In Praise of Painterly Painters
by Charles Movalli
"The piano ain’t got no wrong notes."
While looking through some old notes I had taken a few years ago I came across this article I had photocopied. There ain’t no wrong way to paint but this version of how to paint really speaks to me. It was penned by Charles Movalli, a fantastic painter and an even more dynamic teacher...
Charles Movalli is one of Cape Ann’s best known painters and teachers. Born the son of artists in Gloucester, MA in 1945, Movalli became an art teacher, influential art editor and writer but above all, he is a painter. His dramatic brushwork creates the vibrant lighting and sense of movement that captures the essence of a scene.
by Charles Movalli
Some so-called “painterly painter” are devoted to outdoor work. Some do still lifes, some figures. But all share certain attitudes. Not all of these attitudes are the exclusive property of painterly painters. Most painters, when pressed, believe in similar broad principles. But keeping that in mind, let’s try to generalize about the mind of the painters who loves paint. Rough painting, after all, is not simply a style. It’s a way of thinking about the world.
There have always been painters who love the look of a brush stroke and who, as a result, are willing to sacrifice “accuracy” for the sake of suggestion and implication. It’s the age-old struggle between those who define and those who seek the fleeting impression. The conflict reaches far back in time. We don’t have paintings by the great masters of Greek art, but we do know that Zeuxis disparaged rapid execution and praised diligence and care, while Apelles was praised for his ability to know the value of the word “enough.” Ancient China saw the same aesthetic distinction: there was the Northern or “gradual” school and the Southern or “sudden” school – the school of intellect and the school of intuition.
Keeping the Chinese phrases in mind, we can see that there has long been a “sudden” school in the United States.
Two of its best expositions – the sacred texts of all painterly painters – are Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit and Charles Hawthorne’s Hawthorne on Painting. Both books are dominated by the words “economy”, “mystery”, “joy”, and “invention”. Hawthorne even says that when a painter thinks, he’s done for. Although he contradicts this opinion elsewhere in his book, the implication is clear: there’s a value to spontaneity that “finish” can never equal. Intuition is what counts, and since spontaneity, the vehicle of intuition, is by definition fleeting, painterly painters have little interest in the dogged pursuit of “perfection”. If anything, they’re hostile to it. “Perfection is the enemy of great art,” says one such painter. “Make a few mistakes,” recommends another. Eugene Delacroix talks about the kind of mindless industry that, were it possible, would spend just as much time on the back of a canvas as on the front. The effect of the minute must be caught in the minute. Don’t niggle over the parts. Move on or start again. When an eye was wrong in a Sargent portrait, he scraped out the entire head. It might take a dozen tries to get a spontaneous, unified effect, but the effort was not just a matter of counting brush strokes. It was a sign of Sargent’s search for the brush strokes that gave the most expression with the least waste of energy. It’s the difference, as one painter remarked, between the picture that tires you by exhibiting the labor put into it and the one that exhilarates you through the seeming ease of its execution. The painterly painter uses the viewer’s experience to give life to the work.
Painterly painters believe that an abbreviated style is best suited to capturing elusive effects. But although they consciously strive to develop a rapid execution, their detractors often criticize this characteristic, dismissing their work as little more than sketches. The criticism creates more problems than it solves. For what is a sketch? More importantly, what is “finish”? The painterly painters labor under a disadvantage, since their idea of finish is not that of the general public. Robert Henri understood the problem: When people ask for finish, he wrote, they’re really asking for the expected. The problem has been worsened by the camera and the way its image prejudices the eye of the viewer. Our painters have little use for photography, and although some people claim the camera is the highest form of visual truth, the painterly painter declares it the most obvious example of the visual lie. One painter summed it up: “One eye, no brain.” Another declares he notonly can tell when a picture is done from a photograph, but he can also detect whether the film used was daylight or indoor! The painterly painters prefer to work directly from the subject or from sketches don on the spot. They have stacks of such pictures which they call their “brains”. They rarely sell them. In this, they’re like John Constable, “I don’t mind parting with the corn,” he said, “but not with the field in which it was raised.”
