Notes on Art Theory

I promised awhile back some some thoughts on art theory for those of you who are artists. While no means comprehensive if it inspires you it’s all good.

 A few notes about technique before I get to the more important underlying aspects of art. I paint “wet on wet” a very old simple technique but one that takes a great deal of time to master. ( I still think it’s the quickest surest way to improve ) I may do a series of  small pencil sketches to figure out basic composition. I’ll use photographs for information where I need it. I take a lot of pictures and have a very large reference file as well. I would prefer to paint from life but apart from landscape stuff it’s very difficult to get models that will sit still for more than 5 minutes anymore. The more information I have the better. A photograph is information… your not a slave to it, use what you need ignore the rest. You must remember that a camera sees differently than your eye. Your eye has what your concentrating on in focus but the peripheral is not. It has a shorter depth of field than most cameras. We want 3 types of edges, hard soft and implied. If you do everything hard edged like in a photo it will look like one. Decide which edges need to be hard. Let those that recede into the background be soft and where you can suggest an edge instead of painting the whole thing do that. As a matter of fact those areas of a painting that are less central to the them should have less detail. Prioritize the areas of detail. If it were a portrait for example the face would get the most attention the clothing less so and the background the least of all. Do only whats needed to suggest detail in the areas that aren’t as important. If I’m painting a palm tree for example I’ll simplify the shapes of the palm fronds and paint only a few actual fronds. Your eye will see that and complete the rest.

 Before I get ahead of myself I should talk about the inspiration for the painting in the first place. I can’t tell you how to get that…I pray…God answers. John Lee Hooker famous bluesman was once asked where he got the inspiration for his music. He said God gave it to him…He just listened and wrote it down. Anyway once I have my inspiration ( trying to paint without it doesn’t often result in good work although sometimes you have to just start painting and then the inspiration comes ) I use Belgian linen with a very smooth tooth ( I like to see the brush strokes not the weave of the canvas ) I cover the whole canvas with a mix of poppyseed oil and a small amount of paint usually a mix of yellow, red, and purple that makes a warm brown. I don’t do any preliminary drawing on the canvas. I draw with a brush. Large ones to start with in simple basic shapes blocked in in the middle of the value scale. No white or black yet. Once I’ve covered the whole canvas in basic shapes and get them where I want them ( good thing about oils is they dry slow so you have 3-4 days to work ) Then and only then I can begin to to punch in my shadow areas and after that my highlights. ( white and black “pollute” other colors very easily and aren’t easy to cover up which is why we leave them until we have the basics in place. An added advantage to this is that when we do put them in we can do it with confidence because we’ve already determined everything is in it’s proper place.

Basically I’m working from the middle of the value scale outwards in both directions. Because I’m painting in to a wet surface the painting has a nice liquid feel to it. Simple shapes become progressively more detailed with smaller brushes. The trick is to say the most with the least.  Sort of a visual shorthand. I don’t want to paint every blade of grass, just enough detail where your eye can complete the rest. We want a little mystery not too much information! This is one of the things beginning artists really struggle with…too much detail…The trick is to decide what is necessary and nothing more. I still struggle with this…A great way to learn this is to do small paintings with only big brushes. This is where you learn the subtleties of value, color intensity etc. If you did nothing more than than going out and painting some hills and sky and concentrated on getting the colors and values just right ( how they really are ) you would be getting somewhere. After awhile of this take your paint box and take a life painting class. If you can draw the figure you can draw anything. It’s our baseline, the fundamental foundation that everything else is built on. Don’t spend a lot of time on any one painting, They should be more like a sketch except with paint. When I say sketch I don’t mean that you don’t strive for accuracy. Get the simple things right otherwise the detail you put on top of it is like lipstick on a pig. Spend your time getting the simplest things right.

This is how we learn, practice practice practice. Go look at Joaquin Sorolla, John Singer Sargent, Ernest Blumenschien and The Taos painters. Unfortunately there’s nobody alive in their class today. I aspire to someday do something I wouldn’t be embarrassed to hang in the same room but it may take more time than I have left…in this life at least. I’ll keep trying in the next one.

