THAT BOAT IS NOT WHITE—TAKE ANOTHER LOOK; A GOOD, LOOOOONG LOOK
By Andy Weddington
Friday, 15 January 2010
First, a follow-up to last week’s Commentary BLACK AND WHITE AND GREEN—COLORS OF HOPE.
I received a short note from my mother who refreshed my memory on a couple of points on the untimely death of Duane Wilson. Though not critical to the story, her points are important to correct the record. Duane died at age 16 while a sophomore in high school (not in 8th grade as I recalled). And, she remembered that he was buried in his Air Force Junior ROTC uniform. Mom also reflected on how heart-broken Duane’s parents were at the loss of their only child. Of course, how could they not be devastated? Thanks, Mom.
Among new “Followers” who joined after last week’s post is Kimberly, family of Rod Barnes or “Coach” as she referred to him—one of the Ole Miss basketball players I wrote about who played during my tenure teaching at the University. How she found my Commentary is another story—an interesting one and testament to the wonders of the Internet. Welcome aboard “Cooley” and thanks for tuning in.
Now for today’s Commentary…
“Seeing is not such an easy thing as it is supposed to be.” Robert Henri, American painter and teacher (1865-1929)
Today, no politics. No religion. No government. No war. No cancer. No controversy. Any of those topics would be impossible for me to address since I have not watched the news for any more than a few minutes and only once or twice during the past couple of weeks. And I have been on the computer only occasionally to check email and tackle one or two business matters that seem a trite more annoying than anything else.
And what’s the reason for my detachment from the rest of the world? Simple—so I may focus all thoughts and energies on painting. As I am secluded in a small corner of the world, from the time I rise in the morning until I fall asleep after a long day I have been reading about painting, talking about painting, painting, and teaching painting; nothing more.
As war continues to rage in Afghanistan—and other parts of the globe, and the world rushes to offer aid and assistance to earthquake-devastated Haiti, a handful of painters in the Bahamas—even while under a precautionary tsunami warning following the earth-shaker—have spent the past week learning the fundamentals, and a bit more, of painting; from me.
As I do each year about this time I have spent the past five days with a small cadre of folks interested in learning to paint or further their knowledge and painting skills. With the exception of one student all are older than me. Some are Canadians. One was once a professor of Spanish, one is a retired news media executive, another is in real estate and what else I am not certain. This group is not unlike others I have taught—professionals from all walks of life—auto mechanics, dentists, educators, antique dealers, and actors come to mind. It matters not their background for all are interested in painting—and not “by numbers” or via the other commercial kits geared for the hobbyist.
The one “student” younger than me had never painted before this week—at all. She is a true beginner. The others have varying degrees of experience yet are, like me, ever the student. And there rests the spirit of a true painter—knowing, without reservation, that learning is continuous. And that every painting is a struggle no matter how long you have been squeezing paint from a tube and standing brushes in hand, with intimidation and trepidation, before a blank canvas.
This year before starting the course, for a little personal fun and to put the objective of the course in perspective, I decided to query the students. I asked each if they played the oboe or bassoon. No one did. And so I reminded each that by the end of the week they would be more knowledgeable and a better painter than they would be an oboist or bassoonist. They laughed. But I made my point. It is lunacy to believe you can become a competent painter in a week. Such is no more possible than mastering a musical instrument in five days. Or any other skill that takes years to acquire and demonstrate some degree of proficiency. And finally I suggested it was not likely anything painted during the week was likely to find wall space in the Louvre.
For driven, successful people who have excelled at nearly everything they have attempted in life such a reminder is a rude awakening. Especially since the commercial art supplies business has done a wonderful job of selling kits and gimmickry giving hope, albeit superficial, for immediate results to practically anyone who wants to paint. In reality, the mission of the art supplies business is to sell not teach the fine art of painting. So, for business purposes the more tubes of paint, specialty brushes, techniques, etc. the better. For the aspiring painter it’s mass confusion.
My students hear from the beginning that I do not teach the “mechanics” of painting. That is, I do not teach a method or “system” for painting skies, boats, cars, trees, houses, etc., etc., etc. I do not teach a method for painting apples, pears, peaches, plums or bananas, plates, bottles, glasses, or flowers. I do not teach a method of painting figures. And, I certainly do not teach a method for painting portraits. Where would it end? And more importantly, how could anyone possibly retain a “formula” or “recipe” for painting the endless number of objects in our visual world. They could not.
What my students hear over and over and over and over is that painting is simple. Everything is approached the same way. A red delicious apple is painted exactly the same way as a Bahamian cottage and the same way as a portrait of a queen, a president, or a horse. All subjects require nothing more than painting the colors and shapes. Period. I stress again and again that painting is nothing more than a continuous series of corrections after the first stroke, perfect in color and shape, is applied to the canvas. And, that, at some point, the painting stops in an interesting place.
