Reflections on Enlightenment

April 1st, 2017

I particularly enjoyed teaching my Continuing Watercolor classes this spring.  The small class size of dedicated students meant that we could closely focus on each student’s needs and development goals.  It was very satisfying to me, as an instructor, to observe my students’ advancement and their grasp and implementation of the concepts I presented.

Unlike the pattern of most of my classes, instead of actually painting during the class, my Continuing Watercolor students all asked to spend the bulk of class time observing as I painted and applied the precepts I’d just presented to them.  They preferred to work on their own, outside of class, and to review and discuss their work at the subsequent class session.  Although it surprised me at first that they didn’t want to work in class where I could respond to their questions as they arose (as I have done with beginning students), this alternate approach has worked well for this group of students.

I expect that the limited class time placed them under an uncomfortable sense of pressure, which was removed when they could work at their leisure.  But I also came to realize that they appreciated and learned from the ongoing commentary as I talked through my thought process and decision-making while painting a demonstration piece.  Their immediate feedback in the form of questions and correlations encouraged further discussion.  Critiquing their work during the following class session integrated opportunities to review and reinforce the previous week’s lesson while transitioning into the new lesson.

The change in approach benefited me, as well, because it forced me to think through and explain my reasoning.  This not only enlightened the students but reinforced the lesson in my own mind.  Because, like it or not, when we become too familiar with certain principles, we often tend to overlook or undervalue them. The old adage that familiarity breeds contempt may be overstating the case, but we do have a tendency to under-appreciate those things we are overly confident that we understand.  So these classroom demos helped my own work, as well, by reminding me of fundamental lessons and clarifying the why’s as well as the how’s throughout the multi-faceted decision-making process.

Concerning “Concept”

March 15th, 2017

A painting’s concept needs to be considered from two directions and with two separate purposes in mind. The first is the artist’s purpose, which helps to focus the painting, unify it, and help it accomplish what the artist is trying to express.  The second is from the viewer’s perspective, not only in trying to ascertain the artist’s purpose but also (and this is entirely personal and individual and may or may not conform to the artist’s actual intent) what the painting suggests to that viewer.

My own feeling about the importance of “concept” is that an artist must have a concrete purpose to know how to effectively “say” anything through his/her work. Although a certain amount of ambiguity can add interest to a work, the more ambiguous a concept is, the greater the risk the artist takes that the viewer will not understand or appreciate what the artist is attempting to express. So it can be a challenge to find the right balance of precision and “looseness” to keep the concept clear but the execution interesting.

170108w---Bouganvilla-SprayThere are many types of concept that can be expressed through art—not only aesthetic (the conceptual category of “Bouganvilla Spray,” above), but narrative, descriptive, emotional, and so on, which often overlap. These are general categories of concepts, which may be broken down into more specific concepts (for instance, the plant’s gem-like translucence, in the case of “Bouganvilla Spray”).  Whether or not a viewer’s assessment of the artist’s concept is “accurate” is largely immaterial; the purpose of trying to identify it is to make us think more deeply about what drove the artist’s decision-making throughout the creation process.  The recognition and interpretation of many  concepts rely heavily on the viewer’s background and experiences, which will never align perfectly with those of the artist.

This means that the artist’s job should usually be more to evoke a response from the viewer than to recreate a specific experienceThe viewer‘s responsibility is more in assessing his/her personal response to the painting.  If the viewer interprets it according to the artist’s intent, most of us would agree that the artist has succeeded.  But in many cases, we can never know exactly whether that conceptual assessment is accurate; we can only guess. 

(This is not to say that successful expression of concept necessarily equates to technical mastery–it does not!  After all, a child’s expressing, and the viewer’s understanding, of the descriptive concept of “family” can be successfully accomplished with very simple and imprecise stick figures.)

Staying “True”

March 1st, 2017

Normally, when we speak of staying “true,” we are speaking of loyalty, integrity, faithfulness, maintaining an undeviating route.  But, convenient as it would be to be able to say that “truth is truth; period,” it is subject to interpretation and context.

What does it mean in art?

Staying true to the subject may mean depicting an image in such a way as to show its “it-ness,” recognizable characteristics of that specific subject.  This is often applied to the extent of illuminating flaws as well as the beauties of the subject, both of which are dependent, of course, on the artist’s view and understanding of the subject.

Or “staying true” may mean something as simple as keeping lines straight, unsullied, and accurately angled, or paints matched perfectly to the colors they represent (whether strictly local or influenced by light, shadow, and reflected hues).

Or, again, “staying true” may mean handling the composition in any way that successfully expresses the artist’s conceptual intent, whatever that may be, whether representative or non-representational.

"Safe Harbor" (#170206w, watercolor, 8"x10") by Charlotte Mertz

“Safe Harbor” (#170206w, watercolor, 8″x10″) by Charlotte Mertz

Although representational art relies heavily on maintaining the “it-ness” of its subject, the conceptual meaning is the one that justifies the “painterly” approach of using loose brushwork, suggestion, and lost and found edges in expressive artwork.  It also justifies abstraction, as an artist explores various aspects of light, color, line, and texture and their relationships to one another within a composition.

This  conceptual meaning is what appears to me to be what individualizes a work and makes it, in the fullest sense, “art.”

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.