Tapies advocates looking games

A quotation from Antonio Tapies

In an earlier Post I suggested the advantages of a games-playing attitude as a stimulus to creativity. Due in large part to his pioneering explorations of picture-surface characteristics as subject matter for painting, Antonio Tapies came to be regarded by many as one of the key figures of twentieth century art. He has also proved himself a stimulating writer. One of his literary productions is a very brief essay entitled, The game of knowing how to look”, in which he gives his advice on creative looking. He starts by advocating focusing attention on some simple object, such as an old chair. He elaborates:

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Modernist teaching methods

A paradigm shift

The chapter featured in this Post is about the paradigm shift in artists thought that took place in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and some of its consequences in terms of the Modernist teaching methods that were to emerge in the twentieth century.

CHPT 3 – Arrival of Modernism

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Feeling as a guide to mark-making

Feeling and the sketch

The chapter featured in this Post tells how, over the centuries, artists changed the way they conceived the function of the sketch. From being a step in the Academic method, by which predetermined elements were organised into a composition, it was used in more open-ended essentially Modernist ways. This chapter also explains what I mean by drawing with the “feel-system” and, in doing so, prepares readers for the crucial role it plays in later chapters. For this reason it is key to the ideas developed in my book.

Chapter 4 – The sketch and the feel-system 

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Playful fancies as a stimulus to creativity

Having fun with creativity

The last but one chapter in my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” illustrates how indulging in playful fancies can stimulate creativity. The chapter as a whole has been described by a friend as “very Postmodernist” and is by far the longest in the book. It demonstrates how even the silliest ideas can spark a ragbag of speculations and, thereby, lead along unimagined routes, to all sorts of thoughts, in all sorts of domains. In this chapter, some of the ideas turned out to be a bit frivolous, but all of them have an underpinning seriousness, and all lead on to another batch of speculations.

Right-minded or wrongheaded

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Traditional artistic practices

In furtherance of my project publishing chapters from my books, we now come to a chapter on traditional artistic practices. Its title is “The Renaissance and the Academic Method”. To understand how it fits into the structure of “Drawing with Both Sides of the Brain”, please go to the POSTSCRIPT below. To read the chapter just click on the link immediately below:

Chapter 2, Traditional artistic practices

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My books on drawing and painting

Why my books are needed?

Two quotations from students who have come on my courses at the Painting School of Montmiral indicate why there is a need for my books on drawing and painting. The first talks of, “a very different and vastly more interesting type of artistic education than I have met before” (Yolande Hart). The second goes into greater detail, explaining that, “This course, with its reference to proven research and with the patient explanations of its implications with respect to how the brain receives and interprets information provides a fundamentally sound approach commonly lacking in other courses and literature” (Iain McCowan).

traditional practices
Ian McCowan presenting his drawing of the butcher’s shop to the butcher


Other comments on the uniqueness and efficacy of the methods I use in my teaching can be found on the “Comments” page of the Painting School website. Over 200 examples of student work can be found on the Student Work page

The limitations of existing books

At the end of a course, students often ask me to recommend books to read that will help them reinforce the new ideas to which they have been exposed. The explanation as to why I have found it difficult to give them a satisfactory answer is the same as the reason I seized an opportunity to do research at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Before arriving at this turning point in my life as an artist, an important part of my time had been devoted to teaching drawing and painting. Despite enjoying my work and although my approach was clearly appreciated by my students, I always felt that there must be some better ways of helping them. In my efforts to improve matters, I tried out a variety of the practices recommended in books, including most of the ideas later to be popularised by Betty Edwards in “Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain”. I found that most of these helped up to a point, sometimes spectacularly so. The problem was that there were always important reasons for wanting to go beyond that point. I also used ideas coming from the Psychologists of Perception, that centred on their concept of “schemas” and the way these influenced both looking and doing strategies. Again, they helped to some extent, but left too many questions unanswered.

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How reliable are my “truths”?

The nature of “truths”

When, as a young man, I went to university to study history, I was fortunate to have as one of my my tutors K.B McFarlane, who has been described as the most influential Medieval historian of the 20th century. Of the many things he taught me, perhaps the most enduring concerned the nature of “truths”.

In the course of a general conversation on essay writing, I confessed my horror at the idea of committing anything half-baked to paper and deplored the unenviable predicament in which this placed me. As a raw undergraduate under constant time pressure (two essays a week and an analysis of a constitutional document), I felt there to be no possibility of fitting in the research necessary for providing satisfactory answers to the essay questions that I was being given. My tutor seemed surprised. He said that this was a problem that had only caught up with him in later life (possibly explaining his growing reluctance to publish his own work). He then told me that when he was a student, a number of his contemporaries, being primarily interested in non-academic aspects of university life, left themselves too little time for their studies. To help these fun-loving friends with their logistic problem, the precocious undergraduate had offered to write their essays for them.

