How painters create art from the world they see
People often ask me what it is that compels me to paint flowers. Usually I reply by saying how I love their complex forms, the beautiful colours, and their slightly randomised symmetry. I might mention how their brief flowering can remind us of our own fleeting existence like some beautiful memento mori. However, recently I have realised that sometimes people aren’t aware of something that is so completely obvious to me as a painter that I don’t even mention it. This is that the flower is only a starting point, a structure from which the painting hangs, an entry into a world of shapes and colours which trigger feelings in those sensitive to the language of paint.
Perhaps an analogy I might use is to talk of the famous piece of music ‘Clair de lune’, or ‘light of the moon’ by Debussy. Millions of people have enjoyed this piece, and perhaps when they listen to it they think what an appropriate title it is; but really the music has nothing to do with the moon in actuality. Perhaps the music is analogous to the feelings one gets as one gazes up at the moon on a clear night, but really the piece is comprised of the non-literal language of music, and it is this that creates an emotional response in the listener.
What people don’t often realise is that this same language exists in paintings, a visual language which triggers emotions, running parallel with, and complementing the literal – or ‘the subject matter’ of the painting.
We all use our eyes to read the world about us, just to get by and carry on with our lives, negotiating our way round the objects our eyes present to us. For many people that is where it stops. These people might only understand painting as a representation of the physical world. For example they are unable to understand the point of a completely abstract painting. They are unable to feel the language of paint.
But people have a greater or lesser ability to react emotionally to visual stimuli. They have some degree of sensitivity to the language of colour and form. For example, those who spend much time thinking about their appearance , choosing clothes, or decorating their houses are developing their visual language. These people will be more sensitive to the emotive powers of shape and colour in paintings too. This is a good thing, we all benefit if people think more about how the world looks, because those people make the world look better for us all!
Even in a ‘realistic’ painting (or ‘representational as artists call it), it is the hidden language of its abstract shapes and colours that bring a painting to life. It is their interaction that hold a painting together. For most of the hundreds of hours an artist may spend creating a painting, he will be thinking about how to make the painting stronger, simpler, better organised, and more direct. There will be many skirmishes to try and solve problems to achieve a unity and harmony in the work. This is the visual language painters have to learn.
Content and context may come at the very beginning, but an artist spends nearly all his time trying to turn his subject matter to poetry; a journey which is only finished when the last brush stroke has been laid to his satisfaction.
What most people might not realise is that the world is not particularly beautiful in a pictorial sense very often either. Any photographer will know how difficult it is to take a good photograph. As the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs a year is a good crop”. One reason for this is the world does not often present itself as a very ordered or pretty picture. Ansel Adams was one of the great photographers who completely re- created his photographs during the exhaustive development process.
Much more than a photographer like Adams , a painter’s time is taken in organising his painting into a harmonious whole. He has many more tools at his disposal. He might take things out, or simplify his painting. What you don’t see you don’t notice. Quite often he will change the shapes of his objects to improve linear harmony, in order to make the painting flow better. Repetition is a good way to unify an image; this can be repetition of forms, or just uniformity in brush strokes, which can tie disparate components in a painting together. Certainly a realistic painting is a lot more than mere copying, and good painting has always been more than a mere illustration of the world.
During the latter part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century some painters moved away from academic or classical painting. Artists discovered new ways to paint, gradually working towards pure abstraction, from Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, and through many other art movements to Abstract Expressionism in the fifties. Painting had finally reached the point where music had been since time immemorial, a pure emotive art form removed from a figurative context. A purely abstract painting is like a piece of music without words; and unlike a figurative painting, which is more like a song, with a story to go with it. There are enough analogies one can draw between painting and music for a whole other essay.
But if you are one of those people who just doesn’t get abstract, next time you see one, if you look at it quietly, gaze at the colours and shapes without judgement, spend time and try to enjoy them. Think of it as a piece of music or birdsong, who knows what may come into your mind and what pleasure you may get.
The best artists have always been aware of the abstract aspect of painted shapes, and in consequence their abilities to trigger feelings, long before abstract art became a genre. Monet who really was a great painter, always said he tried to forget what he was painting and just look at the shapes and colours in front of him.
The best way to learn a language is to use it, and so artists probably understand the language of paint better than non-artists, BUT we can all enjoy paintings and develop our understanding of its language by looking at more paintings, and keeping an open mind.
For my own part, after drawing and painting consistently for 50 years, I continue to learn more than ever, and it is this fascination with the language of paint, that can be so frustrating sometimes, and yet so captivating and satisfying at others. This is what provides me with the will to keep on painting.