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'.