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 ?

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

2 thoughts on “Does it have life?”

  1. Judith, you’ve asked the important question. As a director of plays, I always say to my actors that the audience will forgive anything if the production is alive. And if it’s letter perfect and dead, nothing will work..

    What do we mean by mimesis. Transferring life to the canvas, the page, or the stage is I think all Arisitotle means. Catching the alive is the artists task.

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