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Principles of Art – Part 1

“Beholder” 20″ x 26″ Pastel by Kim McElroy

“To love the plain, homely, common, simple things of earth, of these to sing; to make the familiar beautiful and the commonplace enchanting;” ~ Elbert Hubbard

When I created the painting of “Beholder” I began thinking that I might start to include wildlife art in some of my inspirations.  I was commissioned to create this art as a cover of a documentary about Falconry in Saudi Arabia.  At the time, I was fascinated by the birds and their ability to be tamed by man. I had been painting horses for so many years, I found enjoyment in painting feathers and the beautiful eye and beak of a bird of prey.  Yet I couldn’t help but feel that this captive falcon would rather be wild.  So, in my own way of expressing those feelings I created a flying falcon reflected in her eye, as an expression of her wish for freedom.

I exhibited this and other wildlife works along with my equine art at a popular wildlife art show.  As I looked around at the booths of several hundred artists, I became an objective participant, rather than a fellow artist. I was looking for an artistic treasure to appreciate. I sought to feel the art emotionally, not just see it or admire the skill in creating it. Yet, despite careful perusing of all the booths there were very few pieces that I was attracted to. Here were all the brilliant colors, the excellent techniques, the perfect settings, and dramatic moods and effects created by hundreds of accomplished artists, yet in looking at the art I was amazed that I couldn’t feel the animals. How could I look at a painting of parrots perched on a branch in the Amazon and feel nothing in my imagination of the tropical humid air of the rainforest or the wonder of wild parrots? How could I stand in front of a six foot painting of a charging elephant and not feel the impact of such an image?

A client once told me that much of the animal art she had seen was as inanimate as a bowl of fruit. Given this experience I had to agree, but I asked myself, why? What is it that separates great art from merely good? The only answer I could come up with was that it had to do with the intent of the artist. The way an artist views a thing affects their painting of that thing.

In the case of animal art, this is even more critical, for it is the animal artist’s ultimate challenge to portray animate life. Many of the pieces I saw had as much feeling as stuffed taxidermy models displayed in a museum. The habitats were perfect, the details were painstakingly rendered, the animals were positioned in ways that one would imagine that they interacted in nature, but the animals themselves lacked life.

When I listened to some of the artists talk to clients about their work, I heard them say such things as “I researched these subjects carefully and placed the animals in their correct habitat”. They sounded like biologists, not artists. No wonder the animals they painted lacked the emotional impact that one would have if you encountered the animal itself. It seemed that many of the artist’s weren’t creating something to convey their emotional feelings about the animals, they were portraying something they objectively witnessed or observed, or an image they decided made an attractive composition.

“Inspiration is the rarest treasure of art. A painting done with merely technical skill, but with an absence of artistic feeling, m ay be clever, but it cannot be profound.” ~ J. Donald Walters

I hearkened back to a recent experience I’d had while viewing an exhibit of Sir Alfred J. Munnings artwork. This turn of the century artist had always been one of my favorite equine artists. I was lucky enough to happen upon the first ever United States exhibit of his original paintings at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs, New York. I entered the hushed, museum atmosphere in great anticipation. The first section of the exhibit, which was organized chronologically, featured Munnings’ early work. The vibrancy of the paintings was mesmerizing. The accompanying plaques stated that Munnings had begun by painting his favorite haunts, childhood friends and beloved ponies. This had expanded into a fascination with colorful gypsy caravans and horse fairs.

Several of these paintings took my breath away with their essential beauty. One in particular, of ponies crossing a river was so three-dimensional and alive that I could hear the splashing water and the snorting ponies. The eyes of the foremost pony sparkled with life and intelligence.

Munnings, Alfred James; Crossing the Ford; The Munnings Art Museum; © estate of Sir Alfred Munnings. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.

As I continued on into the exhibit, the plaques described how Munnings had enrolled into the army where his talents were used to document military personalities and historic events.  When he returned home he was in high demand for portraiture from the equine hunting and racing gentry who were his peers.  As I looked at these later paintings, I began to realize that, though they were beautifully executed in form and composition, the horses themselves lacked the spark of his earlier work.  Their sleek bodies were elegant and beautiful, but their eyes seemed blank.  They were portrayed in dynamic poses of hunting and racing, but though their anatomy was accurate, their forms had less life.  This was such a contrast to the earlier work that I had to go back to the pieces I had first admired to confirm my impressions.  What had happened in between?

In my opinion, at least from what I saw in this exhibit, it seemed that when he began his life as a portrait artist, some spark had died out.  Though he was still probably one of the most accomplished painters I had ever seen (and I risk much by criticizing Munnings!), I had to wonder if he had truly loved his later work, or if it became a job; a way of life.  His clients probably weren’t as interested in him capturing the personality of their horses, it seemed the horses were merely beautiful models upon which his clients were mounted.

At the wildlife art show, I came to realize that the way I felt about many of the pieces was how I had responded to Munnings’ later work. The paintings had all the trappings of great art, but something was missing.

What often determines “great art” is public opinion, but I am looking for a deeper purpose behind art; the desire to celebrate beauty, to convey emotion, to capture a memory. Sometimes the simplest art, like ancient cave paintings, can be the most profound. It is thought that the cave paintings were created to honor the spirits of the animals on which early Man subsisted. These simple drawings often capture more of the essence of the animals than some detailed modern painting. Why? I believe it is because the artists felt strongly about their subject. They revered the power of animals, perhaps likening them to god-like beings or totems. They were intimately involved with the animals. The actions, attitudes and instincts of the animals were not separate from their own experiences. Likely they did not have Man’s current attitude of dominion or superiority over the animals. They were one with the beings they painted. This feeling is conveyed to the viewer regardless of “artistic skill”.

“Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That indeed is very nearly the whole of the higherartistic process: finding what conventions of form and what detail on can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole – so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the (viewer’s) consciousness, as much as if it were (drawn) on the page” ~ Wille Sibert Cather

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