Those of us who sometimes mentor and instruct students are familiar with trying to get people to really look at things. Recently, after a few days walking around in a subject-rich environment, I was agog with new possibilities. Burdened with reference, I returned to the studio and proceeded to paint the worst thing I’ve done in some time. It was one of those paintings that can have you considering a career in accountancy. During the fiasco I began to better understand a syndrome I’ve had all my life. It’s what I call “the tyranny of reality.”
Let me explain. When we are overloaded with subject matter, we have an automatic tendency to neglect style and imagination. Subject matter is no match for spirit. Too much observation can change the creative event from one of spirit to one of rendering. Surprise, chance, illusion, personality, audacity, confidence and desire are the most affected. Abandonment and even desertion may have to be contemplated.
Sad to say, but glorious nature stomps on creativity. The artist becomes not a master, but a slave. On the other hand, reflecting in tranquility, uncluttered by overabundance and the need to get reality right, one is free to pass to another level. “Reality,” said Joyce Cary, “is a narrow little house which becomes a prison for those who can’t get out.”
In 1970, the distinguished critic and social theorist Roland Barthes wrote, “Painting can feign reality without having seen it.” When I first read that statement a door opened. Time and again I’ve seen the idea make timid artists brave. Those who dare to “feign reality” are in the agreeable business of surprising themselves. Believe me, it’s anticipated surprise that keeps us at our easels. I hardly know of an evolved artist in any field who doesn’t understand this. “The job of art,” said Francoise Sagan, “is to take reality by surprise.”
Bogging down in detail will spoil the fun every time. I can’t think how many times I’ve failed to break down that door. Clive Bell, another critic lashing out in the age of hyperrealism, noted, “Detail is the fatty degeneration of art.” He has a point. Fat is tyranny. Reduce.
PS: “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality.” (Aristotle)
Esoterica: Many significant artists might say that the opposite is true, and for many, it is. Artists with no respect for or understanding of reality can be a slave to their own imaginations. When these imaginations are shallow, which they sometimes are, there’s nothing like a shot or two of the real world. One of the hazards of art instruction is where you suggest one person might loosen up, and you tell another to start looking more carefully at things. Within earshot, people are getting the opposite information. It’s not like accountancy at all.
Maturity in the middle ground
by Sarah Clegg, Knutsford, UK
One should not be a ‘slave,’ either to reality or imagination, but arrival at that happy place where one is confident in both dimensions seems only to come when an artist reaches a certain level of maturity in their work and technique. Neither do I think this is a matter of finding the ‘middle ground.’ The best of hyper-realistic art is in a place beyond what we think is reality, whilst the most imaginative abstracts can be as concrete and ‘real’ as any careful and accurate study of a subject. Either way, depth beyond the image on the canvas is something towards which all of us should strive. Getting there can be a long journey, but one day that ‘breakthrough’ painting arrives.
Departing from the herd
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA
What a struggle it is when one’s mind insists on staying in a literal mode while painting. I always know when I am in this mode that my painting will lack that other indescribable quality, authenticity. Nowhere is this “Tyranny of reality” more evident today than in a full page ad in many current magazines that feature plein air painting. It is often evident that each of the eight or ten painters are fine craftsmen. There are beautiful edges, variety in forms, interesting color choices, unique compositions… but they all look the same. When I look further I see that the training and background of the artists is often the same. I do think that probably in the case of current plein air painters the goal is the same; to render a painting that portrays a particular subject, at a particular time, in a particular place. I am not denigrating that goal. It is admirably achieved, but I sometimes wish I could distinguish the individual spirit responding on that particular day in that particular place; in other words, an individually authentic response. Of course the best plein air painters do this and they grow and distinguish themselves from the pack, not by rendering, but by departing from the herd.
