Monday, January 1, 2007

Notes on Art

- About art
- About artist's statements
- Personal statement about artistic creation
- The purposes of art
- Notes on art appreciation
- On abstraction and representation
- Reasons to have and to collect art
- Notes on technique
- Notes on art's value, market and otherwise.


People say that art is expression. But a man may spit on the street, scream and rant, without its being art. They say it's communication but so is the local news, so are the buy and sell orders of the day trader: There may be an art to both but it's not what we mean by art as an activity in its own right. Art is articulate expression that captures something universal about human experience and so, without intending to, the spirit of one's time.


The very first thing an artist does when he paints a portrait is to take a line, a shape, a tone, a color from the subject and recombine them in a pattern that is recognizable as the subject. The first part of this process is called abstraction, the second part is called representation.

The problem of painting consists in choosing what to put in and what to leave out. Since every subject lives in three dimensions of space and one of time, much more must always be left out than put in. The artist emphasizes those features which best represent the subject and leaves out anything that might detract from that which is deemed to be its essence.

Abstraction and Representation are the two feet that painting walks on. There is no "abstract art" that is not "representational" and there is no "representational" art that is not "abstract." There are just different choices about what is vital or superfluous to the subject.

The less the artist puts in, the more emphasis is given to particular attributes of the subject. Those attributes stand as symbols for the subject. Just as shapes, colors and lines are recombined in a relationship that recalls the portrait subject, so the "abstract artist" recombines symbols to express his vision of life.

Since more must always be left out than put in, the artist rarely catches more than a sliver of life. But, bit by bit, as his vision grows, his paintings become ever more densely compacted symbols of experience. He is driven again and again, despite the seeming impossibility, to express the whole of life, as he feels and sees it, in a single image. Sometimes the impossible is achieved: we call such paintings masterpieces. In them, what we see, what we imagine we see, and what is there are one.


It is difficult for artists to talk about creation because the painting, the drawing, the piece of music or dance is the statement. No words can ever substitute for the experience of art. In order to understand art you must spend time with it. With a little patience (at first) and confidence (which will increase) you will find the time increasingly well spent.

Don't worry about "understanding" art. The artist is himself never completely aware of the meaning or weight of his own creations. This is because art proceeds to consciousness from the unconscious. Art that doesn't (so-called conceptual art) is hollow and sterile-any statement about it-its hallmark is its muddiness-is irrelevant since such stuff will never move a single human heart.


One mild Sunday in Autumn, our father took my twin brother and I down to the North Saskatchewan River. Dad skipped rocks and I grabbed a stick and wrote my name in the sandy mud that lined the shore. Scotch mist was in the air and I wondered if my name would still be there next week. As I looked down the riverbank I saw nothing but smooth sand. My heart sunk and I looked up. There, painted on the bridge's concrete butress, some brave fool painted a bright red and yellow X. My heart leaped as I thought: "That will last. That's what I'll do." I was six years old.

On a beautiful summer day the following year my father died and ten years later I began to paint. It was a perfect summer day. I was completely content but bored. Mucking around in my grandmother's basement with some of my sister's poster paints, Adam and Eve in the Garden emerged from the muddy paint. This magic of emerging figures has been a life-long fascination. "What will come out?" is the question I ask when I paint and draw.

I want to pass down to people I will never know, something of my experience of life in the hope that it might be a source of solace and strength to them in the way I've been fed and inspired by artists who never knew me. I feel privileged to be in that chain of spirit that continues through the creation of symbols that share directly the feeling of life.


Besides being a supreme activity for engaging one's curiosity, art has other purposes. Through it, men and women communicate their understanding of their experience to people of other places and times. A culture is this body of accumulated understanding.

There is no place in my world for the abuse of art as political propaganda. The "everything is political" excuse won't do. If true (and it's not), that statement would be political too; its purpose as transparent as the totalitarian systems it seeks to serve.


The greatest obstacle to the appreciation of art is the viewer's lack of confidence. Viewers too often think that in order to "understand" art they must have read numerous books, be of above-average intelligence, be very sensitive, etc..

