Letter to Students June 8, 2008
What makes a good landscape painting? What are we trying to do out here in the sun and wind? What is it we are trying to capture with paint? What makes a painting beautiful? These questions and more define the landscape painters quest. Hans Hoffman in one of his famous classes summarized the problem by saying, “The artists technical problem is how to transform the material with which he works back into the sphere of the spirit” The most interesting word of that statement is ‘transform’. The focus is on transformation. What he is talking about here is poetry. Visual poetry. Technique is only the important first half of “the picture.” Frederick Von Schelling the 18th century philosopher said that art is made by two processes.
“ Art is brought to completion by two thoroughly different activities…one part of art,namely, the part that is practiced with consciousness, deliberation ,and reflection, which can also be taught and learned..on the other hand, we must seek in the unconscious,which also enters into art,for that in art that cannot be learned, cannot be attained by practice or in any other way, but can only be inborn by the free gift of nature, and which is what we may call in one word the poetry in art”
How do we combine the two processes? After we have studied the masters and watch the way our peers tackle certain problems there comes a time where we have to add something of ourselves into the equation. We have to add our own poetry to the mix. Easier said than done in a world where poetry is hardly ever taught.
That is not to say you just willy nilly start slopping paint around hoping that its being controlled by some inner poetic genie. The American Painter Wolf Kahn early on in his career said
“ ..accidental process are often superior to willed ones, but the framework in which one works is formal intentionality”. We have to be intentional in what we do. We have to use our experience and our technical knowledge but at the same time stay open to what is happening on the canvas that our conscious mind hasn’t intended. This is the door to the poetic. Think of it as a part of your subconsciousness. That little voice that so often gets shoved aside. Ask yourself often while painting,”What mark is this brush I have in my hand making?” Is there something great happening on the painting that you hadn’t planned on? This is why I love using brushes that really seem bigger than they should be for the job. You just never know what its going to do. It makes you not expect everything you are doing. The act of painting is a relationship, a dance between what you are thinking that you’d like to see happen and what does happen. Be direct in your intentions but leave the window open to the unexpected. The unexpected is also what makes oil paining so wonderfully special. Oil paint can stain a canvas. It leaves tracks where the artists has been and what he/she has changed and gone over with a new idea or passage. Oil paint drips, smudges, runs ,bleeds into the color next to it on the surface. It can be gone over with a heavier thicker coat of a different color or veiled with a wash of transparency. It lends itself to the unexpected. It can be a tool to the poetic.
Take the time to look at what is happening. Step back often from the canvas. Walk around it. Look at it from the side angles. Squint at it. Look away from the canvas and then sneak a quick look at it as you walk by it. This way you see things differently or what you might have missed when you are standing right in front of the canvas. The obvious is sometimes the most obscured. When you do see what you need to do, do it with conviction and great intention. Take that brush full of paint and make that mark. Make it like you mean it. And if its wrong don’t be afraid to change it. I can’t tell you how many times I have spent hours diddling around trying to carefully fix a little part of a problem on the canvas when in my heart I knew what I should do is grab a big rag, wipe it off and start over. Better to start fresh and build on what you now know what not to do.
Don’t put off the hard parts till later. If possible do them first. The painter Fairfield Porter said, “I made the mistake of thinking that I could do everything later instead of at the beginning.” Each painting is a record of a moment, a time and a place. What and how you do something is recorded on the canvas for that moment of time.
Don’t get buried in the details. Try not to get too caught up in all the descriptive incidentals of the scene. You don’t need to paint every leaf of the tree. we tend not to even see them in real life anyway. Instead focus on the shape of the tree. Its better to be suggestive than too descriptive. Its more poetic to be connotative(suggestive) than denotative(specific).
No one can really teach you how to paint. They can teach you how they paint but whats the point in that? We can talk about art, the reason for making it, the different styles of art and how others make art, but each person contains their own seed for making original wonderful art. Its that seed you really want to work at. The ways may be individually many and seem confusing in scope at times but there are great possibilities. I think it was Jim Harrison who said that “Life is short but wide”.
So how does one become a good painter? The million dollar question. I think it takes two simple things. The first is that you have to align yourself with what good painting is really about. Its not about making decoration. Its not about recording what is in front of you like a camera would record it. Painting is an act, like in”action”. The result of your action,(what color went first, which big or small sized tools did you use, what did you leave out, what did you put in) is the painting. If your action is hesitant,fearful, confused, you are going to produce a painting that has those qualities. If you paint willfully and boldly you going to produce that type of paintings.
I’m not saying you should paint like me. All of the painters I mention above are very different in STYLE of painting but they all share what it is that makes a good painting.
The second thing you have to do is paint. It’s as simple as that. You have to make a place for your work ,a studio or extra room, where you can treat painting seriously and then…paint. Look at painters, buy books, go to exhibitions, museums, immerse yourself in the art world. Its an educational quest just like learning a new language. You are learning the language of paint. You have to invest your time to learn anything in the world. Painting is no different. And if you do invest the time, create a space for your art in your life not only can it be rewarding it can be your livelihood. It can be your life.
Source: Richard Kooyman 2007