Painting a life

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
February 9th, 2018

painting a lifeWhen you reach a certain age and start thinking about retirement, you will get plenty of advice about how to stay healthy and mentally sharp when you stop working at the job that defined your career for most of your adult life. One thing you will hear over and over again is the importance of learning something new – a new language, skill, hobby or maybe even a whole new career. Lately, I’ve been learning about painting.

To be clear about this statement, I am not actually taking art lessons and, while I enjoy doodling as much as the next person, my experience is limited to what I learned doing play therapy and drawing my annual picture of Santa for my own children.

It’s my wife who is the real artist in the family and I am learning a great deal about painting by observing and talking with her about her work and accompanying her to museums, exhibitions and demonstrations.

As any psychologist will tell you, you can learn a lot by listening and because old habits die hard, I found myself listening as a psychologist to a recent lecture about painting.

The speaker, an accomplished painter and instructor, explained that you have to master five elements to be a successful artist: composition, value, color, contrast and technique.

The question of composition is a question about your subject matter, how you choose to see it and how you plan to arrange it on your canvas. As the man spoke, the walls of the small auditorium where we sat illustrated his point that these preliminary choices reveal the individuality or soul of the painter.

Landscapes, seascapes, giant flowers, architecture and portraits illustrated the wide variety of interests and experiences of the artists who painted them and gave us a lesson in diversity unlike anything we could ever learn from words alone.

There are rules of composition having to do with the placement of focal points, subtle pathways of shape, light and color that lead the eye to what the artist wants to highlight and never away from the site of the action.

There are interesting prohibitions as well, like the ones about never painting the horizon in the middle of the canvas and never putting a major element in the center of the picture.

From my novice perspective, I gathered that a pleasing picture should not be too symmetrical and this fit nicely with what I had learned from decades of living, listening and trying to help people make more satisfying stories of their lives.

We may long for happy endings and a neat, tidy denouement of our lives but these things seldom happen in the way we hope and expect. What we get may not be what we thought we wanted but it can be a great deal more interesting.

Now in full stride, the speaker addressed the issue of value in making a painting. He was not talking about the worth of the endeavor but about the variation of light and dark over the expanse of the picture.

Some artists, I learned, will paint a rough undercoat of different densities, marking out what will become lighter and darker areas of the painting. The speaker emphasized that the impact of a work of art rests largely on the interplay of values. While color gets all the glory, the real work is done by the subtle undercurrents that lead the viewer back and forth between light and dark.

There are principles here as well, patterns of arranging dark and light areas of the picture, but always involving contrast and movement from one to the other. I cannot imagine having the skill to do what the speaker was describing with a brush and some paint but I know well the challenge of balancing darkness and light, enduring one and rejoicing in the other, even as we know the impermanence of both.

Color animates a painting the way emotion enlivens a conversation. Warm colors seem to reach out to us and cooler ones recede. In painting, there is a science to choosing and mixing colors to create the hue that is just right to capture a moment.

As my wife is fond of reminding me, the artist learns to look at the world more carefully and when she does, she discovers that grass is never just green, trees never just brown and the snow never pure white.

The artist knows that the obvious colors often contain hints of fainter hues just as the psychologist knows that feelings are often mixed.  Pure joy, absolute misery, unmitigated hatred may capture the intensity of the moment but these emotions are rarely absolute.

The elements of a successful painting – composition, value, color and contrast – are no more than a set of instructions without technique or the ability to actually approach the canvas and paint with enough skill to produce a meaningful picture.

How much paint to put on your brush, how thinly or thickly to apply it to your canvas, how boldly or lightly and in what direction to make your brush strokes are just some of the technical matters the artist learns with instruction and practice.

To begin with, you need a plan but you also need the freedom to go where the work leads you. The artist knows how to use her brush but also knows that an errant stroke may lead her to the threshold of an unimagined vista if she has the courage to explore the view.

She stands before her easel and from the interplay of reality, imagination and memory creates the world anew. She does with paint what we are all called upon to do with each new day of our lives.

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