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Saturday, December 31, 2011

What Makes a Masterful Painting?

There's an argument as old as painting itself, an argument I've heard hundreds of times defended from opposing points of view: What makes a masterful painting?

Ann Feldman, a portrait painter teaching at Mainstreet Art Centre near Chicago, asked me to talk about the subject.  When I began putting my thoughts together, I realized how far-reaching a topic it is.  This could go on for the length of a two-volume book.

As I write this, I'm listening to guitarist Sharon Isbin masterfully playing "Wild Mountain Thyme."  It's a haunting yet simple little tune.  I've heard it played so badly I wanted to scream, I've heard it rendered with such mediocrity I'd stop listening and I've heard it played with so much improvisation the tune itself became insignificant.  But Sharon Isbin plays it masterfully.

What Isbin does with "Wild Mountain Thyme" on guitar is no different than what a master painter does with a brush, paint and canvas.  My stance is that a masterful painting requires the same degree of skill, competence, authority and knowledge called for by an olympic figure skater, a concert violinist or a champion baseball player.   A painting by artist Clyde Aspevig reflects the same degree of competence as a performance by figure skater Brian Boitano, violinist Itzhak Perlman or baseball player Chipper Jones.

Clyde Aspevig

Brian Boitano                  Itzhak Perlman                 Chipper Jones
But I am convinced that thousands develop competence, but few among them become masters.  It's only when one can learn to relax within one's competence that real mastery emerges.  Look at this masterful painting by Clyde Aspevig, then if you have time, look at these videos showing Brian Boitana and Itzhak Perlman each giving a masterful performance.

Clyde Aspevig      OIl on canvas     "Prairie Shadows"

Brian Boitano performing "Music of the Night:

Itzhak Perlman performing "Ronde des Lutins" by Bazzini

A masterful performance in any genre happens when verse becomes poetry, when scores become music, when form becomes discovery.  It happens when the artist becomes so comfortable in the craft that he or she can move beyond technique into pure expression while fully utilizing the technique.  It happens when the craft becomes the means, not the goal.  Mastery can never come from an attitude of "look what I can do," rather from an intention of "where can I go next?"

Mastery is possible at any level during the process of developing one's craft.  It's not something that happens at the end of one's development:  one does not study for years, then become a master. That's not how it works.  Mozart was composing at age five.  Michelangelo created "Madonna of the Stairs" at age seventeen.

Michalangelo  "Madonna of the Stairs"   Marble Relief  Circa 1491
But neither Mozart nor Michelangelo stopped learning.  In fact, the more competent each became, the more each saw to be discovered within his chosen craft.  And even though Mozart died young and Michelangelo lived into old age, at the end of each of their lives, neither felt he had done much beyond scratch the surface.  That's the attitude of a master.   

One characteristic I've observed in a number of masters is playfulness and an openness to all possibilities.  Itzhak Perlman enjoys playing "Turkey In the Straw" with as much zest as he does a Chopin mazurka.   Charles Schulz scribbled on envelops.  Leonardo experimented with wax on "The Last Supper."  There is a childlike humility that can find expression and joy within the most simple of subjects and there's an innocence from awe of the most honored.

Ann asked me the question:  "What divides the truly great from the excellent?"  I think it's the degree to which the artist is willing to let go.  There's no question that mastery requires thousands of hours learning and developing the craft step-by-step, building one degree of skill on top of another,  processing what one discovers, experimenting with possibilities, internalizing the principles that make it work, discarding the superfluous, refining and building on what does work, revisiting what didn't work before--all this and more.  But I am convinced that within and during all these hours of involvement, it's the letting go that makes the difference.  It's when the potential master totally relaxes within and allows it all to work together that the truly great can become manifest.

Mastery can happen at any moment when the artist, the craft and the instrument become one. 
Note:  For a real treat watch

Sharon Isbin - Waltz by Agustin Barrios Mangore



Vinayak Deshmukh said...

Thank you for the lovely, insightful post. Each of your posts is so full of information and inspiration. Thank you so much.

Casey Klahn said...

This is a very fine post, Dianne. You have certainly opened my eyes to some things I never thought of regarding mastery.

One thing I noticed with Aspevig's painting is the apparent ease that the landscape moves away into the aerial perspective. Perfection comes to mind.

vickiandrandyrossart said...

Thanks Dianne! Very well presented, and I re-posted on MyArtTutor's Tips 'n Tricks Facebook group!

Ann said...

Thank you Dianne, for these wonderful insights. I'll be thinking quite a lot about the concept of relaxation and letting go in the future. Such a wonderful concept, and so well written.

And a very Happy New Year to you. I'll look forward to many more intriguing posts in the coming year!

Dianne Mize said...

Vinayak, Casey and Vicki. Thanks for your comments and Vicki, for linking me to your Facebook group.

And Ann, thank you for suggesting this topic. I confess the process of putting the discussion together was enlightening for me as well. Perhaps a book some year.

Meanwhile, I am humbled by the response I continue to enjoy to these tutorials.

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