Generic versus specific

Dear Artist, Exiting from the films at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, we hand in our ballots. Each attendee is asked to rate each movie between one and five — five being excellent and one being poor. I couldn’t help but think of a similar system for paintings in art museums. Unlike in the movie business, I have my doubts that credentialed curators would ever take down paintings that got poor ratings. Reviewing the posted results of movie balloting, the crowd still went for “authenticity.” Whether a short, a documentary, a comedy or a theatrical drama, authenticity matters. Like paintings, you know it when you see it. A few blocks up State Street from the Metro Theatre, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is showing early California plein air painters Edgar Payne, William Wendt, Franz Bischoff, William Keith, and others. They were among the first wave of often European-trained masters to paint the Pacific Coast. Simplified compositions, impressionistic atmospheric effects and limited tonal range marked the birth of “California Tonalism.” By the late 1930s these painters were all but thrown out of the museums. Now, they’re back in. Authenticity in painting often means specificity. When you look at a tree painted by Edgar Payne, for example, you know you’re looking at a particular tree that he saw — one with a unique nature as well as a species that he knew and understood. Trees, mountains and rocky headlands by these guys had distinct personalities. The generic tree, mountain or foreshore, on the other hand, was yet to be dug out of the California landscape. “Generic” means an idealized, standardized, or sometimes simplified form. It’s what a painter might have thought and felt, rather than what he saw and understood. Apart from the value of taking a shortcut in compositional control, generic work offers a kind of creative idealism where the motifs and elements become symbols rather than pictorial truth. The generic concept was to take art down the bumpy pathways of cubism, abstraction and many of the ways we now call “modern.” For early masters, specificity was part of the celebration. With the renaissance of California plein air, the celebration is once again on track. Like in the movies, the classics tend to come back. Best regards, Robert PS: “Art is a lifetime matter. The best any artist can do is to accumulate all the knowledge possible of art and its principles, study nature and practice continually.” (Edgar Payne, 1883-1947) Esoterica: Historical art shows often include wonderful old photos of painting activities going on in mule-carts, Model Ts, and even on horseback. All manner of transportation was used to drag big canvases into the hinterlands and down to the rocky shores. Group photos show pointy beards outthrust beyond the inevitable jackets and ties. Despite the California glare, both the men and the high-bodiced and serious-looking women painters seem to be plenty respectable.   California Artists

“Blue Canyon”
oil painting
by Edgar Payne
after 1929


“The Sand Dunes at Monterey”
oil painting
24 x 32 inches
by William Wendt, 1902


“Emerald Cove
oil painting
by Franz Bischoff


“Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon, I”
oil painting
22 x 28 inches
by William Keith, 1908


“Harbor Reflections”
oil painting
14 x 11 inches
by Sharon Weaver, 2011


“Mammoth Bluffs”
oil painting
8.5 x 11 inches
by Jeremy Lipking 2004


“Canyon De Chelly”
oil painting
30 x 40 inches
by Mian Situ, 2013


“Before the World was Made”
oil painting
24 x 30 inches
by West Fraser, 2011

            Value the polarity by Nader Khaghani, Gilroy, CA, USA  

“8 Feet of Red”
acrylic painting
96 x 48 inches
by Nader Khaghani

Please note that there are two worlds to walk on and extract our art. There is a physical, literal and objective one, and an inner metaphoric subjective realm. Some of us painters like to address the latter. The “bumpy road” is not for all but for a few of us leading to direct entanglement with the soul to find the spiritual gold within us — and not out there in the landscape, though that is by no means excluded. Objective and subjective both are valuable in their own ways. Let’s value the “modern” and the traditional because polarity is the way of Nature — and of Humankind’s nature.     There are 4 comments for Value the polarity by Nader Khaghani
From: Anna Horsnell Wade — Feb 12, 2013

Thank you. Very well said. At this point in my career, I too paint what I feel, not what I see, and I agree there is great value in both the objective and subjective. We need … and can learn from both.

From: Anonymous — Feb 12, 2013

My inner is starting to manifest itself after painting representational for 20 years. I really like your 8 Feet of Red. Very exciting.

