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What the art of painting means to me

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To see beauty where it isn’t always obvious gives great joy – Robert Wade

IN A previous TCW article I explained what a lifetime of musical performance has meant to me. Although it has only been a second hobby, I would now like to share why painting has also been important in my life.

Although art was one of my A-level subjects, the nature of artistic perception was not nearly obvious enough to me at the time. I wince to remember that when my art teacher showed me his own painting of a street scene, I said ‘Wow, that is marvellous, it is as good as a photograph!’ His jaw dropped, his eyes turned to a glassy stare, and after an uncomfortable silence he said: ‘A photograph! Isn’t this a thousand times better than a photograph?!’ I was abashed, and still cringe that I could have said, or even thought, anything so philistine. But it is still a popular misconception among some people that the more ‘realistic’ and ‘detailed’ a painting is, and the more like a photograph, the better it is.

Photographs are a substitute for the ‘reality’ that is shown, and are the result of mechanical causality, however much a photographer may tinker with his camera or with the results. They neither represent nor, more crucially, express the subject. Cameras have neither thoughts nor feelings, nor indeed imagination. True art, however, expresses thoughts and feelings about the subject of a painting, and involves not mere skill but contemplation and deep vision that says something about the scene (or person) depicted, which ‘in reality’ may or may not exist. It involves aesthetic appreciation.

Even if the subject is not ‘pretty’ (and ‘pretty’, chocolate-boxy pictures suffer from crass sentimentality) a deep work of art can show not simply beauty, but sometimes a sense of awe and sublimity even in what is unpleasant or even terrifying, such as a storm or the power of the sea. For instance, in Katsushika Hokusai’s colour woodblock The Great Wave off Kanagawa (below) we are not invited to feel sympathy or concern for the men in the boats but instead are led to identify with the huge wave in such a way that we see not a cruel sea but a mighty one.

To take aesthetic interest in a photograph of something horrible, such as an execution, would be callous and morally repulsive. But consider the painting The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Pierre Cecile Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898) in the National Gallery in London. We may have a sense of horror arising from seeing such a thing in a photograph (or indeed in the ‘reality’ it shows) but the aesthetic contemplation involved in this painting, transcends such a reaction.

The blue leaf falling to the ground is not a mere visual pun against the blue robe of the executioner, but is an idea that invites us to consider the beheading in relation to occurrences within nature. The dark green leaf on the ground confirms this thought. This seems to inform our view of the resigned, placid look on St John’s face, in marked contrast to the face of Salome, which is placid in a different way – expressionless but suggesting satisfaction.

In contrast again, we view the seated figure of a woman in a green dress. That figure, in its colour and its shape, draws us back again to the tree which dominates the background. This seems to remind us that death in nature is all of a piece with rebirth, and St John’s eyes are fixed upon the cross, signifying his thoughts of the life to come. His imminent death is as inevitable as the leaf’s fall. Viewed as an event in nature, the beheading has no more significance than the termination of a physical object; yet such a thought is strangely transfigured as we are now invited to share St John’s view of his death as the mere destruction of his body. With that thought, our original and primitive feeling of horror gives way to a calmer view of his death as something that has meaning and dignity. You may of course disagree with my reading of that picture, but it is clear that the artist intends to give a meaning to this scene. It gives an interpretation that no photograph could give (even if cameras had been available at the time of that execution).

Of course not all thoughtful pictures are as austere. But even where they aim to portray the beauty of a pleasant scene, good paintings do not conflate that beauty with mere prettiness. During the 1990s, I reduced my musical activities to indulge my growing passion for watercolour painting. I was attracted by the glorious transparency of watercolours, and the blurring of shapes that are made possible by ‘wet-in-wet’ paintings, particularly where colours, if carefully chosen, blend into one another with delightful effects, including ‘lost edges’, mists, and the effects of light, all contributing to the atmosphere of a contemplated scene rather than painstaking detail. This came about when I attended to the expressionist watercolour paintings of the Edwardian artist John Singer Sargent (who himself was influenced by Velasquez, Monet and Whistler). That whetted my appetite and I discovered the watercolours of contemporary artists including Ray Campbell Smith and John Fletcher Watson, but was influenced even more by impressionist painters such as Trevor Chamberlain, David Curtis, Edward Wesson, and especially by the Australian artist Robert Wade (anyone interested can look his paintings up online). What was initially an interest developed into an obsession. I bought best quality paper (Arches), professional quality watercolour paints from Winsor and Newton, and top quality brushes to chance my arm, particularly with landscapes and townscapes.

I took it so seriously that I photographed some of my early efforts and posted them to Robert Wade, requesting his comments. He kindly obliged and wrote back to encourage me to keep going, even taking the trouble to send three postcards on which he painted his own versions of my subjects with suggestions for improvements. Here is one of them.  

His own versions were so impressive that I destroyed my earlier efforts and started again with a more subtle approach, partly by being more selective with detail and trying to convey what I felt to be the atmosphere of a scene. His attitude to what he called ‘perceptive observation’ was summed up in the words: ‘Seeing with your brain, feeling with your eyes, interpreting with your heart’. As you can see from his postcard, he advised: ‘Leave cameras to record detail – we record feeling and atmosphere.’

I worked on his advice and produced dozens of pictures, even selling some via private commissions. I sent him photos of some of my later work and he said this was a vast improvement and that I should now start exhibiting. But I didn’t. I felt I could never reach the level of Impressionism I wanted to, because my paintings were still too careful, as you can see from my small selection below. At that point I gave up painting and returned to musical performance, my greater strength. My attic is crammed with folders of my work to be disposed of after my death in any way my relatives wish. But I enjoyed the journey and it awakened me to the visual beauty that my younger self did not sufficiently appreciate.    

1. Bridge over river, Oxford

2. Horse and carriage in summer, York

3. Morning toddle at Fistral Beach, North Cornwall

4. Burford Church, near the River Windrush, Oxon

5. Street scene, Windsor

I changed the scene to what is known as contre jour (against the light) to make the effects more interesting, with upper highlights on the figures, and to eliminate details of Windsor Castle in the background to make it more mysterious.

6. Norfolk Windmill

Again, the sky and light was rather bland, so I used artistic licence to make it more dramatic.

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Frank Palmer
Frank Palmer
Dr Frank Palmer is a philosopher and author. He was taught by Roger Scruton who was his PhD supervisor and during the 1980s was part of a thinktank of academics Roger formed to fight damaging trends in education. Frank’s last book was Literature and Moral Understanding (Oxford University Press).

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