Don’t skip the first stage
by Jan Blencowe, Clinton, CT, USA
There’s reality and then there’s reality. At first there’s getting to know what is before your eyes, how to see it and how to paint it. I believe this stage takes years to develop. It includes quiet time observing, sketching from life, and painting from life. During that time you’re also acquiring the technical skills that allow you to put on the canvas what you see. But then one day you come to the point where that isn’t enough. The paintings you were so proud of because their value structure was spot on, the colors so natural, the drawing so true to life seem superficial and lacking. At that point you leave off depicting one reality, the outward and observable, and begin seeking to depict the other reality, the one that’s deeper, and more essential. That reality is harder to find, and harder to describe in words or with paints and brushes. It comes from within and without. It’s what moulds great painters and poets. It’s what will occupy you as an artist for the rest of your life. But, woe to the artist who tries to skip the first stage of observing and working from life. Their work, while looking less like visible reality and seemingly more like inner reality, will also be superficial and lacking. There’s no shortcut to creating great art, the first stage is necessary, the second is sublime and the whole journey is a joy.
The selection of emotions
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
A vibrant impression is more life-like than a “realistic” interpretation. I love well done realistic renderings too but my own nature is truest in impressionism because it is more intuitive. For me reality isn’t defined by detail. When I visualize something that I’ve seen, even when I am seeing something first hand, I can only take in certain things. I can only see more if I look further as if it’s a movie rather than a single painting. Detail is like color, those who do detail best are those who are selective about which details to include. Even great painters such as Andrew Wyeth realized with all his wonderfully rendered details that they should not overpower the meaning and tension of the painting, and of course the reason his work is great is because they didn’t. In my personal taste the art of painting is to get the emotions and the best part of the experience of being there in a clear, simple and charged expression.
Fusing a new aesthetic
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
Now that realism per-se has gained some acceptance, many artists are like young children with a new toy. They have found the tools and learned the skills to copy things photographically. I know I felt great at 14 when I could paint a copper pot accurately. There are many discussions as to how best to capture realism — heated discussions as to whether copying a photograph or drawing from life will give you the most accurate and desired results. It has occurred to me, if the aim is to copy subjective reality — whatever that is — the camera is the superior tool. However, making art is a different reality. Often we paint our dreams, and as in a dream, subjects can float un-tethered, scale is turned inside out and color is unhinged. Too much is made today, especially in judging ‘realism’ in art, as to how close to the subject the artist has come. I find it dreary, to see the ‘no pore unexplored portraits’ as a concise depiction of a human being. Equally depressing is the current hegemony of academic realism which celebrates much dreary and pedantic work. Gustav Klimt could paint photo-realistically, but he was not afraid to take off the lead boots of academism to create his magical works. He leapt into uncharted territories, much to our continuing delight. This is not a plea to return to the unskilled, sloppy self-centered, neurotic work of the last century; but to use some of the contemporary concepts to fuse a new aesthetic.
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I love “the tyranny of reality.” That reality drives me to my subject matter: the human condition. Truth/reality is always stranger than fiction unless you’re a lunatic in which case your imagination can be evidence for incarceration. Don’t get me wrong, abstracts are a reality. But, all realistic painting is preternatural, unless you copy a photograph of a found situation. Skill is not creativity. Even though I paint in a very realistic style, the still life paintings are all preternatural, a created reality of metaphorical objects that speak to an idea or concept about the human condition, and there in lies the surprise: Art is hard work. As Aristotle said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality.” “Their inward significance” is the metaphorical content.
See the surface of things
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
Did Aristotle ever paint? “True reality?” Where is that exactly? The surface or appearance of things is the life-blood of the representational artist. The inner-stuff is only a guess on our part, and this ‘inner-stuff’ is truly in the eye/mind of the beholder. It is only a guess. The American artist Robert Irwin said, “Everything is reality.” I’ve met many seemingly passionate painters who want to express their ‘inner feeling’ for the things around them, and yet, when you see their art, their passion in invisible in the paint. There is no substitute for a good set of eyes to see the ‘surface’ of things. It is quite simple really, if you can’t see it you can’t ‘feel’ it, and thus you can’t paint it.
