Recently I challenged myself to invent a visual language while painting on the field, and the effect on my mind was startling. The process got me thinking about the inception of art movements. How exactly did rogue painters of the past invent a new movement in art? For one thing, they willingly created a new language of artistic expression. What aspects of a new visual language makes it successful? Obviously, it has to draw you in. Beyond that, as we’ll see below, the motif must be recognizable and express the specific as something universal.
This week, for the first time, I painted an abstract landscape in real time outdoors instead of working from photos back at the studio. ‘Abstractscape’ is a term I coined for abstract landscapes, like the ones shown here painted in the studio.
I had leveraged photographs as inspiration for abstract paintings like ‘Lake Pearrygin’ and ‘Abstractscape 2’.
While the process of imagining colors for a painting is commonplace, it usually doesn’t happen outdoors in a ‘realist’ painting scenario. There, in the field working directly from nature and deliberately using radically different colors, I experienced the ‘language shift’. This was a big step for me because so far, all my Plein Air work has been predictably realistic. You observe, correlate to a color, simplify the form, and try to give the impression of what you are looking at.
Having been inspired by Van Gogh, who created art outdoors, I added an emotive filter to my own rendering by changing colors dramatically. Brushwork does of course also enhance the message, but this was nothing new. What became more important is the range of colors available, which bound the aesthetic potential of the painting. If you’re going to replace natural color, you’ll want choices. The richness and translucency of opaqueness of colors, the range of hues available at different values (tones) and other characteristics of the paint will determine how exuberant your painting can become.
How is this different than just painting abstracts in your studio? Pure abstraction is inherently inward facing, where the subject matter is only what the artist can conjure. In my opinion, this results in a work that is very private. Abstract art is alienating to many because the source reference is unknowable; the topic came from within the artist’s mind, in a place we cannot go or may not want to go. Thus, while purely abstract art can be impactful, it is not communicating an experience most of us can relate to.
Painting from life, on the other hand, is inherently open, outward facing. Depicting a recognizable motif is a defining characteristic of this type of art. It is present in the works of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne and other post-impressionists who introduced abstractions into their work. By establishing an understandable context, the viewer can then see a difference in how an artist perceives a subject matter the viewer knows. This allows the viewer to get outside her own way of seeing. Experiencing another’s difference in perception is an aesthetic thrill. It brings us closer to the artist and expands our own artistic vocabulary.
I had looked at clouds and mountains and water and thought, ‘I’ve painted this before’, meaning that I’ve already experienced rendering this subject matter in a worthy manner. I had already learned from it. ‘Normal’ representative painting was no longer rewarding enough for me. What’s so inadequate about repeating what you have already conquered? Surely you can still improve your realistic work? We probably could have asked Monet or Cezanne the same question. Why did they break with a worthy tradition? Was it an excuse for poor talent, incompetence or laziness? In my case, I have already achieved very good results painting realistically.
In my case, I have already achieved very good results painting realistically. Why is articulating in a new way a priority? It is more artistic restlessness than anything else. One is not just looking and responding to creation; one is also re-creating it as art that is both allusive to its inspiration and at the same time a new visual experience.
Thus, I emoted the colors based on instinct and in the context of other ‘unreal’ colors on the canvas. I was inventing an abstraction language just like Van Gogh and Cezanne had done. This is liberating. You never have to look at anything in a conventional way again.
Ebey's Landing II
The work should also draw you in. In Van Gogh’s art, we sense a sincere and creative response to what he was looking at. There is an ethos of fidelity expressed through the filter of his peculiar formal language. It was one only he could speak at the time, but one which everyone can understand. The viewer’s mind is expanded as he or she understands a familiar subject matter as seen through Vincent’s unique interpretation. Moreover, as we accept and admire his work, we are expressing tolerance and openness.
What’s more, the lack of precision and realist fidelity in portraying a specific individual helps puts Van Gogh’s work in the realm of universals, which have broad appeal. He starts with the individual but ends up portraying a type of person – a potato eater, a jolly postman, a depressed laundry lady, a field of corn, irises, fishing boats, etc.
While many artists have taken radical leaps over the centuries, to me it feels like uncharted territory. Inventing a new vocabulary is not a process any realist mentor can teach to you. One must invent rules to prescribe the new world within the work. Yet what you render must have a sense of inevitability. Anchoring it with a recognizable subject matter that has nevertheless been abstracted to represent a type makes the work appealing.
Allow me to get a bit mystical for a moment. If we believe that what we experience is not merely visual perception, but input into a greater consciousness, then seeing with your mind and manifesting this expands this consciousness. With new artwork, you augment the beauty of creation. You are participating in the same creative stream that spawned the diversity of creation. Inventing a language also provides a mystical sense of comradery with those who have founded movements across time. Even if your work doesn’t result in a new ‘ism’, nevertheless you belong to a brotherhood of the innovators.
Inventing a language also provides a mystical sense of comradery with those who have founded movements across time. Even if your work doesn’t result in a new ‘ism’, nevertheless you belong to a brotherhood of the like-minded. Paradigm shifts large and small are memorable moments in culture that imprint on our collective consciousness.