A Painting is Not Just a Picture
– Part 1
What Makes Art ‘Good’?
As I mentioned before, what constitutes as ‘good’ art is a very subjective topic. One could spend their whole life reading and writing about it. That’s why we have art critics. Art is both a visual and intellectual aesthetic.
So it is an oversimplification to call this good and that bad. It means you actually haven’t paid any attention. You need parameters. And all reactions to art are inherently biased.
You might like this piece, or hate that one, or feel nothing about another. It’s difficult to give merit or fault something based on subjective feelings.
But Cezanne says:
“A work of art that does not begin in emotion, is not art”
All I know, is what I like and what I don’t like; what moves me, and what doesn’t. And nobody could tell me I’m right or wrong. Although, through them educating me, I might appreciate or understand an artwork better.
And likewise, I could never convince my wife, say, how marvelous is the abstract impressionism of Spencer Gore, or Pierre Bonnard. To her they look like children’s paintings. (*sigh)
I don’t think any period or art revolution was a digression in any way. I think all trends are necessary and part of the evolutionary process.
Bo Bartlett, the American Realist painter says:
“Art is meant to wake us up!”
There is a place for representational as well as for abstraction. All art is really abstract in any case. We can all tell the difference between reality and a painting.
But eventually art trends stagnate and the Zeitgeist changes. And it seems to happen in cycles, where a new wave cleanses the old.
For the past hundred years or so, since ‘Modern Art’ developed a distaste for anything representational, and turned more to abstract and non-objective art, much of the skill and knowledge of the Old Master methods was lost.
I’ve heard so many sad stories of students and lecturers at most fine art universities across the world being unable to paint or draw to save their lives. It just isn’t really taught anymore. And the amount of debt these poor students land in is staggering — just to be able to cut out collages with a pair of scissors, call found objects art, dress up and hang installations, and basically learn to bullshit.
But what we call ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ art, in the style that we associate with it today, is really outdated.
It sounds weird to say ‘post-contemporary’ since if you’re reading this, you are in the present and therefore contemporary. And explaining the ‘Post-Contemporary’ Movement is a bit beyond the scope of this post.
But suffice it to say that artists are once again concerned with the quality and the meaning of their work, and are drawing on the traditional knowledge of the Old Masters to take contemporary art forward.
There is a resurgence of representational art. In this age of information sharing, it’s much easier to gain access to the ‘lost’ knowledge of the Old Masters — from Cimabue to Delacroix — and the techniques and the materials that they used.
But good art is more than just technical brilliance. And it can be more than just vapid decoration. It is saying something.
The Travails of Painting
A painting is an act of love. It’s the breath of the artist in every stroke.
It takes a great deal of patience and concentration to see a painting through.
Art is damn hard work. There seems to be this prevailing view that being an artist means not having a ‘real’ job; that painting for 8 to 12 hours a day is just spending too much time on a hobby.
But I’m grateful to be a full-time artist. It may be difficult, but it is very fulfilling.
Art is a lifelong pursuit and often a very lonely journey. Artists spend long hours alone in the studio, mastering their craft over many, many years. And there’s never any guarantee that they’ll be a financial success.
Artists have to be extremely driven individuals. And they are driven by more than wanting to make money from their craft. They want to be the best.
When I paint my best, I do so in the hope that it’ll inspire someone else to give of their best creatively too.
There’s no skiving or short cuts when you’re an artist. They have to be self-starters. They are basically entrepreneurs who are running a business.
So the next time you see a painting that you like, don’t bother asking the question every artist hates — “How long did it take you to paint this?”
Yes, the painting may have taken a month, or about 40 to 50 hours. But what about all the years of study and practice, experimenting, screw ups, and break-throughs it took to get to this point which has materialised as a painting.
My wife tells me though, that I should be more patient, and that, that is how non-artists try to engage with the artist. It’s always important to listen to your wife!
They say it takes a brave soul to begin. But usually, I find, the painting begins before I’ve realised it. There’s no sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. The inspiration usually only happens when I’m nearing the end of the painting, and I start seeing things that I never could have guessed at.
Then it’s time for the next painting, where hopefully I’ll be able to realise and bring into existence what inspired me in the former.
An oil painting on canvas is more than just layers of pigments and materials. For me, paint has a kind of magical quality; the pigments and oils are like the ingredients of the alchemists. And as imbued with history and mystique.
And the artist’s knowledge of his/her materials and the way they react physically and chemically is just as important as developing technical skill.