Recently, watercolorist Roderik Mayne of Toronto, Ontario wrote, “What do you mean when you talk about putting mystery in your work?”
Thanks, Roderik. I’m walking along a strange forest path. Others are with me — some fall back and some join later. We hear animals in the forest but cannot see them. We come upon surprises of incredible beauty that we can’t explain. Some are quite in focus and others are not. Always something is just ahead that we can’t quite get to. As we move forward, whatever it is moves forward also but we never can fully touch it.
If you’re still with me and you don’t think I’m losing it, and if you catch my drift, describing aspects of life is part of the artist’s job. Let me explain:
The path is also the road, stream, river, etc. Few of us have a straight one that leads directly to a big something. More in tune with the human experience is the curving, bumping-up-and-down path that disappears around a corner, over a hill or into a valley. This path winds and beguiles and serves a deep human need. It takes you some distance into the enigma.
The incompletely disclosed subject can be anything: a barn, a lake, a sunset, a splodge of paint, a boy, a girl. The subject need not be fully described, delineated or even fully understood. A hidden barn, a shrouded lake, an obscured sunset, an over-painted splodge, an escaping boy, a shy girl seen only in profile or from behind — all of these tease and caress you further into the enigma.
As you move forward along the path, toward the mysterious something up ahead, the elusive subject might be for a time in focus and the surrounding area not so. This is the nature of concentration — one thing at a time. It may seem unfortunate to some, and worth remedying, but in truth we cannot fully see the whole enigma. This condition, the “specific focus phenomenon,” shows the nature of both human sight and human aspiration. The rest is blurred, fleeting, disappearing. “Suddenly,” said Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “as rare things will, it vanished.”
PS: “What I’m trying to translate to you is more mysterious; it is entwined in the very roots of being, in the implacable source of sensations.” (Paul Cezanne) “The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery.” (Francis Bacon) “A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people.” (Edgar Degas) “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science.” (Albert Einstein)
Esoterica: You may call them devices, and in some ways they are. But they are the very bones of your paintings, sculptures, even your quilts. Similar to the plot in a story, the theme in a poem, the continuity in a movie, you need them and they need you.
The illustration of transcendent truth
by David Drum, Crystal Beach, ON, Canada
Modigliani said he was searching for neither the real nor the unreal but the mystery of what is instinctive in the human race. By doing this he was placing himself in the tradition of the great Romanesque religious sculptors who never hesitated to distort the representation of reality, as if by doing so they could better illustrate a transcendent truth, which in their eyes was more real than external appearances.
The wisdom of J.M.W. Turner
by H Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Mystery is something critics never seem to notice. The master of mystery in landscapes was William Turner. Take a look at the painting of the avalanche crushing a cottage and you can feel the snow and isolation. Or the Burning of the Parliament, where you wonder what started the fire. Turner was the precursor for Impressionism. I look at Turner often and I’m always amazed. This is a great topic during this era of over-explicit, dreary minutia art.
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Mystery retains the brain’s attention
by Brian Crawford Young, Forres, Scotland
I agree totally about the mystery element in paintings. Whether it applies to conceptual art, I am not so sure. Conceptual works seem to me to be like a sentence that needs translating from another language. Once you’ve done it, it’s done. No more mystery. All you need is the unlocking key. For me, a painting with mystery retains the brain’s attention long enough for something deeper to happen — an emotional connection perhaps. Emotional connections are often lacking in conceptual works, and therefore there will be no lasting commitment to it as a Work of Art. I looked at Roderik Mayne’s work on the clickback, and was highly impressed. He need not worry about the precise meaning of mystery, as long as his paintings continue to have their own sense of je ne sais quoi.
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Art needs mystery because life is mystery
by Anne Copeland, Calimesa, CA, USA
I always tell people that it is so important in a painting or piece of art to leave the viewer wanting more. The viewer should experience that sense of “more” that is unseen and keeps you thinking about or remembering the art long after you have walked past it. It’s like that wonderful bouquet or taste on your palette after you have drunk the wine. You remember it somewhere in the recesses of your mind and it is always pleasant to return.
The art doesn’t have to be pleasing, though, to make you want to return to it, at least in your mind. It can create a question that needs to be answered, or it can express something that makes you wonder about the outcome of the situation. Will these subjects live or die in this event that is happening? Is the ship going to sink or will it make it to land? Will the woman in the background get to be with the man she loves or will he stay with the society woman he is seen walking with in the foreground?
Our minds always return to mystery because all of life is a mystery in so many ways. Art that is able to convey that will be remembered long after it is gone from sight.