Inner essence in sculpture
by Hap Hagood, Clover, VA, USA
While your letter, The tyranny of reality, was referring to painters, the same holds true for sculptors. Approximately ten years ago, I abandoned the strict, realistic style in which I was working for a more contemporary one. By leaving out what I consider non-essential detail in my sculptures, I am better able to express the essence, the inner spirit, that is, the inherent nature of a thing. For me, this is very important; in hopes the viewer will not only see the beauty of the animal portrayed, but will also feel its undying spirit.
Addiction to detail
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
We have been weaned on photographic imagery and the camera lens thrives on the close up. This minute fabric of patterns can be very beautiful and seductive. I like to joke with my students that detail is like crack cocaine for artists. It is brutally addicting and soon takes over and ruins us. The great artists are masters at suggesting detail. They trick our brains into filling in the detail for them. I believe that there is an abstract fingerprint behind every object. If you get that sense, you will suggest the reality of an object. The real problem with detail is it is like frosting on a cake. You need a great cake or the best frosting is absolutely meaningless. The cake is the guts of the painting… the patterns of light and dark, the composition, the whole concept of the painting. It is there that the focus should be placed. It is easy, however to get seduced by the beautiful details and by focusing there, the unity of the painting quickly disappears like a mirage. We see and seek a palm tree oasis but get an arid desert. Detail is the siren song meant to ensnare and enslave the artist. Better to avoid this obsession. Fudge it and be free!
Reality infused with imagination
by Jim Lorriman, Shelburne, ON, Canada
I have found that when I teach, all I really have to do is provide my students with the necessary tools — make sure the gouge is sharp, have the correct stance, feel loose, be in the right frame of mind. Once the lathe is turned on and the wood is spinning it is fun for me to watch the surprise when they hit the “sweet spot” where everything comes together — the shavings come off in loose curls, the gouge cuts clean and they just want the feeling to last forever. When my students can move from the occasional surprise to being able to create the circumstances for sweet turning then they are surprised again when they realize that they can turn whatever they can imagine. As woodturners, we start with reality and infuse it with imagination. Then the finished piece becomes an object of reflection. As an instructor, I am adamant that I don’t want my students to copy me. I want them to express new ideas, see things in a new light and ultimately become instructors themselves.
Liberation with ‘The Muse’
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
You can easily become a slave to reality. Been there, done that, in my photorealist phase — which is why I had to swear off photographs. But I realized a long time ago that nature is far more creative than I am. My best stuff comes not from taking reality by surprise, but from being taken by surprise by reality. So for me, rather than being enslaving, these moments liberate me from what I’ve done before, and I don’t see how I could keep painting without them. On the other hand, the same thing can happen while painting. The paint takes over somehow, the eyes go out of focus, and again I’m surprised! I recently painted a stormy sky that I could never have deliberately invented or rendered from nature. In both cases, I don’t know if it’s “spirit,” as you say, or just submitting to the muse. Maybe they’re the same thing.
Techniques of dealing with reality
by Carol Marine, Austin, TX, USA
Most of my students get bogged down with details very quickly, even before they have the subject completely sketched out, and I must admit I was there once myself. I taught myself to step back mentally and look at the entire subject at once, so I can compare each value/ color/ distance/ edge/ etc. with all others. I have two tricks that I use for this constantly: squinting at my subject, and stepping back a few paces from my painting. I also sometimes take a picture of my subject and/or painting and look at it very small on my computer monitor, or use a mirror and look at it backwards. Each of these techniques reduces what you are seeing to its most basic elements, AND separates what you are actually seeing from the image your brain has pulled up for whatever the subject is. This helps one see, free of any preconceived notions, but it also helps one suggest what one sees onto the canvas/paper/etc., so that the process becomes more one of interpreting rather than copying.
