Hey, What’s the Story?

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Cosmos, 10 x 10″ Acrylic on Illustration Board

“Looking is the end of a painting in my view. If you want a message, go read a novel.”

– Douglas Atwill

First of all, my apologies to those who read my blog for my absence over the last few weeks. I won’t go into the tedious details of the motivation for that truancy – let it suffice to say that many things contributed and not all of them are resolved. But my intention is to saddle back up and rejoin the fray.

The quote above raises the issue of whether a piece of art should tell a story. Much artwork does and many art instructors teach that it must (or at least should). My exploration of non-objective art (such as the example above) has led me to question this view. This type of work doesn’t seem to tell a story or have a message for the viewer. Perhaps the viewer will compose a story in their minds inspired by some aspect of the piece, but I think that in truly non-objective work, this would be pure self-indulgence.

So does a piece like this simply lack some dimension that artwork that tells a story has? Or is it replaced by some other equally compelling quality, perhaps by the very absence of a story? Is the viewer freer to engage with other characteristics of the piece, such as design, color, texture, etc. that may be otherwise secondary to the story?

Are there examples of this dichotomy in other art forms? I think about stream of consciousness novels, such as On the Road [Kerouac] where the story is obscured or not there at all and the focus becomes elements at least one level removed from story or message – emotions, language, character, etc. Or contemporary classical music without a melody or even a recognized tonal scale. Can you think of other examples?

I don’t think that this type art is deficient compared to pieces with storylines or melodies – I think it attempts to elicit a reaction from the viewer (or listener) using different methods and may, in fact, be able to touch us in unique ways.

Painting Music

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Jungle Rhythms, 6 x 6″ monoprint with ink and pastel

“Listening to Mozart when painting can make you believe in God.”

– J.M. Brodrick

I can’t paint without music playing in the background. But I’m very particular about what music it is. The music definitely informs my painting and if the wrong tunes are playing, the painting is easily derailed.

Without question, my favorite music to listen to while painting is by the artist known as Moby. Interestingly enough, my wife, who is also an artist who paints to music, can’t stand to listen to Moby, not even one song, not even a single chorus. Oh well… clearly it’s all personal taste.

I find that some music is too slow and meditative and doesn’t energize me – I like to develop a slight sense of frenzy when I work. Other music, such as some jazz,  can go too far in the opposite direction and interfere with the flow of my painting (a recent experience with Charlie Parker comes to mind). There’s a sweet spot that settles me into the right groove to paint by. Music I love at other times just doesn’t work while I’m painting.

I suspect there’s a lot of you painters out there who rely on music to get your artistic juices flowing. I’ll bet there are even some out there who might be embarrassed to admit which music serves this purpose for you. Or maybe it depends on what type of painting you are working on. In any case, I’d be interested to hear what you like – maybe I can find some new inspiration to paint by!