From: Anonymous — Feb 12, 2013

‘8 Feet of Red’–gorgeous! you wrote about the difficulty of judging abstract work — well this one, to me, is the real deal. Beautiful!

From: Suzette Fram — Feb 13, 2013

Nader, I agree with your comments, and love ‘8 Feet of Red’. Exciting colour and movement.

  Society of Six by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

“Cows and Pasture” 1925
oil painting
by Selden Connor Gile

In the description I read regarding the Santa Barbara Museum’s landscape exhibition, it speaks of the Northern California “Tonalists,” but fails to mention the truly remarkable work created by the Society of Six in the San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area, circa 1917 – 1930. Several of these painters, particularly, Selden Connor Gile (1877 – 1947), smashed the rather staid constraints of French Impressionism and ushered in a completely new vision of the landscape. Perhaps “The Six” fell outside of the SBMA’s exhibit time frame, but your readers might enjoy seeing what followed on the heels of the California Impressionist era. The story is well documented in Nancy Boas’ book, Society of Six: California Colorists. From a Statement of Principles written for an exhibition in 1923: “To us, seeing is the greatest joy of existence… We have much to express, but nothing to say. We have felt, and desire that others may also feel.” Another side note is that Canada’s Group of Seven inspired both the name and spirit of the Society of Six. There are 2 comments for Society of Six by Peter Brown
From: Anonymous — Feb 11, 2013

You’re right. Really good painting. You can click the tab “surprise me” and it shows some of the paintings along with text.

From: Sally — Feb 18, 2013

I totally agree….what one ‘feels’ can be just as important as what is realistic. If you are satisfied with the outcome and true to yourself you can change it up a bit and it can still be ‘realistic’.

  Originality sacrificed in specificity by Scott Kahn, NY, USA  

“Big House, Homage to America”
oil painting, 62 x 72 inches
by Scott Kahn

I have to respectfully disagree with you that authenticity often means specificity in painting.  For me, authenticity has more to do with being true to oneself, to being unique and not derivative. What I find lacking in the examples you give in the clickback is originality. This is often what is sacrificed by being specific. “Pictorial truth,” something you describe as characteristically lacking in ‘generic’ painting, has a tendency to result in work which is illustrative, lacking in feeling and emotion. There is such a thing as ’emotional truth’… listen to Beethoven. There are no ‘trees’ in Beethoven. There is nothing ‘specific.’ It’s not enough to interpret and represent a tree with a ‘unique’ nature; it’s more important to interpret and convey uniquely one’s experience of that tree. There are 6 comments for Originality sacrificed in specificity by Scott Kahn
From: Mishcka — Feb 11, 2013

I agree 100% Scott!

From: Marion Jean Hall — Feb 12, 2013
From: Anonymous — Feb 12, 2013
From: Jackie Knott — Feb 12, 2013

I was commissioned to paint one specific tree. The family farm was sold and the woman who grew up on that farm wanted to remember her childhood through the tree she climbed as a child. A major limb was sawn off when it broke during a storm in years past. The remaining shape was lopsided, and on top of that it was a winter scene. It was an ugly skeleton but an important memory to her. The painting would have been improved greatly by some generic branches to restore it, but no, she wanted it painted exactly as it was. Sometimes “specific” has a need where “generic” can’t tell the real story.

From: valerie norberry vanorden — Feb 14, 2013

I’ve painted memories for people too, when I paint house portraits. One of my first ones had a 3 page letter from the customer, I aimed to please and she was very pleased. It wasn’t a stellar portrait but it served the purpose to kick her memory and satisfied her.

From: Steve Whitney — Apr 04, 2013

I am comfortable with neither Robert’s notion of authenticity, nor Scott’s reverence for originality. Both points of view, in their polarity, seem like oversimplifications. Abstract and conceptual painters face different demons than representational painters, but neither group has a monopoly on either authenticity or originality. For representational painters, lapsing into kitsch, sentimentalism (received pieties), or mannerism is always a danger. For conceptual and abstract painters,triviality, obscurity, and didacticism are always close at hand. There are dangers enough for all of us, and opportunities for meaningful expression as well.

