Perfection in Art

I still think of Edinburgh with a fondness, having spent my formative years there. The city was an important place during a period known as ‘the Enlightenment’, when many of the old restrictive norms were being cast aside. A leading light in that movement was the philosopher David Hume, who lived, thought and was buried in Edinburgh.
In 1742, he wrote: ”When the arts come into perfection in any state, from that moment they naturally, or rather, necessarily decline or seldom revive in that nation where they formerly flourished.
Once perfection has been reached further advance being impossible, art must go backwards.

In this age of the web, I can see images of paintings by all the greats of the past. I also see hundreds of paintings by people working today. I have stood in front of paintings in real-life (as opposed to on-screen), from an enormous range of artists.
I know that many of these have spent their lives in pursuit of ‘perfection’ as they saw it, while others have used their work to push the boundaries.
Kandinsky - amazing to look at, beautiful and highly original. A long way from what went before and completely different from his contemporaries.
It is hard to imagine how he could have done any better - so - ‘perfection’ for him.
The same can be said about so many others, each achieved their own version of perfection in their own unique way.
Turner versus Cezanne? NO. It is not ‘either / or’ - my test is the question: Could this have been made any better?
Which is to ask - Did this artist achieve perfection?
Can there ever be greater originality than Picasso? Or Riley?
This approach, testing perfection from the point of view of the artist, would mean there can be as many versions of perfection as there are artists!
Which is clearly not how Hume intended it in 1742.
To him, perfection lay in the collective judgement of the audience, and in particular, the judgement of the chattering classes. Back then, only the elite would see a picture. And this test continues to flourish today in that the artists’ attempts to present their perfection is then judged by the viewers, who, naturally, use their own eyes, their own values, to decide, and those are influenced to some extent by trends.
Having attended classes and arty groups, I am aware of the existence of ‘rules’ about art, where people have studied great art and have analysed the layout, composition, use of colour - more or less everything - and have distilled these examinations down to common patterns which are then presented as guidance - if you want your picture to succeed, you should do this. No doubt these are helpful to people starting out, but maybe it is my personality, I just don’t like being told what to do or how to do it so I throw the impressionists back in any conversation about rules in art - if they had followed the rules as they stood in 1863, there would have been no ‘Salon de refusees’. Cezanne might have produced even more paintings, but they would all have looked just like those accepted by The Academy, and we would certainly have not seen the explosion of creativity which happened in the first half of the 20th century.
Which is to say that as the achievement of a single definition of ‘perfection’ must rely on a clear set of rules which set that out, there cannot be such a thing.
This is why the words which accompany any artwork are vital - to set the context of the artist’s intentions which then help the viewers to arrive at their judgement.

But are the people who scroll through the thousands of images of art today really concerned about ‘perfection’?
Yes. I believe some are.
People look at art for various reasons which have been explained to me over and again at my exhibitions. Two big ones: (a) to enjoy looking at art, and (b) to find something to buy.
This second group must be concerned about perfection. They surely seek an ideal painting which will enhance their space, which will give pleasure when anyone looks at it, and which can be the subject of joyous conversations with friends.
The first group look at a lot of art in their pursuit of pleasure. ’Wow, look at that!’
But, as Forrest Gump might have said - think of the box of chocolates. Some of us love the crunchy solid toffee ones, others the gooey soft centres. Some people love listening to opera, others RAP. We are all different.
Which means that there are infinite ideas of what ‘perfection’ in art will look like, and it is completely impossible for the artist to anticipate what those might be.
I just hope you find yours here.


A final comment about David Hume. He was a master logician and it is clearly true that something that is perfect cannot be improved. And, his comment was directed at ‘the arts’, so might have been inspired by Bach rather than any painting.


Emotion in landscape??

A musician, dancer, actor or writer can display variety of emotion in their work, and those professions are also known as ‘artists’. But what about the artists who produce paintings? And landscape paintings in particular?
The online world enables me to view infinite numbers of paintings from other people and I would have to say that the vast majority of the landscapes I see there are devoid of emotion. Many are excellent representations of a scene, and the artists are showered with praise along the lines “Gosh - it’s just like a photograph……”.
I am not being critical of those artists, their work is often technically much better than mine, but my personal belief is - if you want a photograph, use a camera! 

“Just like a photograph” is probably the worst thing somebody could say to me about one of my paintings.
The quest I give myself - which is obviously not the same as the quest of those ‘realists’, is to share something of the feelings I experienced when gazing on the scene.
Back to the comparison with a musician - a professional violinist has to be able to play every style of music, and the orchestra can and does bring the audience to tears or to waves of pleasure through the music they play. So it should be possible for a painter to convey some similar variety?
A painting does not actually begin with the artist picking up a brush in front of a big blank canvas.
Like an author setting out to write a novel, there is much to be done by way of planning, working on the outline, thinking about how best to convey the points you want to make, choosing the styles and voices.
How best to present this scene?
Our world revolves around the sun, and that means the shadows slide constantly across in front of us. Point and click a camera and an image is captured at that moment in time. Stand in front of an easel for a few hours and the scene changes completely. The Brecon Beacons present a striking profile that runs more or less east-west, and the position of the sun creates completely different vistas at different times of day, and different between summer and winter.
(I shouild digress here - the best photographers do not just turn up, point and click, they put in at least as much scouting, planning and patient waiting to capture the view they seek as an artist does.)
What is presented to you as the finished piece is the result of all that planning.
But then, back to the matter of emotion.

This is ‘Tommy’s Stone’ - a memorial to a little boy who wandered off, got lost and died in the hills. How did he feel as he lay down to sleep having failed to find anyone to help him?
This is Port Logan sunset:

My parents moved to this area to retire, to spend their final days.
Here is my reaction to the coverage of the conference on Climate Change:



Not sure if this one qualifies as a ‘Landscape’, but again something to do with the climate:


Of course I know that many people look for reminders of ‘the rural idyll’ in a landscape painting, that the only emotion they seek is a warm glow, maybe to be reminded of something pleasant about this world we live in, and there’s plenty of good reasons for that!
This is one of my ‘Gower’ series - wonderful beaches:

And that’s it - I hope the point is made - that landscape paintings can be and should be more than simple ‘snapshots’ of a view.


Tyrrany of the camera

There are huge benefits of everybody having mobile phones with cameras, but ……. these are training the human eye to expect every picture to be ‘like a photo’.
So - this is a rant on behalf of creativity!                            
A painting should offer viewers so much more than a mere click n point snapshot. It is a fruit of imagination, every pixel has been placed after thought about the composition, colours. It tells a story from the artist’s perspective, designed to trigger a reaction in the mind of the viewer.
BUT - back to the viewers’ expectations …… we all see hundreds of camera-images all the time. Our brains therefore expect pictures to look like those.

The opportunity this opens up is to deliberately and carefully create art that is NOT ‘like a photo’, for the difference to present the viewer with their first challenge - to pause and take a second look - ‘What is going on here?’
[footnote - I have nothing but admiration for photographers, and I cheerfully use a camera a lot. I am not trying to stop the inevitable rise of this tide, only saying that because of it, painted art needs to address a new challenge - the eye of the viewer.]

Many more people have viewed my art on their mobiles than have seen the real thing.

Much more art is sold online than from high street galleries.

Another challenge then - my paintings need to have ‘small screen appeal’ - I ask myself - how would this have changed the pattern of art in the past??



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