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Value of ‘being there’
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
Today I visited a gallery to see some paintings by Laura Buxton about the Bosnian conflict, which was also a topic in my current series of paintings. The difference is that she did these paintings right there, working en plein aire, shortly after the conflict ended. I did mine from twelve year old memories, using happy-snap photos as guides. My process required me to imagine how things looked and felt, and try to come up with believable settings.
Today, I saw that there’s no comparison. Where I would have to think about how light would hit an object, she saw it. Where I would have to think about what colors might be in the cobblestones, she saw them. And it shows up in the paintings. Hers are much richer in color and texture, full of surprises in shapes and values and content. Next to hers, mine feel very predictable. At least to me.
As you wrote in today’s letter, it’s really hard to deal with the smorgasbord of visual information when I’m working in a subject-rich environment. But if I’m going to work in a representational manner, I really have to work directly from the subject.
There must be a balance, maybe doing workup sketches onsite, refining the composition in the studio, and returning to the site to get the richness in color, texture, and shape, maybe with refining some more in the studio. I just know that I have to do a better job of it. So I better get busy!
Enjoy the past comments below for The tyranny of reality…
Cheek to cheek
oil painting, 12 x 12 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 K. Thurston of Cincinnati, OH, USA who wrote, “I have to pause in reading to disagree. Nature stomps not on creativity, but we do (and on nature too, FTM!). Nature is a wondrous creator.”
And also Dale Bandel who wrote, “Reality isn’t the culprit here. As you said, too much reality or too much adherence to reality can deter a piece of art. I’ve found personally that restrictions increase my creativity. I first noticed this as a child. When sent to my bedroom for a timeout, I’d assess what was within reach and out of that construct something to entertain myself for the next hour or so.”
And also Sandy McKeehan who wrote, “You have a point and then you’re all wrong… Art includes realism and who are you to dissuade those whose craft it is to be hyper real? I really don’t like the argument you make because what you choose to paint, out of all that beauty, is an art in itself. The spirit part is done in advance and then comes the art work of reproducing it.”
And also Susan Holland who wrote, “Maybe this phenomenon is why often the “real painting” happens when you take a fresh canvas after a day of false starts and paint a blockbuster quickie. By the time you are finishing up the paint on your palette, you have finally gotten to the core issue of the subject and can identify the truth behind all those obscuring details.”
And also Max Mckenzie of Chattanooga, TN, USA who wrote, “Last summer I took a trip to the Grand Canyon. I took over a hundred digital photos thinking that when I got home I would have enough subject matter to keep me painting for months. I worked on one painting for several weeks and produced the worst painting of my life.”
And also Cheryl Coville of Lyndhurst, ON, Canada who wrote, “The day I discovered that I could draw from my very own imagination was the most liberating day of my life. After years of slavishly copying reality, I found the stuff that made my heart sing was right inside me after all.”
And also Joe Kazimierczyk of Neshanic Station, NJ, USA who wrote, “I like to think that the painting is created by two people: the artist and the viewer. So it’s important to leave room for the viewer’s own way of looking at the world.”
And also Nancy Hallas of Aurora, ON, Canada who wrote, “Anyone who is engaged (like myself) in fiction writing as well as art-making might want to check out Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream — The Process of Writing Fiction.”
And also Andrea Cleall of Forestville, CA, USA who wrote, “How I wish I’d read this when I was 20. Because of impatience with the airy fairies who thought any paint they dribbled on paper or canvas while in touch with their inner child was a legitimate piece of art, I bent too far to the right and felt realism was my ticket to legitimacy. That has held me back.”
And also Mary Lapos of Danville, PA, USA who wrote, “NOT mastering your craft to the point where you can “render” what you intend is another kind of trap and is responsible for an inordinate amount of mediocrity.”
And also John Crowther of Los Angeles, CA, USA who wrote, “I’ve found that cartooning has had the unexpected consequence of improving my more realistic drawing and painting. I knew it was freeing me somehow, but I wasn’t sure how or why.”
And also Mark Hofreiter of Orlando, FL, USA who wrote, “Reality is overrated.”