A Process of Self-Awareness

My Students at WSA
My Students at WSA

“One cannot expect to have influence unless, one can be influenced”. As I finish teaching this semester I can’t help thinking of this quote of Carl Jung. Teaching has not only allowed me the opportunity to relay my own views on art but has provided the rare opportunity to glean bits of wisdom from my students.

Teaching art is as abstract and as practical as it gets. One is called to be a keen observer before the model, noting the rhythm, anatomy, color, value and mood of the sitter. But one is also called to say what denotes a strong painting-that feeling for color and composition that signifies something unique, something that stands apart. This delving into these serious questions of what is the nature of a great work of art and how one goes down the path to pursue it is of the utmost importance. It is much easier to say that the sternocleiedomastoid muscle connects the head to the main body of the torso, providing a rhythmic link within the figure than to say this painting is calling for such and such a color because a feeling or intuition is leading me to sense this. The teacher needs to provide the link between these two paths of knowledge- a practical knowledge as well as a knowledge that must spring from within. In a sense, the artist-teacher needs to have the capacity to point the way down both paths.  And the student needs to acknowledge the paths and then find the route that is unique to their inner self.

This interaction between student and teacher is something that is no longer given its special status. In the past, one could only gain knowledge by coming under the apprenticeship of a master whether one was pursuing a specialized craft or philosophy. Today we read a lot. But this does not provide us with the connection we feel toward an individual where the interaction can be on an unspoken level. In the presence of a person,one can intuit more than one can say.  And what is unconscious can be given an opportunity to manifest itself.  It is this special feeling the teacher has for his or her student that allows for much of the passing on of knowledge. Many times when I was a student my mentor would intuit what I would need before I could even put it into words. He would automatically be able to present before me what was in my heart. This can only be achieved in an environment of trust and companionship.

But it is not only the student who benefits. In many ways the teacher, in the very process of relaying his or her own knowledge, comes to know themselves more intimately. When one is called upon to state “this is true”, then one comes to recognize the very road map one is on- it becomes conscious as in a mirror held before oneself. This consciousness can only benefit the teacher. But in this very act of recognition within the teacher, the student can gain insight into the creative act- the honesty with one’s self that is a necessary element of the pursuit.

In this intimate relationship between teacher and student, I have gained so many bits of wisdom from the combined experience of my students, experiences I could only have come upon through meeting and connecting with them. Their experience and insight become mine also. Creating is a struggle that takes place within and without. But it is in this struggle one comes to know oneself and the world more intimately. And when two minds meet at this intersection between knowledge and creation, one’s insight can be shared and affirmed, each joyful for this new clarity.

Color Composition Seen Through The Eyes of Robert Henri

Copy of Robert Henri's "Johnny Manning"
Copy of Robert Henri’s “Johnny Manning” by Judith Reeve

Sometimes one of the most difficult things about painting is separating the subject before you from what is necessary to a successful painting. Color composition is one of those aspects that needs to be considered almost apart from the subject and needs to be considered early on in the painting process. One has to remember that the painting is paramount and it is the image alone that remains. The artist needs to consider the painting in terms of music, orchestrating color in such a way as to increase the emotive effect.

Planning the color composition is about designating the color of the basic areas of the image – their position, value and size and their overall relationship to each other. Robert Henri spent a lot of time early in his career, about 1908-1910, experimenting with the size of an area of color and what its intensity should be. He found that a painting appeared more luminous when combining grave colors with bright colors and that the grave colors should cover a larger area than the intense colors- a burning brightness amid a more subdued ever varying color range. This gave his paintings an immediate sense of light and life. By subdued areas I do not mean they were composed of blacks and neutrals but of the main components of the palette but in a lower intensity. And by bright areas, I mean a pure color, unadulterated, was used in the smallest area of the composition. This varying of intensities of the basic triadic palette allowed the colors to vibrate off  one another  in a harmonious fashion and still remain visible (one can see the triad throughout the painting maintaining its sense of a chord as Henri referred to it).

Once the basic areas of color are decided, one needs to be on the look out for any area in the composition where color relationships can be intensified or heightened- such as near compliments; neutrals composed of the triad placed to juxtapose and intensify a compliment; colored edges, where luminous edges come in contact with a dark, etc…  Seeking and selecting areas to heighten corresponding color relationships will add life and depth to a composition allowing the image to take hold in the mind of the viewer. We are only attentive to what is brought before our eyes in a forceful manner giving one a heightened experience to remember and recall repeatedly.

Lately, I have been experimenting with what I call “radiating intensities“. One can achieve a heightened sense of a particular color by presenting that color in several intensities placed next to each other.Taking a single color in full intensity and surround it with successive variations of that color by ever so slightly neutralizing it until the color itself appears as a subdued hue. This radiating effect gives the image an overall glow of that single color – the color is felt everywhere, although it can only be directly observed at its intense center. Through this process one can achieve a sense of depth in the composition.

In Henri’s late work, he uses all of these elements of color but in a simplified fashion. In his late Irish portraits of children, one can see how he uses a background of radiating halos to describe the space behind the head. Sometimes they are “radiating intensities” and other times they are a combination of hues and bi-colors of the main triadic palette. But space is created more with color than value- with a more intense chroma less depth is described and subsequently with less chroma a greater spatial depth is felt. Color was Henri’s passion. During his career he explored many color compositional methods but his late work returns to its source. Henri designates areas of color as before but with a more mature understanding of its power to reveal the emotional state of his subject.