When I started painting I felt the need to learn the craft of painting understanding the materials and processes involved. Next came learning to see, almost retraining the eyes to see value and negative space rather than identifying and naming my surroundings, the way in which most people visually operate in the world.
With this new knowledge and these new ways of perceiving I happily continued painting. I feel quite blessed I have had no formal training because as my skills and awareness have developed my thirst for knowledge has always been quenched, my teachers are Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Bacon, Freud and Auerbach and what incredible teachers to have. As an intermediate level painter all the knowledge required is already available from the images and paintings the previous painters have generated. If you need to learn about brushwork, limited palettes, intuitive painting, colour, composition it is all there in the paintings of the above artists.
The question occurs to me though, having spent so long looking and trying interpret these images, what ties them together, what makes them powerful, how do they represent painting at it's finest level. I feel through painting and looking intensely at these images I have the answer, it is the next stage after retraining perception. What is the next stage?
Letting go, at this point we need to let go of all our visual memories and actually stop looking and mentally processing, it has to be an intuitive compound of seeing and applying paint, the paint has to do the 'work' and this does not mean slipping into a deeply abstract painting style.
The common ground between nearly all great paintings is unsurprisingly the manner of paint application, for example a collar on a shirt in a Velazquez is a dash of white which some how not only looks like a collar but is real and somehow adds to the 'soul' of the painting, a Rembrandt self portrait is vibrating with life, Freud has the depth of real skin when most of us didn't really appreciate skin had depth. Now take these examples and look at the brushstrokes which are creating these effects and giving such soul and life to something essentially inanimate, they are loose and beyond comprehension as the thing they are trying to portray (while not loosing realism), in other words you could not think your way to the visual solution these artists have found. Cognition cannot produce this level of painting.
We have to let go of the thinking side of painting, this is how to progress, application of paint and seeing have to be one unified instinct, one unified action. The process has to be felt to have soul or integrity.
And yet again I find painting mirroring life and vice versa, for in life to obtain freedom and happiness we also have to let go, let go of all fear and concepts.
The image at the top of the post is a Rembrandt close up, the next Velazquez and underneath Francis Bacon.