Three years ago I sent myself to a life drawing/painting intensive because I wanted to be able to execute portraits well. What I gained from the experience was a completely new perspective of art that I had never experienced before.
I had very little arts education. I was given the paint and the glue and the brushes and paper and charcoal and all manner of tools to create art with. But I was never taught how to use them. Not well anyway. I never learned how to use the materials and I certainly never learned what had been done before me to capitalize upon.
Now I certainly was taught some things. My college art history classes were a torrent of memorizing dates and time periods. But there was little time spent exploring technique, artists and their contributions. In fact I was so confused and disenchanted with the course that I wrote a paper entitled “Art is Dead”.
I was required to take ONE drawing course in college. I also took a course on color in which we, well, used color. My time in the college art department felt like someone said – “Well in this class we’ll be using color. So do whatever you want that involves color” or “In this class we’ll be drawing. Draw.” And while simply drawing and playing with color have their place and are beneficial, this sort of instruction is not educational. It certainly doesn’t smack of higher education to me.
Imagine if physicists or architects were treated to the same sort of education. Instead they are treated to in depth exploration in which the history of what has come before them is discussed in detail. The knowledge that has been discovered, techniques, ideas, hypotheses, the math, the vocabulary, etc. I also studied business and believe me, the courses were much more challenging and abundant with facts and figures and truths.
Art students seem to be expected to simply “express themselves” within the very loose confines of a course. Instead of learning painting techniques based on various historical precedents, I was told to “paint”. While I painted with oils for the 4 years I attended university, I never once learned how to use them. And maybe I was supposed to have figured that out before hand or on my own. But I doubt that would be expected in Biology.
I think it is very unfortunate that some schools are so flippant with their art degrees. And maybe this was just my own experience. But I have talked to many others with similar stories.
So when I decided to revisit my education 3 years ago it was something that I’d been craving for a long time. I knew that there was more and that I had missed something in my arts background. And holy moly did I find it.
What I was introduced to is ancient art knowledge. It is art making that has been happening since the first men recorded dying buffalo on walls. It is observation. It is seeing. It is recording the world through my eyes.
The techniques used to do this have changed throughout the years, but essentially since the beginning humans have observed and recorded their surroundings. The Greeks did it exceptionally well.
When Rome fell and Christianity gained a foothold, it became somewhere between forbidden and frowned upon to make images of realistic humans. Depictions became distorted in slight or extreme ways. Around this time Islam pushed into what is modern day Europe, also forbidding any recording or imitation of god’s creations. So for a great deal of time, certain skills slipped into the background.
In the Renaissance and later the Neoclassical eras observation coupled with skilled recording came back in full swing.
But here’s the thing – art, all of it, is abstract. After all we cannot possibly capture the precise reality of a moment. My simply looking at the object of my still life distorts the object. Then my attempt to record the object distorts it. Even photography abstracts the moment. So people played with this notion and pushed it and pushed it. And some of them stopped looking and turned inward for expression. So things changed, as they do and new art forms were born. And skills perhaps were seen as secondary.
Historically you’ll find that most artists known for their expressionist and deeply abstract work are well educated in drawing and painting techniques. They have learned the basics and from that place been able to make new choices as to how to use the materials. They built from and distorted what they knew. I get the impression that this foundation is no longer an expectation.
I stopped painting highly abstracted work because I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no foundation that I was working from. And the work was fine. I sold it. People loved it. But, it wasn’t enough. I knew and I know I can do better.
Here are some reasons why I am currently only painting from life:
First of all I absolutely love it. The hours I spend in meditation and communion with an orange or flower are beautiful. I would meditate all day if I didn’t have other tasks to do. To sit and truly see and appreciate what I am looking at for what it is is absolutely magical. This is primarily why I paint from life.
I see painting from life as practicing to quiet the ego and still the mind. Instead of freely giving into reactionary feelings (anger, red, drip paint, swoosh, push, pull, screams, cries, splash, somber, purple), I am quieting the mind, breathing in and out, staying in the present moment and carefully being with my surroundings. This is a practice I see taught nationwide. It surprises me that people don’t see the association of their yoga or meditation practice with my own. This is the same practice.
Then, I am eager to attune my senses to realities that work and are true. I look at my past work and see shapes and shadows that even in an abstracted figure don’t work. And having this understanding is what I believe will take my work to a new level of expression. Because even in the wildest abstraction, something based in reality will sing more truly, more vividly. I met a man who sells abstractions in Santa Fe. They look like wild landscapes with deep layers and pockets of earthen colors. Every single line he draws is the outline of a figure from life drawing.
If you were to speak with classical teachers they will tell you that we are painting light. Not flowers or figures. Light. I am seeking to capture the play of the one thing that we truly see. Without it we would see no colors or transitions or separation. The light is all we see.
I don’t know what to make of all of this yet. I only know that right now I am dedicated to following in the footsteps of so many who simply sought to record their experience on this planet. And for now that means practicing my skills and communing with lemons.