When he did so, he quite frequently found himself faced with having to produce more than one answer to the same question. To make life more interesting, he challenged himself to make the arguments used in the different essays as unlike one another as he reasonably could within the constraints provided by the “facts” at his disposal. I felt, “how marvelous to be free to generate different and, even, incompatible “truths” from the same material, how instructive, how creative and how salutary.”

truths from KB McFarlane
K.B. McFarlane

A liberation

It was a profound turning point in my intellectual life. This open-minded approach to the nature of “truths” enabled me to have a much more relaxed attitude to making sense of historical events. Ever since, I have ceased to regard the aim of the historian as presenting irrefutable conclusions, based on unambiguous evidence. Now, I take pleasure in looking for alternative ways of making sense out of the material at my disposal.

This game-playing attitude to the nature of “truths” has been of great value in the evolution of the ideas presented in my books on painting, drawing and creativity. Among other things, it has influenced the way I have told the story of Modernism in Painting, which plays an important role in all of them.

My understanding of this subject was hugely influenced by my two main art teachers, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and Michael Kidner. It was they who gifted me the issues and ideas that set me on my personal journey of discovery. Hardly surprisingly, their selections of “facts”, and the interpretations they based on them, related to their personal history of concerns as artists. This is probably why, the stories they told were so different in their selection and interpretation of content, from those presented by art historians and critics.  Presumably, it is also why I have been unable to find some of the “truths” they communicated in the writings of others.

Was what my teachers taught me true?

Two of the now inaccessible sources upon which I built my life both as an artist and as a teacher were:

  • The dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, which, according to him, embodied, “all you need to know about painting”.
  • The account of the origins of American Abstract Expressionism given to me by Michael Kidner, which focused on the value of what he termed the “propositional approach”.*

Both were the products of attempts to abstract an essence from complex issues. Both have the virtue of presenting an easy-to-follow blend of simplicity and a clarity. However, it seems that these desirably qualities could only come at the expense of nuancing, or even of suppressing, potentially contradictory detail. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether what was lost in the synthesising process diminishes the value of what was gained.

truths from Maian Bohusz-Szyszko
Professor Bohusz-Szyszko
truths from Michael Kidner
Michael Kidner RA

Does it matter what their simplifications leave out?

In my case, there were two reasons why the answer to this question turned out to be “no”. The first was that the simplifications proved to be enormously helpful when I applied them in practice. Right or wrong, what they did for me was to provide clear route maps to follow. These not only opened up new ways of thinking about paintings but also, quite as significantly, new ways of feeling about them.

The second reason was more a matter of my personality. I have to admit that I am temperamentally unsuited to following route maps blindly: There was always a part of me that thought of my paintings as tests of my teacher’s beliefs. In other words, I could not help thinking of them as experiments.** My luck lay in the number of fruitful questions that these generated and the richness of the material that was revealed in the course of my attempts to find answers to them. As it turned out, the research that these triggered led me to delve into a wide range of sources of which the most important were:

  • Books on the practice of painting and drawing.
  • The history of the ideas of artists and art teachers.
  • The science of visual perception.

What I found led me to frequent questioning of widely accepted norms. I was shocked by number of accredited “facts” I came across that turned out to be either misleading or simply untrue, not least among them ones that claimed to have scientific backing.

Can my truths be trusted?

Faced with this predicament, I felt compelled to look for more reliable “truths” and over the years I am confident that I have done so. However, two questions arise:

  • Can my alternative “truths” can be trusted?
  • Are they are of practical use.

My attempts at comprehensive answers to these questions provide the main subject matter of my teaching and my writings. In my books, as well as explaining some of the numerous ways they can be of practical use, I give substantial evidence as to why they can be trusted. I have already begun the process of sharing some of this with readers of my Posts, such as the ones on The Venetian Colourists and Colour in Painting.  And, I intend to add many more in the coming weeks and months.

* I intend to elaborate on the “propositional approach” in a later Post that will discuss Michael’s work and ideas.

** Also in a later Post, I intend to submit a Post on the “Art/Science debate”. In this I quote John Constable as saying: “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then should not painting be regarded as a branch of natural philosophy, of which the pictures are the experiments?”

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Early Modernists

Defining “Early Modernists”

In later posts, the subject of “Modernism” is discussed with special reference to its place in the history of painting. One conclusion that emerges is that “Modernism in Painting” has a very different history to other “Modernisms”. For example, despite all they have in common, it is significantly different from either Modernism in Literature or Modernism in Architecture. For this reason, in my books, where others might write “Early Modernists”, I use “Early Modernist Painters”.

Early Modernist Painters

The purpose of this Post is to share with you Chapter 6  of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. In it I outline the social, economic, scientific and artistic context from which the Early Modernist Painters emerged. I also give plenty of reasons why Modernism in Painting is different from Modernism in other disciplines. To access what I have written about all this and more, please click on the link below.


Some examples of Early Modernist paintings

To give some visual context to what I have written, please scroll down to the nine images below of the work of some key Early Modernist Painters. Notice that these include:

  • Eduard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne from the first generation, all of whom knew each other well from meetings in the home of Berthe Morisot and/or the Café Guerbois where they were joined by Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin-Latour (a student of the influential teacher Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran).
  • Emile Bernard, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec who, in 1886, met in the studio of Fernand Cormon and remained lifelong friends. Not long afterwards, they were joined by John Peter Russel the Australian artist. His importance to them and others was that, via the teaching of Alphonse Legros, he provided a link with Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran and his ideas on painting from memory.
  • Paul Gauguin who, with Emile Bernard, was co-founder of the the Pont-Aven School.  Gauguin also had links with Pissaro, Cézanne and Van Gogh, with whom he spent time in Arles.

