Making a picture is rather like making a watch. Before you can put one together, you have to know how to take one apart. You have to know what makes it tick. The same is true with a picture.
What is so good about putting one together is that at the same time you are learning to take other pictures apart. Consequently you are acquiring the ability to appreciate and criticize the great works of the past, while acquiring the ability to make your own pictures. Two things for the price of one.
To appreciate the works of other artists is not so difficult once you have tried to do it yourself. Nobody, however intelligent, can really hope to penetrate into the heart of a picture unless he does it for himself. However bad his efforts however clumsy they may seem, through his attempts he will understand better the same problems and successes of the great painters, past and present, and in return, his own work will improve because of it.
TAKING THINGS APART
First of all, what does painting consist of in terms of picture making? Well, a painting done in the studio from sketches and drawings is a different thing from a painting done outside on the spot. Likewise, a painting done from a series of objects, a still life or interior of a room, portrait, and so on, will be different from a painting done from the imagination.
So we are presented with two ways in which to paint, for a start. 1, painting with nature in front of our eyes, and 2, painting away from nature, using our drawings or notes, or just our memory and imagination. Now which method is best, and why? And how does it link up with art generally?
When we view the history of art, from the earliest times, we find that in the main artists work away from nature and that painting directly in front of nature is a nineteenth-century innovation. In France, a group of painters called the Impressionists, in an attempt to widen the scope of art, took their canvases out into the open air and tried to paint nature directly. But because of the difficulties imposed upon them by the changes and immensity of nature, they were forced to concentrate on color alone and very often the composition of their pictures had to take second place. Consequently, their painting, though very bright and
colorful, lacked construction and melted away into a sweet, colored haze.
This will be fairly clear to you once you have tried to complete a picture directly from nature yourself. The difficulties imposed on you tend to confuse rather than help. Now why is this?
One of the inherent qualities of nature is the fact that it is always on the move, growing, dying, changing, adding and so on. So that if you wanted to express nature in terms of paint, you could not hope to succeed by confronting it directly, by looking it straight in the eye and trying to capture all the finding subtleties while they are actually happening in front of you. You could never keep up. You would be beaten from the start.