I can’t speak for anyone else but I do believe that there are truths that are universal for all artists..that is unless you subscribe to the deconstructionism, craftlessness and farce that is  modern art. If you did you probably wouldn’t have signed up for this site. I’m a non person in the modern art world just in case you were wondering. One thing I’ve learned is that art at it’s best is a true story simply told. If I can transmit something of the essence of a subject it’s core meanings and value I’ve got something worthwhile. A painting isn’t just a technical exercise in recording what something looks like. I can do that with a camera far more easily. What I’m after is a story told in an appealing manner in my style that’s true to the subject. It’s authentic…which means I have to do my homework. You might get away without that for 99% of folks but it’s the 1% that know that you paint for. If it passes muster with them you have something. What you hope happens after you’ve done all your research and figured out how to tell your story is the “magic” that turns a technical exercise in to something more than the sum of it’s parts. If I could describe exactly what that magic is it wouldn’t be magic now would it? I can sort of hint at it but in reality it can’t be fully grasped.

Love, adventure, romance, mystery, truth, beauty…that’s about as close as I can get to describing the “magic” in a great piece of art. I can sort of elude to it but can’t exactly explain it. It just happens…I’ve known artists who are very good draftsmen with good technical skills who’s paintings are dead as a doornail. They never go beyond a technical exercise. Don’t get me wrong I believe in doing everything possible to develop drawing and painting skills. If you don’t have the technical ability to put on paper or canvas what’s in your mind then you hit a ceiling you can’t get beyond until you do something to upgrade your skills to the point they can keep up with your imagination but there’s more to it then just technique.

I tell the students I speak to that if you had a piechart that represented  what a fully developed artist looked like it would have small slices of natural talent and huge slices of self discipline, hard work, desire and stubborn determination. Everyone who has desire enough to do the work has enough natural talent. You have to work at it. It doesn’t just drop in your lap. There will be many obstacles. There will always be obstacles. There’s something that happens in the process of overcoming trial that can’t be gained any other way. We don’t learn much except by pain and trial. Wish it were otherwise but it isn’t…

Great paintings have a confidence in the way the artist tells the story that can’t be faked. The only way to get that confidence is making all the 1001 mistakes you need to learn. There’s no way to skip from 1 to 1001. We learn from mistakes. If your afraid to tear down everything your used to doing on a regular basis and rebuild you’ll never progress. One of the reasons we have so few great painters today is because the simple values of honesty, humility and handwork are beyond the patience of most artists. People just don’t want to do the work. It ain’t easy believe me, nothing worthwhile is…If your serious about a career as an artist you have to go to school for a long time. It took me 8 years. You’ll likely struggle to pay your bills for a long time. It’s hard! You’ll be tempted to quit get a safe stable job…and be miserable doing it. The desire for security is in my opinion one of the greatest obstacles to a person becoming the artist they were born to be. There is no “security”. You need something beyond your own power to make it…Faith! Faith that I was meant to be an artist. Faith that God will make a way and provide for my needs. If you were hoping for some advice on easy shortcuts I’m sorry I don’t have any. If you don’t like the idea of depending on God or your convinced you know better than the one who made you and gave you the gift of art I wish you good luck…If your the captain of your own ship…the ship be sinkin’.

This is a critically important point I cannot avoid even if I wanted to…The magic in art comes from the truth that lies at the heart of the story being told. No truth, No story worth telling. I’ll give you an analogy. Every good drama that’s ever been made has the same basic storyline. The hero somehow against impossible odds triumphs over evil and the day is won. Frodo ( a lowly hobbit )goes in to the middle of Mordor and against million to one odds overcomes and evil is vanquished. At this point I realize some of you were looking for some tips on painting and drawing technique and your getting a religious jaw instead. If your goal is to produce art with no meaning then I haven’t much to say you can glean from. Art with real meaning that speaks to peoples hearts has to have something to say about what is true. Namely that we were made for paradise and to live forever. Not just existing but creating ( because our creator gave us the gift of creation ) an astonishing thing when you really think about it…He could of just made robots but He made thinking feeling creative people. It is my belief that every person who has ever been born has the potential for greatness in something. Few of us ever realize it because we are unwilling to go through the pain and suffering it takes to realize that gift fully unwrapped. There’s something really valuable we learn in the midst of suffering that can’t be learned any other way. Through the process of creating we celebrate those things that really make us come alive. To become what we were meant to be…the real us.

