Like a lot of boys, I was interested in cars. You might say I was nuts about them. I drew them at the drop of a hubcap — filling the margins of my schoolbooks with their curves. Perversion? Maybe. One just automatically draws the things one loves. In my case, I drew them from memory. Yep, I could do a pretty good ’53 Chevy or a ’36 Cord while making a cameo appearance in Math 101. Fact is, I knew the principal characteristics of so many models, I was able to extract their essences from my mental bank.
The trouble with reference material is that we tend to paint that tree, that rock, or that barn in the specificity we happen to have in the reference at hand. On the other hand, with loved images dragged in from recollection, we tend to catch their spirit.
Let’s take larches. I’ve been painting a lot of them lately. Larches are the high-mountain conifers that turn yellow in the fall and eventually lose their needles. With a charm of their own, they are often scraggly and seemingly ill-designed compared to say pines or hemlocks. Their eccentric branches reach in unexpected directions and take un-treelike turns. Up in the mountains last summer I made myself spend a few hours getting to know them. Rather than trying to render a specific larch, I was looking for larchness.
Painting, as I’ve said a few times before, is a matter of cooperating with the needs of the painting. If my painted larch is needed to reach out awkwardly in the direction of another pictorial element or shy back from one, then so be it. To heck with how the larch in question actually was.
To understand the characteristics of things, it doesn’t hurt to assign anthropomorphic connections. Larches reach out, droop, befuddle, dance, embrace each other and inadvertently pray to the sky. These sorts of considerations help imbed vital characteristics in our mental banks. There’s another benefit: having insider knowledge helps us love the stuff even more. Without necessarily going all the way to caricature, the end result can be work that has character.
PS: “Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they will also make it exist by observing it. I call it ‘creative observation.'” (William S. Burroughs)
Esoterica: Awareness and observation are the habits of blessed artists. It is our life blood. “Art,” said Vincent van Gogh, “demands constant observation.” It’s not only profitable but one of the greatest of life-enhancers. “A heightened sense of the observation of nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint,” said Winston Churchill. If you’d like to read some excellent quotes on the fine art of observation, some of them by you, our subscribers, please go here.
by Mary Ann Pals, Chesterton, IN, USA
When I was a young teenager growing up in a south suburb of Chicago and taking private art lessons in the basement of Julia, an elderly woman in my town who was known as THE artist to take lessons from, I remember learning to draw trees… and hating it. I copied trees from a stack of picture books of all sorts, all the while silently grumbling about the task. I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of them and Julia knew it. During one lesson after Julia handed me yet another forest picture to draw, I grumbled quietly to my friend, “I hate drawing trees.” Julia immediately turned around and announced, “Mary Ann, I heard that. Now you are going to draw trees until you love them.” I groaned.
But Julia knew just what to do. She had me get my jacket on, handed me a stiff board to rest my drawing pad on, and told me to go outside and pick one tree in her yard to draw. She told me to first study it, really look at it for at least 20 minutes before I even started drawing. She told me to study it so well that even if I came inside afterwards and wasn’t looking at it anymore, I could still draw it. So I did just that. The challenge became a game. By the next week I was asking HER if I could go outside and choose a different tree to draw. She smiled and shoved me out her door. I was hooked.
To this day, I LOVE to draw trees. Each one is unique, each one has character, yet I know how to capture their ‘treeness.’ That was the key. Now I can even make them up anytime I want out of my imagination. Julia truly was THE artist to take lessons from, and I am forever grateful.
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
I often sit in my kayak for hours, just watching the grasses, water and trees. I like to feel the sun, the breeze, and watch nature as it moves through the day. Whenever I paint river grasses, and reflections in the murky water, they look nothing like the photograph. In fact, when viewers of my work say that it looks like a photograph, I shudder in silence, and sheepishly say thank you. Then I go to the ladies room to vomit.
But most people say, “I love your colors,” and then they keep looking, searching for words to describe what they see. At this point I tell them that I try to capture the “aliveness” of the water and grasses, and how they move and interact. Often they get it. Sometimes not, and they ask, “Why is the water purple?” Another session in the ladies room, losing my lunch!
All kidding aside, I love to paint with a reference photo nearby, just in case my brain needs a refresher in real life. Then I go back into “Cathy’s world,” to paint what my heart sees and feels. I rarely look at the photo while I am painting. And my heart rarely disappoints me!
