“Anything you do, let it come from you–then it will be new.
Give us more to see.”
From the song “Move On”-Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim.
In the play painter George Seurat struggles with “…..how to get through to something new. Something of my own!” His paramour counsels: “I chose, and my world was shaken—so what? The choice may have been mistaken but choosing was not. You have to move on.”
We are moving on after the culmination of another year’s work. And a first step in the process is choosing a subject.
What to paint is a question I hear often. It is a question I clearly remember asking. I’m not sure when the uncertainty dissolved for me or if it’s gone for good. But I have developed an awareness of how I choose.
There is always a moment when considering my next subject where I pay attention to my heartbeat–a moment of visual excitement. Something that causes a small gasp or an overall emotion is a contender.
Whether that emotion comes from the object or scene or its meaning, or whether it comes from pure color, textures, or contrast, etc. doesn’t matter. Once a subject captures my attention, I want to explore it further.
The next step is shifting the brain to quickly assess what the subject offers in terms of composition. If a photo of a sunset contains fabulous light and color and makes me melt, but has only a horizon line in terms of composition, it is going to be very difficult to translate that into something original. I need something more to hook into, something to arrange on the page. However, if I start with complexity of form that ends up to be little more than a horizon line dividing two color fields, that’s different. All the process is there, pulsating underneath the two areas forming the horizon. It creates an authentic richness—evidence of the experience, the searching, the attempts to understand. That is the part that comes from you.
Our task this week is to bring a subject to paint–something that resonates, something that you connect to, something that will propel an authentic expression that comes from you. Think about how you usually find a subject. What do you look for in its character? Do you prefer a photo or real life? How are they different? (Photos are easier because some of the translation from 3-d to 2-d has been done, but they can lack an element of “life” in real objects.) If you choose a photo image try working from a black and white copy of it. This will eliminate the challenge of color. It will also help you to see the “bones” of a piece and allow for a freer interpretation. (When beginning the piece turn your photo upside down in order to sketch the structure.) If you choose to interpret another artist keep in mind it is most effective to translate and transform work that is different from your own. Remember, as Martha Graham says: “There is only one of you in all of time…keep the channel open.” So connect to a subject and come prepared to paint.
Excerpts from a heavily edited article (by me, for brevity sake) by UK art critic, Laura Cumming. To read the full article click here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/sep/20/guide-to-painting-subject
“What to paint? Writers are always advised to write about what they know, but what should artists depict? If they all only painted what was in front of them, or what was inside them, art history would be short of all sorts of masterpieces, from The Sistine Chapel to The Last Supper…..
Finding subject matter can be a lifelong struggle. Mondrian spent decades painting windmills and rivers before he found form with geometric abstraction. The American painter Philip Guston tried socialist murals, allegories of children’s games, and years of abstract impressionism before he eventually hit upon the queer and tragic-comic near-cartoons of contemporary life that sealed his fame for the future. He was, he said, embarrassed to be fiddling about with ethereal tones when news of Vietnam was on the radio.
In the past, academic tradition conveniently chose the subjects for you. You could do portraits, religious or historical scenes, genre paintings, landscapes or still lifes
For Rembrandt and Hals, the rise of the middle classes in the new Dutch republic created both an immediate subject and a market.
Vermeer closes the door on the outside world with his women lost in thought, in letters, in music, sessions of still, silent thought. But his interiors show exactly how the content of a painting can be so much more than its subject.
Every seed in a loaf, every brass tack, every tuft of a rug has its moment, but Vermeer’s true theme is the passage of light. The artist paints light as the source of revelation.
Light is the subject for Turner and Constable, with their seas and skies, and later for the impressionists, trying to catch its fleeting effects on the open-air world. Monet paints the grainstacks over and again, from dawn to dusk.
Dürer once risked six days on a freezing boat to paint a whale washed up on a beach. But artists such as Chardin and Morandi barely left the house, finding everything they needed at home.
Willem de Kooning once said that flesh was the reason oil painting was invented, and for some painters the medium determines the subject. Cézanne’s apples take on both the luminosity and the weight of the paint, more glowing and monumental than reality. Frank Auerbach’s portraits, great hulks of clotted pigment densely painted and overpainted, evidence of each successive sitting, each previous attempt to get across the face and character of the sitter, represent both memory and mutability.
And Lucian Freud’s naked figures, of course, are bodied forth in paint to such a degree as to make sense of his remark that, “As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person.”
All painters contend, to some degree, with those who came before them, and perhaps some subjects are definitively taken: Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Degas’s ballet dancers, Cézanne’s Mont St Victoire.
If you don’t know where to start, take Leonardo’s advice and look at the stains on your walls: there you will find endless new forms to jump-start a painting.”
And Robert Genn says: (I’ve emphasized the words to keep.) “The creative life requires a steady progression of experimentation and discovery. While acquired wisdom is useful, your knowledge must work in tandem with the daily exercise of your curiosity….
Personal refinement of vision makes creativity worthwhile. What you do may not be unique in the greater world of art, but it’s the sweet ignorance of outcome that drives you on.”
Spend some time choosing a subject “….let it come from you–then it will be new.”