  Combining specific and generic by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Garibaldi Lake”
acrylic painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Interesting observation of generic and specific objects in paintings. I never thought about this, but my thing seems to be use of specific for the main subjects and generic for other compositional areas. For example, a painting may feature a specific portrait of a twisted pine, with clumps of more generic pines in the background. I am usually inspired by specificity of something which is set inside a composition of interesting generic patterned shapes. It kind of makes sense. The more specificity, closer to hyper-realism. More generic — closer to abstraction. Accelerate or break, according to inspiration. Also interesting observation how credible and important formally clothed people look in old photos. They were obliged to dress according to their social status because social status was more important than anything else. If you didn’t follow the rules, you could get in all kinds of trouble. Even now there are places where this is true. Aren’t we lucky to live in this lovely sloppy time and place where people of all walks of life intermingle and share life the best they can? One can easily confuse a well off owner of many vintage cars for a shady character trying to break into your car. There are 2 comments for Combining specific and generic by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki
From: Sally Chupick — Feb 12, 2013

love your painting Tatjana.

From: Tatjana — Feb 12, 2013

Thanks Sally, your paintings are lovely!

  Authenticity of object or self? by Lesley Humphrey, Houston, TX, USA  

oil painting
by Lesley Humphrey

What if the content switches, during an artist’s career, from external subjects to internal? From object to subject? Is the authentic portrayal of the outer object more valuable than the artist’s inner life? What, for example, should an artist do when one’s beloved passes away leaving no discernible forms for the eye to trace and enjoy further, yet leaves the artist with a yearning to express that love? Isn’t that, after all, what Edgar Payne, Tom Thomson, and the like and so many of those tremendous artists did? I put forth that the great painters manage to paint their personal response to the landscape, or person, infusing their work with an element impossible to replicate by another – thus delivering in exquisite forms, their authentic self. It’s unmistakable, and it is sensed by one’s whole body, and not just from the ‘neck up!’ It is present, whether in the work of the wonderful artists you refer to in your article, Picasso’s Guernica, or in Rothko’s Chapel. (RG note) Thanks, Lesley. One of Canada’s well known abstract painters, Harold Town, wrote that he thought the landscape painter Tom Thomson, who died young, would have become an abstract painter had he lived longer. There are 6 comments for Authenticity of object or self? by Lesley Humphrey
From: Anonymous — Feb 11, 2013

Well said Lesley – and beautiful painting.

From: Susan Holland — Feb 11, 2013

Perfect! Thank you Lesley. And I agree with Anonymous that this is a beautiful painting. Full of all that I could wish of an oil painting and more.

From: Anna Horsnell Wade — Feb 12, 2013

Yes, very well said and wonderful painting.

From: Sandy Donn — Feb 12, 2013

A beautiful painting Lesley. . . I think anytime you put brush to canvas it’s a personal response – no matter what you’re creating. I believe in breaking the rules and just letting it happen. No judgement!

From: Sally Chupick — Feb 12, 2013

wonderful painting, and i agree completely with your comment.

From: Sarah — Feb 13, 2013

This is a WOW! painting. It certainly speaks to me, but I’d be hard pressed to offer an objective critique of why I love it.

  The shift of consciousness by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel  

“The Rains Will Surely Come”
oil painting, 24 x 38 inches
by Ron Gang

I’m glad to hear that sensitive plein air painting is now “in.” For those of us who do this kind of work, other than being able to get more attention and sell some more paintings, the present “in-ness” probably doesn’t mean that much. Plein air is a slow, on-going process of observation and striving, not imposing oneself on the subject matter. I have always felt that it works best when our thoughts recede, and we merge with what we are seeing. This is a voyage of discovery, getting to know the unknown. The artist is solitary, yet is not alone. Every day is different, light is never quite the same, and a tree is not a “tree,” yet rather a unique manifestation. So with every component in the landscape and its whole. Sometimes one succeeds in “going out of his mind,” seeing in a fresh manner the miraculous of the supposedly mundane. This shift in consciousness will be felt by the sensitive viewer of the work. There is 1 comment for The shift of consciousness by Ron Gang
From: Linda Harbison — Feb 12, 2013

I very much agree.

