Thursday, March 8, 2012

Landscape 911

What's it All About?
A common problem, faced by most painters and especially by students, is understanding the important distinction between what their painting is a picture of and what it's a picture about. The two are rarely the same thing unless, of course, the painting is an assignment requiring just topographical accuracy.

John Constable, Barges on the Stour, Victoria & Albert

I often ask students why I should care about the painting they've just made. It's an especially difficult question when the painting has clearly been well-executed. Most of us are pleased when we have, with a certain accuracy, managed to get on to canvas the scene before us. But, except in the short run, there are few prizes just for
cleverness. It's cool, it's astounding...and then what? Once the skill has been duly praised, why should I care about the painting?

I don't engage with paintings because the craftmanship is high. I engage, as I suspect you do, with paintings that affirm ideas and feelings that I have, or which effectively challenge me to think in new ways. To this kind of painting we can return and return, always finding an invitation into the heart of things. The craftsman's painting, on the other hand, tends to pall with time. Its only merit is that often it was amazingly difficult. Do we really care? Yes, we admire the skill, the patience, the command. But then comes the dreaded question: what's the painting about??
How 'well' the artist paints is no answer at all.

J. A. Mc.Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Silver - Chelsea, Tate Gallery

Of course, ideally, a painting can be technically superb and still be full of connection for the viewer on many levels. It's important to remember, though, that 'technically superb' doesn't necessarily mean  that the artist colored within the lines, or that every part of the painting is correct in drawing, perspective, etc. What technically superb means is that the artist has chosen a technique that exactly conveys what the painting is 'about'. It may be very hasty. We all know sketches that have a life and immediacy that is not about craftsmanship. These pieces convey their message without excruciating detail and painstaking brushwork.

 J. W. M. Turner, Cilgerran Castle Pembrokeshire, Tate Gallery 

Yet, confoundingly, these sketches really do depend on craftsmanship, too. But this is a craftsmanship so assured that it hides itself, never getting in the way of what the painting is about, never taking a bow, but standing in the wings while the idea, supreme, rules the stage and garners the applause.

Look carefully at the three images, one each from Constable, Turner and Whistler. There's nothing fancy here. There is no technique except that which quietly supports the idea. But they are as evocative, more than a century after they were made, as they were that first day in the studio. Each is a sublime portrait of a single idea.

Let me know what you think of them, and suggest others that show technique as the servant of 'about'.


  1. Great post on the heart and sole of picture making...or should I say, making art?!...The Whistler and Turner remind me so much of the thumbnail sketches my art school teachers referenced as being examples of the idea or what the painting was all about. "They would say, "You've said everything you need to say right there in the thumbnail". I would look at this small 2x2" thumbnail drawing in my sketch book and pretend to understand...then I would spend hours laboriously slaving over a tight rendering based on my thumbnail sketch...the end product was a tight, two dimensional reproduction devoid of feeling, life and love...uuugh. It lacked the freshness and truth of the little thumbnail took years to wrap my head around that. To be honest, its still marinading in my cerebellum somewhere. On the one hand I understand the concept intellectually but on the other, my personal taste are not sophisticated enough to prevent me from still being dazzled by technique and shiny decoration. I'm a flawed work in progress...I admit it. I regard the above Whistler, Turner and Constable to be examples of high art using economy to say everything they need to say in their simple manner. For the love of God, why can I not paint like that?...Why hath thy lord forsaken my brush?!...LOL...pardon my drama, just having some fun...As much as I aspire to reach that sensability in my own painting, I know my taste needs sophistication. I'm working on it. A dear artist mentor is trying his best to pimp my taste and understanding through looking at the masters and asking the same questions you have presented in this very rich post. This post, to me, is the heart of the matter. I think another example of one showing technique as the servant of "about" is the Machioli...did I say that correctly...The nineteenth century Italian artist who painted outdoors before the French Impressionist...I think it's spelled Machioli...anyhoot, they sometimes painted in monochrome using simple value structure and spot-like marks to portray the sharp light of the high contrasting Italian landscape. I hope I didn't tell too many lies here. Great post Donald...onward we go to our easels pondering this great question..."what's it about"...thanks for the future headaches I will no doubt be having as a result of trying to find the answer to said question".

