It’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it.
|Asters by Björn Runquist, 12X24. Courtesy of the artist.
Last week, I got a text from Björn Runquist that read “Asters!” and included a photo of the roadside along Maine 131 in Thomaston. I was out on American Eagle teaching, so I couldn’t rush over there. On Monday, Ken DeWaard and I went chasing after Björn’s view. Route 131 is narrow, heavily traveled, and has a wicked ditch, making parking and set-up difficult. That meant all three of us painted from the same place, at the same angle. Björn’s painting is beautifully finished; Ken’s and mine are still incomplete.
It’s common enough for us to paint in the same place, but rare that we would choose the same frame. Within that, different things attracted us. Björn concentrated on the broad sweep and the punctuation of greens. Ken was interested in the big sky. For me, the asters were right at eye-level, so I painted a forest of purple.
|Ken DeWaard‘s asters, 18×24, courtesy of the artist.
Bearing in mind that they’re at different stages of completion, are any of these paintings ‘better’ than the others? Subjected to formal analysis, they all finish strong. They’re properly drafted, have good composition, clear focal points, and use color competently. None are boring.
Therein lies the juror’s conundrum. Their ‘quality’ rests on how you, the viewer, respond emotionally to them. In that, they’re radically different. Ken, Björn and I are roughly the same age, have the same social background, and use the same alla prima technique. I’m not going to psychoanalyze my peers, let alone myself, but we each bring different sensibilities to our paintings.
|My asters, 12×16.
That’s why painting matters, of course. It’s also one of the many paradoxes of art. Most consumers respond to paintings based on subject matter—for instance, they look at boat paintings because boats mean something to them. The objectivity of time renders the subject less important, and the artist’s inner life becomes paramount. Vincent van Gogh is not an Immortal because the art-loving public has an abiding love for Arles. Heck, most of us have never been there.
Last week, I told you about an exercise where my students have to paint a scene chosen by committee. (Joe Anna Arnett called me an ‘evil genius’ for this lesson, and it’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.) The subject matters, yes, but what you bring to it ultimately overrides content. Never worry about a peer painting the same thing as you—he simply can’t.
A footnote: please check out Peter Yesis’ wonderful flower paintings. He’s willing to take on those flowers petal-by-petal, something the rest of us never dare do.