Symphonies, movies, plays, novels, songs — all tend to have a climax. Life and love have climaxes. Climax is one of the essential life experiences. Without climax, nothing seems to get anywhere. Climax represents the successful completion of the story, the denouement of the plot, the reason for all the effort, the snapshot at the height of the action.
Lots of paintings are short on climaxes. A climax in a painting means coming to light, a center of interest, a delicate part, a colour surprise, activation, sudden insight or rebirth, etc. In the same way that other art forms build a case, foreshadow, anticipate, disclose and darken before the light, so should paintings. If you look at the acknowledged great works of art, you often get the feeling, “Somethin’s happenin’ here,” even if what it is ain’t exactly clear. You may also have noticed some quite ordinary subjects come with built-in climaxes — mountains, crashing waves, sunsets, etc. Maybe that’s why this sort of material remains forever popular.
In the subject matter of the creator’s choice, it is the creator’s challenge to discover and evoke personal climaxes. Without them, you may be saying little in your art — and your work may be dull and uninspiring because of it. Here are a few ideas to think about:
To have climax, you need quietude.
To have light, you need dark.
To have focus, you need lack of focus.
To have delicacy, you need roughness.
To have surprises, you need plain facts.
To have colour surprises, you need grays.
To have activation, you need blandness.
To have birth, you need death.
These dialectics can be inherent in the subject, planned to be added in a proposed work, or “found” during the creative process itself. It is the latter that makes the act of art most satisfying. By innocently asking the questions, “What if?” and “What can be?” the artist experiences the climax along with the art itself and is partner to its happening. This sort of joy is one of the high sublimations, and when it happens, you cannot help but shout “Wow!”
Esoterica: Then again, maybe a work with no climax is its own climax. Such work, by its uniformity and flatness, may suggest it doesn’t need a climax because the work of art itself — the place or thought it depicts — is the climax. After all, it’s the climax of somebody’s wall. Dull though this thought may be, eternal dullness can be subject matter, and many people these days seem to need it. Perhaps the point is that life is dull, even-going, plodding, and without surprises. I’ve never found life to be that way — have you?
Climax and life
by E. Melinda Morrison, Denver, CO, USA
I see the correlation of climax in life and climax in painting. I think it is what most of us yearn for in life — the culmination of hard work resulting in reward. Desires being met and needs being recognized. And it is also very true when approaching a painting. Finding the story may mean pushing the light or darkening an area or graying down an area or losing more edges. And sometimes the spark is elusive and I asked an opinion from another artist to help me see my way clear on things. Many times I achieve where I want to go with the story, and sometimes the subject matter dictates the spark and climax happens in the painting. Others times, I sit back in frustration realizing it may be a good painting but not a great painting. It does not sing to me. You hit on the quality in painting that we all look for in our work. It is what separates great painting from just painting.
Intense inherent climaxes
by Marlene Lewis, Webster Groves, MO, USA
Sometimes, when there is an inherent “climax” in a subject, it’s almost too intense and one has to deflect it onto something else (such as the colors of trees as the sun sets upon them, rather than the sky itself). A painting can look mundane when it’s too beautiful, and I suppose that’s where the grays and contrasts come into play. I find it particularly challenging to paint the nude… the climax is often inherent in the subject and the painting can be overwhelming. The challenge for me is to paint it lovingly, and yet to keep it fresh and interesting.
Appreciation of opposites
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
Herman Melville‘s character Ishmael observes, ” …truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” I often ponder whether we could appreciate light without dark, peace without fear, pleasure without pain, good without evil. And those musings lead one beyond art to philosophy and world view. Chesterton said it well: “A man cannot be wise enough to be a great artist without being wise enough to wish to be a philosopher. A man cannot have the energy to produce good art without having the energy to wish to pass beyond it. A small artist is content with art; a great artist is content with nothing except everything.” ( G. K. Chesterton, Heretics)
Transcendent and sacred change
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
In the literary world the climax you’re speaking about is sometimes called an epiphany. It has spiritual connotations and I like to think of it as that moment when something deep in our psyche bursts in a way that opens out into differentiated territory — a place not explored ever before. It can be a quiet territory, even a bland one, but it seems it is always different than the place a viewer or reader was the moment before. The trick is to transport, to help a person transcend the stagnancy of their every day perspective.
