Monday, January 19, 2009

The Cliché and the Surprise

I know, I know. A lighthouse is a tiresome cliché. Haven’t we seen a thousand paintings of lighthouses just like this one? It’s like other well-worn motifs——the barn or the fishing boat. It can be hard to find a twist or a connection to make it interesting.

But I was tired from walking for four miles along Gibraltar, and I just plunked down and painted it from the first angle I saw it from. There was nothing interesting or unusual about the painting. I was just thinking as I painted the lighthouse how the brave lighthouse keeper had protected ships from the dangers of the coast.

Imagine my surprise when I finished the painting, packed up my stuff and walked a hundred yards farther. Hidden behind the level of the bluff was a jaw-dropping shipwreck. In the foreground was a junkyard of refrigerators inhabited by wild monkeys. Motifs everywhere! But I had to go catch a plane.

I guess the lesson is to take a minute to walk once around the motif before you get started.


Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Great minds think alike, James. I did a little analysis of the lighthouse cliche at my blog post:

Also, I told painter Tim Gaydos about how Hopper was prone to lop off the tops of lighthouses. He scoffed and said, "Everybody knows you start with the top and go down!"

Sean Craven said...

The image of a mess of abandoned refrigerators inhabited by a troop of monkeys immediately made its way into my compost pile -- the steaming mass of random ideas that ferment in the back of my mind.

There's a story in that image -- or at least a detail that could be used in a story.

James Gurney said...

Sean, yes, I could imagine the monkey mothers telling their kids to be careful playing around those old refrigerators.

Michael, I loved your post on lighthouse cliches, and I recommend to everyone to check out Michael's excellent blog, website, and books about plei-air painting.

Patrick Dizon said...

What a weird picture. It's like the boat was pasted on there!

Brian Floca said...

I did a summer studio course in Rome years ago, and the threat of clichés was everywhere. Our perceptive instructor warned us that paintings, postcards, etc. had trained us to see certain views and buildings in certain ways, had by sheer force of repetition made the clichés seem _the_ way to look at the city. His advice to anyone sitting down to do an expected drawing was to turn around and draw whatever was behind him. Sometimes you had to draw the Colosseum anyway, just to get it out of your system, but it was still good advice.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think light houses are a fine subject,as I paint often along the coast and on the islands of Maine they are a characteristic part of those places,and they also break the horizon line in what can often be a stripey environment..I think we dislike them because we see so many amateur jobs done from a photo or some production painter making what our predecessors in this game called Buckeye art..I am more interested in the quality of the painting than its subject.For me its not what its a picture of, but how its a picture of.
Personally I hate monkeys, particularly those who throw their feces or carry the Ebola virus,I can't stand all their nasty yammering and grimacing , but I might enjoy a good painting of one.
A whole range of subjects can be dismissed as sentimental,and the nihilist avant garde establishment has tried to define for us, all landscape not dripping with industrial blight as sentimental.Because of that I often joke with my painter friends ,out on location, "would this be a better painting if I put a burning phone booth in it? "Still there are good paintings yet to be made of children and flowers.Here is a link to a lighthouse painting of my own..

James Gurney said...

I'm not putting down lighthouses as a motif and remember I'm using my own work as an example of a dull painting; I'm not knocking anyone else, nor am I suggesting that art has to be downbeat or nihilistic.

I'm only saying that it's hard to come up with a new approach that we haven't seen before. We've all painted lighthouses, and they're classic motifs. But with any classic motif you have to work harder to do something memorable and fresh.

craigstephens said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
craigstephens said...

I love the irony of this. The story of what wasn't shown makes your little study so interesting. Posting words and images on a daily basis has made me think about painting and art in a different way. The painting or drawing may not necessarily be the end product. In this case your painting, the photograph and what you had to say about it all add up to a delightfully insightful combination and who is to say that that combination is not the point?

In my own blog I don't write much but I do have a long record of continuously recording the little paintings that I do. I like the fact that the paintings can be taken individually as paintings but I am also becoming more aware of the fact that the blog itself is a sort of work in progress.

Bob Ross and before him Bill Alexander made those goofy painting shows about how to paint landscapes that were a fixture on public television. When I was in art school those shows were often the butt of our late night, self-important bull sessions. We'd decry the paintings for being clichéd or unimaginative. It wasn't until years later that I realized that the paintings were not the end product. The show was the end product. Those guys made a half hour video every week about how fun painting could be. We got to watch as they magically made a palette knife smear of titanium white look like a snowy mountain peak.

The constant patter that they kept up about what colors they were mixing and how to angle that two-inch brush just right to make the reeds in the foreground of that lake painting helped move the show along and added a sometimes quirky insight into what was going through their heads as they worked.

I have to say that I watched more than one show from beginning to end even though I've never had a desire to paint like that and I find the paintings themselves kind of boring. I think the shows were kind of brilliant.

Oh well, kind of a long comment for me and I apologize if I got a little off topic. Your post just got me thinking. Thanks for that.

Tom said...

Hi James
The wreck happend this past Oct, they had some great photos of the ship in the storm in the UK newspapers on line this past fall. The name of the ship was the MV Ledra a liberian cargo ship. If I recall right the wind was so strong that helicopters trying to get the crew of the boat had to give up after recusing only nine men with another 30 or so left on board. They finally figure a way to save the rest of the crew but it was apparently touch a go for a while. Quite a different scene from your photo on a beautiful sunny day.

Dan Gurney said...

What a great post! To me, your story could be regarded as a metaphor for life, at least for non-artists.

In our ordinary, everyday lives our thoughts swirl around clichés. We concern ourselves with the trivial and don't see what's there, just around the corner or just over the horizon.

Only when we're packed up to leave (die) might the ordinary among us discover what's really there: a world full of wonder, drama, and interest.

Artists, poets, and the spiritually adventurous are alive and awake enough to catch a glimpse of the sublime.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Hey, James, thanks for the compliments! I appreciate it. - Michael

Unknown said...

That is hilarious. The lighthouse looks very common place, and yet from a different vantage point it's something you would only think to find in the movies.

Jen Z said...

Hehehe, I guess this is proof that the grass really is greener on the other side...
At least you got a great story out of the "missed" opportunity. You still got a nice painting out of it too.

Ginger*:) said...

What a great lesson! I would love to have seen monkeys living in abandoned refrigerators.... But I guess the lighthouse keeper has his fill of those!

Pastor Mark said...

Interesting situation. I have worked as a real lighthouse keeper in two locations for several years each. You have to like night work to do it. Fearing the light would go out and a ship hitting the rocks...or worse yet hitting the lighthouse, was a constant concern. My son, Ezra Suko, has done a few lighthouse pictures for me. Us old keeper look close for technical accuracy. Good job.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Tom, for the information about the wreck. Glad they eventually got everyone off. The wreck was pretty banged up and the whole aft bridge section was broken off the rest of the vessel.

And Pastor Mark, how cool that you could let us know what the guy inside the lighthouse is thinking. I'm a great admirer of your son Ezra, who is a superb artist, a curious mind, and a fine young man with a sense of service.

CraigStephens, I loved your point tha the blog is the art form. Now that I've got my art form, I just need to figure out how to make a living at it! This may sound funny, but I've never seen videos Bob Ross or the other guy you mentioned (I heard about them, and have seen their stuff in art stores) because I don't have a TV. Maybe I'll check them out on YouTube.

Dan, what a profound thought, which shows the depth of your soul more than mine! I was just thinking how I could do a post to pass off a lame sketch, and the metaphysical meanings didn't occur to me.