ART THOUGHTS EIGHT
The artist does not see things as they are, but as he is. ~Alfred Tonnelle
An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world. ~George Santayana
WHAT IS ARTQUEST? Many of us remember the joy we felt as a child, dancing exuberantly, drawing with excitement, or creating marvelously layered stories, but now that seem so far away. Of course, even if the creativity is still accessible, what about talent, skill and ideas? I will be posting a series of essays, each built upon the one before that I hope will help you recapture that early spark. Please read in order, starting at the introduction.
ESSAY EIGHT A DOG IS A DOG
If you were challenged to make a copy of a Springer Spaniel puppy’s photograph, many of us would throw up our hands in defeat. Even if we tried, we would soon see that it didn’t look enough like a spaniel (or perhaps even a dog) to allow a neutral observer to recognize it. Painful proof of our total lack of talent and ability.
Let’s look a bit closer. Imagine a dog training book with a beautiful, high-resolution photograph of the spaniel, in full color. Wow, it is so realistic, it looks as if it would jump out of the pages of the book and race around your living room. Of course if it did, it would be only three inches high (it’s a book illustration, remember)! It would feel like slick, coated paper, have no doggy smell, makes no sound, and if you turn it over to look at his other side, there is text telling you how to house-break your pet. It is not real; it has virtually no attributes of anything canine - it is an abstraction! Our culture has taught us to buy into a photograph’s reality, but it is no more a dog than a photo of a lavish dinner spread is nourishing.
If, all that you want is a graphic representation of a spaniel, by all means take a high-resolution photo. It will help identify the particular dog, and can also be utilized to distinguish a spaniel from a chow or a terrier, (and certainly from an elephant or a goldfish). It is not art, but it is convenient and helpful. The detail, proportion, and faithful reproduction of texture and color are a function of what cameras do. This is a skill that some artists and illustrators admire, and they are willing to put in the long hours of practice required to learn ‘photo realism.” In its highest form it is called “trompe l’Oeil” Check out: http://www.ericgrohemurals.com/projects.html
We are seduced by the “reality” that cameras portray, into thinking that they are real. They aren’t, and one of the challenges that a photographer (who also want to be an artist) faces, is to get past the seemingly real, to the underlying truth beneath, and to the unique and personal viewpoint and vision of the artist photographer. If you would like to see a wonderful example of a young photographer who has transcended the analytical eye of her camera and produces beautifully evocative, personal images of her landscape and her daughter, visit a Canadian blogger Suzana, http://www.flickr.com/photos/zama-zan/ Yes, they are technically quite good, but more importantly, her humanity, her vision and her soul are also part of each image.
If it is not reality that we are attempting, what is an artist suppose to portray? The answer is in the above paragraph – go past the real, to find the truth. If you want to recapture what a dog is all about, remember the wonderful times you and your dog used to have when you were a child, and give yourself permission to attempt to capture the frenzy, the color, the kinetic energy and love, warmth and excitement that those memories elicit. All art is abstraction, not reality, and you are free to represent your own imagination in any short hand set of shapes, colors and textures that you wish.
I’d like to leave you with some thoughts before the next posting:
SEEKING THE CORRECT ANSWER IS NOT AT ALL LIKE SPECULATING ABOUT THE QUESTIONS UNASKED.
WONDERING PROVIDES INSIGHT UNDREAMED OF BY KNOWING.
TRY LOOKING BEHIND, UNDERNEATH OR NEXT TO WHAT IS TRYING TO ATTRACT YOUR ATTENTION.
THE PERSON WHO IS LOST OFTEN DISCOVERS MORE THAN THE PERSON WHO KNOWS WHERE SHE IS.
A CORRECT ANSWER PROVIDES CLOSURE, BUT FOR THE ARTIST, NOT KNOWING THE ANSWER CAN OPEN NEW VISTAS.
Please leave your comments, criticisms or suggestions. Thanks!
