The President’s Palette
Recently, I watched a 2011 movie titled “Seven Days in Utopia,” starring Robert Duvall playing a former Professional Golf Association member turned rancher in Utopia, Texas. Luke Chisolm, a young man trying to make his way into the PGA, ends up by misadventure in Utopia, Texas following his meltdown in a golf tournament. Duvall watched the meltdown of Luke on TV, and knew what Luke needed to learn to overcome his anger and frustration about golf. Luke needed “SFT,” the initials for “See, Feel, Trust.”
Many years ago, I played a little golf, which is very demanding and frustrating to learn to play well. It is much more enjoyable to watch the professionals play a PGA tournament. I once read an article about the “inner game of golf.” That is what SFT is all about. Duvall taught Luke to see the next shot, to feel himself making the shot, and then to trust those feelings when actually swinging the club. Duvall referred to this process as “playing ahead, rather than behind the game.” Luke was a good student and learned the lesson, which resulted in him becoming a much better golfer.
So, what does any of this have to do with artistic painting? Well, the same principal applies to painting, and indeed applies to most significant human endeavors. In art, I have come to think of it as “SFP,” which is “See, Feel, Paint.” I have found that art instruction books, some art teachers, and probably most art schools teach “See and Paint,” while not addressing the all important “Feel” component. I have heard from well-known art teachers to just “paint what you see.” Doing that is of value in learning the techniques of painting, but there is another step involved in going from “painter” to “artist.” To feel means how the artist uses his or her unique insight and empathy in deciding how to interpret the subject matter. Simply put, the artist uses paint to express how he or she feels about the subject.
One way that some art instruction teachers express “Feel” is through the concept of an “abstract idea.” It may be best to explain this concept by first stating what it is not. If I take a collection of objects, arrange them on a table in a pleasing composition and paint a still life, most likely I will end up with a painting of exactly what I intended. If executed in a skillful manner, it will look like a nice painting, but will be lacking in feeling. Alternatively, if I arrange some objects on a table, and am struck by the beauty of how light flows over the objects from one to another, I will get excited about painting that flow of light. The objects are merely there to support the abstract idea of the exquisite and intangible beauty of how the light is flowing in the still life. In effect, every good painting has two subjects, the tangible objects being depicted, and the intangible idea that comes from the artist’s empathy for the objects and sensitivity to the natural world. This is true whether the subject is still life, landscape, or figure painting.
To better understand the “Feel” component of SFP, consider why people will stop and ponder in front of a particular painting while giving others a cursory glance. It is because the painting causes the viewers to have an emotional reaction, which in turn causes a sense of wonder and an attempt to understand that emotional reaction. Some good examples of this are found in the paintings of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Homer, Turner, and a host of other Masters. These master painters felt strongly, some would say passionately, about a subject, and used paint to communicate that feeling to others. For example, Turner was very interested in what it would feel like at sea in bad weather, and was so intent upon the importance of feeling before painting that he had himself lashed to a deck spar on a steamer for a period of four hours while the crew battled their way through a storm. That experience left him with an immutable imprint on his psyche, and he went on to paint his famous seascape “Snowstorm.” He later remarked, “I did not expect to escape, but I felt bound to record it if I did.” For Turner, recording his unique emotional reaction to that experience was the most essential element of the painting.
Our best paintings can only come into being from our unique experiences and feelings. Look around to find something, anything actually, that you feel strongly about, and paint it the way you feel about it. Get ahead of the game, and SFP! Feel that you are going to create something of great worth and beauty, visualize the painting in your mind, and only then pick up your brushes. If true to your feelings and craft, you will succeed.
“Art is a passion, or it is nothing.” Robert Fry
“A man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, his mind, and his heart is an artist.” Something I heard recently.