Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Artistic Mind

Somewhat to my surprise I recently found myself attending a class on oil painting. My interest in painting - oil or otherwise - has been non-existent for my whole life, so I'm a bit surprised that I signed up. I think I just wanted to exercise another part of my mind or something. Who knows, but I'm loving it.

But anyway, just as your first visit to a town is often the most memorable because everything is new and hits you hard, so it has been for me regarding painting, and so I thought I'd share some impressions.

First, I've been pretty awestruck by my teacher. I'm painting from photos I've taken, and often in looking at the pictures, what I think I see often isn't really there. The tree trunk isn't brown, the water isn't blue, and the leaves aren't all green. He points these things out to me in my own photos. He sees ten thousand colors where I see about six, he sees lines and shades and light and shadow and patterns that I've missed. He's taught me that the primary colors are very seldom encountered in nature. Almost everything is a blend. If you want black for your landscape, he says, don't use black, use a dark brown and mix in a bit of green. Where I might look at a cathedral and say it is light gray, he would more accurately point out that its color shifts depending on where you stand, and on the time of day, and on the shadows, and so forth. Now I find myself looking at trees and dirt roads and trying to figure out exactly what colors they are - not always an easy task. So, if he's any indication, I think that in some ways artists really do see the world around them more clearly than the rest of us. (And, as an aside, this also inspires me to read the Bible and look for what is really there, not what I think is there or what I think ought to be there, but what is really there.)

But anyway, while I may be wrong, I've often thought that artists have a tendency toward relativism, a viewpoint in which there is nothing truly good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. In relativism it's all a mixture, kind of like the millions of shifting colors artists see in the world around them or mix on their palettes.

And, frankly, an honest look at the world will tend of confirm this viewpoint. There are few cases where I can point to something and say it is absolutely wicked or good or true or false. Life is generally a mixture.

But I think this outlook may result in artists tending to hold to the philosophical notion that because all we ever see is mixture, that "mixture" is all that ultimately exists. And that goes too far.

For example - sticking with paint, though I'm also talking about good and bad, and true and false - if you want to get gray you need black and white. Yes, I know that no black paint is absolutely Black and no white paint is absolutely White, but still, if there is ultimately no Black and White, then there can be no gray. Period. Gray is a mixture, and you simply can't have a mixture without at least two things to mix.