Saturday, January 17, 2009

PONDER: Why is it hard?

Why is painting in a naturalist or realist style so difficult? The tools are simple: sticks with hair on the end, soft pigments, and a surface. The subject matter is often *right there in front of you*. So what makes it difficult?

Painting should be easier for us. With a still life set up right 2 feet from you and ample light, it should be a simple matter to duplicate it bit for bit - then with some practice, even improve upon it. Don't you think so?

Yet, it's not. In fact, given a lifetime to practice, some people will never be able to realistically portray an object or a face, no matter what. And the even stranger part is - they don't know that. They don't see their own errors, and have no plans to correct them.

Susan Donley has a nicely laid out chart that compares Betty Edwards' and Viktor Lowenfeld's concepts of artistic development in children. The example shown for a 14-16 year old could be anybody - in fact, it could be any adult.

I think there's a point in our development where we either ask ourselves, "What does that really look like," or we don't. And if we never ask, there's no reason to develop past the schematic stage. Things in our minds eye can easily just be their schema: horse, dog, car, mother, cup. It's a perfectly useful system. In fact, asking yourself, "Hey, what color is a glass of milk in shadow?" is probably a sort of nutty thing to do.

But even though artists ask those kinds of questions, the answer isn't immediate - it still takes years to develop the ability to represent our world in a naturalist fashion. So the reason must be deeper than simple seeing. I think seeing might be the first part of the answer, but once we see, what then? What prevents our sudden and permanent evolution into artists?

I don't know. I hope you weren't looking for an answer at the bottom of the post.

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  1. Haha, actually I was :)
    Maybe next time..

  2. I'm still thinking about this. I don't know if I'm going to come up with an actual answer, but I've got more thoughts on the matter, and a blogosphere to toss them at.

    But if I don't come up with a sound, reasonable answer - I may be preety depressed about that? What if there's no reason at all?

  3. Just found you via Carol Marine's blog. What a treat.
    Are you asking "what happens in our brains with the visual information between the moment of seeing and the moment of applying paint." Yes? No? We should ask a neuroscientist. But I think part of it is the struggle that ensues between what we know (That's a lemon. Lemons are oval and yellow)and what we see (That's purply,greenish etc.). But don't you also think that we see things differently? I've had lifelong disagreements with people over color. "That's greenish blue." "Oh, I see it as blue.) If that is the case, it's reasonable to translate that way. I also think emotional states affect the way we see and translate. I can almost feel the neurons misbehaving as I look at the edge of a spoon and try to identify light and dark values. And yet 10 years ago, I felt a bit afflicted with OCD (self diagnosis)and could sit for hours with a 3-hair brush, putting in details. That would drive me nuts now.
    As far as your last question goes, I've been thinking about the distinction between the terms of artist and student. I'm not sure there should be a differentiation. How sad is an artist who doesn't think there is more to learn?
    If I have success with the way I execute something, I try NOT to paint it that way again, instead of going through the whole process of seeing, dealing with the brain chaos, and translation. So, I am always a student, right?
    Does any of this make sense to you?

  4. I believe that a color or texture created on a palette has a very distinct home in the world. The question for me becomes is; Is that home in my subject? That usually causes me to reach a little further.