Making a painting

Robert Ryman

Mix 20% Cobalt Blue with 80% Titanium White and spread the mixture, 2 ounces at a time, in a circular motion onto your canvas. Make sure that every second swirl leaves a trace of the brush imprint for an impasto effect. Then, using the flat side of your fan brush…

Kidding… I cringe when I talk to my non art friends and they rave about Bob Ross as a certified genius in the art of painting. “Could you paint like that?” I am sometimes asked and the honest answer is probably not and I’m glad for it. I don’t want to diminish the entertainment value that a Bob Ross offers but the equivalent parallel might be to read the Da Vinci Code and exclaim “that’s how you write a timeless, historical novel about Leonardo Da Vinci!” I’m not really interested in showing too much of my bias on one or the other and what I am interested in is explaining a deeper process of how to make a painting beyond a simple technical A+B=C.

First, there are no rules to making paintings. Centuries ago, the refrain might have been different as there was a more linear process to follow that dictated the aesthetic norms that artist needed to perform under. Today, the world of art has few boundaries left and we can quibble about the relative desirability of being absolutely free to do what you want but the reality is that you are free to do what you want. Remembering that limitation are our friends, in the world of painting it does us good to also remember that it is a visual art first, second and last. Too often painters, whether through insecurity or other reasons, drape their artwork with layer after layer of “deep” meaning to prop up an image that suffers a lack of visual clarity. What results is a piece that generally feels insincere and leads the viewer to insecurity as well. I think art is supposed to challenge you when you experience it but if it only offers an intense challenge and your not up to the task, what then? Do we challenge our audience because we care to have a dialogue or because we want to show how smart and skilled we are?

As painters, we are visual communicators and as such, design, color and concept need to marry in some balanced way if a painting is going to be effective. That doesn’t mean you follow the traditions in lock step and can’t challenge those traditional notions of image making. Looking at the last century of art, we see it is built on a foundation of questioning tradition. The concern in wanting to make painting something that it’s not is put eloquently by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being when he states (paraphrased) outside of the extremes you find only death. I liken it to spoken language in that if you are constantly shouting at the top of your lungs or whispering inaudibly, you will be pressed to find an interested audience to listen to your extreme utterances. Death? Maybe so if you want to communicate with someone. A similar thing can happen in painting if you step too far away from the visual phenomena that drives our inspiration to paint. Look at the intellectually driven work of minimalists such as Robert Ryman and you see pure white canvases balanced only by an intellectual idea of painting at an extreme of a singular note; white. Do they work? Sure! Do they hold your interest and grab your soul? Maybe, but the pathway to your soul in this case is from an intellectual starting point. What if you don’t possess the knowledge of art history when looking at those white canvases? Do they stimulate your visual sense without that intellectual backing? They might but they might not. The super extremes get boring pretty fast as most life happens somewhere in the middle of black and white. Just as life out of balance poses trouble so too can a painting process out of balance be difficult to reconcile. Do you stretch your boundaries? Absolutely. Do you recognize when you’ve gone past a boundary and acknowledge the risks? I would suggest so.

You want to recognize that painting is a language. Within that language there are elements of vocabulary that in some cases are more common to everyone and there are some elements that not everyone shares. An intellectual understanding of art history for example, is a kind of vocabulary element that you are free to use understanding that not everyone might have that same knowledge. Artists have historically referenced other artists throughout art history, typically in painting by borrowing concepts, compositions, color relationships, figure poses, etc. Objective viewers don’t always pick up on this referencing and if you base too much of your work on that association it might fall flat in the eyes of those who don’t share your knowledge. If you decide to speak using only big words that no one else knows is that effective communication? It might be if your intent is to challenge someone to look up those words and the risk you run is fewer will want to listen.

What we do share in common is our eyesight and our ability to perceive black, white and color relationships designed on the page. There is no mystery that Renaissance artists strove to get their work closer and closer to nature using these tools. Acknowledging nature and our eyesight’s kinship with it are fundamental issues to painting and if you use these elements as a starting place you stand a better chance for success. Color and design are the building blocks for our interpretation of nature and often, in wanting paintings to speak more loudly they become misplaced in lieu of reaching for more “profound” meaning or association. I suggest that profundity comes from simplicity and honesty and at its most honest a painting speaks visually with color and design first, second and last. This doesn’t mean you paint naturalistically or abstractly or intellectually or mindlessly but that you humbly remember what painting is; colored mud organized into shapes of color and design.

What about concept? You have all these vocabulary elements (and there are many more than I haven’t listed) but what do you say and how do you say it? This is where things are truly open and free. Almost any idea is fertile ground to create a visual image. The challenge is balancing idea and execution and in a way it is an organic dance between the two. Sometimes, you are thinking and questioning the intent you have for a painting, maybe as simple as showing light on a form or as complex as talking about world history. When you are actually putting paint to canvas you trust the thinking that has gone before and in a bit of trial and error results. Put one color next to the other and see how they look together. When the thinking side gets too heavy it helps to focus on the task at hand, cerulean blue plus burnt sienna and a little white make that luminous gray you’re after and so on. When you can’t make sense of the colors and forms you are struggling with, you fall back to your concept and see if the color and design relationships you are creating speak clearly about your idea. To throw a wrench in the process, you might not even start with a clear idea and through the process of painting something emerges from the fog and you acknowledge and adopt it. In caution, I think holding onto either the idea or the execution too tightly without room for discovery results in a static piece. The magic happens when you are forced to step a little outside your comfort zone and dip your toe into uncertainty. In the end, you do your best to keep all the variables straight and hope you’ve gotten close to your intent.

Making paintings is a funny, weird process, a bit like life.

Comments 2

  1. Deb wrote:

    Sometimes I think I certainly can become really attached to the idea of a piece, and then get frustrated when it emerges some other way into the real world upon execution, i used to just trash that work, because it wasn’t “right”, but I had a great teacher at UB in the sculpture dept. who encouraged me to trust my making instincts as much as my brain ones, it made my work better to just allow myself to get lost in the process sometimes and not worry about what would come out the other end, I like very time consuming process so its good to just let the end result go a little, and settle into the work with faith, it doesn’t always work out, but when it does, wow I’m glad my brain got out of the way!!

    Posted 22 Jan 2008 at 11:38 pm
  2. Joyce wrote:

    I love to begin with a combination of an object or scene that I like to look at and then blend in my feelings about it and then try to get the colors and shapes to bring about what I am trying to say. I really like what Jason wrote about how painting is a language. I feel that I need to work at art to help me speak my truth!

    Posted 11 Feb 2008 at 12:24 pm

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