Last Thursday I attended the opening reception for an exhibit of the landscapes of Eric Aho at the Currier Museum. Really interesting abstracted landscapes. Eric and the curators presented a slide show during the reception that was SRO. I was lucky enough to get a choice seat next to Mary McGowan. Mary founded the McGowan Gallery in Concord, and proudly reported (sounds better than “bragged”, doesn’t it?) that she had exhibited some of Eric’s paintings back in the day. (Mary has recently retired from the Gallery, passing on the job of discovering new talent in the New England region to Sarah Chafee.) We, Mary and I, being of similar age, conferred over the idea of taking up painting at an advanced age. A sensitive subject for me.
Mary said she had always liked to paint, but would not take it up in retirement. Her eye was too good. “My eye is better than my hand.” She meant she would be so hypercritical of her own work that she would not be able to enjoy the results.
That got me thinking. Do mediocre painters paint mediocre pictures because they don’t see what’s mediocre about them? Is the reason I am not churning out masterpiece after masterpiece that my eye is deficient? No, I think I know what’s good and what’s bad.
So is the problem technical–a lack of skill–the hand, as Mary would put it? Skill is not something that comes and goes. It grows, or it declines, and yes, you can have a bad day, but once you learn how to apply paint to a surface, to achieve a certain effect, you have the “hand”.
The critical element is something I used to call “inspiration”, but earlier that day I had watched a lecture online, broadcast from the Cornell University alumni reunion that was I skipping, on the subject of imagination–the importance of imagination to the advancement of the human race. Who first realized the value of fire? Who first thought of using a wheel to move heavy objects? The realization of fire, the concept of a wheel, each required the thinker to form an image in his mind of the usefulness of such a thing–to imagine something not yet in existence.
Between that lecture and Mary’s casual remark, I came to the conclusion that what makes a great painter is imagination. Mary’s eye knows a good painting when she sees one. Her hand could be taught how to achieve what the eye wants to see. But in order to know what the eye wants to see, imagination is required.
Let’s take Eric Aho, for example. Landscapes are the most familiar of painting subjects, and the most popular. A well done landscape takes a fair amount of skill. Not the greatest amount of skill, but a landscape done by a skilled artist is going to be much better than one done by an unskilled artist. But this required imagination:
(This reproduction of his webpage constitutes “fair use” under the copyright law. I hope.) Art in the 20th and 21st centuries has become all about the idea underlying the work. Skill is assumed, or even discounted. Think Jackson Pollock. He was not particularly skilled at the painterly underpinnings such as drawing. But he was fiercely determined to be an artist, and he had imagination.
All this deep thought made me realize that what I have been doing, mostly, in my making of paintings is developing skills. Every once in a while, an idea trinkles into my head and produces something special, like last week’s “In an Artist’s Studio.” Repeated here for your convenience and also because I just love to show it off:
Acquiring skills is important. If, last week in the artist’s studio, I had been struggling harder to get the proportions correct and the skin tones plausible, my mind would not have had the luxury of considering the composition, which made all the difference between an exercise and a showable painting.
My regression from that pinnacle continued downhill this week. I won’t even show you the entire painting. It will be consigned to the “dust bin,” an antiquated term which seems more fitting somehow than the trash can. It contained a few OK parts, which I have cut out for you here.
That was Tuesday. Sunday I decided to paint a portrait in my three hours with the model–another “exercise”, I guess.
It looks better in person.
Remember my “Iris Interpreted”? Little brown fairy (Grace again) ensconced in a giant iris. From June 16 to July 21, it will be exhibited as part of the Women’s Caucus for Art “Flowers Interpreted” annual show. The site of the exhibit is the Epsom Public Library. There will be an artists’ reception on Friday, June 22, 5 pm to 7 pm. Come if you can.
A continuing exhibit without reception features seven of my landscapes in the Bedford public library, on the bottom floor, through the month of June. After June 30, one of my paintings, a rather long and tall one called “Enchanted,” will remain hanging there for the summer because it won that privilege by a vote at the annual meeting of the Manchester Artists Association. Look for the tiny frog near the bottom. It’s hanging near the children’s book section, so I’m hoping the children pause long enough to delight in the frog.
Aline Lotter is currently exhibiting:
at the Hatfield Gallery in Manchester; at the Bartlett Inn in Bartlett; at the Library Arts Center in Newport; Bedford Public Library, in Bedford; Epsom Public Library in Epsom; and at her studio by appointment.
Link to website: www.paintingsbyaline.com
Many inventions are the result of accident, not imagination. I’ve always thought that the wheel was invented after some poor soul was rapidly propelled down hill after stepping onto a patch of rounded stones on a riverbank or hillside!
