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.

 

CHAPTER 6 – “THE EARLY MODERNISTS”

 

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, Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros (both students 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. A big part of 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

Posts relating to other chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:

Other Posts on painting light and colour:

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Colourists : different meanings

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 analyses its meaning when used in the phrase “Venetian Colourists”. See also The Glossary entry for “colour

First approach: Two 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.

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colourists
Marian Bohusz-Szyszko – Detail from “the seven Archangels 1963–1979

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  • 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.
colourists
                                        Michael Kidner – Primary Colours 1967

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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.
colourists
                                       Ellsworth Kelly- Red Curves 1996

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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 all of whom who have been described as “colourists” despite having very different ideas on the place of colour in their painting. I also suggested that these represent only three among many possibilities.

In this related 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.).

Continue reading “Venetian Colourists”

Colour in painting

How important is colour?

The purpose of this post is to provide a link to the first chapter of my book “Painting with Light and Colour“. In it is a set of dogmas that changed my life. They were given me, during the first weeks of my life as an artist, by the Polish artist, teacher and mathematician, Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. He claimed that:

  • “All good painting is based on colour”.
  • “The use of colour in painting should be based on colour in nature”.

The importance to me personally of these two dogmatic propositions and, more importantly, the elaborations and explanations he added, can hardly be exaggerated, for they provided a basis for my life’s work, not only as an artist and teacher but also as a scientist.

One reason why the dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko were to prove to be so fruitful, related to their origins, for they were his way of providing a synthesis of ideas coming from a number of his predecessors.  Particularly important among these were Seurat, Cézanne and Bonnard (one of Bohusz-Szyszko’s mentors). A major reason for taking the dogmas seriously is the the degree to which these artists and their Modernist Painter contemporaries were  influenced by the revolution in the science of visual perception that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

 

Figure 1 : Raising of Lazarus by Marian Bohusz-Szyszko

 

This watershed for scientists and artists alike followed upon the realisation that the colour we see is not a property of surfaces in the external world but a creation of the eye and brain, based on inputs from the amazingly complex patterns of the colourless electromagnetic energy that enters the eyes. From this starting point came understandings about:

  • Induced colour
  • The three primaries.
  • Optical mixing

It was these that inspired Seurat to develop his pointillist methods as a means of fulfilling his ambition to “paint with light”.

Little can he have known that he was also bringing about a transformation in the meaning of the word “colourist”. From the time of the so called Venetian Colourists to the time of Seurat, the meaning of the word “colourist” centred on whole-field lightness relations (popularly referred to as “chiaroscuro”). As we shall see in later Posts, from now on, being a “colourist” meant:

  • Having access to a greater range of both more fully-saturated and more nuanced colours.
  • Being a master of  whole-field colour relations.

All these issues will be elaborated upon in subsequent Posts. For the time being, as promised above, I want to share with you the first chapter of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. It contains an account of:

  • how it came to pass that I encountered Marian-Bohusz Szyszko, the Professor of Painting at the Academic Community of the Wilno* University in London.
  • All five of his dogmas, and the ways in which they proved helpful.

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“Painting with Light and Colour”: Chapter 1-“The Dogmas

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*The Polish name for the formerly Polish town that, due to border changes that took place as a result of the Second World War, has now become Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania.

The threat posed by Hitler and Stalin was the reason for the fleeing of large numbers of academics from the historic University of Wilno, then in Poland, and their regrouping in London as the Academic Community of the Wilno University in London.

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“At last I don’t know how to draw” : Toulouse-Lautrec the first Modern Painter”

In 1992 I was asked to write an article for “La Revue du Tarn” as a contribution to  the “Year of Toulouse-Lautrec”.  In particular I was asked to give a critique of the big exhibition of his paintings that took place that year in London and Paris. More recently I included an edited adaptation as Chapter 7 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity“. Click below for a .PDF version of it.

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“AT LAST I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DRAW”

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Apologies for the poor quality of some of the illustrations. They will be better for the published version.

