Artists have the responsibility to be specifically, purposefully, and consistently deliberate in what to place, where, in a painting. A great composition is rarely just handed over to you, ready made from nature.
This concept is coming up everywhere I look these days. Larry Moore wrote about it last week, and just today, in a book called “Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth,” by Andrew Loomis, I read, “Every inch of the surface of [the artist’s] work should be considered as to whether it bears important relationship to a whole purpose… In other words, he plans and thinks, and does not passively accept simply because it exists.”
It’s why so many plein air artists keep a private collection of studies containing ideas and information from which to compose new paintings. I’ll let you in on a little secret: All those incredible landscapes Rick paints? He makes them up.
Stand in front of a tree and note how it relates to whatever is behind it. Now step ten feet to the right. The scene has changed. Several steps in the other direction? You get the idea. The object is to make a painting. Nobody cares if that rock in the foreground was really there, or if the river bent at that exact angle. Nature provides the raw ingredients — it’s up to the painter to arrange them into a worthy composition.
That’s what I mean about “making it up.” It’s not enough to be able to paint what’s there. It’s starting to sink in that great art is less about actual facts. It’s more about the pertinent ones.
And Rick’s not alone in this making-up-of-stuff habit.
The more I think about it, the more sense it makes that ALL great artists are faced with the challenge of, based on what actually exists, deciding what to include, where, and what to leave out. It’s a big part of that magic “10%” delta between ordinary and genius. And it’s not just painters who must own and master the choices they confront.
The photo above is of two of our favorite people in the Valley, Rick and Dana Sordahl. Rick is an acclaimed chef who cooked for the James Beard House in NYC this past April, and for us, last January.
Trust me when I tell you that when cooking an entree where elk is the main idea, the choices of what ingredients to include and what to leave out mean the difference between bang-the-table-in-ecstasy deliciousness, and shoe leather.
Writers aren’t immune either. During a random flip through a little compilation of writings on the art and craft of memoir called “Inventing the Truth,” edited by William Zinsser, I came across the following passage by Toni Morrison:
“Fiction, by definition, is distinct from fact. Presumably it’s the product of imagination—invention—and it claims the freedom to dispense with ‘what really happened,’ or where it really happened, or when it really happened, and nothing in it needs to be publicly verifiable, although much in it can be verified.”
It occurred to me that even the “reality” of what I craft here is a result of what main ideas I decide to write about, and what elements I choose to include to support that idea, and, possibly even most importantly, what I choose to leave out.
Hanging out at the studio, listening and taking photos and notes are my writer’s version of plein air studies. It’s all real, but I’ve never had a blog post just spontaneously show up, ready written. I pay close attention, but then I have to sit and sift through my notes and photos, decide on what might make a worthy point of focus, and then begin composing around that idea.
In fact, so many of the quotations I’ve been absorbing these days speak to all kinds of art, not just to painting.
“Commandment to the beginner: Select simple arrangements.” Edgar Payne.
Edgar was ringing in my head when I saw Gerry’s umbrella on Friday. I loved the simplicity of it against the blackening sky, but I had to sit in the prickly grass and then skootch myself around until I got it where I wanted it, angled so it was silhouetted above and between the two trees in the background. I considered skootching in even closer so that the white would be set against the even darker clouds above it, but a) I hadn’t even introduced myself to Gerry yet and didn’t want to spook him, and b) I would have caught even more of the dark blue underside of the umbrella and would have lost the drama of the white against the black sky, which was the “main idea” idea I wanted to suggest to my viewer.
Choices, baby. It’s all about the choices.
It’s the same for songwriters and musical composers: how much to actually include versus what to merely suggest to the audience’s imagination.
Those are my dear Rick’s hands, doing a little compositional problem solving of their own on our north porch last week. We’ve had so much fun with our music lately that today we decided we need to produce another CD.
Now… what to add in, and what to leave out?