Skepticism early in the week steadily gives way to belief, and even a sense of marvel, as painting exercises and studies designed for learning (not picture making) validates the simple approach of painting color and shape I teach.
But before picking up a brush I first teach the foremost key to painting—how to “see.” And that is a chore of the first order. For it requires overcoming years and years and years of “education” that, for the vast majority, has led to the building of a false paradigm—that is the brain telling the eyes what they see. Vice the reality of the eyes relaying to the brain what they truly “see”—as to color and shape. For some the reversal—the paradigm shift—comes quicker than others. But even when the “aha” moment strikes it requires constant reinforcement to prevent relapse into old, comfortable ways of looking at the world. Funny how there is comfort in old models and paradigms; even if they are wrong.
It sounds so simple. It is not. The mechanics of painting are simple. The psychology of painting is complex.
For example, the sky is not blue. Trees and grass are not green. Snow and boats are not white. And shadows are not black. Seeing those elements of our world and their supposed colors, and articulating them, is the consequence of casual observation drawing upon learned models imprinted into memory and reinforced throughout life.
As I tell my students, if you think the sky is blue, trees and grass are green, snow and boats are white and shadows are black, you are going to be shocked after taking a deep breath, setting aside what you think you know and taking a closer look.
One of my first mandates is the words “brown” and “gray” are stricken from the vocabulary. Colors are not “brown” or “gray.” All color can be analyzed and described as color—even if neutral—that leans toward yellow, orange, red, blue, green or violet. Then comes the awakening there is no such thing as “local” color. The color of anything is dependent upon a couple of simple factors the average person, generally speaking, does not consider: 1) The type and amount of light providing illumination (grass and trees are not “green” in the absence of light and, I ask you, is a watermelon red on the inside? and 2) Adjacent color.
This week, Amy, our beginner was awakened to a world of color she never knew existed. Which serves as proof, yet again, if you want fresh looks at something find someone who knows absolutely nothing about the topic. Within a day she “saw,” with her own eyes, the sky is not simply blue. Rather, the sky is a blue, sometimes blue-violet, sometimes red-violet, and as the gaze shifts toward the horizon a subtle, muted blue-green. She learned boats are anything but white. In fact, Amy has “seen” for herself that “white” in nature is a rarity. Yes, Amy gets it. Her first paintings, though simple and crude, explode with vibrant color and they are interesting. The other day she was nearly giddy about her new sense of color vision. And yet she is only beginning to realize the extent of her past disconnect from reality—a state of innocent obliviousness that she was literally shocked out of after picking up a paintbrush Monday afternoon.
“Seeing” color is one aspect of learning to paint. “Seeing” shape is the other. For if you can “see” color and shape and record those observations on canvas it matters none what tools you use to make the transfer. Use brushes, knives, spray bottles, fingers, or toes—it does not matter. The heart and soul of painting is first accurate observation of the subject matter—color and shape—in its most elemental form. Then mixing color to mimic the color and shapes observed. It is no more complicated than that.
The real beauty of painting is that color mixing can be done with a mere four tubes of paint: yellow, red, blue (and white)—the pigments from which all color stems. It is oh so simple. It is oh so complex.
I introduce the fundamentals of color. I do not teach color mixing for there are literally countless ways to arrive at a color. Therefore everyone must learn color mixing through trial and error. Though it can be frustrating and, at times, painful there is no other way.
What I do teach is painting—and problem-solving based on two easy questions (my students know what they are). And stress time and again that apples are painted like bowls are painted like trees are painted like houses are painted like figures are painted like portraits. Color and shape are all that matter and are the essence of painting.
To “see” shape and color one must use cold, heartless eyes as nothing more than “seeing machines”—forget labels and past experience. Do that and there is nothing the painter cannot tackle. Nothing. Slip back into the mode of the brain telling the eyes what they see and you are licked before beginning.
The student paintings done this week were not designed to please others or to sell. They were done for a two-fold purpose—to teach “seeing” color and shape and then painting it. As with previous groups I’ve taught, the work is testament that they have been listening and doing their best—struggling. That they were tired at the end of each day reassures me they are working and learning.
The paintings, not surprisingly, have surpassed my expectations. Without exception they have been intriguing. How is it that a small group of artists, with the same teacher, can look at the same subject yet each “see” and paint it so differently? Don’t ask me. Ask Caroline, Trudy, Luisa, Amy, Bruce, Bill, Gail, Pam, Phil, Sue, Susan, Roberta and many others I’ve had the privilege of teaching. As Charles Demuth (1883-1935), the American painter, said, “Paintings must be looked at and looked at and looked at … No writing, no talking, no singing, no dancing will explain them.” There you have it.
The real beauty about learning to “see” and paint is that it changes your perception of and on nearly everything. Color, nor anything else, never looks the same again.
But what about that darn boat? Trust me, the boat is not white—take another look; a good, looooong look. And if you still don't "see" the color grab a couple of cold Kaliks and I will show you.