  Word ‘generic’ problematic by Ingrid Mueller, Toronto, ON, Canada   Robert, I’ve been enjoying your letters twice a week for a while and, likewise, appreciate reading the “clickback” comments. However, many of them don’t seem to address your editorial. I sensed a tone of sarcasm in this particular letter, with reference to “The generic concept was to take art down the bumpy pathways of cubism, abstraction and many of the ways we now call “modern.” Perhaps I have misinterpreted your statement, but it smacks of arrogance, suggesting that what you call generic concepts are not real art but are “shortcuts” as opposed to pictorial truth. Plein air artists are a different breed, no doubt, and in the “olden days” their art was the only way people could view the country side and other exotic parts of the world, as photography and other forms of visual/media reproduction had not yet been developed for the masses to enjoy. Although this genre of painting requires immense skill, study and practice, it often lacks imagination. Artistic license is the essence of an individual’s style. The world would be a very boring place if not for our distinctiveness. Perhaps the word generic is causing my ire. I paint, but I’m also a marketing professor, and in the business world, the word generic has a much more negative connotation, particularly when discussing art. It makes me think of the $25 reproductions available at Wal-Mart or IKEA. I am not a professional artist, but I do resent the suggestion that if a subject painted is not authentic, it must be generic. Not everything is black and white. There are 5 comments for Word ‘generic’ problematic by Ingrid Mueller
From: Mike Barr — Feb 11, 2013
From: Sandy Donn — Feb 12, 2013

Gosh, why such a blanket statement Mike. Maybe history is on your side, as I’m no expert, but to say that photo-realist paintings of centuries ago lacked the vitality that plein air impressionism gives seems rather narrow and authoritative. There’s something for everyone is this world. As a viewer I often don’t want to fill in the blanks. I still see “viewers” flock to study a photo-realist painting – while plein airs beg for a nod. Go figure. To each his own and with that a healthy pat on the back for eyes to see, hearts to feel and artists to paint how they desire to paint.

From: Kelly — Feb 12, 2013
From: Anonymous — Feb 12, 2013

Actually, I am fascinated by the skill in photo-realism and the patience and time that it all takes. I’m not a one-eyed impressionist lover either. In my opinion some of the impressionist work of the 19th century was not all that good. Not even Monet excelled in every painting – but of course that is my opinion. I have indeed seen people drool over photo-realist paintings with the exclamation “wow, it looks just like a photo”. Honestly, what’s the point? It highlights the skill level and records visual facts as does a photo. Impressionism concentrates more on atmosphere and feeling rather than facts. Of course, it’s all to do with the personal taste of the viewers.

From: Mike Barr — Feb 12, 2013

Sorry – forgot to add my name to the post above!

  Friends of friends by Adele Galgut, Cape Town, South Africa   Your regular letters are meaningful and I look forward to receiving them. I have introduced a few fellow artists to this treat. Two of whom I know are now receiving the letter are Solly Gutman and Diane Johnson Ackerman. If I continue and recruit/ introduce/ sign-up another few, may I still please receive your valuable book? A Robert Genn edition would have pride of place in my studio. Working in isolation, your letters give the 5 minute breaks (yes, 25 minutes work, 5 minutes break!) added light and wisdom. Thank you for the time and trouble you take to educate your followers. (RG note) Thanks, Adele. We love sending the book free even to the South of Africa, Asia and Europe and the Antipodes, even though the postage costs us an arm and a leg. Our Brotherhood and Sisterhood is worldwide and growing every day. It’s an honour to have so many friends. To get a free book all you need to do is find a total of five others who might find the letters useful. Please just check with them beforehand to make sure they want it and they’re not already getting it. When you let us know that you’ve got your five, don’t forget to include your regular mailing address. Please also be patient. A book we sent to Saudi Arabia in December took two months to get there.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Generic versus specific

From: Darla — Feb 08, 2013

I believe that generic and specific portrayals serve different philosophical purposes in painting. With specific, individual portrayals, you are saying, “look at this specific thing, isn’t it interesting?” Generic portrayals say “all (whatevers) are/should be like this” and as such they can be political or social comments, when they aren’t simply the mark of a mediocre or lazy artist. That’s why portrayals of generically-beautiful, Barbie-doll people either attract or repel the viewer, depending on his or her world view.