Something to keep in mind when you scroll down to the images

We all know that reproductions of paintings whether in books or on websites are very different from the originals when we see them in galleries. However, what is less widely appreciated is the degree of difference between the paintings as they are now and the same paintings when first exhibited.  Thus, among the Early Modernists, Van Gogh used fugitive reds when mixing purples, with the result that the many purples he made by mixing reds with blues now appear as blues.

But the paintings that suffer the most are those of Seurat. The main reason for this is his extensive use of chemically unstable zinc yellows that have since turned brown. Because Seurat’s theory meant that most of the colours he used had to be, at least in part, mixtures between adjacent colours on the colour circle, these yellows occur in virtually all the greens, yellows and oranges in many of his paintings. The result has been catastrophic changes in appearances.

No wonder it is often difficult to fully connect what we see in some of Seurat’s pointillist paintings (for example, the one found below) with the contemporary descriptions of the excitements produced by the Pointillist method, such as those we find in the writings of Felix Fénéon, the admiring contemporary critic. For example, he writes:

  • “A pigment-based hue is weak and drab compared to a hue born of optical mixture: the latter, mysteriously vivified by a perpetual process of recombination, shimmers, elastic, opulent, lustrous” .
  • “The multicoloured specks melt into undulant, luminous masses”.
  • “The technique vanishes and the eye is no longer attracted by anything but that which is essentially painting” (incidentally, one of the first descriptions of paintings described in purely abstract terms).

While acknowledging the many admirable qualities of Seurat’s paintings as they appear to us today, these comments would now seem a bit over the top.

For more on Seurat’s mould-breaking ideas, see my POST on the Venetian Colourists  and in future Posts.

The nine images by Early Modernists

Early Modernists - Painting by Manet

An early Modernist painting by Manet, whom many consider to be the Father Figure of the Early Modernist Painters

Early Modernists - painting by Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot – woman and child in meadow at Bougival

Early Modernists - painting by Monet

Monet – Woman with Umbrella

Early Modernists - Painitng by Seurat

Georges Seurat – Bridge at Courbevoie

Early Modernists - Painting by Gauguin

Emile Bernard – Breton Women

Early Modernists - Painting by Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh – Starry Night

Early Modernists - Painting by Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse – Lautrec – Portrait of Jane Avril

Early Modernists - Painting by Gauguin

Paul Gauguin – Manao Tupapau

Early Modernists - Painting by Cézanne

Paul Cézanne – Portrait of Hortense his wife

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Colourists : different meanings of the word

Colourists in 20th century art

A colourist can be defined as artists who give priority to the creation of colour-based experiences in their paintings. The problem is that it can be used in significantly different ways. In two Posts I suggest two approaches to the unraveling  the consequent ambiguities. This post contrasts the very different meanings of the word for three particular 20th century painters who have been described as colourists. The second Post will analyse its meaning when used in the phrase “Venetian Colourists”.

First approach: Three distinct types of colourist compared

I had two artist teachers who described themselves as colourists. One was interested in whole-field colour relations and the other in local colour-contrast effects. Both represented widely accepted meanings of the word.

  • Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, the Polish artist, teacher and mathematician, thought in terms of a multiplicity of colours (in principle many hundreds of thousands) and, more precisely, the effect of each and every colour on the picture surface on each and every other colour on it.
  • Michael Kidner, the English “Systems Painter”, thought in terms of a very limited number of colours (for example, two, three or four) and was principally interested either in local interactions between them or in their denotative function in his systems.

A well known American artist, had different ideas:

  • Ellsworth Kelly felt that both of the approaches to colour just described divert attention from the experience of colour as itself. He came to the conclusion that the only way of providing a pure experience of colour was to cover the entire surface of a painting with a single colour.

But these are only three examples and many other possibilities exist. For instance, I have met artists and viewers who seem to think that producing more or less any array of what they consider to be colourful colours qualifies them as colourists, no matter how garish and discordant the results appear to the eyes of others.

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Venetian Colourists

Defining “Venetian Colourists”

In a previous Post, I compared three 20th Century artists who have been described as “colourists”, and who had very different ideas on the place of colour in painting. I also suggested that these were only three among many possibilities.

In this second Post, I comment on the meaning art historians’ give the word “colourist” when writing about two different groups of pioneer artists,  one that flourished in the  the Italian Renaissance and the other that overturned all sorts of preconceptions in the last part of the nineteenth century.  The two groups are:

  • The Venetian Colourists (Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, etc.) and other, later artists, who kept within the same tradition (Vermeer, Turner, etc.).
  • The Modernist Painter Colourists of the late nineteenth century (Cézanne, Gauguin, etc) and early twentieth century (Matisse, Bonnard, etc.).

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