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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Musings about a Master Artist

American painter Richard Schmid has an intuitive eye for design. Those of us who know Richard's work never tire of viewing the same painting every day of our lives, no matter which one it is.  What is that quality in a master artist?  
Take the painting above, for example.  It's more than just beautiful, although beauty is undeniably present.  It's not just technique even though Schmid is a technical master, but so are others whose work can seem lifeless.  Neither is it his decades of training and experience.  It's much more and I think Schmid himself gives us a few clues in his own words.
From his book, Alla Prima II, he says this to his readers: 
"When choosing your subjects, never worry about greatness or significance or your place in history. Let your subject come from within you and be an honest act of sharing."
Later on he says:
"You are the sum of your choices.  Your job then is to make sure your ideas about what to paint are not wholly based upon either the acceptable or the taboo, but arise instead from what honestly fascinates and stirs you....your task is to get in touch with yourself.  Find out what moves you, what you believe in, and what you truly understand about life."
Perhaps THAT's why Richard's paintings always sing.  They come from his authentic voice.

Working Rules Rather than Following Them

We've been taught that 2x2=4.  But that's not all the story:  2x2=1+3 as well. 2x2 also equals 5-9 and 24/6.  It's a matter of how you think about it.  It's attitude.  To insist that 2x2 is always 4 is to hold a restrictive and resistant attitude.  The same is true for principles of composition.
To resist learning composing principles because they are too difficult to deal with or because you fear they will stifle your creativity is the same as declaring that 2x2 always equals 4.  But what if I told you that there's another way to look at it.  What if there is a way to work a principle rather than follow it.
Let's play with this idea.  Look at this J.M.W. Turner painting done in his early 20's. 
 Alum Bay, Isle of Wight     Joseph Mallord William Turner    1795
If Turner had looked at the scene as content for working a principle rather than images to paint, he might have switched his vision from the scene to an exercise in aerial perspective.  His intention then might have been how to keep images up close defined and in strong value contrast while allowing distant images to become less distinct and in close value contrast.   
We can extract that intention and apply it to a scene like this portion of Lake Erie. 
Rather than duplicate the scene, if we use it to find a way to keep images up close defined and in strong value contrast while allowing distant images to become less distinct and in close value range, we will have used aerial perspective as a tool rather than have followed it as a rule
Using this approach, we can add ways to solve the problem more creatively.  For example, your intention could be this:  Find a way to keep images up close defined and in strong value contrast while allowing distant images to become less distinct and in a close value range, using a complementary limited palette. 
When we take ourselves through this kind of problem solving as exercises, we don't have to worry about principles because we give ourselves the experience that enables using them without thinking.  They become a part of our tool kit.

How to Find Your Style

My favorite segment of the radio show, Performance Today, is the Piano Puzzler.  Pianist and composer, Bruce Adolphe re-writes a familiar tune in the style of a classical composer. A listener on the phone then tries to name the hidden tune and the composer whose style Bruce is mimicking. 
What is there about a composer's style than can be identified when mimicked with a tune the composer did not write?  Can the same be done with visual artists' styles?  And where does style come from anyway?

Do you recognize by its style the artist who did this painting?

What about this one?   
Let's try one more.  Can you tell by the style who did this painting? 
Some many things go into each individual's style of painting, but considering skill level, the most significant thing that causes a style is the artist's listening to that inner voice that says "this is the way that feels natural to me."  Too often, that voice gets drowned out by a desire to succeed or a desire to be popular or a desire to fit in the current trend, among other things.   
Consider this:  If any of the artists above had allowed the desire for success or the current trend or the drive to fit in, or anything other than their inner voice to determine the style of their work, we would not know about them today.