Marcao Pozza-Mendes wrote from the Colorado Rockies, “Do you have a letter that deals with canned criticism? By canned criticism I mean remarking that a painting with an element like a road or river leading to a corner of the canvas always leads the eye out of the picture; there is never a way to make that work; there is never a way to break the ‘rules’ and end with a successful painting. Sometimes the canned criticism is proffered unsolicited, which makes it additionally annoying. We artists are trained not to do certain things in a painting, but there are cases where we CAN break the rules. We artists are also trained to notice these canned ‘thou shalt nots’ in the work of others.”
Thanks, Marcao. Whether we’re obeying the rules or attempting to break them, we’re all shooting for the same moon. “Composition,” wrote Robert Henri, “is controlling the eye of the observer.” When studying the greats, a feeling emerges no matter the genre or subject, a sensation of being “held” within the picture, with a proportionate, pleasing weightiness and balance. The effect happens when we use the rule of thirds and irregularly space varied shapes; when lines make way for patches; when complementary warm and cool colours mingle and abut for bounce; when values direct and define light, focal point and design, and a “flow” circulates the eye from one visual delight to the next. Passages of excitement and spots of activation are like stepping stones that lead you around the whole. These “rules,” plus a fevered avoidance of boo boos like homeostasis, foreground apathy and amorphous blobs have emerged as a template because artists, over time, have found them to be a foolproof way of achieving eye control.
When it comes to crits — invited or otherwise — artists of all stages and disciplines can agree they are often merely the unpleasant bog before a meadow of revelations. Defending our choices in the midst of attack is part of how we broaden our understanding of what we’re doing and where to go next. When it comes to rule breaking, just make sure you’re the one doing the breaking and not the other way around. Pushing your art beyond academic reproduction and towards real magic is the tricky part — it can trip up the most comfortable technician. “Many a fine style,” wrote Dad, “has evolved from a decent handicap.” In other words, a few no no’s, applied with control, have the potential to silence the purporters of always and never.
PS: “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.” (Pablo Picasso)
“Watch the corners of your picture. Shooting the eye out of one of them can be bad news for you and good news for the painting next door.” (Robert Genn)
Esoterica: When looking at Fall Shed and Hillside, Marcao’s critic proposed there ought to be a break in the fence so the view doesn’t stop in the picture’s foreground. Marcao countered that the similarly valued violet shadow of the shed, which leads the eye up and back toward the hills, was enough to balance the fence line. “It’s not a perfect treatment, but it works.”
As well as a painter, Marcao is the caretaker at the Western Orthodox Benedictine Monastery of St. Laurence in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. In the summer months, he invites plein-air painting friends to join him at the monastery for painting, dinner and conversation. “Our art community is a small, close-knit group, kind of like a family,” he says. “We welcome visitors!”
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“I bite my tongue and weigh my words carefully before mouthing what could be canned crit — because more often than not, the artists with whom I associate have “broken the rules” and pulled it off.” (Marcao Pozza-Mendes)