ART THOUGHTS SEVEN
A premise that runs throughout all of my essays concerns being childlike. We are mistaken if we feel that our quest to become artists lies in adult sophistication and mature worldliness.
In an essay about Leonard Bernstein:
“In childhood, Bernstein was an omnivorous consumer of music, blissfully unaware of the distinctions between high and low, elite and pop. He happily took in Gilbert and Sullivan, Yiddish folk songs, Beethoven symphonies, Chopin nocturnes, jazz, bel-canto opera, dissonant modernism, and more or less everything else. Children tend to listen this way – they solemnly chant commercial jingles, and dance giddily to Bach.”
Alex Ross, December 2008.
To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams.
ESSAY SEVEN – Cave Shadows
Back in the sixties and seventies, a clever catch phrase of the counterculture was, “Reality is a Crutch”. The underlying idea professed to be that you shouldn’t concern yourself with the real world, whatever that was, but to sort of, “Tune In, Turn on and Drop Out”. Supposedly, the world of your parents, the schools, the bosses or the establishment wasn’t worth considering, (too rigid, too uptight, too boring) and the “only reality” was what you created inside of your own head - a head-trip. Of course, if you partook of a few ingested chemicals, that certainly helped the process.
While the inner world of imagination, dreams, spirituality and memory is a potent and vital source for the artist, it certainly isn’t a “better” place than the world of the everyday, nor is it a place to hide and withdraw from the everyday. Our real life interacts with “reality” in too many ways to view it as a negative or frightening place. In addition, our real life is the source for a great deal of inspiration, as we shall discover in later essays.
It has been my experience, that a fear of reality is also what keeps many potential artists from taking those first few daring steps into expressing themselves artistically, whether visually, through writing, acting, dance or music. While our own inner world certainly holds an allure, many are concerned that “everyone else is so normal” that there is danger in looking inward. The outside world is safe, but people who live in their inner world “are weird.”
Part of this dilemma is in presenting this as “The Real (outside) World” and the “Imaginary (inner) World”. Maybe we would be better served if we referred to the real world as the “commonly familiar world” – the world that we all perceive in a somewhat similar framework. We can all look over there and agree that the object is a tree,
While an artist must be able to inhabit both levels of existence, maybe we ought to first question this whole concept of a reality that is knowable at all.
In the previous essay, I utilized the analogy of the butterfly, but now I would like to present a second analogy; one that is several thousand years old, and is often called Plato’s analogy of the cave. The Greek philosopher Plato presented this narrative to point out the unknowable nature of reality, and it will serve us well as a metaphor for the difficulties artists face in their attempts to give substance to ideas.
Plato imagines a man, sitting in the mouth of a shallow cave, facing inward and looking at the back wall of the cave‘s chamber. Directly behind him, just outside of the cave opening is a ledge, and then a drop-off to the base of the cliff many feet below. At the bottom of the cliff is a very large bonfire, leaping and swirling high in the air, up past the cave opening and illuminating the inside of the cave with its flickering light and no doubt warming the man’s back.
As the man sits with his back to the cave mouth, all that is real in the world passes behind him on the ledge. Trees, dogs, truth, love, humans and every other noun. As these “REAL” objects pass by on the ledge, the shadows of these realities are cast onto the back wall of the cave by the dancing flames. Just as the flames are constantly swirling, the shadows stretch and twist - now large, now small, giving an ever-changing shape to that which is real. Because the man cannot turn around, all that he sees are projected shadows of that which is real, but the shadows are constantly changing, and he is unable to tell which projections are accurate and which are distortions. He can see the shadows, and he knows they are projections, and he even knows that upon occasion, the shadow he sees may well be an accurate representation; he just cannot know which is which.
As an artist, we face a similar frustration when we try to make a representation of that which has no real form - our ideas and our dreams. It is a reversal of the cave analogy, as we are attempting a projection of formlessness (our mind image) into form (a picture, a dance or a poem), but the end result is just as daunting. We know there is something important that we are trying to convey, and we know we have tried hard to convey it, but we often feel we have been unsuccessful. We look at the finished product, and because it is not a complete success, we brand it a failure.
