aspects of the subject should be featured and trusts in the viewer’s acuity to discern the artist’s general concept and to apply a more personalized interpretation to the image.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, it appears to me that artists seem to be abandoning a quest for any acuity at all, leaving (perhaps even in their own minds) an un-identified and unrealized concept open entirely to the viewer’s interpretation.

My Teaching Philosophy, part 3: On artistic principles

February 1st, 2017

It is important for serious students of art to understand basic artistic principles.  The more of those principles we understand, the easier it becomes to optimize our own work, no matter what medium we use.  And the greater appreciation we gain for the mastery of great artists we might otherwise overlook.

Although I do try to incorporate and discuss many of the principles in my classes, in conjunction with lessons on watercolor technique and during our subsequent coaching sessions, I can’t cover them all.  The spectrum of artistic principles is far too broad to allow me to cover everything comprehensively in the few short class sessions that I teach in our community every winter.

A brief overview of the principles applying specifically to artistic composition is available in my ebook, Elements of Great Composition: A Quick Reference for Photographers and Other Visual Artists.  Needless to say, there are many additional principles besides these that need to be learned, regarding use of color, creating the illusion of form, perspective, and so on.

Final-EGC-Cover-(small)Any self-taught artist who is serious about improving his or her work and learning to appreciate the finer aspects of art in general, would do well to seek out a comprehensive course that goes beyond the “tips” offered by many popular teachers for using a specific medium.  It should provide both a firm foundation of artistic principles and at least an overview of the development of various artistic styles throughout history.   I used the Virtual Art Academy, an online, self-paced course, to fill this gap in my own belated artistic education.  It is just such a comprehensive program, and I have found the training invaluable for my own artistic development.

My point is that, as artists, we should be continually seeking out opportunities to learn many different aspects of art.  These will gradually coalesce and contribute to a personal style by providing us more tools and information from which to draw as we strive to express our unique artistic vision.

As you settle into 2017 and envision the year unfolding ahead of you, challenge yourself to seek out some form of continuing education to both reinforce and extend your current understanding and level of mastery in whatever area your creative passions may be.

My Teaching Philosophy, part 2: The risk of teaching stylistic methods

January 15th, 2017

It’s probably safe to say that an artist who is confident enough in his own skills to teach others has most likely developed certain stylistic methods.  Not only do these methods feel comfortable to her, but (presumably) they have served her purposes well.  Because these methods feel “natural,” it’s easy for an artist/teacher to assume that they will feel natural to others and be as successful for them.  But there is a danger in this assumption because it’s rarely true.

Eye of the Moon (#110805w)

Eye of the Moon (#110805w)

What the teacher may overlook is that these methods suit a specific style, which derive from not only mastery of a medium and understanding of artistic principles but from the artist’s internal vision of what she wants to express and how she wants to affect her audience.  No two artists will share exactly the same vision or purpose.  This means that their approaches to the medium will differ, and their implementation of the principles may be quite divergent, as well.

So it’s unwise to impose stylistic methods on other artists.

Yet we can certainly learn from one another, gleaning ideas for methods that can be adapted to suit our own styles. 

So there’s nothing wrong with offering alternative approaches to solving compositional problems or suggestions for alternative methods of paint application, so long as we don’t expect others to do everything exactly our way or emulate our style.  Instead, these alternatives should be offered primarily for purposes of adaptation to suit each artist’s individual conceptual needs.

My Teaching Philosophy, part 1: Teaching techniques

January 1st, 2017

As we enter the new year and I look forward to another opportunity to teach, I am reminded that lessons I teach must be clearly focused.  As a working artist, there is a strong temptation to try to cover too much ground too quickly, and even to influence beginning artists inappropriately to adopt certain stylistic methods before students have had a chance to discover their own style.

Aside from art history, the study of painting includes technique (handling of a specific medium and the implements used to apply and control it), artistic principles (how optimal results can be achieved through design, color, and use of the medium), and development of style (the method of integrating techniques and principles in a way that expresses the artist’s unique vision and concept).

A related and overlapping form of teaching is that of coaching, which is less structured while (optimally) encouraging and guiding the student’s efforts, offering constructive critiques, suggestions, guidance, and alternatives to be explored.

My beginning watercolor classes focus on technique.  This allows beginners to learn what to expect from the paper as well as the paints, how water and pigments interact with one another, how flow can be encouraged or controlled, how edges can be adjusted to create specific effects, how differently shaped brushes can be manipulated to achieve a variety of marks, and so on.  munsell-colors-croppedThrough a series of exercises students begin to develop confidence in their knowledge and understanding of the medium and in their control over its application.  They learn how to avoid or minimize common difficulties that arise, and how to respond when the paint doesn’t behave quite as they originally intended.  This increasing confidence allows them the freedom to play and enjoy their further exploratory efforts as they continue to learn. img_1666-croppedFollowing the instruction portion of each class I also incorporate individualized coaching while students are applying the lesson.  I feel that this is an important component of teaching to help my students develop independence and self-confidence as their artistic understanding and skills increase.

New Season Classes

December 15th, 2016

This month I’m looking ahead and preparing lesson plans for the classes I’ve committed to teach in the new year.

These “Snowbird Season” classes, taught at the Verandah Community in Fort Myers, FL, will include both a beginners’ 6-session series, beginning January 10, and a subsequent 6-class “continuing” series, beginning February 21. The second series will be for both students from the first sessions who wish to continue and for others who already have some background in watercolor who would like to pursue their interest further.

Milky Way Over the Bay (#160802w)

Milky Way Over the Bay (#160802w)

I always enjoy introducing new painters to the mysteries of watercolor painting. And I also find it gratifying to be able to encourage and guide more advanced artists to explore the possibilities that watercolor provides. Not only do I invariably make new friends, but the very nature of our classwork means that we have a common interest and creative drive. This means that we generate a special kind of excitement and motivation to advance beyond our current skill levels.

We all learn from one another’s efforts. Yes, I continue to learn, too, as we discuss strategies to produce the best possible work, analyze the cause of specific problems, and figure out how to overcome or at least minimize them and, preferably, avoid them altogether in future paintings.

Whether or not you are close enough to join one of my classes, I encourage the artist or art connoisseur in you to find or form an association with at least one other person with whom you can discuss your views and insights. It doesn’t matter if you use or appreciate the same medium. The fact that you mutually strive to visualize the world through artistic eyes with the goal of expressing or enhancing your vision of it will stimulate your continuing development and pleasure.

But most of all, whether you’re creating your own or appreciating others’ artwork, have fun, and share the joy!

I wish you a safe and satisfying holiday season and a happy and healthy new year.