Sunday, January 24, 2016

Three Challenging Questions

Ernest Meissonier, Connoisseur and Artist

Andrzej Tokarski asks:
How are you still not bored by painting the nature? Not trying to be unpolite, I'm just curious. You're already an amazing artist with nearly perfect understanding of the light. Why do you still paint from nature? Isn't it more interesting to paint from imagination when ur understanding of light/form is as good as yours? I really love your Dinotopia series and for me it seems more fun to paint it than from nature. I hope you will answer me, I'm really curious why do you still paint so much from nature. Cheers smile emoticon

James Gurney Hey, Andrzej, That's nice of you to say, but I'm a long way from a perfect understanding of anything. My first answer is to say that I really love both imagination and observation equally. One feeds inspiration to the other. When I'm painting an imaginary scene, I pretend that I'm really observing it, and when I paint something in front of me, I try to bring something of my inner life to the experience of seeing it.

Painting from nature is a lifelong quest in itself that demands every ounce of my concentration, focus, and skill. I feel a strong desire to capture my view of the beautiful ordinariness of the world around me. All through my life, I've done paintings from observation and imagination side by side.

For the next issue of International Artist I've just written an article called "On-the-Spot Surrealism" which explores ways to morph the two together. And I guess that's the second answer. I'm becoming more and more interested in exploring the borderline between the real and imaginary worlds, which may not be as separate as you suppose.

Zedasilva3 says:
I really admire traditional painting, I really do. I have a lot of respect for it. But being honest, is it worth it when digital painting have reached such a tremendous quality standard and also take a lot less effort? And may it be clear that I'm not criticizing here. The guy is a true master of art, but I ask myself if [it] is fit for the 21st century.

Thanks for the compliment. It's hard for me to compare digital painting to physical painting, since I've never really done much with digital art-making. For the kind of work I do, I find the traditional tools to be the most productive, efficient, and satisfying. Part of the reason is that the lack of an "undo" button forces me to focus and commit and take risks, and I like that.

And I love having my work embodied in a physical object that I can hold in my hands or exhibit in a museum. Making a physical painting is a very basic thing for me, like chewing food with my teeth instead of getting it in an IV drip. For outdoor painting, physical tools have clear advantages of being visible in very bright light, portable, and workable without electricity.

Of course I respect those who work with digital tools for whatever reason, and I do use digital tools for graphic design, photography, video capture, and editing. We all make our peace with computers in one form or another, and there's no ideal mix of tools that works perfectly for everyone.

What we're seeing as we get farther into the 21st century is not more and more digital, but more interesting ways of combining handmade and digital to create new expressions that we haven't seen before. We're seeing that in movies, animation, crafts, graphics, and everything.

Karen asks:
You mentioned something in passing in one of your postings (I'm sorry, I can't recall which) and repeated it during an interview for Savvy Painter. You said, to paraphrase, that artists should study dead artists, not current artists. As a self-directed painter, I very consciously work on improving my craft by taking workshops and classes. I follow a number of inspiring painters online at Facebook, my primary source. I respect your opinion and ideas, so when you made this statement, I became worried that I may be limiting my study habits or studying incorrectly, and may be missing out on more artists. What artists should we be looking at? 

Hi, Karen,
Good question. There's nothing wrong with looking at the work of living artists. The main reason I said that in the interview is because I find if I look too much at the work of any single artist, I might end up emulating them too much. The best I could ever hope to achieve is a second-best to their style. Looking at diverse artists from past eras and cultures makes it more likely that I'll develop my own original voice.

Another reason to study dead artists is that the best work has already been pre-sifted. The best stuff has a way of rising to the top, and you can look at the best of the best from different eras. Looking through the current crop of art, one has to be more selective. There's great work going on right now, don't get me wrong, and I admire the work of many of my colleagues greatly.

As to which artists? That's totally for you to decide.

All that said, it's best to put most of your time into studying nature directly. I have this strange feeling when I'm copying an artists work that if they were standing there they would be saying: "Don't copy my work. Go outside and paint from the real world!" In fact most of your time should be spent cultivating patience and focus in the face of nature. Ultimately, that's the source of it all.


Mitch said...

Thanks for the Sunday morning treat (and perfect accompanying painting)!

How refreshing that your advice is highly practical and borne of your own interests and experience (not dictates and ideology).

Unknown said...

Thank you for these answers, they happen to all be very pertinent to me right now and very beneficial.

Faisal Tariq said...

Awesome post. Is there a plan for "oil paint in the wild"? Thanks

MoStarkey said...

How can anyone's imagination survive being in the clouds without your feet planted firmly in the ground.

Unknown said...

I like the tough questions best and you answered them with grace. I am a former graphic designer who lived the transition from french curve to Bezier anchor points. It was necessary to make the switch to digital but was glad to have a computer perfect corners of a hairline rule box without having to do it with a ruling pen, a triangle to cut the 45° angles to mortise all together. BUT I missed the pride and satisfaction of doing hands on craft.I think you expressed all this beautifully when you stated: "like chewing food with my teeth instead of getting it in an IV drip." After creating numerous concepts it was nice to enter the hands on production zone, kind of a reward for doing all the conceptual work which is often the hardest. BTW do you ever act as juror in art exhibitions?

MoStarkey said...

Computers are a 'fairy gift'. Digital art software are tools, not a medium. With out electricity, the image might as well still be in your head. Sure you can print it out, but is it final? Working from life and mastering the fundamentals are a life's journey.

I get your three questions all the time. You answered them beautifully. Thank you.

Bobby La said...

