Thoughts on Painting…and Beans

I woke up this morning with two thoughts in mind. “Did it get down to below freezing last night, and, if it did, were my plant covers OK?” and “Wow, at the French Academy they actually have a book that shows what various colors ‘do’ to each other when put next to each other. That’s what art education is all about. What kind of mind would put that together? And how could anyone read it without losing their mind? And I think I’m an artist? Has the meaning of being an artist changed?”

I don’t know if it got down to freezing last night because Li Bai, Tu Fu and Li Ho are all fine this morning as are the Golden Gua attending them. The little tomatoes are fine, too. Paper sacks work well. I also made bags out of bubble wrap that worked great as well.

A few weeks ago I watched Waldemar Januszczak’s series on the Impressionists. I liked it a lot. One of the paintings (and artists) he talked about was George Seurat. When I was a young person I thought Seurat’s paintings were stupid. Just “head” paintings, no “feeling.” Then, in my late 20s on a bizarre trip to Chicago I saw Sunday Afternoon at the Grand Jatte at the Chicago Art Institute. I don’t know what Seurat was, but that painting is a force. Still, I do not know why anyone would want to paint tiny dots. This is truly an intellectual tour de force. I happen to love the painting, but I would lose my mind if I undertook such a thing, even 1 x 2 inches of that.

I woke up thinking about Januszczak’s questioning an old guy, a professor, at the French Academy about the book he was holding. It was fold-out page after fold-out page of dots. “This is where Seurat got the idea, right?”

The old guy dismissed Januszczak’s questions over and over. It was clear Januszczak was going to believe what he wanted, and the French art scholar was going to look down his nose. I felt I could read that scholar’s mind (I couldn’t), and it was thinking, “Zat is not what ze art is about, you English Pig Dog! I spit in your general direction!” Was the French professor showing disdain for Seurat or Januszczak, or was that just the guy he IS? TV documentaries don’t allow deep looks into the psyches of the people who show up for 3 minutes and vanish.

It’s true that in earlier times being an artist was a job. Public spaces were usually elaborately painted with murals. Painters’ studios bid on contracts. To get the best contracts, a studio had to have a stable of skillful painters who could be depended on to do what they were told. The skills of painting at the time — and forever — were like the skills of any profession.

Januszczak’s discussion of the Impressionists stresses their rebellion from the Academy, their determination to paint what they actually SAW. Their rebellion (as Januszczak explained it) took the shape of painting the world around them rather than the idealized and often mythological subjects that were shown at the academy exhibits — trains vs. Aphrodite . The paintings favored by the Academy were completely different from those the Impressionists were doing. Many were large, smooth, mural-paintings that might hang in public spaces. I don’t know if they reflected, confirmed or determined the taste of the time. I do know that the group of painters — Monet, Degas, et. al — the blossoming of Impressionism — changed the world’s understanding of painting forever.

I started out an art major. It didn’t last long for a couple of reasons, mostly money. My mom was supplying my pocket cash at school where I, otherwise, had a full ride. Art is an expensive major, and she didn’t want me to major in art. Also, I didn’t have any confidence. My high school art teacher really disliked ME and didn’t even look at my work. He was a GREAT teacher to a lot of my classmates, but not to me. I don’t know why. When I became a teacher myself, I took that lesson with me, realizing there would be students I didn’t like. There were very few, as it turned out.

I didn’t understand the technique part of art studies. Even now I don’t think I do. I showed a painting to a friend who has more training, and she dismissed it because the horizon cut the painting in half. That’s a “no-no” — I know that, but when I looked at the scene, at the painting, I saw the line somewhere else. For some reason, for me, the line is below the river but it is, actually, for most people just below the background trees.

I also realized I break most of my paintings in the center of the “canvas” even though I “know” better.

I wondered if I went to school if I would become a better painter. That’s when I realized I’m deeply suspicious about school. Strange for a teacher, right?

(featured photo: detail from Sunday Afternoon on the Grand Jatte by George Seurat)

24 thoughts on “Thoughts on Painting…and Beans

  1. Interesting. So, is painting like photography…thirds. I don’t paint, and I only play with photography. I was looking at my husbands paintings after reading this and his are broken in thirds, some from the bottom some from the top.