Toulouse-Lautrec drawing-5
Toulouse-Lautrec : Drawing of a woman from the “Artilleur et femme” series

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Why I am a Flat-Earther

“On being a Flat-Earther”, an edited excerpt from Chapter 10 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

A flat-earther is someone who insists that the earth is flat and who is likely to be derided for holding such a factually ignorant view. In this post, at the risk of being laughed at, I claim to be a flat-earther myself. A theme of this chapter is that any starting point, however far-fetched, can lead to creative outcomes, as is proved my the many artists who have painted masterpieces on the basis of crack-brain ideas. My purpose in this post is to emphasise two points, made throughout this chapter, namely that investigating alternative descriptions can unblock stagnant thought-processes and liberate creativity and that they can do it whether the alternatives are sensible or absurd. It is a thought-provoking idea, which is worth expanding on. So here goes: Continue reading “Why I am a Flat-Earther”

Creativity in art, science and all other domains

Future posts on creativity

In the coming months I intend to contribute many posts on the subject of “creativity”. As most of these will be taken from my book “Fresh Insights into Creativity“, it seems appropriate to start with an excerpt from its “Introduction” :

Excerpt from the introduction to “Fresh insights into Creativity”

A need to understand the nature of ‘creativity‘ has been with me since I was a teenager. This volume is the fruit of a lifetime’s search for answers to questions relating to this subject. For those who wish to go deeper into the ideas on offer, I have written three other books.  Two of these provide practical help for people seeking to improve their artistic skills. The third is a scientific book. This describes the research and the ideas emerging from it that are largely responsible for the originality of the other three books. The science concerns how the brain, first, makes sense of and, then, makes use of the patterns of light that enters the eyes. Their titles are: “Drawing on Both sides of the Brain”, “Painting with Light and Colour” and “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”.

An unexpected development

I was fifteen years into my life as a practicing artist and occasional teacher of drawing and painting when, quite unexpectedly, despite my lack of relevant background as a scientist, I was offered an opportunity to become involved in scientific research. After some hesitation, I seized it in the hope that the scientific method might help me make sense of a range of painting, drawing and teaching related questions to which I had been seeking answers in vain.

Continue reading “Creativity in art, science and all other domains”

Accuracy versus expression

Are the accuracy and expression compatible?

I hope you enjoy the attachment below, which is about the accuracy versus expression debate. It is the first chapter of my book “Drawing on the right Side of the Brain“, in which I compare the expressive potential of searching for accuracy relative to that of other artistic goals that lead to different manifestations of inaccuracy,  whether it be in the guise of distortions, abstractions or any other kind of deviation from accuracy.  My conclusion is that not only art history but also the outcomes of my experience as a teacher, as illustrated by the work of my students, show that both have the potential to inspire artistic creativity. The drawing of Durer’s Mother below is one of the six illustrations in the chapter, three of which provide examples of the expressive potential of the search for accuracy, while the remainder provide examples of the expressive potential of researching deviations from it.

TBD1-CHPT 1 – ACCURACY V EXPRESSION

An illustration for the accuracy versus expression debate

Albrecht Durer: Portrait of his Mother

Origins of Castelnau de Montmiral

WHY THE NEED FOR A FORTIFIED TOWN IN THE NORTHERN ALBIGEOIS IN THE YEAR 1222?

What I have written below is the result of my efforts to sort out contradictions in the stories concerning the origins of Castelnau de Montmiral that were going the rounds when I first arrived in the town and started teaching at the Painting School of Montmiral in 1988. I cannot claim it to be a definitive history but it represents the best story I have been able cobble together on the basis of the “facts” that I was able unearth. A condensed version appears in the main website on the history page of the main website.

porte de garrics
Porte de Garrics : the ancient entry to the town of Castelnau de Montmiral

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Preamble

It took the inhabitants of Castelnau de Montmiral more than 20 years to complete the now tree-lined esplanade that today runs along its north-east facing side. It was ready in 1622, just in time to impress King Louis XIII who stayed there and, amongst other things, is said to have eaten plums in the street, now known as ‘rue Gambetta’. He was on his way to deal with a Protestant uprising that had occurred further South caused by the failure of the local Catholics to keep faith with the Edict of Nantes, which had legally guaranteed freedom of worship for the Protestants.

A main reason why the new esplanade took so long to put in place was that previously there had been a steep escarpment, sloping precipitously down from the still massive ramparts that encircled the town. It is difficult to imagine the quantity of earth and rocks that must have been moved to raise the ground level to its present height, the original rampart walls are seldom visible, as they are now largely obscured by houses that have been built in front of long stretches of where they were located. Likewise the formidable slopes are hidden by the raised and levelled surfaces that were created when constructing the esplanade and the various roads below. All these necessitated great works made possible by men using buckets, wheelbarrows and oxen-drawn carts to move what must have seemed to them to be mountains of stone and earth.

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