From “The making of a great painting: Learning how to learn from Masters”, Week 7.
In this last module of our program, I would like to address a challenge inherent in the process of painting study, the inevitable mismatch in painting technique between you and the master you are studying from, and share my thoughts about how to face this challenge in a meaningful and fruitful way.
Wassily Kandinsky, in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, describes the inner need of an artist in terms of three elements: personality (the “self” of an artist), style (the spirit of the age), and the pure artistry (which is constant and eternal). He writes:
<…> as style and personality create in every epoch certain definite forms, which, for all their superficial differences, are really closely related, these forms can be spoken of as one side of art—the subjective. Every artist chooses, from the forms which reflect his own time, those which are sympathetic to him, and expresses himself through them. So the subjective element is the definite and external expression of the inner, objective element. The inevitable desire for outward expression of the objective element is the impulse here defined as the “inner need.” The forms it borrows change from day to day, and, as it continually advances, what is today a phrase of inner harmony becomes tomorrow one of outer harmony. It is clear, therefore, that the inner spirit of art only uses the outer form of any particular period as a stepping-stone to further expression (emphasis mine).”
What happens, then, in the process of a painting study from a masterpiece of the past? The two “subjective” elements — one’s self, and the age (and culture) one was born into — create an inevitable distance between the student and the master, an ever-present tension in the process. This tension may have made its presence tangible when your intuition led you to choose a different medium, or later on, when you felt an impulse to use a different technique of paint application. And, of course, it can also be felt as a frustrating inability to follow the master due to the lack of the requisite mastery.
The question is, how can one work with this tension meaningfully? Your own answer will lie somewhere between two extremes:
One is to try and express the inner essence of the masterpiece, its aspect of pure artistry, by abandoning its “subjective” aspect, the details of personality and style. This approach to studying masterpieces of the past is an infinite source of inspiration for artists (one of the most famous examples is Pablo Picasso’s study of Velazguez’ Las Meninas).
The other is to try and follow the master in both “outer” and “inner” aspects of the masterpiece, taking the tension as a challenge to expand your skill set, to overcome your subjective limitations.
It might seem that this choice is purely a matter of one’s skill level (after all, the best-known examples of the first approach come from great artists in their own right, not from beginners). And this is, beyond any doubt, an important factor in looking for the answer that would work best for you. But this is not all there is to it, because there is a limit as to how fruitful a struggle against one’s own personality and style can be: take it too far, and you will completely loose the sight of the inner essence of the masterpiece in the dark forest of frustration with your inability to follow its outer aspects in every detail.
This is a fine balance, because the limits imposed by the lack of mastery are also very real, and they can be sometimes mistaken for an expression of one’s own personality. As a result, a beginning painter can refuse to learn something which could eventually expand their connection to the “inner need”, their ability to express the essence of pure artistry. But the opposite mistake is possible as well. So the only way to decide which “outer” aspects of the painting you will try to follow faithfully is to be honest with yourself, and to trust the voice of your intuition.
In my own study of “The return of the prodigal son”, I really struggled with the question whether I should follow Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro, his way of building deep non-reflective darks in the background. Although I did study this technique, I am very far from having mastered it, because I always felt a deep stylistic clash with it. Still, I wondered whether I should force myself into it on this occasion, because the deep darks seem essential to how this painting is composed. And I had almost gone this route, but, after a day of listening to myself, decided not to (I include a photo of the current stage of this work for illustration). My feeling that this aspect of Rembrandt’s painting comes from the spirit of his age, not from the inner essence of pure artistry, but there is, of course, no guarantee that I didn’t just succumb to my technical limitations.