From: Susan Holland — Feb 08, 2013
From: Jo — Feb 08, 2013

Are you saying that to be a good painting, it must be obviously site specific? That a painting with people in it must depict Aunt Martha, Uncle Ed, all actual persons, nothing can be “understood” or emotionally interpreted? No, “that is a joyous painting”, no “that is like a concert of beautiful music”, etc. Must one depict “true to actual life” to have a good painting? That if I paint that tree out my window so anyone will know it is the tree I see and it in a good design, that is better than my interpretation of a feeling, a mood, or even a real place?

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Feb 08, 2013

Once, in Philadelphia, I looked carefully at a Cezanne and realized that there were more color/tonal decisions made in one square inch that I make in one painting. I feel that way about these wonderful California painters…just having the nerve to tackle those grand vistas, then doing it with such control. Impressive in every way. Bischoff must be related to the Bischoff of the San Francisco school of the 60’s. Thanks for putting the paintings on line.

From: Tatjana M-P — Feb 08, 2013

Wow, Juniper Ridge by John Berry is a great painting!

From: Diane Overmyer — Feb 08, 2013

I have sold more plein air paintings than other type of work that I do. Even in plein air work however, I have sometimes fallen into the generic pool. Sometimes it happens when I am painting in the early morning or in the evening and I know the sun will be changing very quickly. Other times it happens, just because I want to do a painting based more on emotion and less on actually recording what I see. I try to stress these types of options we have as painters to my students. I don’t feel there is anything wrong with creating work based more on emotion or color, but I normally opt to do a more detailed accurate rendering of a place, just because that is how I am naturally wired.

From: Rebecca Stebbins — Feb 09, 2013

I was at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art today (I live here) to see the plein air impressionist painters of the early 1900s. The week prior I attended the Los Angeles Art Show, where the California Impressionists were well represented by galleries, viewers, and red dots. In LA, I was struck by a painting of Edgar Payne of 4th Lake, in the Sierra Nevada mountains outside of Bishop, California. It was instantly recognizable – specific – authentic. I hiked and camped there 20-30 years ago and it was obvious that Edgar Payne painted what he saw when he was there 80 years prior. The connection made me lose a little breath. It also made me want to go back and paint there, too. One of my greatest joys is when someone is moved by a landscape I’ve painted because they have a connection to the place. The very first painting I sold, more than a dozen years ago, was of an ocean bluff meadow which no longer exists. When I returned to paint the scene again a few years later, I found a brand new housing development in its place. The importance of authenticity in landscape painting may in part be due to the fact that we are documenting vanishing wild areas, which are more precious than anything I can think of. Generic landscapes as abstraction are fine with me, but some generic painting can be equated to the fast food of “art.” I’ll stick with documenting the glorious landscape around me as authentically as I can.

From: Shirley Peters — Feb 09, 2013
From: Allan Freeman — Feb 09, 2013
From: Patricia Franco — Feb 09, 2013

Regarding old photos of painters, don’t forget that cameras in that day didn’t shoot fast, and smiles were not the look the camera could capture. Often the women painters were the models too….these were the bohemians of their day, and plenty frisky !!!

From: Dick Pallance — Feb 09, 2013

We have simply transitioned from a time when painters recorded the scene, to a time when painters put their own idiosyncrasies into the scene.

From: Sherry Chanin — Feb 09, 2013

I think it’s really important to connect with your subject matter. whether it is a realistic representation or a symbolically abstracted one. What’s important is what drew you there to begin with. In one book I read it gave the advice to paint the adjective, not the noun. In other words, don’t paint the tree, paint what that tree was about. Were you drawn to the strength of the tree, the age of it, the gnarled texture of the bark, the way sunlight interplayed with the leaves? What about the tree drew you in? There is specificity in the purpose, not the subject. That is what is authentic in a piece.

