Truth in Painting
What is truth? That is likely the most seriously asked question from inquiring minds in many areas of human endeavor down through the ages. Philosophers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, artists of all kinds, and hopefully everyone else, have asked that question. In my readings from famous artists, I have been struck by each one stressing how it is necessary to “paint the truth,” or “paint truthfully,” or “paint the truth of what you see.” OK, I’m game! The problem is that these writers do not go on to explain explicitly what they mean.
I have noted some related and oblique statements of these writers that have assisted me in understanding what they mean by having truth in painting. A few months ago, I watched a documentary film titled “From Mao to Mozart” about a trip that the legendary violinist, Isaac Stern, took to China in 1980. He played with the best violinists that China had to offer, and taught at workshops with these same musicians. What struck me the most was when he stated that all of them were technically superb, but their playing lacked feeling. Mr. Stern stated that each note must be played with feeling and passion. For him, that was playing with truth.
David Leffel, and his well-known former student, Gregg Kreutz, both write that a painting has two subjects. First, there is the literal subject, such as a person, place, or piece of fruit. Secondly, there is the abstract idea or concept that underlies every successful painting, which is by far the more important of the two. The abstract idea or concept of a painting arises from how the artist feels, sees, and what he wants to communicate about the subject matter through the medium of paint. If you will, the literal subject matter for a painting is merely a prop for the larger artistic vision. What the artist sees and feels about a subject, and then goes on to communicate in a painting, is more truthful than the simple visual image that we get when looking at the same subject. A true artist sees the significant and has empathy for a subject, without which it would not be possible to create a painting that contains some excitement and beauty.
We learn first to paint, which is a technical discipline. We go on to become painters by copying what we see. The next evolution is to become an artist, which can only come about through deeper empathy and understanding of painterly subjects. It is said that the art student paints things: the mature artist paints ideas about things, or concepts.
The great teacher Charles W. Hawthorne penned one of the best descriptions of an artist. He wrote, “The world is waiting for men with vision, as it is not interested in mere pictures. What people subconsciously are interested in is the expression of beauty, something that helps them through the humdrum day, and makes them believe in the beauty and glory of human existence. The only way the painter can achieve this is in the guise of high priest. He must show people more than they already see, and he must show them with so much human sympathy and understanding that they will recognize it as if they themselves had seen the beauty and the glory. Here is where the artist comes in. The mature artist has the vision to see and ability to tell the world something that it unconsciously thinks about nature, but that it has not known before. Art is a personal commentary on nature. The more humble, the greater the personality of the artist, the finer the work.”
The greatest paintings in the world are elegantly simple in construction and concept. They are deeply moving because they make us feel something new. They were all painted with truth. As in most noble endeavors, we cautiously find our way in the daylight, but at some point we must leap forward by faith to the joy of discovery.
To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist. ~Schumann