Redefining Art — Part 1

When I set out earlier this year with the idea of EXPLORATION to guide me — this was the word I chose for 2021 — I had no idea what I was in for. I expected to discover many new things and to learn a lot. What I didn’t anticipate was how very much my thoughts and attitudes about art would be changed. I certainly didn’t expect to find myself reverting to childhood and reliving painful emotions through art therapy, and I never thought the year would take all my pre-conceived notions of what art is — and what it is not — and turn them on their head.

It’s been quite a journey through these first 10-1/2 months of the year. Soon, with the approach of the winter holidays, I’ll be easing away from art a bit, and preparing for the coming year. What a perfect time to stop, look around me, and reflect a bit on how I’ve come to redefine “art” through my explorations.

It began by uncovering all those old wounds from childhood — my clumsiness, my awkwardness, my struggles to deal with the frustrations of “being switched” from my dominant left-hand to what was then a more “socially acceptable” right-handed world.

It moved on to a desire to improve my drawing ability only to realize that the best way to push myself forward was to stop pushing at all. In order to do better, I had to give myself permission to do much worse. In doing so, I discovered the beginnings of true artistic freedom. I learned to relax, to understand that there are no set standards for “good art”, and to fully celebrate who I was and what I did with my paints and pens and pencils.

Yet still, I maintained a few rigid ideas about art, the most important of which was the idea that an artist is someone who can draw. There are other markers — that artistic sensibility I’ve been finding — and then there’s the whole idea of training and talent, of which I have neither. I’ve been happy to see myself through the lens of creativity, enjoying that new freedom I’ve found in art, and understanding that individuality is a quality that can’t really be compared. My art is different from anyone else, therefore any comparison is meaningless.

These feelings have been building and growing over the summer and into autumn. In many ways, they came to a head yesterday morning as I opened my sketchbook and completed a very simple line drawing exercise.

In art, one of the great challenges, I think, is to find our own style — although no one can ever quite define this concept. It’s largely about being who we are, and in many ways that involves figuring out who we’re not. The recent series of drawing exercises I’ve been doing — and some of the oil painting projects I’ve done — have centered around the idea of putting myself in the mind of other artists.

First, I copied Delacroix and drew lions in the zoo. He did this in real life; I did this through online videos. It was interesting. Next, I watched Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, as she slept, and followed along with watercolor, tracing over the same lines he had drawn. I enjoyed the experience.

Meanwhile, I was reading more about Camille Pissarro and sharing my love of Impressionist artI took Pissarro’s advice about landscape painting — with mixed results.

With each of these art exercises, I was coming to that inevitable conclusion — I am not Delacroix, I am not Rembrandt, I am not Pissarro. Yet like these “greats” of the art world, I have a voice, and I claim the right to call myself an artist. In a recent post, I explored my thoughts a bit.

  • Yes, I’ve developed some drawing ability.
  • Yes, I do have a creative spirit.
  • Yes, I’ve studied art through workshops and online classes.

But yesterday, it seemed as though all my definitions about art were snatched up, tossed about, and turned completely on their heads. Yesterday, you see, my art time was all about Matisse.

Henri Matisse is a name we all know. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, he is “often regarded as the most important French painter of the 20th century.” Now, apologies in advance to all lovers of Matisse and his art. I’ve written about Matisse at various times, sharing my mixed feelings about him and his work. I admire Matisse and his courage for art. Of course I admire his creative spirit and his determination. Yet when it comes right down to it, I don’t really like a lot of his art. I’m not fond of fauvism. I find Matisse’s art too bold for my taste.

It’s good to study artists of all sorts, including ones whose work isn’t the most appealing to our aesthetics, and we can learn from them, of course. So it was that when I turned to my next art exercise and found Henri Matisse waiting there, I took a deep breath and stepped forward.

The task was simple enough. The lesson was about how Matisse used line in his art. Line is the most fundamental element of art. Everything begins with line. I was to note the elegance of his long, curving lines — so much like the lines I enjoy making when I’m noodling and doodling around with a pencil or pen. The instructions for the exercise were to trace over the lines of a drawing Matisse made.

I stared at the drawing for a moment. Truly, it is — in my eyes — no great work of art. It is rather primitive and child-like. In fact, it represents the very qualities I’ve sought to eliminate in my art. Rather than simply trace the lines, I picked up my sketchbook and copied my own version of Matisse’s simple sketch.