From: Buff Mallek — Feb 09, 2013
From: Annette Waterbeek — Feb 09, 2013
From: Rick Rotante — Feb 10, 2013

Authenticity is a very hard thing to come by for painters. But it develops naturally after time and study. It also goes under the name originality or style. The artists mentions i.e. Payne, Redmond, et al didn’t paint “realistically”, they interpreted the scene often times using their paint in an abstract way. When viewed up close the strokes look very impressionistic in application. I believe viewers as well as buyers are looking for this “style”, if you will or an individual authenticity of the artist rather than a faithful rendition of a scene. They are looking for an interpretation- an artist’s impression of what was there, what he saw and felt. Often times the painted scene is recognizable but stylized or I should say individualized by the painter. This is what I believe to be “authenticity”. I don’t believe that these works are generic at all. These works, while being of similar subject matter all possess an individual slant or point of view, that make them very specific to the artist.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Feb 11, 2013

How about this…the more specific, the more universal? It is true in literature, probably in painting, too.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Feb 11, 2013
From: Heinz fallon — Feb 11, 2013
From: Helen Wilson — Feb 11, 2013
From: Ingrid Feuchtwanger — Feb 11, 2013

Those old photos show women almost but not quite breaking into the mans world. Considering it is only a short time ago, we have come a long way. Berlin

From: Paul Tucholsky — Feb 11, 2013

Regarding old photos, you might think of doing a letter on all the different contraptions painters have used to make their art. Artists are an inventive bunch.

From: Ferruccio Henschke — Feb 11, 2013

I don’t think art should be rated by experts, particularly educated experts at all. Art is meant to give happiness to ordinary mortal, to make their passages here more joyful.

From: Russ Hogger — Feb 11, 2013

Whether you’re looking at good or bad art, it’s still art.

From: Carolyn Hancock — Feb 12, 2013
From: Rosemary Thomas — Feb 12, 2013

Wonderful paintings by Mike Barr. Thanks for sharing them.

From: Dan Brown — Feb 13, 2013

Generic or specific, portraits often simply do not sell because they are poor. The mouth is off, the eyes cockeyed, the skin color livid. There is no one to blame but the artist and people just don’t want to live with that sort of thing.

From: Paul Meier — Feb 13, 2013

Everything is art, but some art is obviously superior to others. But, as usual, people can become confused.

From: Tatjana — Feb 13, 2013

What a beautiful thought, thank you: “I don’t think art should be rated by experts, particularly educated experts at all. Art is meant to give happiness to ordinary mortal, to make their passages here more joyful.”

From: Sarah — Feb 13, 2013

Color me cranky, but the idea that everyone’s opinion of art is equal is nonsense. Sure, everyone has an opinion, but some critics know a whole lot about art, and others have no knowledge–just look at the way people buy “cute” dogs and cats painted on black velvet.

From: valerie norberry vanorden — Feb 14, 2013

I may be presently getting led into generic rather than specific realism in that I am learning Chinese calligraphy and painting. One cannot go forward into painting until one has done the characters, not all of course, but the skills of a calligrapher translate then into the skills of a painter. The composition of white space and where the chop and signature is placed, as well as the spiritualization of the subject matter all have an oriental flare which is different than the Western take on things. I’m appreciative of a new perspective and am taking to it.

     Featured Workshop: Donald Jurney
021213_robert-genn Donald Jurney workshops Held in Savannah, GA, USA.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.

Juniper Ridge

oil painting, 19 x 24 inches by John Berry, Millville, UT, 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 Jeremy Dyck, who wrote, “Let’s face it Robert, not everyone who tries, and many do, can paint as well as the top guys and gals of the California School, both historically and today, so they are naturally going to try other directions.” And also Shirah Neumann of Portland, ME, USA, who wrote, “I disagree that ‘generic means an idealized, standardized, or sometimes simplified form.’ A painter who can really delve into what is thought and felt: the complexity of the feeling at a particular moment; is quite specific.”    

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