All good points James. Fully concur. Making pictures for me is all about the delight in making a beautiful object in and of itself even if it only rarely comes off. The making of that object always involves a dialogue with the dead which I just adore (most times anyway). If I paint or draw a tree it is only ever arrived at after endless rounds of consultations and references to the dead. Be it Goya, Courbet, Poussin or Gainsborough, no tree is undertaken by this little wood duck until the interrogation has been thoroughly hashed out by countless hours of study and cross referencing, often to the point of complete inertia where my procrastination has completely stifled the original impetus for the damn thing in the first place. A dialogue with the dead has its pitfalls, but it is hugely engaging even if the end result doesn't get a vigorous round of applause from the deceased artist or artists I've metaphorically consulted, gadged and exploited.

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Steven James Petruccio said...

Great answers James. we artists don't always get softball questions or only words of admiration so it's good that you presented these. You don't need to be told that your work is masterful and imaginative, yes even the "outdoor" paintings since you, the artist, choose how to compose and represent that which is right before you. Editing a "real" scene is as much a part of the work as recording it. One can draw and paint from nature for two lifetimes and still not feel accomplished at it or that they've exhausted all possibilities. Regarding digital media - I was one of it's strongest opponents thinking that it would be short lived and would never produce results that compared to actual, tactile media. Well, short of being able to feel the"real" materials ( paint, paper, canvas, charcoal, etc...) and get down and dirty with them, the results of digital media can be very satisfying and also present a chance to explore a new medium. By the way, digital art is not necessarily quicker or easier, it depends on how you use the tools in a program. You can also create and modify your own tools such as brushes, pens, surfaces. The fact that no original piece of art on a support exists was totally off-putting to me. I needed to touch my watercolor paper and hold my wood panel and frame it afterwards. For me, digital was part of my development as an illustrator...just another tool to create art. That said - i LOVE painting with traditional media _ I cannot yet say the same about digital but I am no longer opposed to the medium. I no longer think of it as a tool to try and create the exact same effect as "real" media but as a medium unto itself. James, if you tried some painting programs you would enjoy them and your talent would find a new outlet I'm sure. I remember an interview a while ago where the person kept asking about your use of digital media because he assumed some of your work had to be digital to get the effects you do. Well, you would explore the new media/tools and you would see that its an easy assumption and you would take to it easily, believe me. We each do what we do as artists - it's good that fans question this because it makes them aware of why we do what we do and also validates why other artists do what they do. Thanks for presenting your always interesting and informative point of view.

Robert J. Simone said...

I was a little surprised at those first two questions. Is it just me or did they kind of pooh pooh the practice of representational painting from life? Maybe I am being overly sensitive because I work primarily from life, outdoors on location. And I tend to forget that there are lots of artists who don't get why. My instincts have always told me that the practice of painting from nature is essential to growth and maturity as an artist. I also forget that some think that straight forward representational painting is somehow "less than" more "contemporary" forms of expression. Begs the question: Did the invention of jet planes make hang gliding less exciting? For me the fun of working outdoors on location (or from life), and the reason it will always remain relevant, is that it is a prolonged meditation on nature; on the true, the good and the beautiful. Nothing surpasses it in terms of being able to convey a feeling and a sense of place. Using paint, brush and canvas combined with my powers of observation also gives me a sense of connection to the long history of painters, a kind of communion of saints, on whose shoulders I stand.

Steve said...

"it is a prolonged meditation on nature; on the true, the good and the beautiful." I agree completely. Well said.

Chris James said...

"Is it fit for the 21st century?"

What is meant by "fit for"? Is there some incapability of physical pigment to convey something in or of this century? Did anyone inform Banksy of this? Are we obligated to limit our tools just because of the point in time we find ourselves in at this very moment? Who gets to decide this fitness and for whom?

In terms of social currency, cultural visibility, and grosses, film and electronic games have proven to be the truly fit visual mediums of the 21st century so far*. So should we all leave this archaic still image stuff behind, traditional AND digital, and go work at the render farms at ILM and Activision? Hey, some folks are even concept designing in 3D from the jump, who needs 2D?

*And I mean the final product that winds up on screens. General public doesn't care about production art (i.e. digital paintings).

Unknown said...

Where are the plein air digital painters?

Rich said...

"In terms of social currency"

( "Who Needs 2D?")
How does it come, a simple 2D-Van-Gogh canvas in a Sotheby's auction yields a million bucks? (And probably an umpteenth million further bucks in some future Sotheby Auctions to come?)

What will be the "currency" of the 21st century?
Will the "General Public" care about production art?
On the longer term?

In my view, the rare remaining 2D-Van-Gogh canvasses on the open market will continue to rise to unexpected hights of


Chris James said...

"How does it come, a simple 2D-Van-Gogh canvas in a Sotheby's auction yields a million bucks? (And probably an umpteenth million further bucks in some future Sotheby Auctions to come?)"

The world of wealthy dealers and buyers have come up with this amount based on...couldn't tell you what. I know Van Gogh is one of the hip painters, not like those old backwards fogeys whose paintings have lasted in near perfect condition for 500 years...

Braelyn Snow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Braelyn Snow said...

"Making a physical painting is a very basic thing for me, like chewing food with my teeth instead of getting it in an IV drip." This line seems to go hand in hand with your blog title. Thanks again for the encouragement and inspiration, and for the reminder that we are not art-making machines, but artists (no matter which traditional or digital medium we use).

Mary Aslin said...

Wonderful post expressed with humility, wisdom, and grace.

And, Robert Simone, I appreciate the eloquence of your comment particularly.

Cobalt said...

Any advice on how to see color accurately? How to translate the mess of colors you see in real life to paint colors? Thanks!