Yesterday, Dan McGrath of Lexington, Kentucky, wrote, “I consider myself an experienced landscape painter, but I see advice from successful artists: ‘Paint what you feel about a subject, not just what you see.’ As an ex-engineer, I don’t have a clue what I feel about a subject except that I love being outdoors and being in the places I visit. How does one recognize or introduce emotion into a scene? Is it bright colors, strong value contrasts, or what?”
We’ve put a selection of Dan’s excellent paintings at the bottom of this letter. Like Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, Dan has a heart, he just doesn’t know it.
Thanks, Dan. Your work shows what I call the “engineer’s touch.” This means your paintings have precise, organized and well-thought-out compositions. Further, you are blessed with good drawing, colour wisdom, aerial perspective and a strong sense of light and shade. Many artists would love to have these abilities. Your work already has the bright colours and strong contrasts you mentioned. Let’s look further:
Contrivances, whether conscious or unconscious, are the first place to start looking. Dan’s work, like that of a lot of other painters, often shows a formalized and conservative consistency. In his case, it’s often a stabilizing horizontality or a (generally foreground) lineup that repeats from painting to painting. To get more emotion, you need to forego some of this engineering and let yourself be a bit more of a swinger.
Further, be careful with static elements, such as rocks. These are not objects to buttress a composition. They are living, breathing, painterly illusions with latent dynamism. While your work shows care and labour, care and labour are not necessarily emotions.
Apart from the emotion one finds in masterful faces (see Rembrandt’s portraits) and the emotion connected to a sensitive place (see Edward Hopper’s lonely cafés), there’s the tactile emotion that comes out of the end of the brush. Brushwork, energetic and fresh, might be just enough additional emotion for your well-engineered landscapes. In the words of Elbert Hubbard, “Allow motion to equal emotion.”
Esoterica: Artists write daily to ask for advice on their work. Sometimes I don’t know where to start. Often I pick out one or two salient points and try to get them across in about the length of a Twitter Tweet: “Consider adding painterly energy and bravura to give a bit more dazzle and authenticity to the work.” I know the old saw is a bit jaded, but think of this one as well: “The main thing is sincerity, and when you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Dan McGrath’s paintings
by Susan Canavarro, Florence, OR, USA
Dan obviously likes twilight. I asked him what it was about twilight he was responding to. What does it make him feel like? Never mind the landscape, what does the quality of light do for him? Why does he want to paint it? Does twilight hold nostalgia, loneliness, creativity, romanticism…? I responded strongly to Dan’s work because I like twilight. As a young girl I always found twilight to be a quiet, creative and introspective time; a time for dreaming. I’d sit before the big double doors, looking west out to the ocean, and dream of being a writer. Now I am a painter. Go figure! I believe answering those kinds of questions can lead to expression of those feelings in the work, and often it will be what a viewer responds to, only with their own personal reflections.
Attributes to build on
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
I come from a family of engineers. My father and my brother are both engineers, and I have some very good friends who had careers as engineers. The very nature of most engineers is to be organized and exact in their tasks. This also seems to be the case in Dan’s art work. Rather than trying to work more emotion into his paintings, I think Dan should play to those strengths you mentioned, and look for scenes that build on the emotions that are already coming through in his work. There is a real calmness and quietness to the pieces you posted and I think those are wonderful attributes for paintings to have, especially in this busy chaotic world that we live in.
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Believe in yourself
by Mishcka O’Connor, Tucson, AZ, USA
I don’t agree with you about Dan McGrath’s landscapes. They definitely express emotion. I think their qualities go far beyond “care and labour.” I see in each a powerful mood of the time and place of the event. Some also have a masculine solidness that remind me of Rockwell Kent’s landscapes.