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by Marco Bell, Sarasota, FL, USA
My wife and I have been Artists for thirty-five years now, and we both agree wholeheartedly with your statement about painting what you ‘see.’ I seem to irritate her by painting from memory those things that I’ve stared at for so many years (I tend to stare at a lot of things), and she prefers to resort to ‘hard copy’ visual reference. No fault there, however, I find that I tend to respect the subject more when I DO have the hard copy in front of me. Sometimes I feel that I’m withholding the truth from the viewer if I wing it without reference.
Like you, I enjoyed drawing the cars of my childhood days, and then morphing them into the car that I desired to see. Often wishing that I’d gone to Detroit after Art School (Ringling School of Art), but it gets way too cold for my liking (weenie!).
Surrendering to the experience
by Kirk Wassell, Chino Hills, CA, USA
Character, is it defined by observation?
Awe yes observation, so delicate yet so bold it can be. One can look and never see, unless one knows that looking has little to do with actually seeing. Observation, as often defined, is an art unto itself. It requires a discipline that many move hastily beyond because it requires patience that eagerness can dismiss as wasted time. So to master observation one must surrender to the process, letting go of pre-conceptions of what will be and let what is flow in, like the randomness of a gentle breeze. I personally find the art of observation to be a spiritual experience that with practice becomes less about observation and more about feeling. Therefore, it would seem that in order to truly experience the character of something, we must quiet our monkey mind and let the experience of the object wash through our senses requiring little more than the acceptance of what is.
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Capturing the beyondness
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I was just recently thinking about the Canadian landscape art ever since the Group of Seven (and those preceding them) to these days when Canadian landscape paintings are being reviewed, revisited, and enchanting a new generation of artists and collectors all over again. What makes the Canadian landscape different and why do I paint it even though it has been, is and will be painted so much by so many people? Why is it so unbearably seductive, addictive, delightful, gets under one’s skin forever? My thoughts took me beyond the “treeness” and “typical landscapeness” to the “beyondness” which I think is the essence of this place. That is something that I wasn’t able to comprehend when I first immigrated to Canada — to the point that I wasn’t really even seeing it. Coming from a part of world where the nature is tamed, either beautified or destructed, seeing wild things needed an entirely different pair of eyes. If one is used to looking for pre-composed, they will most likely miss paying attention to what appears on a first glance to be misfit shapes and even wondering “where is the nice stuff” — ignoring what really is the treasure of the nature. The point of view needs to be readjusted to see and feel everything, from things subtle, to implausible sometimes even frightening. For me, Canadian Landscape has this additional ingredient of oddness, abundance of things unexpected and stunning. Who would have thought that rock or branch, or fallen trunk could have that particular shape and position? How is that color of bark or sand possible? The effects of fog, the play of sun on the mountain slope, the doings of storms and forest fires, countless conditions that make up our landscape. It all composes itself into great surprising patterns which burn into our minds and hearts. That’s what I must paint!
I guess, what I am saying is that I think that a larch misshaped beyond its “larchness” could still carry a painting. Perhaps, in my mind, this is a land of opportunities which don’t exist anywhere else!
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by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Yogi Berra stated, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Finding the characteristic in any subject is difficult for me as I tend to want to paint, draw, or embroider the specific one in front of me. I’ve tried taking it away to go at it from memory but keep coming back to that specific one. Even doing a loose drawing to use as my pre-painting doesn’t help. Your suggestion is that I need to observe thousands of this same subject till it is an automatic recall?
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by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Each element in nature has an ‘abstract signature’ whether it be a larch or a willow or a flowing stream. Observation will reveal that signature to an artist and the end result in a painting is a sense of authenticity that the viewer will ‘feel.’ On the flip side of being over-specific, there is the twin problem of being too generic. I see many landscape paintings where I don’t get the sense the artist has ever walked in a field or looked carefully at a tree. My brain is just not convinced and it’s a visual bore. The artists have neither described an individual tree nor observed the abstract signature behind it. The whole concept is about observation and also about love. You mentioned how your love for cars inspired you to draw them. To paint a good landscape you have to love landscape. It applies to other sorts of subject matter as well. Observation combined with love is a winning ticket for the painter.
