Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Painting Portraits

Often when I tell someone I like to paint portraits, especially other artists, I get a pitiful stare.

Portraiture has a lousy reputation these days. There's a prejudice against painters spending their time painting other people's likenesses. After all, isn't that what cameras do, make exact recognizable images of people? Why waste time replicating what technology does so well? It might seem a legitimate quetion, if it didn't miss the point of what it means to be making art.

Efficiency is nice, but using a camera instead of a paint brush doesn't make a portrait better, just different. The inclination to favor a camera over the brush is fueled by a confusion between the tool and the product. And sometimes intentions get lost as well. What a photographer wants to achieve with a photograph is not necessarily what a painter wants to achieve with a painting. Besides the sheer enjoyment of the hands-on experience of using a sensuous creamy medium like oil paint, painting a portrait for me means I can explore things like structure, anatomy and gesture. I want to know what it is that makes a person look the way they do. Getting a likeness, to be sure a requirement of portraiture, is only part of the picture, and ultimately the result of my explorations.

Tools artists choose to use mostly tell us about the comfort levels they enjoy with their media. Nowadays we have such a plethora of new technology available for making art, there's a tendency to favor the new over the traditional as if the new will give us newer insights or better results. But in the end tools are only tools, and they're only as good as the artists that use them.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Some thoughts on Painting & Writing

Painting is a language which cannot be replaced by another language. I don't know what to say about what I paint, really. -Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola)

Language shows a man; speak that I may see thee.
-Ben Jonson (Renaissance Playwright)

I can feel my body tense up every time I'm asked to submit a statement about my work. What a struggle it is to translate my ideas from one medium, one language, painting, to another, words, explaining what's taken me weeks to paint in a few paragraphs. Yet in our contemporary art world it's a demand I have to put up with nearly every time I submit my work for review. Painters have to be writers; heard in order to be seen.

I acquiesce because I want to be understood. Making visual art, in my case painting, is an act of communication, just like writing. But even though we're swimming in visual images morning to night from birth, to many people it's still a foreign language. Those not accustomed to reading visual art, appreciate the written translation. A verbal explanation helps to break through the language barrier. It also helps to breach the boundaries of the ordinary, that sea of visual images that flood our every day life, making us numb to new visual experiences, and accustomed to visual mediocrity. But that's another blog.

Back to writing. Some well-known painters, like Balthus, have refused to write statements. He also refused to give biographical details of his life, answering a request from the Tate Gallery with, "Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures." But not all painters have taken so firm a stand against writing. Some write simply beautiful statements, sometimes better than the actual work. Then there are those whose statements barely relate to the actual work. They don't necessarily correspond very well, one to the other, paint and words. You really have to be wary, checking to see whether or not the verbal describes and serves the visual. So much art writing is puff and fluff.

And then there's the writing about art that's virtually morphed into becoming the entire substance of the work. The art market has become so idea-driven that words seem too often to be a better language fit than the visual. They often subvert and take over. Intention substitutes for execution. No fuss, no bother, no need to strain yourself to appreciate a beautifully executed piece of work. No need to translate the visual to the verbal. Sit down, get comfortable, relax. You can read about the artist's ideas, and feel satisfied without the eye strain.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Painting 'Memories of Max'

I like to see how things are done, especially how painters develop their work.

Ever since I got my Canon Rebel digital camera, each evening before I leave my studio, I've taken a picture to document my work in progress. Then I'd transfer the daily image to my computer where I can store the image, review what I've done, and plan what I'd like to accomplish the next day.

Beginning with day one, here are 10 of the 26 daily photos I took documenting my progress for an oil painting I've recently completed called Memories of Max. This painting is a diptych. I used two 18 x 18 birch panels.

Max, our Borzoi, died when he was only 2 years old suddenly and tragically. The vet, inexperienced with the delicacy of Russian Wolfhounds, gave him too much anesthesia to attend to a minor cut on his paw. I wanted to include as many images of him as I could in this painting so we could remember him as fully as possible.

The last image is the final version of the painting.

Memories of Max

diptych, oil on two 18 x 18 birch panels

copyright 2009, Bonnie Spiegel

Monday, April 13, 2009

Staying Relevant

It has seemed to me that we're living in particularly tumultuous times. Aside from the crazy art world climate it's not an easy thing to be an artist and stay relevant while the world is falling apart. It began for me with the Vietnam War and continues today with the latest terrorist incident, Israel, Darfur, Iraq and Afghanistan. You name it. Usually all bad news. I've often wondered how my parents dealt with the uncertainties of living through the Depression and the Second World War while leading productive lives. Unfortunately they're no longer around to tell me their secrets.

Recently I came across two books by Ross King, which have helped put things in perspective for me. The first one, The Judgement of Paris, basically contrasts the careers of the modern leaning Edouard Manet with a defender of the status quo, a fellow I'd never heard mentioned in any art history class before but who was amazingly extremely famous and influential at the time, Ernest Messonier. Ever hear of him? King tracks both their careers as more modern approaches to painting like Impressionism begin to prevail. But unlike other art history books I've read describing the rise of modernism, King gives a fuller picture of the times. War and conflict was pervasive in Europe and especially in France. Even Paris was for a time under siege. Famine and disease made life difficult obviously, yet these artists continued to work, produce, thrive, and essentially change the face of the art world.

In the second King book, Michelangelo and The Pope's Ceiling, King describes the relationship between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo which resulted in the creation of Michelangelo's fresco for the Sistine Chapel. King likes to contrast both artists and the times they lived in with their work. In this book he adds another artist, Raphael, who was painting frescoes for the Pope's private apartments. But again what struck me most was how King enriched the narrative with his descriptions of the scary and unstable times in which they lived. Italy, a conglomeration of city states was continually at war, and this Pope was more warrior than religious leader, winning and losing battles while endangering thousands up and down the peninsula. Between the regularity of malaria, plague and war, life wasn't easy.

At the very least, I'm seeing life as an artist in here in Maine in a whole new light.