Workshop Review- Herman Pekel, pt. 4- "Having a Vision"

 
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Some Of My Own Work-

I wanted to start today by sharing some of my work from later in the workshop.  Over the last few days of the trip, painting kicked into high gear.  I also greatly enjoyed painting in Capilano Gorge, where I took Herman's challenge, and went and found my own subject.  This is harder, because you can't follow his lead technically.  The goal is to apply your own thinking and assess your own composition, just in the context of Herman's input.

Here I tried to push my darks, to middling effect.  Note how I tried to include the falls from the hatchery in the distance, proving Herman's point pretty clearly-- that it was a subject that would be hard to render intelligibly at a distance.

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Here too (below) I attempted to find my own subject at Capilano, turning around completely and looking down the opposite direction of the gorge.  Of the pieces I painted in class, this is what I liked best from the workshop. 

 
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Later, Herman commented on how he liked that I had "made a painting out of nothing", and this was some of what I also liked about the subject.  Subjects like this, without an obvious focal point, require you to choose what you want to focus on.  For me, it was the sunilt rocks sticking out of the water, and I bent everything as best I could to call you down into that area and to make that space compelling.  Later, when Herman gave my work as a whole a critique, he came back to this sort of focus  and noted that although my technique was fine, I needed "to have a story to tell.  Light, texture, color.  Find what draws you in.  Don't just paint a subject because it's there. When you have something for the painting to be about, exaggerate it.  Pick one thing and make it dominant. Always exaggerate it. Push it.”

Afterwards, a few of us went out to paint again, when the light was low in the sky.  I started working on this piece, knocking in the sky and distant hills, when the barge/tanker slowly muscled its way into view.  I immediately knew I wanted it to be my focal point, and did the cardinal sin of changing my composition part way through.  But this one was so much better!  :P  So I cropped my paper (which had more on the left originally), and built things around the warm evening light on that big ol' orange-red boat. 

 
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Getting Beyond Technique-

On the fourth day, as the workshop wrapped up at the studio, Herman came back to this idea of painting for yourself and choosing your own subjects. “When I look around, I see a whole lot of technique, but I don’t see a lot of emotion," he said at one point.  "People are spending too much time painting and not enough time thinking."  That's probably a fair critique- we spend a lot of time as teachers and students on technique because (despite being difficult) it's the easiest thing to teach and learn.  And a certain amount of technique is essential.  But in the end it only gives you mark-making tools.  It doesn't give you anything to say.

In that vein, Herman told us he didn’t care too much about his tools or how he used color, and that played out in the way he taught, which often seemed to disregard technical details... sometimes (to my eyes) seemingly on purpose.  Almost like he focused on his disregard as a pedagogical tool.  It just truly didn't seem important to him (except for brushes!  he liked scruffy brushes!!).  I got the vibe from him that he felt almost all students (and many teachers too) stressed technique far too much and didn't focus enough on figuring out "what one wants to say."  Of course, it's easy to be flippant about that sort of stuff when you're very skilled.  ;)  Still, the goal was to get us to see past our tools- “if you want to make your own marks, you need to use your own brush, find your own subjects.” 

Even when you see "accomplished" artists, so many paintings seem technically adequate but sort of soulless.  Why are these works being painted?  Where's the mark of the artist behind the canvas?  Why should we give a damn?  Did the artist give a damn?

“Things only look weird to paint because they've not been painted before," he said.  "There are a lot of painters who make fine paintings, but not good art. Imagery should be a personal thing. You should paint what you want."

"We teach rules, but also- all good art breaks rules.  And those are the ones we remember."

 

Thinking About Edward Hopper-

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Herman went on about Edward Hopper for a while as well.  This was a really interesting to me, and fed in to the idea that, as he said, "You only have to have enough technique to say what you need to say.”  The gist of his critique was that there are better painters than Edward Hopper technically, but that he was a far better artist than most of them because Hopper always had a story to tell.  You knew exactly why he painted what he did.

Hopper's shapes and use of color can be very strong, and his value contrasts are too, and because of that it's clear where he's leading your eye- "look at this light here on this person", "look at this color here in the window", "look at this cast shadow", "look where this figure is looking", etc.  What the psychological focus is is up to you, but it feels clear there is something being said, that something is being pointed at.

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Independent of Herman's critique, I found this quote from Hopper himself.  I thought it so pertinent, and echoed so clearly what Herman was helping us focus on, that I wanted to share it too-

"Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the human intellect for a private imaginative conception.

The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form and design.

The term life used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it.

Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature's phenomena before it can again become great."

Just this last week, I also found this post on James Gurney's blog about the portrait photographer Phillipe Halsmann.  In it, Halsmann is quoted, as he discusses the art of portraiture.  It also echoed Herman and Hopper, and did it so well that I've included some of it here, shortened for clarity and brevity.  What amazes me is how it applies equally well to portraiture, or landscape painting, or urban sketching...

"If the photograph of a human being does not show a deep psychological insight it is not a true portrait but an empty likeness. Therefore my main goal in portraiture is neither composition, nor play of light, nor showing the subject in front of a meaningful background, nor creation of a new visual image. All these elements can make an empty picture a visually interesting image, but in order to be a portrait the photograph must capture the essence of its subject.... Herein lies the main objective of portraiture and also its main difficulty. The lens sees only the surface... (but) the end result is another surface to be penetrated, this time by the sensitivity of the onlooker."

What a great way to describe almost all art-making.

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