Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Painting the Story of your life

I was just reading a post in my friend Terry Strickland's blog about how and why artists (including herself) paint in series, and I thought it was so interesting I felt like continuing her thought in a post of my own.

I definitely do paint in series, and like Terry I have several running at once, simultaneously, and they continue on for years. I go back and forth between themes.

When I started painting in the 70s, it was fashionable for artists to paint in "series." They would do a series for a certain show, then move on to the next series. I just didn't get it. It seemed boring to make a whole show about one theme. And then, to leave the theme, never to return--well, that seemed artificial. I knew artists did it, and enjoyed it, but it just wasn't for me.

Then I started realizing that I actually was already working in series, that I had my own series to paint. I liked painting the rustic architecture in Maine, the exteriors and interiors of these old camps, and I also enjoyed painting panoramic landscapes from mountaintops. Suddenly I saw all these paintings as part of the same series. Rather than a linear examination of a subject, it was more of a hierarchical approach, seeing and understanding certain places from different levels of distance. I had always wanted to fly over these areas to see them from even farther away, to see how everything related to each other from the air, so once I got up my courage to do so, my particular approach to a series began to reach another level, so to speak.

My fascination for certain subjects is long-running. I still paint camps and now also lighthouses and islands in Maine. Even the people who inhabit these places have become incorporated into my series. There are other themes that interest me, too. Who knows--they may run for my whole life, since series are really themes of an artist's life. If they are major themes, they will sustain the artist's interest over a long period of time.

A couple of years ago, I heard artist Mary Whyte speak at the Portrait Society of America Conference about inspiration. She said something that resonated with me. To paraphrase: "Think about the things that you were interested in drawing as a child. These are likely to be still the things you want to paint, the things that make your paintings unique." Then and there, I asked myself if I was doing that. The answer was yes. I'd been doing it unconsciously, but now I do it much more consciously. These things are my themes, my series.

We all have themes in our lives--it's just a matter of living long enough to begin to see all our experiences not as a collective jumble of "things that happened," but as interrelated groupings. We give meaning to these groupings by remembering things in a certain way, according to what is most important to us, and how we perceive life. These meaningful themes become the "stories" of our lives. Authors use this stuff to write books. Artists use this stuff to make paintings and sculpture. It's our visual language.

So if we are painting series that really mean something to us, they will never really end because they are the major themes of our lives, and getting in touch with them is crucial to getting to the root of our artistic inspiration and expression. If you want to know what makes artists tick, all you have to do is look at the ongoing themes in their work.


Terry Strickland said...

Wonderful Alex! You said it so well, we do have the perspective to be able to see what fascinates us for years, and to understand if we are lucky why we are captivated. If we are listening to that inner voice it doesn't feel forced.

MOM MOM said...

Your comments based on what Mary Whyte said about painting what your were interested in as a child is very interesting. I also paint old buildings and when someone asks me to paint their home I ask first is it old? So far I have only painted two homes and both were many years ago. I do not think I paint in series but do paint the same building many times if I like that build.

Alexandra Tyng said...

A"series" can mean something different to every artist. I agree that listening to our "inner voice" is essential to making genuine, meaningful art.