Clay Olmstead


Some Thoughts on Painting

Painting

Art Education

Painting vs. Photography

Women

Art as a Language


Painting

I paint because I have something to express that doesn’t come out well in words. If I were to put some words around it, I would say that there is more to the world than meets the eye. It’s too easy to decide what to think about something or someone, and move on without examining why we came to that conclusion. This is how busy people make it through life. The point I want to make is that it’s worth the time to consider things in a different way. We get new insights that enrich our life. For a little while, we can move out of the get-things-done, make-another-list mentality and remember what it’s like to be alive.

Painting gets me seeing the world in a whole new way. It takes me out of the state of mind where I feel compelled to pass judgment on everything and on everybody, and allows me to just experience the world for what it is. That's what makes it a form of meditation: it's necessary to turn off the inner committee and set myself in the cycle of looking at the subject; deciding what and how to paint; paint (one stroke); compare the result to what I wanted. That's it: look, decide, paint, compare, over and over. The outside world slips away and there's only the subject and the canvas. Let the phone ring and the sirens blare, there's nothing to do but paint.

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Art Education

I've had a lot of great teachers. The best has been Elizabeth Locke, without a doubt the best teacher I've had in any subject. I've taken workshops from  Ron Hicks, Noel Robbins, and others which have been a great help in providing  new perspectives. I learned a lot from my father, who taught me photography. Through him I learned how to compose an image, and how to leave out everything that doesn't add to picture. Last but not least, I owe a lot to my mother, who made me curious about the world. 

Oh, and in case you're wondering, I am a distant relation to Frederick Law Olmsted.

Great teachers can be found in great books, too. Here are some of my favorites. Except where I've noted, these are all still in print and available at amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, or where ever you normally buy art books.

Alla Prima - Everything I Know About Painting by Richard Schmid. Perhaps America's top figurative painter today, Mr. Schmid gives his views and techniques on painting. Pricey but worth it, both for the lessons and to copy from the illustrations. Available only from Stove Prairie Press. 

The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression by Gary Faigin. Deconstructs the elements of hundreds of facial expression, along with the subtle features that make an expression believable and effective.

Bridgman's Complete Guide to Drawing from Life by George B. Bridgman. A compilation of smaller classics, such as Constructive Anatomy, The book of a Hundred Hands and others. 

Brushwork for the Oil Painter by Emile Gruppe. In spite of the title, this is not just about brushwork. Gruppe lays out his palette, materials, choice of brushes, color mixing techniques, as well as methods of applying paint to a canvas. This book is out of print, but if you contact inlightbooks.com, they can probably still find you a good copy at a decent price. 

Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson. Classic book on painting landscapes. Covers design, perspective, color, along with a chapter each on trees and clouds. 

How to Draw the Human Head and How to Draw the Human Figure by Louise Gordon. I call these "just enough anatomy for the artist." They have clear drawings of the bones, muscles and other tissue that form the human body look and make it move. 

The Human Figure by John Vanderpoel. A small, simple book full of valuable observations. Nice sketches to copy from. 

The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides. An art class all by itself. Contains techniques, exercises, assignments, examples. An outstanding way to get started or to take as a refresher course. 

Portraits in Oil the Van Wyk Way and Color Mixing the Van Wyk Way by Helen Van Wyk. Anything by Ms. Van Wyk is outstanding, but these are the two I've gotten the most out of. 

Problem Solving for the Oil Painter by Gregg Kreutz. Simple, practical techniques for rescuing a painting that's gone off course, or to prevent it from going off course in the first place. 

Books about making art:

Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orlando. A "how to" book on clearing away everything that's preventing you from practicing your craft. A small book, but  full of insight. 

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. One of America's greatest art teachers gives his views on painting, from technical pointers to using painting as a reflection of life.

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Painting vs. Photography

Painting and photography are as different as sculpture and dance. A (representational) painting might look similar to a photograph , or vice versa, but the end products are experienced differently and the process of creating a painting is different from making a photograph.