Yes, clearly his sketch is “better” than mine, simply because he was sketching in his own style while I was attempting to copy his style somewhat. His sketch shows much more confidence in the lines he made, and he’s added a few more decorative bits. Yet in other respects, isn’t my quick line drawing as acceptable as his? If his is art, isn’t mine art, as well?

This, as you’ve probably guessed, is yet another exercise from Keys to Drawing by Bert Dodson. I continued looking at the Matisse sketch — and at my own — as I pondered these words:

The spontaneous elements of Matisse’s work are in the long, flowing lines and apparent lack of planning. Contours were more important than correct proportions. It didn’t really matter to him that the head and upper hand were drawn too small in relation to the rest of the figure. Nor was Matisse much concerned with light and shadow, perspective, or accurate features.

In one fell swoop, Matisse had thrown out virtually all of the principles of art that I’d just spent six years learning!  Forget about planning. Who cares about correct proportion? Light? Shadow? Never mind all of that. Toss out perspective, and while we’re at it, let’s just not worry about accuracy.

Huh? What? My mind was reeling, my head spinning. At that moment, I was totally disoriented. Why learn all these “important elements” of art if only to ignore them? How can Matisse be considered a great artist when his sketches are nothing more than simple, primitive line drawings?

Well, fine. I can do simple, primitive art, too! I spent most of the morning in front of the television, quickly sketching faces of various newscasters. I did another quick “line drawing” of Flower Child as she sat in her “Flower Power Tower” looking out the window.

What was I accomplishing? As I looked at my quickly-drawn sketches, I felt as though I were regressing, just wasting time making not merely “bad” drawings, but very poor sketches. What could I possibly learn from this?

I continued reading:

He didn’t bother with restatements. When he put down a line, that was it.

Once again, Matisse was breaking the rules, going against everything I’d been taught. As I looked at my sketches, I saw lots of restatements, places were I’d struggled to get the right lines in the right place, so as I’ve been taught to do, I kept drawing, adding more lines, trying to get things right.

And so I did a few more quick sketches, determined this time to “put down a line” and leave it at that. The results were as comical, as childish, as laughable as all my other attempts. Feeling discouraged with all of art itself, I had to question Matisse as an artist. Could this man actually draw?

As mentioned above, that, to me, has always been the “gold standard” when it comes to art. Yet there I was, looking at dozens of drawings — and paintings — from Henri Matisse, and not seeing anything that actually measured up to that standard.

I began digging deeper, exploring more of Matisse’s drawings. I found these:

I suppose we can call these “elegant lines”, but, seriously, is this “fine art”? If so, why? How could Henri Matisse break all the rules, ignore all the elements of art, and become a world-renowned artist? Was it because of his courage?

Even as I wrestled — mightily — with the angry thoughts in my head, I could appreciate the simplicity and the originality of Matisse’s line drawings. Going through my mind was a collage/drawing I created earlier this year, one that puzzled me yet one which I feel truly shows a creative spirit:

Again I ask: “Is this art?” How can art be art if it doesn’t follow the rules, if it’s nothing more than lines here and there with no semblance of realism? How can we ignore proportion, perspective, value, and yet create something called “art”?

 

I found myself angry, confused, and more than a bit “unhinged” over the whole definition of art and what it means to be an artist.

TO BE CONTINUED

8 Comments

    1. Thank you. Yes, change is a huge part of growth, and my thoughts, attitudes (and consequently my actions) regarding art have undergone significant change throughout the year. It’s been quite a trip.

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  1. It’s nice to know I am not alone. I am interested in art for therapy but haven’t arrived there yet. I’ve stepped away from healing trauma for the time being yet trying to redefine myself using art. Words have always been my medium and now I’ve dove into the world of paper. I’ve collected vintage ephemera and designer paper trying to combine the two in a style I enjoy and I feel stuck. Healed from lots but now, stuck. It’s no fun.

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    1. I’m like you — primarily a writer who is working now with visual arts — and yes, it’s disorienting and confusing at times. You’ve just given me an idea! I think I’ll do a prompt about art therapy and some of the resources I discovered as I began digging down into my childhood emotions. For me, it began as part of the “Workshop Revival” program — there will be another program coming up after the first of the year, I think — and led me to a lot of online projects and artists who deal with art as a therapeutic process. I’ll be happy to share names and links. I’ll plan to have a post on the topic early next week, but if you want any specific recommendations before then, just let me know.

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