As artists we all long to convey with truth what we observe before us, what catches our breath and our attention. I’ve always believed that painting is an outward expression and visual record of what we are paying attention to in life. It can be as grand as a complex inspiration that comes forth from our imagination or as simple as an observational response to color, light and form. It can be capturing the essence of a person or place you love or an introspective feeling within yourself.
I find painting from life to be a balance of analytical observation and intuitive response. Establishing the essential structural forms, maintaining a hierarchy of elements and harmonizing that which is being emotionally conveyed in the moment.
Being attentive to the subtle honesty of emotion resonating from the person being painted and the response that we bring as the artists, all the while harnessing our tools at hand in the form of pigments and brushstrokes, is what makes painting from life so enthralling. Even when painting a landscape we are dealing with life caught in a moment, a moment that will never be the same again and that too has palpable honest emotion that we hope to imbue the painting with.
It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.
– Henry David Thoreau
When teaching, aside from value and color, one of the most important aspects that I am constantly reminding students of is to be aware of what they are holding in their minds during the process of painting. We all know to keep our palettes clean and avoid muddy color, but oftentimes the challenge lies in avoiding muddy thoughts while painting. Thoughts like, “I hope I don’t mess this up”, “I’m frustrated” or “I can’t get this right”, etc.
We all, as artists, go through a gambit of emotions while painting; if those thoughts and beliefs about what you are doing (or attempting to do) are muddy with negativity, your painting will reflect that.
As Robert Henri said in the book The Art Spirit:
The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact state of being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs, and to be read later by the artist himself, with perhaps some surprise, as a revelation of himself. For an artist to be interesting to us he must have been interesting to himself. He must have been capable of intense feeling, and capable of profound concentration. He who has contemplated has met himself, is in a state to see into the realities beyond the surface of his subject. Nature reveals to him, and seeing and feeling intensely, he paints, and whether he wills it or not each brush stroke is an exact record of such as he was at the exact moment the stroke was made.
When I read this as a young artist it was revelatory to me. I used to experience painting 10 years ago as a battle — to slay the dragon so to speak and achieve the vision — and there was fun in that battle, but also intense frustration. Now I see it as a gentle communion between the subject, the painting and myself. It is an opportunity for me to find stillness within myself; the still, yet intensely determined, focus of an intent observer and her passionate response to life. It is to have awareness of the beauty of getting to really see into a subject and visually record it.
I’ve realized now, that as important as the fundamentals of painting are and while they must be practiced regularly with vigor and attentiveness, the strongest technique is honesty in all veins. Honesty to what is being observed, looking for truth in shapes and color temperatures and how they relate, but also being honest to how I am responding to what I’m seeing and bringing to the moment myself as the artist. As I explained once to a class of portrait painters, you cannot paint a portrait of someone with a soft ethereal expression on their face by angrily painting with a furrowed brow yourself. What you are choosing to embody will always show up onto the canvas… you must embody that which you wish to convey.
We have to organize our mind just as we organize our palette, making sure it is clean and ready for the painting session. When I find my mind getting “muddied” I step away from the canvas, sometimes just taking a quick break (whether the model is breaking or not) to remind myself why I am doing what I’m doing. Why at the ago of 5 I drew incessantly. It wasn’t just to produce, it was to be in the moment of creating, to immerse myself in that joy and focused endeavor. Sometimes just stepping outside and looking at nature reminds me that wildness and gentleness can coexist beautifully and that passion and patience must coexist as well in the painting process.
This quote hangs in my studio as a reminder:
Seek patience and passion in equal amounts. Patience alone will not build the temple. Passion alone will destroy its walls.
– Maya Angelou
Most of us strived to learn technique because there was something in us we wanted to say something we longed to express visually. As our technical repertoire grows, we must remind ourselves to get back in touch with that mindset that set us off on this journey in the first place.
I remind students in my workshops, “there is no one in history who has the same exact sensitivities as you… what are you bringing to the painting session? How do YOU see? Let that honesty be your strongest ‘technique.'” Learn the ABC’s of painting — drawing value, composition, color and edges — but then write your novel with paint.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
~ Mary Oliver (American Poet)