Rain, Aker’s Farm is exquisite. I can feel the moist silver sky that gives the feeling of quiet solitude to the scene. The Slope is extraordinary in its mood and unusual composition. The colors and values are so true and the red in the dense trees make them live. I feel River Dawn has that Rockwell Kent quality more than the others. Anyway, these are the paintings I relate to the most. McGrath is a remarkable landscape painter. He expresses emotion powerfully in his paintings and he doesn’t need advice from the rest of us except to believe in himself more.
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Emotion in art
by Tim Tyler
I think art is always subjective and personal. As such, what responses each work stirs in the viewer is personal to that individual. About 1920 it became fashionable in College art programs to refer to all realism as “dead art.” So the wonderful landscapes of Church, Bierstadt & Turner that have always moved me deeply suddenly were deemed soulless labors of skilled craftsman by the elitist university art teachers, who could not paint well themselves. I believe, as do you, in emotion in art. I think the creator must suffuse the art with life. But after art leaves the easel it then must live and move others and how it affects the world will be amazingly unique.
Unique ‘outsider’ art
by Carol Rosenberg, Sanibel FL, USA
You hit the target. I see this so often in the older “new” artists I associate with. They spend so much time trying to learn/refine technique that they overlook their own lifetime of experiences that could add meaning and feeling to their work. I suggest a study in “outsider” artwork like that at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. It cannot be all designated as pretty or commercial but it sure shows a lot about the uniqueness of an individual’s creativity.
Concentrate on your best
by Alev Guvenir, Istanbul, Turke
“Perceiving energy directly as it flows in the universe is a unit of cognition that shamans live by. They see how energy flows, and follow its flow If the flow is obstructed, they move away to do something entirely different” (Carlos Castaneda, The Active Side of Infinity, Pg.124)
I believe an artist must be truthful and make use of his/her strong sides. If logic or analytical view is your strong side you should make use of it. Not all of us are engineers. What is easy for you is difficult for someone else and vice versa. That is how we differ and create variety and richness in our world. I have seen pieces of work in galleries and museums that amazed me with the cold and emotionless state of silence. I have seen pieces so pure and neutral that strokes me with their minimalism.
An engineer has the ability of analytical, scientific thinking. He may use this ability to push and exaggerate the perspective, geometric planes or colour fields. Abstract expressionism uses such elements. He may push the correctness of the scene depicted. These paintings have something unique in them. It is the neutral state, or silent logic. Why push it to the emotional side? May be one can use the strength of this scientific perfection to push it to the cold, motionless, yet astonishing truth of silence.
I believe an artist’s biggest enemy is the fear of failure, worries about mistakes, anxiety and self-doubt. We must get opinion from others and listen to them with big ears. However, we should never forget our strong points lay upon the things that we find easy. We should not undervalue the things we do eyes shut – and struggle with the things we find difficult. Why use time and energy? Concentrate on your best and make a difference.
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Be a little wild
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
This former engineer has good painting skills, better than many who work the trade. What seems lacking to me is mystery. The paintings are ‘workmanlike’ and predictable in finish, color and composition. This painter knows the ‘rules’ of painting and this knowledge should be freeing and not constricting. Like an experienced skydiver, he ought to feel free to twirl around a bit on the way down, knowing the correct time and procedure to pull the parachute and to land safely. To me that is the point of knowing the fundamentals. When you know the rules, you can deliberately change the rules or break them. This artist could make that choice to “not do” what he normally does. Writer Carlos Castaneda talked of this concept of “not doing” in his philosophy. Break the routine. Eat lunch at different times. Be less accessible, less predictable — to create more of a mystery about yourself and restore your childlike wonder at the beauty and mystery of the world. Use diagonals in his compositions, rather than horizontals. Pick a red, instead of a brown. Leave some areas less finished and selectively finish others. Speed up the process. Be a little wild and crazy. We have no art cops handing out tickets for daring failures and leaps of faith.
