In March 2016, soon after I started this blog, I shared a few works by Paul Cezanne, writing about the harmony found in Cezanne’s paintings. At the time, reader and fellow blogger cathytea commented on the imperfection she saw in his art.
For a long time, I fretted about the imperfections in my painting. I know artistic perfection will never be possible for me, yet it’s something I’ve strived for, a sort of far distant, never-to-be attained, wholly unrealistic goal. You’ve heard the old saying, I’m sure, that we should shoot for the moon, and if we fail, we’ll land among the stars. A nice thought, but even the stars were unrealistic for me as an aspiring artist.
Over the last four years, my art has improved. I’m not setting definite, long-range goals for myself, and I’m not worrying quite so much about the flaws and imperfections in my work.
I’ve also learned to look at famous artists and their works from a more realistic perspective. I can better appreciate their brushstrokes, their composition, their use of the various elements of art. I can also appreciate — and embrace — their imperfections.
Recently, as you know, I’ve studied a lot of work from the Golden Age of Dutch Painting, including many highly-detailed still life paintings. These exquisite works — some on very small canvases — seem like perfection taken to the most impossible-to-imagine degree. I look at still life paintings by Jan Breugel the Elder, Clara Peeters, Abraham van Beijeren, and others, and I simply shake my head in wonderment and awe. No doubt I can learn much from studying these paintings, but I can never hope to paint still lifes like those of the Dutch masters.
Because I’m so awed by those works, I don’t find them truly inspiring. That might seem like an odd thing to say, but inspiration requires not only a source from outside of ourselves, but also a stirring from within. The emotions I feel from those glorious Dutch masterpieces… well, they’re not inspiring emotions. All that awe turns into an almost fearful stance for me. These works are too perfect, too detailed, too complicated, too impossible!
And so it was that in beginning my own still life painting attempts, I yearned for inspiration from less intimidating sources. I found myself smiling as I searched out the still life paintings of Paul Cezanne. Yes, I see his imperfections, and those imperfections make me love his work. Those imperfections give me hope. They fill me with a gleeful sense of excitement and adventure. In short, the imperfections of Cezanne’s work inspire me in ways no Dutch Golden Age still life could ever do.
Look first at Cezanne’s 1877 oil of Still Life with Jar, Cup, and Apples.
Look! That cup is a bit wonky — just like cups I paint. And that jar! It’s a little crooked, isn’t it? Oh, I know how it feels to draw or paint crooked jars. The entire painting makes me smile because it is, indeed, not perfect at all. His cloth looks much better than ones I’ve painted, but it’s still a far from perfect example of fabric. Why, with a bit more practice, I might actually be able to paint something similar.
Now, this isn’t about comparing myself to Cezanne or thinking that I could paint as well as he did. It’s about realizing that the most important thing in art is being who we are and painting as well as we can, not striving for perfection, but simply striving to create art, to express ourselves with paint on canvas.
I find inspiration, too, in Cezanne’s Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses.
This is considered one of his finest still life paintings. It was painted around 1890, and was once owned by Claude Monet. Again the perspective isn’t perfect. Some of the apples look like oranges — to me, at least — and there aren’t a lot of highly realistic details. But there doesn’t have to be. The painting works as it is. I love the colors. I love the simplicity. I love its imperfections.
Now let’s step back a few years, back to 1876-1877, and let’s look at yet another Cezanne still life.
This one is titled Dish of Apples, and that has special significance for me. It was, you see, a dish of apples I’d drawn with colored pencils that inspired me to start this blog. And what did I have to say about that first drawing I shared with the art world?
“It’s far from perfect…”
Yes, I worried that my art would be laughed at, scoffed at, and mostly ignored because it wasn’t perfect. But, you know what? Paul Cezanne’s Dish of Apples isn’t perfect either, but it’s still a marvelous — and inspiring — painting.
Cezanne’s still lifes tell me that art doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be expressive. It’s all about who we are, how we see the world, and the way in which we share our experience.
I find that to be very inspiring, and more than ever now I’m excited at the thought of learning more about still life painting, grabbing a few apples and oranges of my own, and painting my very imperfect works of art.