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How to find your painting 'language'

Gerhard Richter

Often the driving force of a repetitive creative acts, in this case painting, is taking your creative craft to perfection. It is trying to present an image which is closer to your truth and portrays the subject in the manner which you want.

I feel this is very important, this is my motivation to paint, that each brush stroke is closer to the truth than the last, whatever that 'truth' may be, a literal truth, an emotional truth or a spiritual truth. This is the inexhaustible battery, the desire for improvement which drives people to paint until the day they die...I know I am one of these people. The constant battle of the painter is these micro judgements of the process, that works...that doesn't. Constantly wobbling between frustration and satisfaction, failure and success. 

I think this leads to general sense of dissatisfaction with your work, always knowing it could be better, but in turn the dissatisfaction is the motivation! What a terrible day when I look at one of my paintings and see nothing can be improved or handled better for then I will have to stop.

The only real satisfaction comes from seeing a body of work produced over a sustained period of time, then you can hopefully see the upward trend of improvement. With each painting presenting a greater truth than the last or just closer to representing what you intended.

Gerhard Richter

It is very easy to slip off this tightrope of constant improvement, like all artists I am always looking at the world around me in detail but also at the work of others which can provide inspiration and guidance. I am self taught but feel blessed that amongst others my teachers have been Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Freud, Auerbach and Giacometti, by looking at their work for hours in various books and galleries I have learnt so much, particularly ways of handling paint and light and as my skills and experience increase I learn even more by looking at such images.

Now here comes the tricky bit, this inexhaustible battery I spoke of can soon be destroyed by taking the judgements within your own painting and judging your paintings against others. This is dangerous, unproductive ground and leads to creative blockages. You can improve your work but you are not going to paint a better Rembrandt or Van Gogh and trying to will lead to failure and despondency. These artists found their own 'language' and through the micro judgement process I described, honed and refined their language, enabling them to portray their truth very closely.

As a token of gratitude, I recently sent a painting of mine to very well known artist who has painted everyday, all day for 60+ years. Now given that kind of commitment to his craft he has developed a visual perception so intense and precise that few of us will ever get to that point. To my surprise he replied and made some comments on my work which cut straight to heart of the matter, one of which was ' I can't really tell if you have found your own ways' in other words your own painting 'language'. This was exactly the kind of criticism I needed and I knew it was true.

So I began to search for my language...I now realise that is a pointless and superficial exercise, your 'language' develops over time as you follow a path of painting the things you find interesting and motivating. It can't be rushed or pushed, maybe a painter's language develops as visual shortcuts are found to express certain things and these are repeated and modified over time.

Gerhard Richter

One of the main reasons I am writing this article is to remind myself, judge your own paintings within themselves constantly but don't judge them against others. I think if you can walk this tightrope for long enough eventually you will find truth and produce real works of art, which resonate with many people and also feel some mastery over your craft.

The images in this post are stills from the film about Gerhard Richter called 'Painting'.




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Arrrghh Colour!

Cezanne Landscape

After I learnt how to draw, I started painting and began to learn that as well! You have a brush, a support and paint, simple.

However it is with paint where the real challenges start, not so much the paint (if it is good quality) but it's critical, inherent quality; colour.

So many beautiful, rich and powerful colours, so many subtle, neutral, deep ones...

At the start, you pick a subject and begin the process, and the almost infinite variety of colour blows you away, your focus is on colour and trying to represent the colour correctly. This is very distracting and in fact I now believe completely secondary to other factors in painting.

It is important to understand human visual perception will make huge allowances for inconsistencies in colour if values and temperature are correct. If these two factors are right, the colours can be way off the mark but you will perceive a realistic rendering of form and light. 

Trying to crack realistic painting through pure observation of colour is in my opinion impossible, it needs to be broken down into component parts.

By restricting the palette to a few colours, maybe 4 or 5 (roughly the primaries), you have to make these colours really work and the knowledge gained in how they interact with each other in a painting and their breadth of range is amazing. You learn about the power of colour temperature in a picture, this is the real source of light in a work, temperature relationships. Simplflying it greatly; a sliding scale of cool and transparent for shadow to warm and opaque for light.

Beneath this stage of construction is value, the transition from light to dark, first the eye must become accustomed to seeing and distinguishing these values. A very good way is to go back to a monotone drawing of the subject. Good composition is totally based on well arranged value and line.

Through focusing on first, value relationships and then second, temperature relationships, realistic colour in painting is solved and you will be no longer overwhelmed or distracted by the array of colours out there. However maybe most importantly it is an incredibly fascinating way of looking at the world around us and brings a new delight to the things we see every day.

I suppose the message is simplify, the true purpose of painting; break down nature into it's component parts and find the 'truth' within them.

The Cezanne painting at the beginning of this post is a visual example of these ideas taken to the highest level of simplicity and skill. When you look really look at the colours in the painting they are unreal, they have too much chroma, however the values and temperature are spot on and this gives an image which is almost more real than reality.



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Persistance resistance

Ahh...the joy of mixing Naples Yellow and earths, Naples Yellow and Raw Sienna is there any greater colour? Maybe bump it up a bit with some Orange Ochre...quite frankly I could spend my entire life just mixing variations of these earthy orange yellows.

This is a diversion, I would like to write a little about two artists Frank Auerbach and Alberto Giacometti.

Giacometti in his studio

To lose that which is irreplaceable and 'works' in order to pursue something unknown and potentially disastrous takes great faith.

Auerbach and Giacometti both demonstrate this faith, both working on something until the point of collapse, this certainly takes a creative bravery, with the potential reward of a clearer representation of 'truth'. As ever painting is not a life or death situation but its lessons can be used directly in life.

Both artists demonstrate the value of keeping going to find a deeper, clearer representation. Painting is highly suited to this method, so often the easy decision for a painter is to be satisfied with what has already been made without pushing through to new levels of depth. I feel it is important to keep going only then maybe you will find a real 'truth' or insight, it is difficult when you know you will lose something completely irreplaceable.

The clinging onto the small passages of a painting which 'work' in my opinion has to be overcome, the clinging is the problem, it is counterproductive.

Frank Auerbach talking about working from his model;

" There was always the feeling that she might get fed up, that there might be a quarrel or something. I also had a much greater sense of specifically what she was like, so that the question of getting a likeness was like walking a tightrope. I had a far more poignant sense of it slipping away, of it being hard to get. I'd done the painting in a relatively timid way; that is, I'd tried to do one part and then another part, and save a bit. Then suddenly I found myself with enough courage to repaint the whole thing from top to bottom, irrationally and instinctively, and I found I'd got a picture of her. " 

To me the working method demonstrated by these two artists provides great inspiration, surely the only purpose of art is to represent reality and truth at a deep non-verbal level, I know there is plenty of painting and sculpture which does not hold these goals as its purpose but for me I see no other reason for doing it. 

Even if the result is not to everybody's taste, as ever it is the process which is important (I believe nobody will ever have a creative 'block' if they focus purely on the process, it is the obsession with the result which 'blocks').

Giacometti frequently worked his plaster sculptures until they collapsed to nothing, then started again and Auerbach's intense, deep impasto paint was not created as a 'look' but through the constant addition of more paint trying to convey reality more concisely and clearly, layer and layer of searching sometimes over years on one painting.

Just look (don't analyse) at either artist's work and they are littered with these truths and happy accidents, I personally don't think there is anything more inspiring to a painter than this, apart from nature itself.

E.O.W. on Her Blue Eiderdown II 1965, by Frank Auerbach

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