Put a Fork In It, the Road That Is!

Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road…take it. Forks are just a folksy way of saying time to choose. Life is a series of choices. Astrophysicist or homeless person? Some choices are more obvious than others. I chose artist, but, as it’s been said, every solution creates a bigger problem. Each fork in the road precedes the next one. Abstract or realist?

During the course of creating a painting, there are a myriad of choices that need to be made. These choices could be dictated by a variety of catalysts. Unfortunately, choices can be predetermined by prejudices rooted in belief systems. That’s a fancy way of saying, your rules choose for you. If this is how you navigate your course, it could turn into a very long and winding road.

Of course there is another option. You can choose in which direction to go, based on your intended destination. This is the road far less traveled. Probably not even on the map for most. You can make the best choice by responding to the task at hand, based on understanding the consequences of each action. You use your knowledge and savvy to figure out which fork will get you to where you want to go. The key here is intent. Time management guru, Steven Covey says, “begin with the end in mind.”

A rule may direct me to sharpen an edge, but understanding my intent I might choose to soften it.

My intent is to be an illusionistic realist. I want my portraits to come to life. When someone stands before one of my paintings, it’s my intent for them to feel that they’re looking at reality. That’s the main reaction I’m after. Once they get past their first reaction, I’d like them to think, wait a minute, this is actually a painting–by portrait artist Marvin Mattelson! That’s my secondary intent.

If my intentions are clear, I can approach each fork in the road as if it were a walk in the park.

Until next time…

This Rule Pushed Me Over the Edge

In a previous post I talked about rules and how they ultimately restrict you and make your work very repetitive. Please, if you haven’t done so, go back and read that one. If not, you may miss some context.

Repetition is the evil step child of rules. The technical term for this is boring. The point of being an artist is creativity. The death knell tolls when artists mimic themselves, consciously or not. I refer to this as the ” what would I do, if I were me” syndrome. It’s the twilight zone straddling personal style and self imitation.

A major pet peeve rule, for me, is the one pertaining to edges. It goes like this: Squint at your subject matter. Where you see high contrast, paint those edges sharply and where the values are close together, soften or blur those edges. I’m sure you’ve heard this one ad infinitum. Edge handling is the most misunderstood  term in the painters lexicon. Greatness and edge mastery are inexorably linked. This is but the first of many blog posts dedicated to the subject. Edge handling, at it’s best. has the potential to be poetically innovative while subtly enhancing the illusion of reality and orchestrating the movement of the viewer’s eye. Why throw away the potential for superior picture-making by adhering to some limiting dictum? Unfortunately, far to often, edges fall under the curse of the formulaic and heavy-handed.

I object to this rule for many reasons. It fuels robotic repetition. But the biggest problem for me is you can easily wind up with a sharp edge around the contour of your form. Since sharpness comes forward, the edge of the form will come to the front? If you want to create the illusion of depth and space in a painting, you need to understand visual perception. If the contour of a form has the sharpest edge, the form  flattens. Juxtapose a soft edge with a hard one and the hard edge comes forward. The softer of the two always recedes. Sharp edges on contours gives a photographic look because a camera has only one eye (the lens). Since we view the world through binocular vision contours of rounded objects appear softer. Photographs are intrinsically flat. So even though something is painted with vigor, the resulting painting will still have a photographic look.

On the other hand, if you want to have a painting that simulates illusionistic space, simulate human vision. In this example, a detail of a portrait painted of Herman Doomer by Rembrandt, you can see how the interior forms of the face are painted more sharply, and–as the form turns away–the edges become relatively softer. Compare the sharpness of his right eye and nose, with the softness of his right ear. Interestingly, look at the super hard edge on the contour of the cape he’s wearing, on his left shoulder, in the full image. (See top of article.) See how it comes forward. In later paintings this rarely happened. Even Rembrandt wasn’t hatched fully formed.