Climaxing doesn’t have to be a frantic release. It can be a deep inner movement that builds and builds until emotion spills over the lip of reality. I think too many artists in all genres think the more smash, noise, shock they put into something, the more emotion they can evoke in the viewer, reader, listener. Too much emphasis on this can result in sensory overload. It can deaden the senses rather than excite them. What is manifested without is definitely reflective of what exists within. The reaction of the observer can’t help but relate to the reaction the creator feels as she tries to articulate the moment she recognizes as somehow transcendent, revealing, special, sacred, whatever name you want to use.
Stepping stones, not climaxes
by Gerhi Janse van Vuuren, South Africa
A climax also implies that an ending is close by. When one thing ends, the effort needs to be put in to get another thing started. In games there are mainly two sorts of games — one that ends in a climax, either winning or losing, and games that do not end but where the purpose of playing the game is because you are able to continue playing the game. I am at a stage in my development as an artist where every single painting is not a climax (with an inevitable anti-climax following) but a stepping stone that makes it possible for me to continue playing the game.
by Candace Fasano, Fernandina Beach, FL, USA
Regarding no climax in some paintings, I have heard comments expressed regarding the work of such abstract geometry painters as Kenneth Noland, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden or even the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. If dullness, even-going and plodding are what you get from this work, then that IS the subject for you. However, for anyone who wants to look deeper and discover why such an artist painted in this way, they would need to begin with an open mind, minus expectations, and much contemplation — a tall order in our frenetic, instant gratification world. Perhaps this is why “people these days seem to need it.” Climax in the works by these great artists takes place in the perception of the viewer as opposed to being displayed on the canvas as such.
Absence of climactic ‘hit’
by Jennifer, Los Angeles, CA, USA
I live in Los Angeles and sometimes score music for film and television. When a composer purposefully writes music to obviously land on some action on the screen, we call that a “hit,” like playing a sudden loud chord when the monster jumps out. However, the audience is sophisticated, and conventions must change — they expect the loud chord. A scarier effect might be to have the monster show up in silence. So a “hit” can be the absence of music. It usually makes the scene seem more realistic. In the movie, Sophie’s Choice, the climactic scenes were unscored which, I think, made them seem raw and present.
On a purely musical note, there is the ‘Russian crescendo’ — when the rise to the peak of a phrase is realized by getting softer.
Value of non-climactic art
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada
I’m an avid movie-goer and a voracious reader and a lot of my favorite works, including visual art, are non-climactic. I generally prefer the ‘slice of life’ style, where the audience is left to consider how the story may have played itself out. So often I feel that movies would be much improved by cutting the last scene. Likewise, with visual art, I don’t always want the work to say, “Look here, now let your eyes travel over here,” etc., etc. Some of my own work, both my wood mosaics and my paintings, have what you describe as a climax, but others patently don’t. I guess what I’m saying is, I like either, depending on my mood, but generally the stuff that really pulls me in is work that doesn’t blatantly show me its intention. Lots of little details with nothing specific is very appealing. Interestingly, some of my best selling works are these random scatterings of colour. I must not be the only one who likes them.
Feeling more alive
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
Joseph Campbell said, “Look, look long, and the world will come in.” In his Power of Myth series with Bill Moyers he mentions that one thing he has discovered through his discussions with his students is that they were all after the same thing… to feel more alive. I think we can say that for all of us. So… how do we feel more alive? For me, in part, it was through looking at the visual world around me. The longer I looked, the more I saw… and the more I saw, the more real and actual the world became. It was something like when you focus your camera… the appearance of things gradually becomes sharper and sharper. From that moment on, some 33 years ago, there has never been a dull moment. The everyday is rich with detail and possibilities.
Touching the philtrum
by Treza Bordinat Ager, Encinitas, CA, USA
There comes a similar moment in making most every sculpture that I have come to treasure. When sculpting a mouth, for example, the lips, a nose — I find at some unexpected point, that I have a catch in my heart — I am in that state of “flow” of which we so often speak. I find the realization always occurs to me that the proportions and indentations that make up these particular features, match so well to the size of one’s fingertips, they seem the only logical resolution. My own finger slides down to make the philtrum just as unconsciously as I breathe. As that clay, from which religions tell us we are purportedly made, becomes a “real person,” I find myself rushing and unaware that I am holding my breath, until I can “feel them breathe.”
When I can let go my breath again, I suppose that is for me, the climax of which you speak. Someone very close to me constantly says, “How did the Universe make so many of us, all so different, with only a mouth, a nose and two eyes? It seems impossible, and we should really all look practically the same!”
