Seeing The Whole


“You can’t draw a head until you see it whole. It’s not easy. Try it. When I first realized this it seemed that I had to stretch my brain in order to get it around a whole head. It seemed that I could go so far, but it was a feat to comprehend the whole. No use trying to draw a thing until you have got all around it. It is only then that you comprehend a unity of which the parts can be treated as parts.” (Henri, The Art Spirit,p.107) As Henri states, it is difficult to comprehend the whole head- its form as well as its expression- to see it all at once and not a summation of various parts.  The gesture of the head and its whole attitude hinges on one’s ability to comprehend the head in its entirety and is imperative to an accurate rendering of the individual. There are many portraits that achieve a likeness but very few that capture the spirit of the living being, a freedom of spirit expressed in the very rendering itself.

The rendered head is a double mirror. It contains the character of the sitter, their spiritual makeup in all its complexity, as well as the idea of the artist’s attitude toward humanity. In a sense it becomes a reflection of two spirits- sitter and artist. The sitter presents themselves but the artist presents their own perception not only of the individual that is before them but also of their very personal attitude toward humanity itself. As I said in my last blog, one does not only paint nature but also that which is contained within the soul of the artist-In the act of rendering nature, the artist cannot separate themselves from the creative act.

This duality becomes more complex when we reflect on the ideas of someone like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He believed that every individual is split down the middle- that we all contain within ourselves that division that is within all of humanity as well as nature. We are all divided and capable of the greatest good as well as the greatest evil. (Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart– Nobel Prize Lecture) This idea has been further expressed by Herman Melville’s Ahab- his scar running through his face and his entire body- he is literally split down the middle. This knowledge adds to the inherent complexity of rendering an individual. A portrait now becomes a meeting place of two dualities. A formidable task to say the least.

When I reflect on this, I often think of Gericault’s portraits of the insane. He not only depicts their outward character but also the division that lies within them and in a sense, has caused the fracture of their mental state. Gericault also reveals to us his intense love for humanity and the connection he feels to these broken individuals. He gives us an intimate portrait of the insane in all their fragility but also his own comprehension that he himself has the possibility of falling victim to this division as well. These insane individuals exist within each of us- they are the unconscious part of our own being.

Today, commercial portraits present the flawless individual. There is little acceptance in the contemporary sitter of their weaknesses. Whereas in the past, people accepted to a certain degree the knowledge of their own frailty- of our unity with the rest of humanity. Portraits were a place to reckon with ourselves- think Velazquez and Hals- there was always room for self-reflection both for the artist and the sitter. In a sense it was the  moral responsibility of the artist to reveal in a physical way what he intuited in the individual.

The Acuity of Memory

Fawn's Leap
Fawn’s Leap

When one works with any subject one needs to depend greatly on one’s memory.  Memory holds things fast. Only memory can retain what is lasting- all superfluous details melting away when one no longer has the subject before him. As the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, “own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” This comes from a man who memorized in detail his own novels to prevent their discovery by the communist authorities during his exile in Siberia. He learned how to retain that which was most important to him- his own creative acts.

Memory identifies that which leaves its mark upon us- a movement, a gesture, an insight. “Painting is the intermediate somewhere between a thought and a thing.”  (Sydney Smith)  I think this quite profound. Does  not memory in a sense occupy this place where the artist in the creative act vacillates between what is observed and the thoughts and emotions provoked by the thing itself?

Plattekill Falls
Plattekill Falls

This week I painted some falls in a deep ravine. The light of the sun entered the ravine in a dramatic fashion creating a direct shaft of light that traveled quickly across the end of the ravine where the falls were located. It was a beautiful and dramatic vision of the falls. But this view was ever changing, constantly in flux. I had to choose the moment I wished to paint as well as retain in my memory that moment that most affected me- constantly attempting to capture what it was that created the drama within myself as well as in reality. Henri states, “the most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory is of that vital movement. During that moment there is a correlation of the factors of that look. This correlation does not continue…The special order has to be retained in memory… Memory must hold it.” (Henri, The Art Spirit, p.27)

The flux of life itself makes it difficult to hold something fixed in the memory. All things change from moment to moment. But one of the greatest assets of memory is that by becoming conscious of that which is retained, we come to know ourselves more intimately and come to understand what our real connections are to the world. What we carry with us is an insight into our own geography.

Painting itself is a confluence where memory and experience converge. From these two forms of human activity emerges the image, that which will remain beyond our own personal investment. One informs the other-the multitude of memories that we have effect the present, shaping and ‘coloring’ our present experience. I like to say memory and experience together create ‘significances’. As a painter this is what I hope my images present- the materialization of that which affects me deeply on more levels than I am conscious of and in a sense would find it difficult to explain. These ‘significances’ symbolically identify the nature of my being and my capacity to retain what is most important. Through memory, experiences manifest these ‘significances’. And this is the ‘ exceptional’  moment to be held on to. Reverie and dreams connect us with our memory and the storehouse of these ‘significances’, allowing our experiences to have greater depth and tie us emotionally to the present moment. The late poet, Robert Creeley states in his poem Caves, “…Memory is the cave one finally lives in, crawls on hands and knees to get into.” (Robert Creeley, On Earth, Last Poems and an Essay, p.30)