Do you consider yourself a realistic painter or an abstract painter? Or maybe you think of yourself as more of an impressionist. These terms get used in many ways, and it’s not always clear what they’re supposed to mean. To avoid debate, I’m going to define them for the purposes of this module.
Let’s say a realist is a painter who hopes that a viewer will be mostly aware of the things depicted in the painting, and mostly not aware of the artist’s creative license in how they’ve interpreted the scene, stylized the shapes, emphasized colors, applied the paint, and so on. A realist may use creative license, but doesn’t want that to be obvious to the viewer.
Let’s say an impressionist is a painter who hopes the viewer can still recognize the things depicted in the painting, but can also easily see that the artist has taken some liberties to convey their personal impression of the scene, by using stylized shapes, altered colors, noticeable brushwork and so on. An impressionist does want the viewer to notice that the artist is giving their impression of the scene, in their own style.
Let’s say an abstract painter is a painter who hopes the viewer will be mostly drawn in by the abstract arrangement of color, shape, value and so on. An abstract painter may depict actual things, but they may be greatly altered, stylized, or seen from a viewpoint that doesn’t make it obvious what they are. If there are recognizable things in the painting, the viewer does not necessarily need to be able to identify them or even be aware of them.
Of course, all paintings are interpretations of the real world through the eyes and heart of the painter, and all paintings benefit from a strong underlying abstract design. Instead of trying to draw lines around these categories based on how the paintings look, it’s easier to think about how you’d like your viewers to experience your paintings.
This also sidesteps the issue of whether you currently have the skills to create that desired experience yet and keeps the focus on what direction you want to go.
In this module, I invite you to ask yourself, “How realistic/impressionistic/abstract?” in two senses:
If you are aiming for the “very realistic” end, you may want to make plans to engage in training or practice in working from life. If you are interested in being more impressionistic, perhaps you want to explore what kinds of mark-making seems to come naturally to you or start developing a distinctive personal color palette. If you want to paint abstractly, you may want to spend some time studying principles of design.
In each case, you’ll also want to study the work of artists you admire, not so much to copy someone else’s look, but to try to figure out how the artist achieves that look. Artists often talk about how they were trained, and trained themselves, to create their work. What did they emphasize in their learning? What do they think about when they are preparing to work? Where is most of their attention?
When you are new to painting, you spend a lot of time trying to make the medium do what you want it to do. Typically, this takes the form of trying to make an image “look right” or “look real”.
That’s a handy benchmark for deciding whether you’re gaining control over the medium, but it might not align with what you ultimately want from your art. You might aspire to create art that is more impressionistic, expressive, whimsical, or surreal. How do you make that transition?
If you’ve spent a lot of time trying to make things “look real”, you may have strong mental habits of checking frequently to see where your painting doesn’t match the actual scene, so you can make corrections. You can find yourself “correcting” away all the expressive aspects you’re trying to develop: adding too much detail, dulling colors, or including things you meant to leave out.
As a counterpoint to the usual mindset of of thinking about how much detail to edit out, try going the other direction: what things must you include for the painting to capture the essense of whatever inspired you?
Try making some sketches to see just how little you can get away with and still make a pleasing image that captures those aspects of a scene that inspired you to create this painting (which could even be non-visual aspects like scents, sounds, memories, or emotions). For this exercise, I tell myself, “Paint poetry, not prose.”
This doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily wind up making three masterful strokes that do it all (unless that’s the style you aspire to). It means that you’re striving to make everything you do include—every brushstroke and wash, every color, every picture element—really do its job, just as there are no extraneous words in a poem, and every word must contribute not just a literal meaning, but nuance, atmosphere and rhythm.