    1. In all three of these paintings, all I can say is, that they were painted by the artist's as they reached into their soul and pulled out the colors and strokes of their "feelings" about these places. The castle is strong and bold as a fortress should be, surrounded by nature in her soft way. The castle was built on purpose by man, being bold and imposing as usual in the way of men. The Noctural? Soft and muted notes as our eyes perceive the night values on the landscapes and man made structures. A feeling of calm and peace-being all blue-with an end of day softness, as it should be. Constable's barge on the river, I am not sure about. It seems on first sight, that it's about the bright promise of the industry of man as the sun shines down on the scene? If it had more detail, this idea would not be as direct, and the blue monochromatic tones unify that thought. An amateur view of these, to be sure. But my first impressions. I am feeling the pull of the work of George Innes these days.

    2. Thanks, Pat. Old George is the subject of an upcomng post, he who, through a long career, refined and refined his method, insuring that it was always in the service of his idea. Did you know that he died at Bridge of Allan, near Stirling, in Scotland? It's very close to where we'll be on the Scottish workshop, and will deserve a visit in his honor, and maybe a wee dram.

    3. Pat I like your readings of the paintings. You've made me realIze that in each one the artist has portrayed natural and human elemts in a kin of reciprocal relationship. Eg the Constable as human endeavor enacted in harmony with nature, while the wild eternal beauty of nature wheels all unnoticed all around us, here expressed via cloud motion and rhythmic light. Ah! Great painting is timeless!!

    4. Donald JurneyMar 10, 2012 03:22 PM

      Ah, Todd! We all have trouble answering that central question and, perhaps, many of us paint to take the place of words. If the answer should sometimes seem slow in coming, don't despair. In reality, the most important part lies in always remembering to ask the question. Cheers

    5. Thanks, Chris and Donald. Isn't it fitting that the one of my three paintings you saw last night, Donald, and that you liked the most was painted without the picture in front of me? I was in the "zone" totally (Todd couldn't even get my attention in class) and what I painted came straight from my heart and head! Of four marsh scenes (of the 4 seasons) that I painted from this marsh, the two best were painted this way, straight from the heart! If you can feel the cold light of winter so prevalent in that marsh then I was successful. I will tell you that I was standing in that marsh in the snow in my art spirit and was cold.

  2. YES - this absolutely goes to the heart of it, doesn't it. And your dialogue with Mr. Bonita on this is so true as well - I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with your post, grateful that somebody was saying what I've been half-articulating to myself - "I engage, as I suspect you do, with paintings that affirm ideas and feelings that I have, or which effectively challenge me to think in new ways. To this kind of painting we can return and return, always finding an invitation into the heart of things. The craftsman's painting, on the other hand, tends to pall with time."

    And yet I was going back to these three fantastic images and asking, okay, so what ARE you about? - and not getting much of an answer beyond "I'm about what I am! It's all right here! Can't you see it??"

    Maybe we think we can't have the answer because we actually ARE getting the answer, but it's coming in a form we're not able to recognize as such. We can feel it but not rationally "know" it. If so, then we can do no better than to keep seeking out that feeling, recognizing and enacting it within ourselves, even though it can't be articulated. Does knowing what the song it about make one a better singer? I suppose it depends on how you define "knowing" and "singing." You have to feel the music genuinely and sincerely, I think, even if you can't define for the conscious mind in words or the intellectual equivalent thereof exactly "what it is about." The whole this is at once perplexing and exhilarating! Thanks for this provocative post, Donald.

    1. Yo, Chris! Thanks for your insightful comment. Often it is someone else, viewing one's work from a different perspective, who first identifies a thread winding throughout an artist's work. The artist himself may have not yet identified how consistently the work is about certain elemental ideas and preoccupations. It remains, for the moment, an inchoate, undefined longing, what our friend Billy has called a sensation "Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;" You concentrate on painting it. The thread will unravel.

  3. Someone just tipped me off to Fred Cuming- love him - I'd put him in this category as well.

  4. Great post, Don. I have to make sure that I am fully invested in whatever image I am currently working on otherwise I cheat the viewer(not to mention myself). I am haunted by the question: "If I am not fully present while painting this, why should I expect someone else to be present to look at it?"

    1. Thanks, Stephen.
      When I look at those three paintings, and think of the artists, I'm reminded of a quote from Eliot:
      "He is every bit as sane as you or I,
      "He sees the world as clearly as you or I see it,
      "It is only that he has seen a great deal more than that."

    2. Yes, when you "see" and not "look".