Thursday, January 15, 2015

Are we artists only when we paint?

Are we artists only when we paint? As visual people, we are – in a sense - always painting. In fact, most paintings I do begin long before the brush ever touches the page. As Edward Hopper said: “Art is the outward expression of the inner life of an artist. And this inner life will result in a personal vision of the world.” And it’s in how we see and feel about the world that we are framing our future work. When just out walking, we may notice a bit of light, a hint of color, a composition of values that we never saw before. Or as the sunlight slants along a narrow street that we may have seen a thousand times, we realize; we never noticed it quite like that. Sometimes, we do a sketch, or take a quick photo. But often, we just file these impressions away somewhere in our hearts – a collection of moments. Over the years we amass a vast storeroom of moments; visual, sensory, and emotional memories - a collection we can draw upon for a lifetime. And in that collection should also be those feelings we had at the very moment we saw that light, or remembered the smell of those leaves, or the chill in the air one afternoon as the shadows inched across that road, or the talk we had that day with a neighbor or a friend. This is the stuff of Art – more than the exact specifics of what this view or that scene may actually look like. And so of myself I ask that I paint not so much the scene in front of me – but rather, how I remember, or how I feel about that scene right now. And if my painting comes even close to asking that question of the viewer, then I feel I’ve done my job. A painter paints, a writer writes, and so on it is said. That’s true enough. We only improve those skills that we practice. The only garden that grows is one that we have watered. And to be honest, I am usually not happy when I have to miss a day of painting. It is the garden I most wish to tend. But I think I need to remember how much my inner life is shaped and informed by the world around me. Taking some time to just be mindful and observant of this world – moment by moment -is critical. If I spend a little time just riding my bike, or watching people on the street, or talking with a friend, or just absorbing the sights, the sounds, the millions of angles of light that Nature provides, or just looking up and really watching the sky; all this helps to shape my unique personal vision. And back at the easel, that is at least as important a tool for the artist as any paint or brush could ever be. While this is a view of a scene, it is a painting of a feeling. “Approaching the Summit - Slieve Binnian” Northern Ireland 


  1. I so agree.

    I have been thinking a lot about something you wrote a wee while ago about people not developing their own style but continuing through the years and decades to copy other's styles. And I've been watching and thinking about the differences between those who become artists with their own style and with those whom I've started to call copyists.

    Those who become artists in their own right are, to a greater or lesser extent, mindful, observant and continue to ask questions about how they can express what they see and feel within a particular composition.

    As a copyist my paintings were remarkably good. But as an artist my painting has appeared to deteriorate badly but its only because I am stepping way beyond my level of competency in what I'm trying to do. I am having to go back to get some more basics. What is the focus of my painting? What is the intention and feeling? How will I use tone, and all the other stuff which experienced artists know about?

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. They are very helpful to me as I transition from copyist to artist.

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