With the exception of sensitivity, this is all malarkey. One needs only to expose one's self to art, to observe what feelings the artwork engenders (or fails to) and to honestly relate those feelings to the parts and the whole of the artwork. There is nothing to "get". The answer is inside you. You know what the work of art means. All you need is to have faith in your own judgement.

But a warning. A dismissal is not what I mean by judgement. Grading a work as good, better, best, poor or appalling will do nothing for your appreciation of art. The meaning of the work, if false, may be legitimately dismissed but first the meaning must be found-the meaning to you personally. Act on this level, trusting yourself, and there's not a single painting or drawing you won't be able to "read." The ones you detest will make you love the ones that move you all the more. To paraphrase Fellini (who was paraphrasing someone else): Just look at the painting. If it moves you, no explanation is necessary. If it doesn't move you, no explanation will suffice.

Enjoy. Spend time with artworks and you will benefit enormously from a cultural heritage that belongs to you as much as it belongs to any other human being.


Investment is a tricky reason and should be struck from the list unless your art consciousness is extremely well developed or you trust some advisor whose is. By art consciousness I do not mean a knowledge of the art world, of theory, of technique, trivial facts about artists' biographies and the rest. I mean an innate and/or cultivated recognition of art's intrinsic worth gained from years of exposure to art coupled with a fundamental love for it. Art consciousness may be more scientifically defined as the ability to perceive any whole out of its disparate parts.

Enjoyment is a better purpose of collecting. Get something nutritious, get something tasty.

I buy art because:

1) The work reminds me of some important principle I feel I too easily forget.
2) I want to support some young master by acquiring one of his/her works that I profoundly enjoy.
3) I am intrigued by it.



I use graphite pencils on paper that is usually wider than it is high. I love panoramic drawings and paintings. I mean to get to the sweep of events because that's what moves me. Hopefully it's infectious.

I often use Clearprint because it erases ghost free with light applications. Erasing it, though, is an adventure. It goes from light to white very quickly so, to get lighter tones requires a deft touch. Without near-whites, whites are either too stark or not stark enough for their expressive purpose. The same is true for blacks. Clearprint is not an ideal paper for graphite (particularly the soft graphite I prefer) but is has one redeeming feature-it smudges beautifully. Clearprint lets me draw white into black and black into white simultaneously-all with the same tool-the lowly eraser! Magic!


I like to mix color and leave the viewer to construct what they will. As in the drawings, I prefer suggestions of figures to fully worked out ones. Their open-endedness feels more free and more vigorous. More movement is implied and they are therefore more life-like. Life moves and breathes: it speaks.

I use the best acrylic paint I can afford. It dries quickly so they're painted in layers. I often mix directly on the canvas to see color emerge. This is akin to the figures emerging in the drawings.

Update: I am now working with oils, which dry more slowly and scrape in a way similar to how the graphite erases on Clearprint. Like my acrylic paintings, I use the very best materials available. I guarantee all my work for life: any piece can be returned for a credit. That way one can start collecting small and move up.


Techniques must be tailored to purpose. Artists! Don't take courses on technique! Save your money for paint and canvas. Learn from practice and observation. Find out what you want to do and invent the technique you use to achieve it.


If art had no intrinsic worth its commercial value would be nil.Market value is established like all other things, by supply and demand. The concept of "Giffin Goods" I was taught at school is a bust. The theory goes that some goods are valuable in spite of low demand. The mistake is in failing to see that each artwork is unique and is therefore exceptionally scarce. If only thirty people are willing to pay $10M or $20M for a Van Gogh, for example, the absolute number of buyers may be low but it is still thirty times the available supply! The high price bid at auction represents only the top of a legitimate pyramid of demand.

This pyramid is based (I must repeat it for emphasis) on the intrinsic worth of the art. The market value is extrinsic. Extrinsic value never effects the intrinsic worth.

Ultimately the only question is this: does it have a value for me? If it does, explore it and enjoy the trip!

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