While I was raised to be of a scientific mind, it makes me wonder, every time, Who first “sculpted” us? Philtrum comes from the Greek philtron, from philein, which means “to love; to kiss.” I found that in many religions, including writings in the Talmud, the Bible and much Mid Eastern and Oriental folklore, they say that God sends an angel to each womb and teaches a baby all the wisdom that can be obtained. Just before the unborn baby comes out, the angel touches it between the upper lip and the nose and all that it has taught the baby is forgotten. Or, an angel makes the baby ready for earthly life by this same touch, which makes the babe forget heaven, and therefore is now readied for birth. Other stories say that it is an indent left by the finger of God. There is my “Wow” moment!
Munsell color wheel opens vision
by Carole Mayne, Leucadia, CA, USA
I have come to meet the Munsell color wheel, via Harley Brown and others. My head is spinning from the newly shifted complements and discords in an alarmingly delightful way! My students are going along with this new direction and the ripples are expanding. While being intimately aware of the properties of light vs. pigments, I couldn’t combine the two into a repeatable formula for success till now. At times I feel the mental strain is overwhelming. Then, your column reminds us to keep the goal for integrating new information ever in front of us, and I am grateful that my job is making art, even when it seems the strangest employment on the planet!
Confessions of a YUPO queen
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
After eight years of using YUPO as my only painting surface, I am referred to as the “YUPO Queen.” Not exactly a lofty title, but it does say what I am all about. Last month I had an exhibition in Sarasota, Florida and rather than an opening I held a Gallery Walk — visiting each of the 20 paintings and replying to an hour and a half of questions about the work. I am a conservationist and my paintings preserve visually what we are rapidly eliminating in this world as we build, pave and drive into the future. That being said, my response to walking through my paintings with an audience brought forth the most unexpected questions from painters, collectors and caring folks alike. It was great! Everyone got involved and the paintings just talked themselves off the walls, revealing stories and inner images that would have possibly been passed by had the viewer been on an unaccompanied journey. I found the personal contact and interaction to be stimulating and enjoyable for all. I also have a no fee follow up with many questions via email. As to the validity of our responses, it is not so much the content as the fact that we show an interest, take the time to reply and therefore help to keep someone’s spirits up and brush working. It is a gift that so many artists trust our opinion!
Critique of another’s work
by Jo VanderWoude, Sioux Falls, SD, USA
I was intrigued by the painting, Kite on a Short String, and immediately started doing a critique of my own on it. I love the use of the complementary colors: blue/orange and red/green. The skin tones are wonderful. The subject matter is interesting. The feeling of motion very real — the ocean, the wind. Possible ideas:
1) Continue the sea all the way to the top, eliminating the sky.
2) Blur and soften edges drastically in the top third of the painting as well as parts of the middle portion and a couple of areas in the bottom third.
3) Try to soften or blur the seashell in the foreground so that it is still a part of the triangle formed with the boy/kite/shell but is not competing.
4) Add tiny touches of the reddish color in the sea gradually graying it as it gets in to the middle and background areas.
Male model in robes
oil painting by Philip Howe, Snohomish, WA, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Mark D. Gottsegen of Climax, NC, USA who wrote, “And when you live in a town named Climax, as I do, you get a double shot!”
And also Chris Boardman of Los Angeles, CA who wrote, “The yin and yang. One cannot exist without the other. Form and the ability to use it to express a specific response is the challenge of the artist. Anything less is nothing more than an exercise.”
And also Amy Pace who wrote, “This is a wonderful commentary on the metaphors of life and art in its many forms. Thank you for the insight!”
And also Linda Blondheim of Gainesville, FL, USA who wrote, “I never consider the routine to be dull. Preparing for a painting trip, mapping out the route, preparing for workshops, doing the research required for good teaching, planning exhibitions, corresponding with artists and clients, is all stimulating and challenging. I wonder if being an artist makes these routines fun or whether some folks just get more excited about life than others.”
And also Janet Toney of Greeneville, TN, USA who wrote, “Maybe life is too un-dull, so people with art on their walls that looks dull to others, may just need to be soothed. Instead of a reflection of real life in their art, they need an escape from real life.”
And also Mary Anne who wrote, “What great insight! Who is Robert Genn? I have not heard of him.”
And also Claire DeLong Taylor of Horse Shoe, NC, USA who wrote, “That was the worst drivel I have ever read from you. Usually, you write with such insight and clarity. Maybe those Hawaiian sunsets have burnt a little brain matter? Get back to the pithy stuff, Robert.” (RG note) Thanks, Claire. In case you haven’t read it, there’s more good stuff like this at What artists have written about the Twice-Weekly Letters.