I’m putting away my reference books.
Well, not actually putting them away, but leaving them on the bookshelf. At least for a while. For 3 1/2 years, I have studied long and hard, and it’s time to see what I can do entirely on my own. California painter William Wray once told me that the wider the range of one’s influences, the more likely one is to develop his or her own unique style. We’ll see.
Let me explain:
When I choose a subject for a painting, the choice is generally based on a potential composition and light. Sometimes a spot of color attracts me. Often, the textures and broken parts of an old structure appeal to me. Whatever it is, there is either an immediate – or developed emotional attraction.
I most often browse through the work of several artists, either before or after laying in the dark areas that will determine the composition. I may look at Corot, Chase, Sargent, and a couple of Hudson River painters. I’ll also look at Andrew Wyeth and a few impressionists, most likely Sisely and Callebotte. As I progress into the painting, in addition to the others, I will often take a look at Aspevig, Schmidt, McPhearson and others (“…how did they handle this…?).
Many times, this process continues throughout the entire painting. Of course the painting is unique! It is after all, an amalgam of different painting styles all rolled into one. But how would I have handled it without all those references during the process? I am, without doubt, a strong believer in artistic influences. How else can one learn about atmospheric perspective, brushwork, color temperature? About the value of soft and hard edges? That’s all part of the development of the painter’s craft.
I love comparing art to music. A truly great pianist, after learning the basics of fingering and reading music, must study the work of masters such as Chopin and Bach, among many others, to further develop his or her skills. But at some point, if they are to move people with their music, they have to go beyond just playing the notes. They must bring to the keyboard their own personal touch, their own interprestation of the music. Yes, the music, the notes, were written by someone else. But it is up to the musician to play it in their own special way.
For the landscape painter, the music – the notes – consists of the creations of God and man. It is up to us to learn the basics, study the masters, and then bring our own personal touch, our own interpretation, in order to move the viewer. So, for me, begins another great painting adventure. Nell has been telling me for some time to “quit worrying about other painters… and just paint.” Maybe it’s time to do just that.
I approach this with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. I have no idea where it will lead. I have already done two paintings without the crutch of constant reference to other work, and they are as different as two paintings could possibly be. I have some paintings that I consider milestones. It’s hard to avoid those because they face me daily. But that’s okay. Maybe they will serve as reminders of what I did well – and what I’m capable of.
I have no idea how many painting years I have left. Over twenty may be pushing it, but I prefer to be optimistic. Regardless, it is far too few to spend worrying about how someone else painted. It’s time to just paint. Will the work sell? I’m confident enough in my ability to know some will. And realistic enough to know that some won’t. I’m already ahead of Van Gogh, who only sold one painting in his lifetime. Then again, he didn’t have the internet and art festivals in every town. But it’s time to move beyond that. It’s time to choose subjects, not based on who might buy them, but on whether they inspire me. It doesn’t matter whether they are simple or challenging. It’s time to mix the colors and wield the brushes in ways that work for me. Of course, over time, I’ll look and study more. I am, after all, a painter, and a painter loves to look at paintings.
But for now… for a while… it’s time to play the music my way.