Plato is saying that we cannot know reality. All we will ever be aware of is a flickering, distorted projection, and therefore, we must do the best we can. It is not an excuse for not doing, but rather a catalyst to go forward and to not be stuck trying to know what cannot be known, or to realistically portray that which has no real form. A theologian might point out that just because we cannot achieve the perfection of God, that is not an excuse for giving up and making no effort to live a better and more perfect “God like” life. We will be measured by how hard we strive, not by a comparison to perfection.
A bit more on this subject in the next essay. Please let me know your thoughts.
Any great work of art... revives and readapts time and space, and the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world - the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air. ~Leonard Bernstein, What Makes Opera Grand?
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. ~Aristotle
ESSAY SIX the Butterfly Hunt
“Well, if all of us have wonderful ideas already, and we don’t need to seek elsewhere for inspiration, why do I sit there blankly when I try to draw, or write or compose? Am I just a dud or do I have permanent art block?” The short answer? No, none of the above. Maybe you’re just looking in the wrong direction.
To help me illustrate what I am proposing, I would like to present two analogies. The first will concern butterflies, and second, in the next essay, will involve sitting in your cave.
TO CAPTURE YOUR MIND’S BUTTERFLY.
For this exercise to have its full impact, I ask that you not only read the words, but also participate in the suggested exercises. It will help to have a drawing pad and some colored pencils, pastels or crayons. No drawing skill required, and you don’t have to show anyone your efforts!
Get in a comfortable position.
Imagine that you are reclining in a grassy field, in the late spring. It is pleasantly warm, and you are dreamily looking up, and see a beautiful butterfly hovering several feet above your head. There is a very gentle breeze blowing, and some of the grasses and spring wild flowers are barely waving and nodding, almost in time with the quiet movements of the butterfly. The sun is behind the butterfly, and some of the light seems to be coming through its wings and through the flower petals, making them glow with an iridescent radiance. At this point, stop reading and spend about two minutes (or more) visualizing this scene. Enjoy it. You certainly may add anything else to the picture that seems to make it more complete. When you are done appreciating your creation, open your eyes and read the next italicized set of instructions. DO NOT READ ON unless you are determined not to do the exercise.
Following are some exercises, but they will not mean as much if you did not try the visualization exercise above. It’s not too late to do it now before reading further.
Your next step will be to try to translate this wonderful, image into something more concrete. Read the following questions and then return to your visualization for the answers. Do not answer the questions from memory or make up answers.
On the butterfly’s left wing, what is the color on the upper left corner?
How many petals are there on the flower nearest to the butterfly?
Sketch the exact shape of the butterfly’s right wing.
Close your eyes and recapture the scene, and try to find the answers to the above questions. Do not read further until you have made the effort to transfer your image to paper.
For most people, this exercise is frustrating. There is no problem coming up with the beautiful image in your mind’s eye - it flows easily and is rewarding to do. It matters little whether your “dream image” was exactly as described or quite different - it is not the image that causes a problem. The good news: that image is an idea, and ideas are plentiful. You can form them whenever you give yourself permission, and their subject matter is everywhere.
For many people, the difficulty lies in attempting to take that gauzy, ephemeral dreamlike projection of your mind, and force it into a concrete form. As soon as you look at the top of the left wing and try and ascertain specifically what color is there (and what shape it is and what percent of the wing it occupies and what specific color is adjacent to it...) the hazy wonder of the image seems to contract and to be far more difficult to visualize. For most people, it also stops being so wonderful and starts becoming a difficult task with visions of failure looming large. If the assignment had also been to completely capture that image, in full color, on a piece of paper or canvas, very few would feel that they had been successful.