    • It’s one of the first rules. It is alleged that Leonardo made the rule, but I don’t know. The human eye likes 3s. It seems to have been a mystical number and ratio since forever.

      • It may be some kind of rule, but I like your painting. It looks to me as if it has line breaks the middle horizon, and the water. I think it works!

        • Thank you. Sometimes when I’m out there — particularly in winter when the world isn’t overcome with green — I feel the sky and the river are kind of one thing. With snow, everything is water and snow shadows are like the deepest part of the sky out here where there’s so little atmosphere to break the white light into colors.

  2. I had to smirk. It is always the same in art (and literature/poetry) – there is someone who defies the rules. Thus we have all the artists who went beyond or at a 90 degree angle from the status quo. I like your painting. The thirds rule may work fine but making it a half makes it look larger – the BIG empty is bigger when the horizon is in the middle!
    So happy to hear that the beans were not brutalized by the colder evening temps.

    • I just think it’s weird that someone would look for the third’s rule before they’d look at the painting. That’s like thinking grammar is writing. And you’re right. The Big Empty is BIG. For me its beauty is in that wondrous thing and the courageous trees that break it up here and there, the tiny creatures who think NOTHING of it, but just LIVE here. Even mountains don’t have much effect on the magnitude of the space. I thought when I moved here I’d be all over the mountain trails. I haven’t been. I can’t really go up hill easily (or down). I do it OK, but very slowly, never freely, (it’s easier on skis) but the BIG EMPTY just rolls itself out for me, “Here, Martha” every single day.

  3. I once spent a lot of time looking at a Monet haystack. Can’t remember which one. Going close and then back, then close again. We must have picked a good day to go when the crowds weren’t too bad at the NGA. All I can remember were all these different colour purple and green dots. Other colours too. It was amazing. Since tile colours are few, I thought I could use some of the colour “blending” techniques to create an impression of a colour, but as it turns out I wouldn’t have a clue about how to do that, and I probably would still not have enough tile colours.
    I don’t know about rules, never having studied art. I like your painting, Martha. It is a big sky where you are. Might as well make the most of it.

    • You’d probably enjoy that series on the Impressionists. I did. Januszczak spends a lot of explaining that color thing. The thing is all the colors are always there — in a sense color isn’t even real. It depends on light. I think it’s fascinating but not all that helpful. 🙂

  4. This was a very interesting post. I have not learnt art formally but enjoy learning on my own and trying. But I’m not able to understand the rules and ratios and perspectives. So reading this post was encouraging. Your painting is beautiful.

    • Thank you. I don’t think the rules and so on are as important to artists now as they were in the early 19th century (and before). For me, painting is a way of seeing and discovering, sometimes something inside me, sometimes something about the outside world.

  5. Love that painting of yours, I feel as I am sitting by the rivers edge down low. Maybe lying and seeing the mountain in the gap. I never understood the thirds thing. If I like a painting I like it.

    I tried to study art. I was successful in gaining a place in a highly esteemed art school in Sydney having never studied art or having a portfolio. Merely on the work I did on the day of assessment. We had to sketch an egg, a skull and something else. So the sketches were enough good enough when others had studied art all their school years and had portfolios. Leaving art school is my one regret.

    I found so much of the idealism of individual lectures and expectations along with demands to be different really hard. The drugs were the thing that drove me away as I was a a devout Christian back them. Too heavenly bound for any earthly use. I also disliked that I had spent ages on a painting only to be told to tear it up and create something else with it. I kind of gave up painting then. I seek to return.

    • It was maybe ten years ago — after I was given a small canvas and a brush for Christmas — that I went out to my shed (that I’d built for a studio) and tried an oil painting, the first since school. It sounds like for you like for me art school might not have been the thing. 🙂

  6. If you had any doubts, that is one hell of a painting. It is more than just an image. It is an invitation. I want to visit that hazy beach with waving sea grasses. I can almost feel the spray of water. The muck cast along the edge of shore where small creatures crawl and water sucks at your toes.

    If I had any money, it would be yours to bring that painting home with me. Short of that, you make me long for the water’s edge.

    • Thank you! I love that it evokes that in you. Sometimes I wonder (though this is a river in winter) if all my time living near the Pacific Ocean somehow affected my internal view of water. There IS a beach here (in the painting) Maybe it’s where the river is going. ❤

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