Yet some viewers still find the summary execution of a picture annoying. They want their money’s worth. They want the facts. And they’re hard put to figure out what Sir Joshua Reynolds meant when, over two hundred years ago, he declared that detail in a painting was a sign, not of industry, but of “idleness”. Blades of grass can be done when the painter is half awake, but there’s no room for “idleness” when the artist seeks a subject’s important relationships. The painterly painter is then in the highest state of tension, and the relaxation of this tension signals the finish of the picture. That’s what is meant when someone like George Bellows is called a “body painter”. The body participates in the painting process: the body often says when to stop. Picasso summarized this view when he said that his hand told him when a work was done.
Many viewers have trouble agreeing with the painterly painter’s hand. They find brush strokes confusing – and some how insulting. The brushstroke is like a piece of the painter’s handwriting. Of course, rough pictures demand something from the viewer. But such a demand indicates not contempt for the viewer’s wishes but rather a respect for his or her intelligence. The viewer is asked to join in the creative process. All painterly painters agree on the fact that they’re in a partnership with the viewer. What the viewer brings to such paintings is almost as important as what the painter puts into them. The painterly painter uses the viewer’s experiences to give life to the work. Instead of being a passive receiver of information, the viewer becomes a participant. As one painterly painter noted, the highly finished picture exists whether you look at it or not. It’s as alive in a closet as on the wall of a house. But the painterly work needs the viewer to complete it. Since half the painting is suggestion, the “completion” varies with the viewer. Some paintings, one of our painters observed, look as if all the air has been sucked out of them: others give you room to breathe. After all, he continued, it isn’t the painter’s job to give people what they want but rather what they ought to have. One of his painter friends has a rough portrait of himself hanging over his sofa. “I made the artist stop before he thought he was done”, he explains. “He’d put in all I needed – all I could use.” Another painter sums up the question even more tersely: “Do you paint to be understood, or do you paint to understand?”
What, in the view of these painters, should a picture convey to the viewer? The painting, they’d all agree, is a record of an experience. Its aim is to communicate this experience to the viewer. But our painters also believe that an experience is based on very elusive and intangible qualities in the subject. Facts and details cannot convey it. If anything, facts, as Tolstoy said, stand in the way of the truth. That’s what Van Gogh meant when he told his brother that his life as a painter was devoted to finding those lies that would give him the truth. The “lies” – the exaggerations and omissions – are what convey an experience to the viewer. The individual parts of the subject count for little. What is your relationship to them? How do they rank in your response to the subject? What is the special order that you want to record on canvas? Painterly painters admit that nature is full of detail, but they also insist that the eye sees little of it. Constantly moving and changing its focus, it sees three-fourths of the world as a blur. The painterly painter is obsessed by what the eye doesn’t see. But seeing what we don’t see is a complicated problem, for life gives us knowledge and knowledge transforms our way of looking. On the face of it, the easiest of all activities should be seeing what we see. In reality, it’s the hardest. As Henri said, it’s harder to see a landscape than it is to paint it. And the great John Ruskin exclaimed that “the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what he saw in a plain way. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion – all in one.”
Because of the painterly painters’ belief in their subjective definition of “finish” – a quality that cannot be judged by outside standards – they often make quirky teachers. How do you explain the inexplicable? One school says that if you study great art and figure out how it works, you can apply the lessons to your own pictures. But our painters tend to take the opposite view. They say the mast is a master precisely because you can’t explain his or her work. Explanations don’t add – they diminish. What counts is the fresh view, the personal vision. Be a spider, one of our painters used to say, and spin your own web. “The word,” Constable wrote, “is full enough of what has already been done.”
This kind of talk makes little sense to the beginner who is usually convinced that painting consists of technical tricks and secrets – exactly what the painterly painter is reluctant to discuss. This reluctance can easily be mistaken for secretiveness. The irony is that our painters, so often criticized for the cleverness of their technique, hardly ever talk about it. What interests them is the experience and the process involved in capturing it. The fun is in the seeing. The painterly painter avoids the how-to approach, suspicious, as ever, that technique will obscure his or her vision. Their interest in the final product is minimal. They have an intense sense of the moment, and that’s what they live for. In fact, one of the old-timers used to say that if there was a heave, it must be here on earth, for the earth is so beautiful.
