Coming of Age as an Artist

Last election day, I was thinking about modern rituals of passage in which one comes of age. As a citizen you come of age when you stand up to be counted by casting your first ballot. As an artist, you come of age when you feel compelled to take a personal stand on these three issues:

Color vs. Tone. Are you a Rembrandt who sees value first and color second? If so, you carefully prepare your three-value sketches in black, gray, and white before painting. You tend to agree with teachers who say that if your values read well, it doesn’t matter what colors you use.

Or are you a Van Gogh who sees color first and value second? If so, you use color in a more emotional or intuitive way. You are more likely to charge right into a painting, adjusting color notes as you go. You model form by hue changes as much as by value changes.

Flat vs. Round. Are you a realist who rigidly adheres to the rules of linear and atmospheric perspective in order to achieve a sense of deep space in your picture? If so, accurate drawing is important to you. You delight in manipulating shadows and highlights so that two dimensions mimic three. You organize your pictures to lead your viewer from the foreground to the middle space, to the background, and back again.

Or are you more of a cubist or expressionist who purposely distorts reality in order to form a two-dimensional composition in a flat picture plane? If so, you study design instead of drawing. You are always looking for ways to tilt up receding planes and flatten the space of your pictures. You think of composition more as a matter of areas of interest, varied edges, masses, lines and paint quality.

Personal Meaning vs. Communication. Are painting mostly for yourself? If so, you are probably more of a spiritual seeker who is in it for the flow of creativity, the calm of meditation, or the quiet thrill of insight.

Or do you paint to show your pictures, to communicate your thoughts, feelings, and experiences? If so, you more likely to exhibit and compete and sell your paintings.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Philogeny

In a college course on the history of science I learned this very satisfying mouthful of pseudo-intellectual babble: “Ontogeny recapitulates philogeny.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s a misquote by that great obscurantist Sigmund Freud of a much more transparent statement by a German natural historian named Haeckel in 1868: “Ontogenesis, or the development of the individual, is a short and quick recapitulation of phylogenesis, or the development of the tribe to which it belongs.”

Haeckel was referring to the way the fetal development of mammals seems to parallel the evolution of all life on earth. The fertilized mammalian egg first resembles a single-celled amoeba, then a multi-celled sponge, then a jellyfish, then an amphibian, then a reptile, then finally becomes recognizable as a mammal.

So what does this have to do with our stand on the three big issues of color, depth, and meaning in our paintings? It’s pertinent because we belong to the tribe of painters, a large and distinguished phylum stretching back through a long history of artistic evolution. The evolution of art affects us, even if we are no more aware of it than the embryo is aware of natural history. Ontogeny recapitulates philogeny–we will each tend to repeat the evolution of art in our own painting.

In other words, if you start as a tonalist like Rembrandt, over time you will tend to become more of a colorist like Van Gogh. If you start as a colorist, you may flirt with tone from time to time, but you’re likely to stay a colorist.

Likewise, devotees of depth effects are often seduced into flatness over time. But those who practice the flat arts of design-dominated picture construction are likely to stay in Flatland.

And many a spiritual hobbyist who only paints for herself finds that as her painting matures she is collecting art show prospecti and daydreaming about mats and frames and little red dots. However, once you start selling your paintings, you are unlikely to go back to exclusively private creation—the twin joys of communication and remuneration are too delicious.