As I consider the teachings of Charles Hawthorne featured in the book Hawthorne on Painting, I am governed by an important thought when it comes to making adjustments to a piece:
The areas in my painting I want to fault as lacking necessary detail, may in fact be due to having wrong spots of color.
More and more I like paintings in their middle stages. Here’s why: time working outdoors has taught me how full-of-information a good color spot can be. For example, if I catch myself yearning to draw branches in a sky hole because of some nagging feeling that the tree is incomplete, I know to stop, backup, and assume the bigger problem is the color note of the sky hole. Diminish the color’s intensity and mix in a little of the branch hue, and most likely it will solve the problem in a much more painterly way.
The most common goal stated by my students is the desire to loosen up. The solution is clear: be more discriminating about the bigger spots of color, and then you’re able to keep those smaller brushes tucked away. Focus on learning to mix your big colors better.
A favorite artist/teacher of mine once came back from a painting session ecstatic about her good luck that day. When she turned the painting around, besides just the lines of her drawing it had three small areas of color on it that were touching each other, representing sky, trees and grass. This level of incompleteness would frustrate many of my students, but to her, a consummate professional, it was a victory. THAT’s being thorough about notes of color, before moving forward with what might be unnecessary details.
I am beginning to understand this is a break with other approaches in the sense that it claims a more honest or enlightened view of the visible world. It’s important to understand the power and uniqueness of this position in order to better form your own philosophy of art. At the Mambo Museum in Bologna, Giorgio Morandi was described as stripping “the (painted) object of all superfluous elements to offer us, clearly, the feeling of what is visible.” He was artistically driven by his quest for essence. William Blake called this seeing through the eye rather than with the eye.
Consider the magnificent painting of the Colosseum by Corot. In the book Corot in Italy the author said “(his) study serves no topographical function; it’s not a feast for the eye but an indivisible whole, which captures the seamless unity of sight.” Does this mean that other paintings might have the quality of being divided or unorganized? Of course it does. Several things can cause the fracturing of a canvas, but experience tells me the biggest cause is my compulsion to solve problems with details.
There is a drive in every artist to understand the visual lessons from nature. When we were newborns, it wasn’t the details that our eyes first noticed, it was the strong contrasts of light, then colors, then perhaps motion next. George Inness encouraged us to look upon the world as if you are a blind person with your eyes first opened, so that we “see, and not think we see”. Lets dwell on that and maybe we can begin gleaning from nature it’s most basic essence.
It’s only appropriate to close with a final word from Hawthorne: “Take care of your honesty—search and the rest will be added unto you….Be humble like a child; don’t feel like a professional artist. Be careful about things looking nice to you and giving you the sensation of your being a good painter….Go right ahead and try to see more interestingly, more vitally that means, and so more truly.”