Painting, at its best, is about honesty and truth-telling.
|Winter Harbor lighthouse with Cadillac Mountain, by Becky Bense.|
Yesterday, one of my students heaved a great sigh and told us about a girl she knew when she was in school. “She could draw these fine, detailed, curlicued things. And here I was, drawing these big, massive shapes. Of course, she was the art teacher’s pet.”
I immediately imagined this kid in my mind’s eye, her blonde hair lightened with Sun-In, parted in the middle and sweeping back like Farrah Fawcett’s. (She probably didn’t look like that, but that was the style of the girl who held the whip-hand back in the 1970s.) I laughed, because my student—who is, like most of my students, also a friend—is none of the above. She’s whip-smart, rock-solid, organized, and fiery. Her drawing reflected that even as a kid.
|Mt. Desert Narrows, by Jennifer Johnson|
That should be the primary stylistic goal of painters—not to paint like someone else, and certainly not to leave a workshop painting like me. Style, in my opinion, is the gap between the internal vision you have and what actually comes out of your brush. It’s a shifting thing, because your skills are (hopefully) constantly improving.
We’re all group normed in a million decisions, whether it’s how we dress, where we live, or what we choose to do for a living. That’s true of painting as well, something I wrote about here. It happens whenever you bring your work to a gallery, participate in a plein air event, or even compare work with another artist. We’re herd animals and we feel most comfortable when we fit in.
|Winter Harbor lighthouse, by Claudia Schellenberg|
On the other hand, we’re also products of our time. In the 20th century, that meant painting anxiety, angst, fear of the Bomb, world war. Those things radiate through the great artists of the past century. The spirit of the times in the 21st century is still open for discussion, of course; we’re barely there.
Before I do a workshop, I look up my artists online to get an idea of their skill level and where they might want to go. (I also ask about what they want to learn.) In general, plein air attracts an intrepid type of person; they can’t be too fearful and want to deal with the inconveniences of working in the woods. But beyond that, people are a constant surprise.
|Rocks by Linda Delorey|
It would be easy to tell them, “do it this way,” and create a miniature Carol Douglas. I don’t want to do that, however; I want to explain the process of applying paint and then give them their heads. But I can’t help them advance if I don’t know what they’re looking for. That comes back to the question of honesty in painting.
|Coastline by Diane Leifheit|
Another student, following up on this subject of truth-telling, asked me what I think of Pablo Picasso. I can find something to like in almost all art. However, Picasso is a closed door to me. I think it’s a question of his honesty, which reveals his character, and that I don’t seem to like very much. This is not because of his biography; I’ve never read very much about him. It’s what comes through in his paintings. That’s a sign of his power as a painter.