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Back to School, With a Magnifying Glass

Illustration: Still-life workshop exercise by Black Elephant Blog author after a painting by Cezanne

Illustration: Still-life workshop exercise in watercolor by Black Elephant Blog author after a painting by Cezanne

It’s back to school, right into the weekend, in an intensive art workshop with an accomplished artist and art historian as our excellent teacher. People have come from far-flung places, even Canada, for this class, including the instructor.  We have poured through the works of the “masters,” including a rare original sketchbook of Cezanne’s. We traversed through some highlights from about 600 years of art history in the National Gallery one day.

In an exclusive setting not open to the public except by reservation, we peered through magnifying glasses at the original sketches (not under glass or protected in any way) of Rembrandt and watercolors of Constable, Delacroix and others.  (If you felt a cough or sneeze coming on, the archivists warned, please turn away from the art work!)

Cezanne’s sketchbook disclosed the opposite of today’s multi-tasking “monkey mind.”  Page after delicate page, it reveals intense concentration on drawing heads, houses, hearth implements, and landscapes…in pencil mostly…and a single-minded focus which must naturally banish other concerns.  (His other concerns were evident in lists and notes–possibly shopping lists, even– written on the inside flaps of the notebook, however.)  These sketches are maps, and problem-solving schemes, in some cases for later studies in other media.  In what other profession, do we first do “studies” for studies for, possibly eventually, some final product?

Swatches 1

Illustration: Color swatches made in workshop exercise to match (or try to match) colors used in de Kooning painting (copy to left) of “Seated Woman”

We are learning about palettes, color theory, and so much more! In art, as in most fields–despite the tumultuously quickening pace of change–it is folly to think that one can master in a short time (or ever, frankly) what others spent lifetimes perfecting. One can enjoy creating and be an “artist” without being a professional artist, though the distinction can sometimes be hard to make.  (It is clear that there are quite professional artists in this class, for instance.)

For the novice especially–but also the more experienced artist–there is much to learn from studying others’ works. Today, the whole day was spent on still life painting–which is not much time considering that some artists whose work we examined spent their entire lives painting still lifes. The approaches different artists take are more meaningful when we are taught to appreciate what is being done, or attempted, in a painting. It’s clear now that the humblest table setting, a piece of cake,or a half-full water glass, can–either alone or together–serve as props for an interesting painting.

We saw still lifes from above, below, at eye-level,  and at varying other angles, and noted how the “ellipse” at the lip of a jug, jar, bowl, or bottle would change, depending on the perspective.  In addition, the “composition” of a painting was a subject of great scrutiny in this class–as were values, color complements and contrasts, and shapes.

After such an intensive overview of still life painting through the ages, it will no longer be possible to glide thoughtlessly through galleries of still lifes in the museum, unimpressed by paintings of ceramic jugs, plucked fowl, and dead furry creatures adorning peasant tables.  The same goes for “landscapes” which was yesterday’s focus, painting in “plein air” in the riverside gardens and meadows of an elegant 18th century Virginia estate which now serves as the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society.

Little by little, we progress to a deeper understanding of what the “masters” in art were seeing, and trying to convey. In a group of similarly motivated people, it is possible to learn more quickly about different styles, insights, and experiences.

What would a world without art look like?

In a world of “bigger,” faster data and technologies, culture and cultural sensibility matter more than ever.  This is because no amount of data can tell us what to do, or ensure that we will do anything as must be patently obvious by now.  Determining the right thing to do, moreover, will take more than data.

People can communicate through art across the boundaries of cultures and centuries, unless that art is irreparably destroyed.  It will take excellent teachers (and excellent school systems supporting them)…and, perhaps, some high-powered magnifying glasses–to mainstream the insights of the world’s greatest artists and humanists into contemporary educational and organizational systems.  What would this look like?  Fortunately, in my school these days, students range in age from 6 to 80-somethings, all learning new things with gusto. In such an environment of human creativity, it is impossible not to be optimistic.

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