Spindrift, a painting by Judith Reeve

Knowing when a painting has reached its full potential, its maximum effect, and proceeding to paint on it further will diminish its more spontaneous elements is a subtle matter of discernment. One must strike a balance between “finishing” and completing an image. It is a sense of completion and resolution that one seeks rather than “finish”. When one begins a painting, one has a deep intuition as to what form the image will take and only a partial vision of its final form. The whole process of painting is bringing together these visions to a point where their visual impact can be felt to its fullest- containing in a clear statement both the emotional climax as well as the visual. To finish a piece beyond this point leads to decadence. There must always remain an element that is “raw” and open.

Charles Baudelaire felt that a painting must not be completed to the extent that there is no opening for the imagination to enter. He based this idea of “lacuna” on the designs found in Persian carpets. The elaborate motifs of Persian carpet designs appear like a closed pattern but on further examination it is revealed that the design contains an opening like a maze on which the imagination can enter and travel within. Baudelaire felt that painting should contain this element of incompleteness allowing the viewer’s own imagination to enter. But not only does the viewer need access to the image they must also be allowed to add to its completeness. The viewer enters on his own journey- the artist as guide; Virgil conducting Dante through the underworld.

What is this “lacuna” or gap? What does it look like? One element, I think, rests with the story. When one reflects on Dante’s Inferno, so much is revealed in the story but we have a sense that there is so much more to the story than that which has been told. Virgil seems to reveal and explain only what is necessary for Dante to commence his journey of self- discovery. We only have a partial view of the underworld. Only what the guide shows us. It is like a voyage. When we travel upon the sea, we experience an intimate relationship between ourselves and the sea.  We can know much this way but we have only a partial concept of the vastness that is the sea. There is much that lies below the surface that we can only imagine.

A second element is that of “touch.”  Baudelaire states, “It is obvious that the larger the picture, the broader must be its touch; but it is better that the individual touches should not be materially fused, for they will fuse naturally at a distance determined by the law of sympathy which has brought them together. Color will thus achieve a greater energy and freshness.” (Baudelaire, The Life and Work of Eugene Delacroix, p.48)  Robert Henri was known for leaving areas of his paintings “unfinished”. Hands just sketched in. But in many ways he adhered to Baudelaire’s ideas. Henri believed that one should only carry a painting to the point where it fully expresses one’s intention. Beyond this, one can kill the life and vitality inherent in the piece and the expressive force the artist  used to achieve this end.

The Sufi poet, Rumi describes the imagination as a  delicate instrument, “We are lutes, no more, no less. If the sound box is stuffed full of anything, no music… Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry. Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen.” (Rumi, “Fasting,” The Essential Rumi, Barks,p.69) Emptiness calls to be filled- whether by the imagination of the artist or viewer- it is a yearning, a seeking that taps into an emotional consciousness flickering’ below the surface in each one of us. (statement in quotes by Garrick Ohlsson, pianist, referring to the power of Chopin’s music).

Does it have life?


I often ask myself this question when I am working on a piece. Does it have life? Is there an inner vitality that emanates from every part of the figure? Does it take on a life of its own beyond my initial conception?

Where does this life derive from? Does it not come from every line, color and movement expressed in every part of the painting. When one reflects upon the sublimity of the figure, is it not expressed directly through gesture to attain an intensity of feeling? The writer and photographer, Eudora Welty expresses it as such, “I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it”. Every internal reflection , thought has its outward gesture. Man’s mind is in a constant state of flux. When one observes the figure, one must find the moment when the emotion and the outward expression or attitude of the figure coincide or converge.

Observation by the artist is central to his ability to craft a thoughtful image. But strictly adhering to observation alone leaves the image unadorned. It has yet to rise to a symbolic level. Delacroix reflects in his journal,” that to be successful in the arts is not a matter of summarizing but of amplifying where it is possible and of prolonging the sensation by every means.”(Journal of Eugene Delacroix, p.214.)

The artist must not only observe but generate a language of gesture. William Blake is a perfect example of this quality of generation. His figures take on cosmic proportions by the sheer magnitude of their expression. The artist must work it until it truly speaks beyond words and beyond what is almost practical – surpassing the obvious expression and seeking an internal intensity, an immensity or vastness of being.

In Baudelaire’s “Journaux intimes” he writes: “In certain almost supernatural inner states, the depth of life is entirely revealed in the spectacle, however ordinary, that we have before our eyes, and which becomes the symbol of it.”(p.29) The artist, being attentive to these things, can reveal in the very ordinary observations of reality a vastness of being that in turn opens up the soul to an immensity of life and the world that they could not have otherwise experienced. Is this not the true vocation of the artist – to reveal this experience for others to partake of ?