Painting is a curious thing, especially its power to connect.
Why paint after all? Why spend time and energy making marks on canvas with brush and pigment? Why set up an easel outside to capture the scene. Can’t a smart phone do a smarter job of that? Painting isn’t easy and isn’t always fun. Nor is it exactly new and different: humankind has been doing it for 30,000 years.
There’s no universal answer to why paint. But we know that countless people around the world, in every culture and generation, and for all sorts of reasons, have picked up a brush and painted. Painting grabbed them. Once inspired, they toiled to produce masterwork, the best work they could do, and some few produced masterpieces, the best work anyone has ever done. As diverse as all these past and present painters are, the thing that unites is the power of painting to connect.
Sometimes the answer to why paint is: I don’t know, I just do. As a kid, lots of doodles, sketches and characters meandered their way from imagination through pencil onto sheet after sheet of paper. After years of drawing, illustrating and editorial cartooning, a turning point was a workshop in outdoor painting with Thomas Buechner in Upstate New York. After five days with oil paints outdoors, I was hooked. I knew I had alot to learn, mostly by just-do-it trial and error. But I couldn’t wait to learn more.
Today, thousands of painting hours later, I’m still hooked. This goes beyond my own work. It now connects with many others, people I know or have the privilege to paint with, people I’ve never known from long ago who still live in the work I marvel at, people of all ages and countries and walks of life who have felt painting’s tug…or enjoy artwork without picking up a brush.
Painting also connects with my work as lawyer and has opened my eyes to law’s fundamental connections with the humanities. For people who think of law and art as separate worlds, one of words and the other of images, I say look again. Strong painting is based on strong visual design–a problem-solving process of composing and communicating what you want to say within the four corners of a two-diminsional flat surface. Law is also about problem-solving, communication and persuasion. Both art and law have ancient roots in principles of the humanities that have been around for thousands of years: inspiration, composition, focal point, balance and craftsmanship. These are present in masterpieces of visual art and also in that most revolutionary and artful of laws–the US Constitution–and its interpretation through decisions of the US Supreme Court. I now teach a continuing legal education course, Brush with the Law…an Artful Eye on Law, which is certifed in five states.
So why paint? For me it’s about connecting: with people; with the long, diverse and ongoing story of art; with the joy of putting paint to canvas; with the natural and visual world that gifts each day with light; with principles and problem-solving. Painting is a “pursuit of happiness” because it connects with things larger than self.
A trip to the museum, and we’re all leaning forward to get a close-in look at a mark made by Rembrandt, a mark that is just a dip in the eyebrow but that gives the expression a world-weary empathy. Or a farmer near Venasque, France who gets off his tractor to look at the field study on my easel and pulls from his pocket a small sketchbook of excellent water colors he does every day in the surrounding countryside. Or watching a group of young apprentices and mural painters cover a brick wall in downtown Cincinnati with a John Ruthven painting of now extinct passenger pigeons. Or a favorite hillside in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York, the loudest sounds being the buzz of summer bees and the scratching of bristle on canvas, until indigo clouds roll in and open a silver veil of rain.
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