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by Jerry Bono, Brooklyn, NY, USA
My point of view is that all of reality is simply a collection of mappings and mappings of mappings and mappings of mappings of mappings. The viewpoint is important to consider because through its consideration, we can learn to play with the mappings and our play has significant consequences. Unfortunately, some of the consequences are very hard to experience. Ultimately, such play evokes joy and joy is the hardest thing in the world to handle. I have been working on this for 59 years, and now, at 60 I have finally passed through a gate where I realized that finally I can tolerate joy on a daily basis.
I am not talking about the joy found in either religion or self-help books. I am talking about the joy that is no fun, the joy that in order to carry it, you have to share it, the joy that can scare the hell out of you because of its freight train force.
My work is now about the human dilemma, the paradox of each person being infinitely precious, yet at the same time infinitely small and insignificant. In order to bring these two aspects together, I have to play with the maps and doing so ends up with art that has mixed appeal. The work provokes, but not in a way one expects.
Painting vehicles en plein air
by Dan F. Gray, Errington, BC, Canada
I also enjoyed drawing cars as a youth and still do, painting plein air vehicles appear in subjects everywhere. Sometimes I park mine in my scene as I know it will be there until I finish. Sometimes I paint vehicles outside my studio when the weather is poor, I always have a nice one as a work in progress when holding my open studio. I have properties that I am welcome to paint older vehicles as they fade back into the environment, at one they refer me as the painter in residence. My second painting of 2010 is of Chemainus Fire Truck #4, awaiting transport at French Creek marina to Lasqueti Island (then back into service), a truck at the shore what a great way to start the year.
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Juice up your mental archive
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
Like a lot of boys I was interested in animals. Growing up in India my nanny took me to the Calcutta Zoo every Saturday, to see her boyfriend, the mahout of the elephants. Some visits stand out in my mind with emotional clarity: Parked in my buggy in the shade of the old female elephant, her trunk swinging towards me and back again, and her warm, yeasty breath. Later, in Guatemala, I got hooked on airplanes: I was a happy kid when clambering about old planes like Harvards, Mustangs, Northrop Black Widows and a Sabre or two in the airport junkyard. This fired dreams of becoming a pilot; my schoolbooks were crammed with airplanes which I could draw from memory from any given angle.
I now thank my lucky stars that a profound disinterest in maths torpedoed that career option, because it left me with the only other option anybody could see: art. I was pretty good at drawing airplanes attacking convoys of elephants, and knights unhorsing each other; some farsighted person at the art academy saw through my childish appetites something of interest and I got in. The planes and knights never resurfaced, but animals persisted throughout my studies and are still a major theme in my work and life.
It took a good deal of study, and the maturity that comes with study. At the outset I was so bent on getting it right that my reference material — mainly dead and injured birds 00 overrode the art, the paintings failed to jell. I had difficulties understanding my mentor’s remark that I was “too much in love with my subject matter.” It took some time to realize that you need a little distance to let all that makes a painting interesting come into play. Now I tell my students the same thing. Art is about catching the spirit of what fascinates you. That may be achieved with or without the use of detail, as long as there is some deep truth in the painting. This truth may come from a deep connection with and understanding of the subject, which allows you to keep juicing up your mental archive. I believe that regular observation is more important than the use of reference material like photographs and dvd’s, it imbues your memory with a vitality because of the quirky and unexpected nature of reality, and adds to what is “characteristic.” Seen thus, there is actually some good in humans being on earth: we bear witness to what is here still, even if we feel that what is valuable is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand.
oil painting 18 x 24 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 Geri Taran who wrote, “I awoke this morning and realized it is time to paint the four generations portrait of myself and my three “downline” girls: my daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter before any more time passes.”
And also Jonathan Wiltshire of Escondido, CA, USA, who wrote, “Perhaps a deeper side of observation was captured by Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky — that art is for making the invisible visible.”
And also Susan Peck of Merrickville, ON, Canada, who wrote, “I have gotten a bit stale in the learning process, and your lesson about larches (or tamarack as I’m used to) has made me think about the way I’m composing my paintings. I’ve always felt blessed when my students tell me that I’ve taught them how to finally really see the world around them. You’ve just done the same for me.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Character and characteristics…