“It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”
There has been a bit of a to-do recently about Christie's selling a "portrait" produced by an AI. The makers of the AI, a group called Obvious, say they fed in thousands of different portraits and the result of the AI's processing was elaborately framed and was sold at Christies for $432,500.
The makers of the algorithm and the merchants at Christies talk about this product pushing the boundaries of art and bringing up the question of "what is art?" in a new and interesting way. I would argue that this whole affair is merely the most recent effort at further obscuring the reality of what art is by a culture that has long rejected it.
Art is man's pursuit of Beauty. Chesterton pointed out that this is one activity that separates us from lower animals - man can be defined as the artistic animal. I would also like to point out that the true making of art also separates us from machines.
The making of art is a free response by man to the beauty he sees around himself, within himself, and that he senses in many unexpected ways - a response that drives man to distill beauty and to capture it. Ultimately the artist realizes there is always more beauty than he can encompass - and at its best art raises the mind of the artist and the viewer through wonder to the Source of Beauty.
Compare this with the activity of an artificial intelligence producing an image. Images are fed in. A complex program then produces an image. It is impossible to see why the AI "decided" to put a certain color here or a certain shade there. It is simply hidden - the term computer scientists use for this mystery is "the black box." It is utterly beyond even the scientists to come to an understanding of how the AI produced its results. It is beyond the art critic who, at his best - according to Chesterton - is able to describe and understand artistic choices: why an artist chose this and not that; why he drove one way rather than another.
With so many things that are beyond the everyday particular understanding - from our cars and appliances to our governments and vast corporations - more and more of our lives in the modern world fall into some sort of at least metaphorical "black box." I think that is one reason why there has been a resurgence of realist painting. It is reassuring and fundamentally human to want to relate to other human beings. There is a comfort and an intelligibility to objects and processes that bear the mark of the human touch. The man-made object is one that allows one to see the work of another human mind and a sense of relationship is made present.
To me, the paint stroke in particular is the antithesis of the "black box." It is a frozen thought from a mind searching for beauty communicated through a human hand. Its end is eloquently apparent as that individual thought comes together with many others to recreate the miracle of human perception of the physical world - something so particular and beautiful that one instantly knows it could never be an accident. The paint stroke is integrated and harmonized with the whole and, in a way, reveals the process of its making to the viewer.
In a world where causes and effects can be so divided and elusive, a beautiful painting is a bastion of sanity. Every stroke can give insight into a well ordered mind and the comprehension within that mind of the order of Creation.
Did you know...
...that oil paints are called oil paints because the binder that liquefies and carries the pigment is some type of oil?
Different oils are used with different brands. Most commonly, linseed oil or walnut oil are used.
In watercolor paints some type of water soluble medium binds the pigment together. Sometimes honey is actually used as the primary binder in watercolor paints. So the next time that you are water coloring outside, if you notice the bees are particularly interested in your painting this might be the simpler reason than the bees' particularly good taste in art.
Some say that direct painting is the easiest type of painting to understand but the hardest to master.
It consists merely of painting the right color in the right place.
Why didn't I think of that?
In my previous blog post on this topic, I shared a bit about technique and why it might matter to know about technique, and then I introduced the idea of Direct Painting, which is my speciality as a member of the Boston School tradition. Some famous practitioners of this method include John Singer Sargent, Zorn, Hakeem Zaria, Velasquez, and of course the masters of the Boston School: Tarbell, Paxton, and Benson.
Let me dive in a bit more to what Direct Painting is (for those of you who didn't get to my talk and painting demo).
Direct Painting means: No underpainting ("underpainting" basically just means a preliminary sketch in paint on the canvas before getting to the actual colors of the composition) or building up of values or layering of tones -- just directly to the final effects.
One of the key phrases masters of Direct Painting have used to describe it is "all the horses at once." This means that the Direct Painter wants all the aspects that he will include in his final painting to be developing simultaneously; not letting any one "horse" get too far ahead.
This means the artist must be constantly thinking about all aspects of painting and be constantly evaluating his picture for them. These aspects include form, color (hue, value, and chroma), shape, gesture, edge, sense of light, overall feel, composition, paint quality, depth, atmosphere of form, and anything else he can think of that he wants in his final painting. It is much like juggling -- however, once an artist thinks he has all the balls balanced in the air, sometimes he discovers a new ball! Which is to say: studying a subject so closely can lead to surprising visual revelations, even mid-painting.
Direct Painting also requires a sense of detachment and even daring, because a painter will sometimes have to "destroy" previous layers of work in order to incorporate new information and correct old. I find that I can't be hesitant in this approach.
Put simply, Direct Painting means that I start with "blobs of color" on my canvas and gradually mold them into my composition, almost like carving into marble. I'm just looking at the colors.
This method of painting is in contrast to Indirect Painting, in which painters approach the canvas by first "solving" the shape, composition, and value problems of a painting and then "gluing in" color on top of a brown or gray version of the painting (the "underpainting"). The danger with this method is that it can often sacrifice the live observation of color. My own opinion is that color creates form and that drawing cannot be "solved" without it.
As I've come to grasp this method and enjoy it, my obsession with color has only increased and my eyes have been opened to the world of the color spectrum in ways that I simply could not imagine with my previous art training.
I've also become a much more efficient painter; whereas I used to take weeks or even months to see a thing and try to get it in front of me on canvas, I can now tackle the same subject matter in literally a matter of hours. There's no time - or pigment - wasted as I make my way to the final result. (For the same reason, Direct Painting is so interesting to share in person, as when I do Live Painting at events).
What do you think -- Have you heard of this method before? Is it a technique you could imagine getting into?
Chesternest is named after the apartment home where my wife Deirdre and I grew our family from one child to three. We called our apartment 'The Chesternest' because of its location in Manchester, NH as well as the fact that Deirdre was in 'nesting' mode when we moved in, as we were expecting our second child. Being on the second floor of a three-family home, we felt "nestled" into our spot above a street where we came to make many friends and share a beautiful season of our life.
That home, which we left this past spring, was filled with happy memories including the more than three years of my drawing and painting training under Paul Ingbretson, many hours spent playing with our little ones, and hours of friendship and parties with other families from the neighborhood. It was our cozy nook for a young family in a small city.
I hope this painting communicates some of that feeling.
Among the elegant ceramics and delicate dried hydrangea blossoms, a small porcelain bluebird is making its nest inside a stacked teacup. The blue and red-browns and yellows that predominate this painting have an air of calm and quiet about them. They are subtle rather than loud. There is a sense of stillness and perhaps even distance about this still life that I hope will remind the viewer of the peace of a home. The blue china cups and plates that are stacked and scattered throughout the painting are actually from the set of dishes we used as a family on a daily basis for our meals, and are artifacts weighed down with the memories and happiness of those days for me.
Information for collectors: Please see further details about Chesternest on the Still Life page.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the JHF Art Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator. Here you'll find updates on my art and activities and some of my art philosophy. You'll also hear occasionally from my wife, artist Deirdre M. Folley. Peace!
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