For one thing, a photograph is flat: it's a single layer of pixels on a screen or chemicals on a surface. It reproduces a narrow range of what the eye can see, limited by the capabilities of the medium. In the hands of a master, that range can seem like everything, but in reality we are capable of seeing so much more.

A painting is a three-dimensional physical object: the light passes through the layers of paint and is reflected or absorbed by each one depending on the properties of the pigment, medium and the way it was laid down. You can look at a picture of a painting in a book or on a video screen, but you haven't seen it in its entirety until you've been face to face with it. Not just looking at it, but wandering around in front of it, seeing what it looks like from different angles, far back to see the whole thing at once, then up close to catch the paint strokes to see how it was created.

The process of making a painting is much different than making a photograph. A really good photograph usually isn't a matter of luck. The photographer has scouted the scene in advance, finding the best light, the best background and the human or animal activities that best show off the photographer's purpose. A studio photographer goes through a similar process, except the environment is set up and controlled instead of discovered. Either way, a lot went in to the making of the moment that is finally captured.

A painter goes through a similar process of scouting scenes and models, whether they come from the outside world, from memory or in the case of pure abstract paintings, directly from the psyche. The painting itself is built up layer by layer from initial sketch to finished product, whether that process happens all at once or over a span of years.

In a nutshell, the process of photography is like hunting: the photographer is at the scene, lying in wait for the moment, then captures that moment in an instant. Painting is like farming: the painter creates over time, layer by layer until the creation has achieved its potential. They are each tools to achieve an end: photography is better at capturing the ephemera of the swirl of time; painting is better at contemplating the significance of existence. One is not better than the other; they are different processes, taken up for different purposes to achieve different ends. Each requires years of education and practice to achieve the full potential of the maker. Occasionally someone becomes skilled at both, but mostly the level of training required for each is enough for one person to take on, much less to be skilled at both. Vive le difference.

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Women

Women especially appeal to me as a subject because we’re bombarded with images of women that are only about appearance. We are seldom confronted with pictures that invite us to consider what’s going on behind the façade. It's as if the only value women have is in their looks. If a woman is pretty, or if she isn't, everything else about her is secondary. Wait, it gets worse: "pretty" is defined as conforming to an exact template, where any deviations become imperfections. (This is human nature, but the fashion industry has twisted that template into a grotesque form, which can only be attained through personal trainers, starvation, plastic surgery and Photoshop®.) It's time to move beyond that mindset and understand that beauty takes infinitely many forms. Sometimes it appears in a healthy glow, an unselfconscious smile, or a loving glance.

This makes a woman, as a subject for a painting, the perfect model. We know what we are supposed to think, so forcing ourselves out of that box takes some extra effort. The challenge is to get behind the surface appearance and try to understand what's going on  in the model's psyche. Doing that with a painting is good practice for a rewarding exercise in the real world. 

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Art as a Language

Painting is a peculiar form of communication - I'm trying to get something across to people I don't know and who will most likely never be able to answer back. We have to use whatever means we can to communicate with each other, though. Words aren't enough. As Somerset Maugham wrote in The Moon and Sixpence,

"Each one of us is alone in the world. He is shut in a tower of brass, and can communicate with his fellows only by signs, and the signs have no common value, so that their sense is vague and uncertain. We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side by side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener's aunt is in the house." 

I struggled with that quote for a long time, wondering what it was that people had to share that was so profound. For that matter, what was it that I had to share that people would care to know? It came to me in a flash: it's ourselves, as we really are. Not who we wish we were or who other people think we are, but our true selves: the one that we don't show others for fear we'll be shunned. To be truly authentic, we have to let a little of that person be seen: the flashes of brilliance along with the daubs of mud. I know people who have done that and been surprised at the positive reaction they got. They're an inspiration to the rest of us to stretch out a little more.

While you're struggling with that thought, consider this: would you rather be liked for someone you're not, or admired for the courageous person you can show yourself to be?

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Those are some of my thoughts about art. If you want to know what I think about some non-art subjects, see my blog.

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