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Your true voice
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
Painting with emotion is for those of us who are emotional. Painting with precision and organization is for those who are built that way. Ultimately, we all must find our true voice, not someone else’s notion of what painting is about. For the engineer to let go might not be an honest expression of his nature. Yet, if that is something that is lacking in his personality, I believe that the best way to overcome this problem is to deal with his approach to life through personal development and maybe even psychology. Finding some gimmick to appear loose and hip or swinging would not be the sincere way of pouring one’s heart and soul into the visual expression. I agree that he is producing really fine work and I commend his recognition that growth will not be simple.
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No More Secondhand Art
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
I recommend the book No More Secondhand Art by Peter London to Dan. Peter has really explained how to find the heart Dan is looking for. I believe it is one of those things that takes a while to see, and suddenly, once discovered, you can’t imagine how you didn’t see it before. Technique is important, but insufficient. By itself it creates pedestrian and predictable work that only impresses by its skill. We want our work to seek a response directed by the artwork not at the artwork. In my own work I want to redirect the viewers’ attention toward active contemplation rather than passive recognition. When we approach a painting, we need to try and see the world as if for the first time, full of all that wonder. We have to press our paintings past the service of replicating. Art is about more that describing the world; it is about our own personal encounter with it. This doesn’t mean Dan has to go all wild and abstract. It could be his attention to detail that makes life important to him but if they are too consciously rendered, there is nothing personal about his mark that tells us this.
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by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Dan’s paintings are not completely devoid of emotion, even if they would benefit from more expressive quality. It just may be controlled more than he prefers it to look like it is. I would say more mood would give more feeling. Go for nuances and subtleties. Before seeing his work, my instinctive response is for him to get out of his head. Meditation and yoga of course can be great tools for someone to soften the control the mind has in one’s life. Another practical tool is to do some work that is not going to be precious. Work on paper quickly doing gesture drawings; even consider working with eyes closed making abstract marks to get a feel for the process of putting marks on a paper with charcoal and then ink. Look for your innate style of making marks and gestures. In other words loosen up! Enjoy and trust in yourself when you are least in control. Delight in the unknown and discover through the adventure. Be willing to be surprised by the mystery of what the work will show you. Sense rather than think and just dive in! After all, the risks you take won’t kill you.
Clear focal point
by Ron Sanders, North Port, FL, USA
One thing that made a difference in my evolution was learning how my two eyes see versus how a camera sees. A camera sees everything in focus from top to bottom and side to side. This is called a focal plane. But our two eyes see a focal point. Learn to paint as if you are staring at the most important thing in the painting.
Here’s an exercise: Hold up a pencil or paint brush or some small object. Now stare at that object. Without moving your eyes, try to become aware of how everything else around you is perceived by your peripheral vision. You should notice that the further out in peripheral things get, the more they change in four key areas. As things move away from focal point they:
1.) Become less contrasty in values
2.) Become less brilliant in color saturation
3.) Have less detail visible
4.) Appear to have softer or more blurred edges
Or, said in reverse, the thing we’re staring at (focal point) has the lightest light, darkest dark, brightest color, most detail and hardest edges. If your “reality” doesn’t match this, try viewing non-focal-point areas in your peripheral vision and build the relationships that are needed to make a good design in your painting. Your work has certain hardness to many of the edges that are the same all across the picture. Learn to manipulate the four points of focus and you’ll start to see more depth, and more life (emotion), in your work. This will also make your focal point more clear to the viewer.
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Deep in West Fork Canyon
oil over acrylic watercolor painting 22 x 16 inches
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 Manuel Occan of Recife, Brazil, who wrote, “Don’t worry Dan, you either are or you aren’t emotional. Engineering is good thing to do too.”
And also Jan Ross of Kennesaw, GA, who wrote, “I was once told to never ask an engineer his opinion of my artwork as they’re trained to observe things as they really are or SHOULD be, not what they can/could be. Maybe listening to some lively music will trigger his right brain or he could work when he’s not fully awake/sober to loosen up? Maybe he can explore why other artists’ works EXCITE him and go from there?”
Enjoy the past comments below for Painting emotion…