What is the student to make of all this? One often hears complaints about the outdoor teacher who made a student remove a color from his or her palette one week only to have the student reinstate it a week later. The advice seemed contradictory. The problem is that the teacher wasn’t talking about technique. He or she was discussing the nature of two entirely different days. A color that worked in one situation would not work in another. John F. Carlson, the great landscape teacher, said he could give students the technique to paint a masterpiece in six months. But what would students do with it? That’s what frustrates them. It’s hard to be content with the sort of advice given by one painterly painter: When you don’t know what to do, forget everything anyone ever told you and just take a look. It’s more comforting to think our problems lie in a faulty technique, a technique that can be salvaged once the right teacher is found. A problem that lies in the eye seems harder to control. Frustration increases as we realize that the fault lies in ourselves and not in our instruction. But so does the challenge. A couple of painters were talking about a friend whose highly finished work was a great favorite with the public. “Criticize him if you want,” said one, “but there’s no denying he’s a competent painter.” There was a brief silence “Well” said the other, “is that what you want written on your tombstone: He was a competent painter? Not me.” He continued, “I want He tried to be an artist!”
If the aim of art is to see nature for yourself, to discover how you feel about what you see and how you can interpret it, then style becomes a direct expression of the personality of the painter, and the brush stroke is like a piece of the painter’s handwriting. Pictures are large pieces of calligraphy, written as much as painted. With this sort of attitude, it’s not surprising that the painterly painter’s approach usually becomes progressively more summary and expressive with the passage of time. He or she moves toward greater and greater simplicity of statement. The greatest sinner, from this point of view is the instructor who hands out pre-packed brush strokes and formulas, thus short circuiting thought at its most critical and important stage. One of our painters refuses to touch the work of his students, fearing, he explains, that the student could mistake his brush stroke for the way to paint an eye or a tree. It might take the student ten years to find out differently. The situation is much like that described by Eugen Herrigel when he tried to learn archery from a Zen monk. Unable to discover the “trick,” he cornered his teacher and demanded practical guidance. The master replied that if he gave techniques at the price of the students’ experience, he’d be a terrible teacher and should be fired. It’s this extreme emphasis on the experience that characterizes all painterly painters. An Old-timer once noted that he loved the work of a friend because he saw the most familiar things in the most unfamiliar way. That’s why Hawthorne told his student to paint studies that would surprise him, that would make him feel the shock and thrill of their discoveries about the world and themselves.
Our painter is almost as interested in learning how not to paint things as he is in learning how to paint them. In fact, the painterly painter avoids the how-to approach, suspicious, as ever, that technique will obscure his or her vision. Here he or she shares another idea with the Oriental sages; learning gained is learning lost. Vigilance is everything.
Some of our painters, debating the nature of their activity, once decided that it was like performing on a high wire. Each brushstroke counted and there was no time to nod or rest. Each day presents a new problem and demands a new solution. Experience can’t solve a problem, but it helps the painter to see what the problem is. The greatest temptation (and danger) is to rely on previous solutions and thus paint the same picture for the rest of your life. Some feel that the professional is, by definition, the one who can always turn out a good piece of work.
The painterly painters, as usual, feel quite differently. With everything depending on experience and alertness, the work is bound to fluctuate with the disposition of the artist. One of our painters destroys four out of every five picture declaring that “a dud is a dud”. All of them ignore the idea of “skill” when defining “talent” and prefer more generalized terms. One says it’s “simply a liking for something.” Another, that it’s “enthusiasm,” and still another, “interest”. The difference between a commercial artist and himself, says on e painter, is that the commercial artist can do a job and repeat it over and over again. He can’t. He tried once, when money was scarce. A dealer suggested doing pictures by the gross. He tried to do ten of a certain subject. The first was good, the second, not so good, the third, terrible. “Some people think painting is painting,” he explains, “and that all practice helps, even doing a hundred of the same thing. But that doesn’t make you better – it makes you worse.”
So our painterly painters are surrounded by seeming contradictions. They finish by not finishing, include by leaving out, paint more by painting less. Their means are easy to see, the results, immediately felt. But how such seemingly insufficient means lead to these results is a mystery. It’s as if the magician at the carnival explained his trick and still fooled you. In more finished pictures, there exists a one-to-one relationship between effort and effect. Dutch painters made grasshoppers look like grasshoppers, and you saw the veins in the legs because the artist painted them. But when the legs aren’t painted and you still sense the veins, curiosity and interest are added to simple admiration. Then industry gives way to the magic of art.