There are two things to consider here. The first is that it was not the idea that caused the problem - that image was easy to visualize, and wonderful to contemplate. Although most people are afraid they are not artists because of a lack of ideas, that is rarely the problem - everyone has more than enough ideas (more on recognizing and validating them later). The problems faced here were technical skills in implementing the idea - you were not able (or afraid you were not able which is even more threatening) to put on paper what you saw in your head. If there was failure, it was in your perceived technical ability, not imagination or vision, and the important thing to remember about skill is that it is learnable and will always show improvement if you do one thing - practice.
But there is a second issue to consider, and in reality, it cancels out the concern about your ability (or lack of) mentioned in the preceding paragraph. If you were frustrated in transferring your wonderful dream image into something concrete and substantive, it had nothing to do with your ability to “see” that color in the wing or even the precise shape of the cloud in the sky. You assumed that because your idea was wonderful, and you could picture it in your mind, it became necessary to literally transfer that idea onto the paper. Anything less would be failure. You made the common assumption that being an artist meant that you had to be able to almost take a digital photograph of your dreams.
What you attempted probably can’t be done (not by you, not by anyone). Even if you could do it, you would have accomplished nothing, because what made your dream image wonderful had nothing to do with the specific color of the wing, but rather with the impact, the image had on your awareness. Your image was wonderful because you created wonder in yourself, and that was the quality you should be translating. The reason “seeing” that particular color was so difficult may well be that that particular color was really unimportant to the vision. It may well be that it was the SHIFTING colors of the wing that held you in thrall, or perhaps the blurring haze of the flowers nodding in the breeze. It might have been the light or the warmth on your face from the sun, it might have been the memories that you superimposed over the scene from a vacation, a time with a lover or from your childhood. It might even had nothing at all to do with the butterfly, and your pleasure may well have resulted from the satisfaction of being allowed to dream. Any of the elements listed are what art is all about, and it has nothing to de with how well you are able to render insects. Unless you are commissioned to illustrate a field guide to butterflies of North America, art is hardly ever all about the literal subject matter.
The message here is simple; if you are trying to portray an abstraction (and ideas are abstractions), you must portray them abstractly. As soon as specific subject matter takes the place of symbolism and idea, you are thinking more like a camera and less like an artist. In the case of the butterfly image, perhaps we should have tried to portray our emotional response to the scene SYMBOLICALLY, rather than literally. What colors make you think of warm? What shapes make you feel tranquil? What objects make you think of being eight years old and Grandmas house? What are the colors, smells and tactile sensations of your lover? How blurred or sharp edged should your images be.
If you were to visit Africa and fall in love with the herds of Springbok and Wildebeest thundering across the Veldt at noon, going to the zoo and seeing one Springbok standing in a cement pen would hardly convey the same feelings. In a literal sense, it is a perfect “copy” of what you saw in Africa (a Springbok is a Springbok), but as art, it would be a failure. Perhaps the image you needed to produce while contemplating the butterfly would not contain a representation of a butterfly at all, but some other abstraction of what you felt. Subject matter is flexible and certainly not sacred, but images are.
These two points are important to remember, because they directly affect your perceptions of yourself as an artist. If you are not pleased with your results, it is important to differentiate between a “failure of idea” and a failure of technique and skill.” Ideas are what make you an artist, while proficiency and ability are learned activities - proficiency in any skill is a function of practice. If you want to hone and perfect your skill, why then practice the skill. It is that simple.
It is equally important to differentiate between idea and subject matter. If your goal is to practice your skill by making detailed sketches of an oak tree, it is well and good to evaluate your progress by comparing your efforts to the “real” tree. However, if your goal is to capture a mood, an impression, a feeling or a emotion, you should be evaluating the symbolic or abstract qualities of your image, and allow the subject matter to be a separate issue.
What an artist has to offer, herself as well as the world, is not another drawing of a cat or a story about Mary’s love life, but an insight as to what cats (and Mary) are all about, and how they inhabit a person’s inner world.
If you have comments, insights or reactions (positive or negative) to my posts, I would enjoy reading them. E-mail or comments acceptable. firstname.lastname@example.org