Seeing sense

Are artists born, do they inherit a genetic artistry, or do they develop into artists through a process of being formally instructed on how to make art? Can art ever be taught? Is the acquisition of traditional skills a form of mimicry? I ask these questions today as I have been contemplating of late on the teaching of art.

I find it easier to refer to an analogy of the chef, who first picks his ingredients through the enjoyment of aroma, taste and texture, planning the recipe, creating the dish and savouring the end result. Similarly, trainee artists need to value the intrinsic qualities of things and not rely on a step-by-step recipe to guide their creative senses. They need to abandon their assumptions about everyday things, such as the sky is always blue, and develop more intuitive, honest responses to the sensations of real matter (colour, texture, shape, form), before embarking on the mechanics of picture-making (control of tone, application of colour, compositional structure). A chef will enthuse excitedly about the quality of ingredients, what they each possess and bring to the dish, the interaction of flavours and textures, the pleasure of making and sharing food.

Many students seem to prefer a fixed set of instructions for a finished model of work, rather than an open exploration or live research. Paradoxically, many professional artists (especially painters) focus less on a pre-defined outcome, abandoning some formality along the way, and are more engaged by the journey of its creation; what will happen if, let’s try that, perhaps include this, exclude that, combine, deconstruct, reinvent…

JMW Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, circa 1845

JMW Turner painted many hues in the apparent simplicity of smoke, smog and sea spray, capturing the transient beauty and ambiguity of its form; it seemed more than a process of conscious exaggeration, extracting a faint lilac hint from a mass of grey, a wisp of orange in an energetic swathe of smokey blue. He understood that colour had an intense, emotional value, transporting us beyond the literal and the obvious (it’s a sunset or storm) to something deeper within the psyche, a sense of danger or mystery, a vision of wonderment or the divine. So, painting (and drawing) goes beyond mere recording or depiction of an idea or event, it seizes the wonder that is the act of seeing (exploring the world around us, making sense of things), the whole experience from initial discovery to cognitive understanding and creative resolution.

Many artists will often talk about having a conversation or dialogue in the creation of their work – receptive to influences, embracing serendipity, questioning alternatives, emotionally engaged in its making. One way for students of art to learn this process is to record their work in development, recording initial ideas, the use of other sources, the stages of construction – to develop new skills in artistic judgement and critical reflection. But, there is still a belief that some artistic skills are better achieved through a disciplined, repetitive or copying process to reach a prototype of perfection. Ultimately, the teaching of fine art goes beyond a mastery of a set of practical skills, it is more about finding a voice or expression, the ability to define or articulate a personal view of the world, from the conceptual to the concrete, to engage or persuade others, beginning a new discourse between the artwork, the creator and the viewer. The act of looking and responding is learnt first, the practical skills of rendering it in a new reality give the work its sense of direction and purpose…