Until next time…

The Law of Gravity is Not a Rule, True Story!

How many times have you heard the expression, “Great artists know how to break the rules”? What exactly does this tell us? If rules are so significant, then obviously, breaking them should lead to disastrous results. However, when analyzing the work of great master painters, like Anthony Van Dyke (above), we can see that breaking the so-called rules had the opposite effect. Portrait Artist Anthony Van Dyke created a masterpiece.

It seems to defy all logic that one could break rules and not crash and burn. This is because in a civilization, such as ours, rules keep us from turning into an anarchistic society. If we didn’t have them, people would be killing, drinking and driving, jaywalking, and stealing left and right. Why isn’t this the case with regards to painting? The answer is very simple. The whole point of rules is to mandate the correct way to act. The fact that we are expected to follow rules implies we’re too stupid to make proper judgments on our own. Rules have been put in place to keep the un-smart people in line, but this can sometimes be problematic.

At intersections the rule is: always cross when the light is green, never when the light is red. The truth is: don’t walk in front of a moving car. When the signal turns green you have the right-of-way. What if, as you’re crossing the street, a car driven by a teen (texting their BFF), comes barreling down the road, right at you, and see’s neither the red light nor you…Splat! Hey, you had the right of way; you followed the rules! But unfortunately, as a result of following the rule, you are presently meeting your maker.

A rule, by definition, is “a principal or regulation governing conduct.” Rules are created for people who don’t have the capacity for reason. Truths, on the other hand, are “verified or un-disputable facts.” For example, the truth about gravity, is simple: things fall down (not up)! Unfortunately, those of us who aspire to live the life of artists haven’t been properly conditioned by society to think objectively consider the situation at hand and respond appropriately. This kind of training, I believe, should be the top priority of art education. Michelangelo said,” A man paints with his brain and not with his hands.”

Being an artist is about experiencing flow, not about regimentation. When I’m painting, I’m responding to the situation at hand and allowing the best solution to reveal itself, moment by moment. A truly trained artist is highly capable of making the appropriate decision at the appropriate time. This is the essence of creative problem-solving. There is a saying,” Give a man a fish and he won’t starve for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he won’t starve for his entire life.” We  teachers must nourish our students by giving them the tools necessary to allow them to think as artists. I have spent my entire artistic career trying to understand why the old masters did what they did, not trying to ape the style of artists long gone, or even worse, trying to force others to do it.

The result of learning rules, in lieu of truths, is dogmatic thinking. If students are not being taught how to think, but instead are being told what specifically to do in a given situation, they have very little chance of evolving. Students come up to me all the time and proclaim that they’d alway been told: “never use black,” or “always use the compliment to grey colors,” or “always use blue in shadows,” or “always hold the brush this way!” or “always paint a portrait against a dark background,” or “Don’t overwork a painting,” or “never touch a brush stroke once it’s on the canvas,” or “don’t ever put detail in a painting,” or “never use more than three colors in a mixture,” or “allegorical painting is more significant.” These are but a few of the myriad of rules we’ve all had shoved up the old wazoo. In the case of the Anthony van Dyke’s Lady Lucy Percy (see above), the oft cited  rules that “warm colors come forward, cool colors recede” and “intense colors comes forward, grayed down colors recede,” have obviously been tossed out the window.

Rigid adherence to rules turns us into automatons and, even worse, make us totally dogmatic with regards to judging all else. When we are led to believe that the principles we have been spoon fed are indisputable, how can we avoid casting a blind eye to all else? It saddens me when an artist’s work displays little or no evidence of their own hand. I worry that the realistic movement of today will share the same sad fate of 100 years ago.

To make matters even worse, those doing the professing believe their rules are really truths.

We don’t need to be told what specific action to take. We need to understand what effect our actions will have. Ultimately the choices we make in art, as in life, are what define us. We need to nurture our ability to make our own decisions and express our own individual points of view. Until next time…