Now if your goal is to “discover” yourself and your gaze is directed inward I wish you good luck. That is the direction of most modern art. Because it rejects nature and more importantly nature’s God it looks inward instead and they find chaos and destruction. If they refer to nature it is to mock it or pervert it. I operate off the premise that that without God I am utterly bankrupt and have nothing worthwhile to say. The more I learn the more I realize how little I know. Although I’ve been drawing and painting for 40 years It still feels like kindergarten, Check that pre-school, maybe infant might be more accurate. It’s only the very beginning! As a result I paint simple things. The pictures you see of Tahiti and the South Pacific are pictures about Paradise. Anyone who has spent any real time in the tropics can tell you the same thing…There is no paradise on this earth. Believe me I’ve been looking for the last 30 years. Hawaii,Indonesia, Fiji, Tahiti, Caroline Islands, Marshall Islands, Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, Australia, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico etc.etc. Even if you find some beautiful place there’s always a fatal flaw…Always! We’re not home yet. This life is like a hotel stay in the valley of decision. Nobody gets out alive. Even if you worked all your life saved your money and managed to stay one step ahead of the masses ( looking for the same thing your looking for ) The next thing you know your getting old and everything hurts. I’m 54, you older folks know what I’m talking about, You young folks just wait and see.

The real value of places like Tahiti aren’t in what you can see but in what you can’t…Their signposts for something beyond what you can see…at present. Most of you have had moments of magic in your life. Maybe they were in a place like Tahiti or the mountains or a desert. Magical moments we grasp at but can never seem to capture and hold on to. Their fleeting moments, brief looks from the mountaintop through foggy classes. We don’t get nearly enough of those moments. Artists help us to pause and look for those moments. I paint pictures of paradise so that when I look at them I’m reminded of what I was made for. Somewhere in my soul I know beyond doubt I’m made for Paradise, for Heaven. I make pictures of Horse Indian culture and cowboys because it reminds me of the wildness and freedom that is also in Heaven. God is not tame, He’s wild. The irony is that to be truly free I have to recognize that there is someone infinitely greater than I am. I have a freewill choice to love Him or reject Him and go my own way. Love is the greatest thing going but it cannot be forced it must be chosen. It’s this story, our story, that is at the heart of all great art, even something as simple as a picture of a flower. What an artist is if he or she will will be truthful is like a little child who crudely tries to represent what God has made. Sort of like the drawings of our 3 year olds on the refrigerator but with an infinitely larger talent gap than the one between us and the 3 year old.

The highest thing an artist can aspire to is hold up a mirror to the beauty that surrounds us and say “Isn’t what God has made beautiful?” this is what I aspire to. The beauty is that there are as many ways and styles to tell these stories as there are artists, every voice is unique. It’s sort of like making soup we take a recipe ( imitate those who know how ) put in all kinds of different ingredients ( influences and all that we see ) stir it for awhile ( the time it takes to learn from our experiences ) eventually we put our own little pinches of this and that ( our own style now fully developed ) and we come up with something uniquely our own ( yet built on the foundation of all those who went before us ) Humility, hard work, sponge like absorption of information and wisdom, always willing to learn. Study and paint what you know and love and before you know it your an artist with a beautiful story to tell.

Keep painting, Aloha, Michael

5 thoughts on “Notes on Art Theory

  1. Michael, I have admired your work since I first saw the absolutely beautiful Aloha Shirts that you designed for Kahala Sportswear where I was also creating “core line” basics behind the scenes.

    Thank you for sharing!

    Aloha Nui Loa,

    Emma Howard

  2. Aloha Michael love your work and also your thoughts on painting…
    I have also been to Tahiti and Bora bora and Huahine etc, live on Kauai…
    and yes it is paradise and not paradise…..
    but seeing the amazing beauty of these places can be a key to a possible higher place…..a place of aloha and beauty….as painters we try to reflect that….the symbolic spiritual dimension of the spark of joy we feel when seeing these beautiful places………..

  3. Pingback: Doug Pitassi
  4. Fabulous! I’m a fan. I saw your work again yesterday in Harbor Gallery where I am hoping to be represented as well. You have wonderful feeling in your art very exciting and beautiful! I am so glad to read your thoughts on art here in this blog.
    Aloha, William Wingert

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