Mystery impossible to label
by Colin Poole, Calgary AB, Canada
I was mesmerized by the thoughts that your word picture created. In the reverie that it produced, I wondered how is it possible for the human mind to recognize those things that are impossible, those things that are not real. It is too facile an answer to say simply that it is imagination. We have created the linguistic handle of “imagination” to describe those things which work in this way. Putting a label on it does not produce an understanding, but only a mechanism for the manipulation of such conceptions and observations. How can the logical mind identify that which cannot be understood and that which cannot be described. How can we cope with the mystery that the thoughts of such great thinkers as you quoted have touched?
Sensing the world in a primal way
by Christopher Hollins, Whitby, UK
The sense of mystery has driven me away from painting traditional images. I now believe this sensation of mystery we artists ‘feel’ in our mind is a remnant of an old awareness for animal instinct inherent from our primal origins. We sense this ‘feeling’ in nature when we become uncertain of what we see and a little uncertainty in a work is a very important element in art. Art is a way of sensing the world in a deep primal way. Finding a way to capture that sensation drives us artists in many directions and, whatever the outcome, it is a fascinating journey.
Design as key to mystery
by Kristine Fretheim, Maple Grove, MN, USA
While I’m kinda blindly feeling my way, design is my walking stick. From paucity to mystery, I’m convinced that design is the tool that will take us where we want to go — even when we’re uncertain of our destination. I think to create anything, let alone a sense of mystery, one needs to be able to call up feelings and emotions relating to the subject of the painting and express them visually. This is where understanding of the elements and principles of design can help with artistic expression. Design embedded in the bones of an artwork guides the viewers’ attention to the expressive meaning of the work. Those mysterious, emotional dimensions that are so difficult to express in words can be magically unlocked using design as a tool. The way we use formal elements like pattern, line, value etc. creates an emotional resonance with the viewer. And that way is showing the design principles in action. Design principles themselves seem to have an emotional, intuitive resonance: harmony, unity, dominance, contrast, repetition, gradation, rhythm, balance. Art is an intuitive language. When we feel lost in our art-making, design can help us get back in touch with that intuitive resonance by giving us something to lean on while we “clear the brush” from our creative path!
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Layering of appreciation levels
by oliver, TX, USA
Great works often have many layers of appreciation in them. Some are technical (color, perspective, level of abstraction, handling of light, composition, movement), some where the piece fits in the artist’s work and development are in the world of art generally (a new realist vs. a realist 100 years ago, one of the first Impressionists or a modern one), some are topical (nature reclaiming from man — old rustic falling down barn, where does the path go), some are emotive (the love between mother and child). The best pieces will do all this and more for the educated viewer, yet will allow a viewer to appreciate any one level and may allow them to grow and understand other levels over time. The timeless and most loved pieces, I find, are the ones that work on many levels, yet still have an uplifting quality that makes the viewer want to see them daily and enjoy them. Peel the layers on the Mona Lisa, Starry Starry Night, Water Lilies, Three Musicians, Persistence of Memory. It is an interesting exercise to ask well educated and the “lay” people to name the most famous pieces of art and study why the pieces have become beloved.
Mystery in more ways than one
by Pamela Simpson Lussier, Willington, CT, USA
A few times in my life I have encountered a painting that was so well executed and had such a beautiful mystery that it has brought tears to my eyes. The first time was in Montmarte, Paris 30 years ago. I was looking through all the bad Eiffel towers and other paintings done for tourists when I came across one genuine artist with a body of work that was full of mystery. There was one piece of work that was just genius. I can’t even describe the subject because it was about the mystery, just glowing with it. It wasn’t that expensive, but I hesitated to buy it. I had never bought a painting in my life and I didn’t really know if I was allowed such a joy. I thought about it all that night and the next day I went back with my mind made up to purchase it. To my sorrow, I found the artist but my painting had been sold. He wanted to sell me another but it was not the one.
Years later, I went to visit a new little gallery that an artist had set up in my home town. The work was amazing, full of this same mystery. I felt like I was in a museum. The artist had just come back from a trip to Monhegan Island, Maine and this work was on the walls. A few months later a prize winning one of this group was on the walls and I made up my mind to purchase it. A friend with me was trying to talk me into another that was a little less expensive, but I remembered my Paris experience and I knew this was the one. This was the first time that I had bought a painting And I finally felt I deserved such a joy in my life. I did not suspect at the time that in a few years I would not only have the joy of that painting but also the joy of being married to the man of mystery, the artist.
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acrylic ink painting, 40 x 40 inches
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