Carolyn Anderson

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The Problem With the Real In Realism

by Carolyn Anderson
written for the online art publication “Artists on Art”, January 2012

 A good friend was lost to many recently with the death of Sheila Reiman, an artist from Sentinel Butte, North Dakota. Sheila was a true colorist – someone who dared to use color as a child would, but tempered and enhanced with the knowledge and expertise of an accomplished artist. One of her favorite stories involved a couple discussing one of her paintings at an art show in Texas. The woman complained she had never seen pink deer before. The husband patiently explained the pink was a quality of light just before the sun went down. Still, the woman persisted, she’d just never seen pink deer. The husband replied, “Yes, but don’t you wish you had?”

 Those of us who choose realism in painting walk a fine line between accepted symbolism and personal vision. It helps to understand the limitations of how we perceive and interpret the world around us.

 Unlike a camera, which records all visual information, our brains instead interpret all visual information. Organizing this visual reality is a necessary part of processing the wealth of stimuli we deal with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the process of organization is overly dependent on simple interpretations of complex and ever-changing information.  We see a red apple as always red and always “apple-shaped”, not noticing the nuance of color, shape and the variety of edges that are a part of three-dimensional reality. We see ourselves as life-size when looking in a mirror, but a quick measurement will prove the image in the mirror is probably closer to only one-half actual size. We see what we believe – knowing we are life-size results in seeing ourselves as life-size.

 Children learn to recognize and create two-dimensional images representing the visual world. These symbols of reality are simplistic in representation – grass is green, the sky is blue, apples are red. The symbols are generic, flat in representation, and lack any edge variation suggesting dimension and depth. The symbol for the “thing” becomes more important than any interpretation of actual, visual three-dimensional reality. We, in turn, see the “thing” or symbol for the thing - the “Reader’s Digest condensed” version of reality. Our ability to accurately quantify visual information is compromised by the shortcuts with which we have learned to see the world.

 We learn to see what we know, and the knowing often gets in the way of the seeing. Painting a still life, for example, requires being able to take the information out of the context of naming objects and see the visual relationships as a whole, each part defined by the other. No longer is it an apple and banana, for example, but a “still life” – a new and different entity. Only then can we actually look for and learn to see the visual information that truly describes the reality of the still life. We need to be able to see the quality of light, the color of shadows, the repetition of patterns, where information is lost and where it is found. We need to look beyond the idea of “local color” until we truly understand and see the possibilities of color modified by light, shadow, and other colors.

 In our quest for realism, we need to look beyond what we think is “real” and access the visual information that actually describes our reality. We need to question not just how we see, but also, what we think we see. Interpreting visual reality should be about exploration and not just an attempt at re-creation. The history of art is a progression of images dealing with versions of "reality", whether scientific or perceived. The Impressionists dealt with issues of light-perceived reality, the Cubists- shapes. Sargent was a master of visual notation and implied reality, while Fechin and other Russian masters explored the power of abstract pattern. Good art is dependent on observation and strong visual elements.

 Learning to see and compare visual information becomes a process of growth and exploration. A drawing of a tree done by a child is not that far removed from a painting of a tree done by an adult. They both use symbolism to represent reality. The difference lies in the complexity of the visual language, and the ability of the artist to perceive nuance and variation and to organize and edit that wealth of information into a personal expression. The basic elements of our visual language – line, shape, color, and value – are unlimited in their possibilities. They are not just tools of craft, but also creativity. When we accept how limiting our dependence on symbols can become and understand how our verbal language stymies the possibilities of visual experience, we can begin to learn to see beyond the obvious. Art is not reality – it is a perception of the artist’s reality. Art, really, is all about seeing.

 Suggested reading: Vision and Art, The Biology of Seeing, by Margaret Livingstone; Eye and Brain, The Psychology of Seeing by Richard L. Gregory, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards



Judging Art
posted October 14, 2011

 I just finished judging the September submissions for the RayMar Art Competition and have some thoughts about art contests. There is not one of us who does not like winning an award for our art. It is, of course, a validation that what we do is appreciated by someone else. Making art is primarily a solitary profession, and we all need to be recognized at some point in our careers. There is, however, a downside to picking the “best” paintings in any category. The perception becomes one of better or worse, right or wrong, and, unfortunately, winners or losers. There really is no right or wrong in the creation of any art. There are certain acceptable parameters in judging paintings – composition, values, color, unity, etc. – but there are also many variables that cannot be quantified. 

 Realist painting comes with its own set of parameters and craft can certainly be one of them. But I have yet to agree that craft alone will make a great painting. Craft without creativity is only part of the equation. When we make judgments about what is acceptable, or not, what is good, or not, and what “realism” is, or is not, we end up narrowing the possibilities of what our paintings can be.  Painting is about learning to see  - and hopefully, sharing how we see and what is visually important to us with others. We share a responsibility to interpret, not to try and re-create. We need to be open to the adventure of exploring, visual information. If we accept that what we paint can never be “real”, then we should be able to take our “reality” and see it in new and interesting ways.



Thoughts on Edges
Posted February 2, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, Sheila Reiman and I were lamenting the long and very cold winter. Sheila is a good friend, great painter and pastelist, and a resident of my neighbor to the east – North Dakota. In anticipation of spring, which at this rate, will arive sometime in June or July, Sheila recommended a gardening book, “Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture” by Toby Hemenway. I ordered the book and started reading immediately. It is a good book, and more importantly, has some interesting things to say about – of all things – edges, the bane of many painters. It seems edge is also a key concept in ecology and ecologists often speak of “the edge effect”.

Hemenway writes, “Edges are where things happen . . . The edge is richer than what lies on either side. The decision to increase or decrease edge depends on what lies on either side of the edge and what we want to see from it. Edges allow us to define spaces, see their boundaries as well as what flows across them, and work with these flows. They are places of transition and translation, where matter and energy change speed or stop, or often, change into something else.”

In painting edges are the transition between shapes, values, and color. They help to define or diminish form. Used creatively, edges in painting are areas of translation – allowing one area to become another. Everything is connected to everything else. According to the book, “how the pieces are connected to each other is at least as important as what the pieces are”.



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            Carolyn Anderson,  37684 Tailwater Rd., Havre, MT 59501  406-265-4009