Art is a very personal thing. We all know this, of course. Even though I may not consciously be thinking a lot about what I’m wanting to say when I do a landscape oil painting, there’s always something there, something lurking just beneath the surface, something that determines the choices I make as I paint.
The choices, of course, begin even before I put a canvas on my easel, long before I begin sketching out the scene or thinking about colors. The first step involves deciding what it is that I’m going to paint. This, I’m seeing, may be the most important and most personal choice we make. This is precisely why it is that if someone else chooses the subject for us, our painting might fall short of our expectations.
Consider this very simple little oil painting.
This is a painting for a family member, painted from a photograph she took over Memorial Day weekend. I’d like to think it has a peaceful, restful feeling about it, that it expresses some of the contentment she feels each time they visit the lake. I’d like to think that she’ll be happy to have this painting. Actually, I’m sure she will be happy with it.
But I’m not so sure I’m happy with it. I think, technically, it’s fairly well executed. I’ve given a bit of texture to all those clouds. I’ve added a bit of reflection from the skies. The wooded shoreline is quite accurate when compared to the reference photo.
Still, I feel a bit disappointed when I look at the painting. Why? Because, at the heart of it, this is not my painting. True, I’ve painted similar scenes before, mostly as learning experiences. Now, though, this is not a scene I would look at with awe and say, “Oh, I must paint this!”
So maybe I will play around with this a bit and create other versions. Perhaps I’d prefer more sky and less water. Maybe I’d rather have deeper, richer hues. Would it be more dramatic if I created different effects, such as a stormy sky or waves in the water? Maybe so, but that would not be quite right. The point was to take a photo I was given and to create a restful, peaceful lake scene.
The most obvious flaw in this painting is, of course, the fact that the landline cuts the canvas directly in half. That means that neither the sky nor the water is emphasized. But, this is what I was tasked with doing, not painting an “artistic view” but working directly from a photograph.
I guess this is an instance where I’ve done precisely what I was asked to do, thereby giving up my right to personal expression or “artistic license”. While the painting is all right and while it meets the requirements, it’s definitely not a work of art. I’m sure that once it’s framed and hung, it will look quite lovely, but I’m left feeling that maybe I should have put more of myself into the painting, maybe I should have changed the composition, maybe I should have chosen colors that suited me.
When you’re commissioned to do a particular piece of art, how do you approach it? Do you discuss it, make suggestions, point out where changes might improve the work? Or do you simply paint the scene, creating a painting that reflects someone else’s choices, not your own?
The question, I suppose, is how do we express ourselves when we’re painting for someone else?