My development as an artist has been slow. I suspect this is due in large part to my lack of formal training. Not having the benefit of extensive study of the masters and their techniques, or the history of art’s evolution, etc, it has taken me longer to figure out a way of painting that comes from me – to find my ‘voice’, so to speak.
Until just recently, the scope of my progress has been limited to an increasing ability to match an image, that is, to paint something that looks like what I painted. The objective was always the same – to replicate an image or subject as closely and accurately as possible. For many years, that goal was a sufficient challenge. To be sure , it is difficult to capture a likeness – to get the mouth and nose just so, to match the contours, colors and values correctly. Hard work, and easy to mess it up. It is a difficult process to master.
But after several hundred attempts, the successful completion of a portrait became, . . . easier. And less fulfilling. The primary difficulty was dealing with the tedium that goes along with strict realism. Patience is not a strong suit for me, but in many cases any admiration of my work was really just an acknowledgment of the patience it took to complete the piece.
I have a friend who defines an epiphany as a great truth that everyone else has already discovered. That fits with my experience. I began wondering, ‘What am I bringing to the painting? What is unique about my paintings? What is my creative contribution? In posing such questions, I had to concede that what I had been doing may have required a measure of skill and diligence, but it wasn’t art.
Long ago I read a quote by Norman Rockwell, to the effect that he at times felt his devotion to realism was a waste of his career, that Picasso had the right idea. Of course, Rockwell’s art was as much in the concept, the story he told, as in the execution of the concept.
Late last year, my daughter Holly inspired me to get out of my creative prison and explore other options. I began experimenting with a variety of approaches that went beyond mere duplication of a reference. I decided that the primary focus of my work would continue to be people, and the human condition. But that’s about all I was sure of. After a series of 10-12 paintings, I had arrived at a way to represent my subjects in a manner that required me to interpret a strictly realistic subject/ image/reference in such a way as to suggest realism, but required the viewer to examine and engage a bit, in order to reconcile what was suggested with what was left out. It is an approach I call, ‘minimal realism’ the practical meaning of which is far simpler than it sounds. My objective is to treat a complex subject matter or setting in a very sparing and basic fashion, including only the most fundamental and necessary aspects. If I get it right, the painting will at first glance suggest realism, but upon continuing examination the viewer will see that the painting is essentially devoid of the endless detail and minutia typically attendant to strict realism, but which I view as diminishing and unnecessary.
Interestingly, the skill set I developed doing portraits in a strictly realistic manner has proven essential to the minimalistic approach – it only works if the underlying drawing of the figures in the painting are absolutely accurate and proportional.
I suspect that this new approach will continue to morph and evolve. Each new painting raises issues as to how far I can ‘push’ and challenge the viewer. What level of simplicity (and ambiguity) is possible? I expect it will differ with each painting.
I necessarily accept that my current approach will not be pleasing to everyone. Nothing is more subjective that art, and steps taken off the beaten path are risky. But however ‘minimal realism’ is received, what is most important to me is that it represents a manifestation of a creative contribution to each piece. It’s my take, my own way of interpreting the subject. For an artist, that’s probably as good as it ever gets.