But with painting, I agree that there has to be imagination … or an EYE or V ISION in which the scene (or object) appears extraordinary. I’m with Mary … I’ve got the eye to see what’s good or not … I’ve also got the VISION … I do NOT have the skill to make my hand create what I see in my vision.
A step back is, usually, a GOOD thing because it generally means that a forward leap is about to occur … the hand is having difficulty because the brain is distracted by/focused on “owning” a new concept.
Good likeness of Fletch. Sorry, but I do NOT like Grace’s hands – they’re sort if tree frog-ish (to me)!
There was a PBS program about a Picasso exhibit several years ago. The observation was made that though Picasso painted many, many magnificent paintings, he also painted a very large number of mediocre to really bad canvases. In the book “Art and Fear” (I think it was – will double check) there is a story of two groups of students, one set told they would be graded on quality and the other on quantity. To short circuit the whole story, the results showed that quality came from quantity the doing, not thinking about producing quality. From my experience, something takes over when I am totally involved with the doing. Sometimes for good result and sometimes not so good but I do believe that success comes out of going back -picking myself up-after failure. Is it failure if I have learned something? I think not.
Your perseverance is inspiring and the development of your craft and risk taking is (redundantly) inspirational.
Ah, Aline. I read one of Stape’s last posts and he quoted Frank Benson as follows.
I ran into this quote from Frank Benson online:
“This was to emphasize, again, the fact that it is the composition, the design, the creation of the artist’s mine, which is important, not the representation of objects with paint. “I grew up with a generation of art students who believed that it was actually immoral to depart in any way from nature when you were painting. It was not till after I was thirty and had been working seriously for more than ten years that it came to me, the idea that the design was what mattered. It seemed like an inspiration from heaven. I gave up the stupid canvas I was working on and sent the model home. Some men never discover this. And it is to this that I lay the fact of such success as I have had. For people in general have a sense of beauty, and know when things are right. They don’t know that they have but they recognize great painting. And design is the ONLY thing that matters.”
Most important of all … good design. I agree. ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ has good design. I think that is what you like about it. Imagination might give you a unique subject or treatment of a subject but the pleasing design is essential. That is why abstract art can be very good or very bad … design.
What wonderful comments! Thank you all. I feel the need to clarify my thoughts, however, and now you are responsible to keeping me up after my bedtime:
I didn’t mean “imagination” in the sense of fantasizing. The cave man observing the accidental rolling of the rock had to come up with a visual of a wheel and be able to imagine the uses for a wheel. Composition is essential to a good painting–who could not agree with that? One can learn how to compose an acceptable composition–there are rules that can be followed. But rules can be broken too, and the jarring effect of a broken rule may be just what is speaks to the viewer. It takes imagination to foresee this. To go back to Eric Aho, one of his paintings, a huge snow scene-mostly white abstraction–has an clearly identifiable birch tree growing in almost dead center of the painting. Another artist who was with me exclaimed in amazement–“that’s a big no-no”! Thanks to Peter Granucci, I knew that was a rule that can be broken. Knowing when to break a rule may equate to knowing when to break out of the pack; knowing HOW WHERE WHY and WHEN–all that requires visualization. But at bottom, you can’t come up with a visualization of anything if you don’t have the idea of anything to visualize.
I am enjoying reading your thoughts Aline. I don’t think we should be too hard and fast about things. I have a painting by my art school lecturer in Pictorial comp (& Design) and it has an iron framework/tower right in the middle in the foreground. I like the daring of it. Noone who visits mentions that but most people love the painting. So that’s my take on it really. I have been watching ‘show me the monet’ on tv – skill, originality and emotional impact are what they look for. All three packed up in one piece. Talking of Mary McGowan. I was following her blog but haven’t heard anything for ages. must check. she writes some wonderfully quirky things. I didn’t know her background.
Love it that your composition instructor violated the “rule” to avoid putting the focal point in the center. I didn’t even know about Mary McGowan’s blog. I also never heard of the TV program “Show me the Monet”–probably hasn’t reached us in the U.S. yet.
We had one called “Work of Art”, which was a competition between about 14 youngish artists. Each week, one was eliminated. Last one standing got money and an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It ran for two seasons. The art was “out there”–conceptual, maybe what you’d call “high concept” (must look that up someday). Anyway, not much that I could relate to. But it certainly placed a big premium on imagination. But I think, I hope an artist does not have to go that far out in order to satisfy the imagination criterion. Where Eric Aho is, is a good place to be. ( No, I’m not related to him, haven’t even met him.)