The other day a fairly well-known artist posed a question on Facebook. The way I understood it, it went something like this, “Should we expend energies finding new ways of expressing ourselves, or merely refining an artistic dialect?”. You can see from the wording (which is my paraphrase) that this artist puts more value on pushing boundaries and exploring new frontiers. I don’t deny that this is indeed valuable in its proper place and time. But for where I am at this point in my life with my art I’m still enjoying the process of further refining my particular mode of expression. I believe there are rewards still to be had both for my audience and for me.
Today I want to deal with this aspect of the craft. Not so much with what we want to say, but with the finer points of how we want to say it. For me this how has been a very interesting and essential part of my journey. Defining my stylistic path (the how) has been helped by a particular type of study of other artists. I touched on this in the past with Dave’s Tips to Becoming a Better Artist. Point number four reads:
“Pick three artists (minimum) that you want to emulate in your work. Study everything you can about them. Try to identify what it is about their work that you like. Do some master copies of their work.”
Using a single painting by a particular artist, I want to give a practical example of how point 4 played out in my own artistic development.
Some years ago I started making lists of my favorite artists — the artists I wanted to emulate in some way. These were the ones that made me say “I want to paint like THAT!”. One day I wrote down about 15 names, give or take. A few days or a week later I did the same thing. Interestingly, the lists were not identical. But as the lists piled up I realized that there were 6 or 8 names that made the “cut” every time. These were my Masters. These were the artists whose pictures I was really going to meditate on and learn from.
Joseph DeCamp is one of the artists who made the list nearly every time. In 1908 he painted The Guitar Player (above) which has become one of my very favorite paintings of all time. As I have studied this painting I have tried to identify its qualities I hope to infuse into my own work. My theory has been that the better I can describe to myself what it is about a painting that really turns me on, the more it can influence the way I compose my pictures. Over time The Guitar Player has become key in defining, and refining, my pictorial language.
A few characteristics of this painting that I really like are the division of space. the quality of the light, and the seeming simplicity of the composition. I love DeCamp’s use of subdued color here (he didn’t always do that). The neutral tones balance the red notes perfectly. Even though the subject is playing a guitar, to me this painting feels quiet. It’s meditative. I like to think that maybe she has just plucked the last note of her song, and I hear it sustained but slowly dying away. A single perfect note expressing a delicate and delicious moment of solitude. These kinds of musing about a painting (or any other inspirational material) are my “…[identifying what it is about the work that I like]”.
Below are some images of my paintings that I feel may share some of the same qualities as The Guitar Player. I hope this illustrates how this kind of study can help define, and indeed refine, how you express your subjects in paint.