The Supremacy of the Moment

Detail of ‘Bridghid at One’

As a painter, I spend a considerable amount of time experimenting in order to build my experience in paint. I also believe that all great work comes from living in the “moment.” But I find that spontaneity arises from a combination of experience and thorough preparation. Preparation at first appears to be antithetical to spontaneity. But being prepared for that moment when your subject is before you allows the mind and spirit to be freed up. One is not overly preoccupied with materials. One is liberated to be sensitive to the subject- seeking to capture something more elusive, something more than mere objective reality.

Design seeks harmony and resonance between the many elements in an image. Robert Henri, known for his Hals like spontaneity, spent a lifetime reflecting on design in color and composition. His archive at the Yale Beinecke Library reflects the intensity with which he pursued it.  He states in The Art Spirit, “It is a question of seeing significances and apprehending the special forms and colors which will serve as building materials. A good picture is a well built structure.”(p.50) In regards to composition, Henri used several methods throughout his life- mainly rebatement but also the golden section and something called the whirling square developed by Jay Hambridge.

Good design is the framework on which a forceful image can be built. But Henri never allowed it to be evident. Design was always subservient to the moment of engagement. Design was there to support experience. The two should flow together like a river, moving in the same direction and having the same source and final destination. George Bellows, Henri’s star pupil, allowed design to take control of his late work and because of this many of his late images of figures appear rigid, forcing them to conform to a preconceived design. The interplay between design and experience is thwarted. ” It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work. The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs…”(ibid, p.16)

I can only categorize Henri’s color theory as surprising. Looking at the colors in the archive objectively, they are beautiful. And the surprise is that these beautiful color combinations are observable in reality- which I have found through my own experimentation. There is a heightened “intensity” in them. By intensity, I do not necessarily mean the colors are intense in chroma but that there is a wonderful balance between pure color and moody and mysterious darks. But even in regard to color, Henri allows the ” living moment” to guide the work. The “living moment”is not necessarily bound within the time frame when the subject is in the presence of the artist. “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 of that vital movement. During that moment there is a correlation of the factors of that look…The special order has to be retained in memory- that special look and order which was its expression. Memory must hold it.” (ibid, p.27) Although design is of critical importance to all great images, the “essential” moment of your personal engagement with the world takes priority.

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.

One thought on “The Supremacy of the Moment”

  1. Hi Judith,

    Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your posts. I’m a visiting assist. prof.
    in painting at the University of Florida, and I’m always looking for quality information
    to bolster my work and to relay to my students.

    Thank you for sharing!!

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