A Picture is Worth How Many Words??

you go first, photograph

“I have been urged … to write about my paintings… Why? Haven’t I, in a way, painted them?”

Charles Demuth

This quote is referenced in a wonderful short essay (Writing) by Robert Adams in his book, Why People Photograph. Adams discusses the topic of artists writing about their own work and makes some interesting observations.

As you might expect form the quote, Adams concludes that photographers (and artists in general) are not good at describing their own work and, in fact, do not want to do it anyway. Artists feel their work should speak for itself, be self-sufficient, and having to talk about it admits a modicum of artistic failure. Too much talk also risks the kind of over-analysis that can get in the way of spontaneous creativity. Since photography by its nature is often more representational and less subjective than painting, the public often feels more need to have the photographer describe their work to get at what they were feeling inside.

I know as one who has had to try to write about specific work in the past, it is extremely difficult and makes me feel very self-conscious. I usually feel that I’m tacking on these descriptions after the fact and that they were not really present at the time of artmaking or prior to it. Much of what I read from critics or other artists about their work gives me the same feeling.

What value is this post-analysis? Is there real benefit to oneself or others in attempting to truly describe one’s work from a sincere perspective. Can it provide insight into the creative process that allows others a deeper appreciation of your work? Can this effort force you to contemplate your own work in a way that might prove beneficial?

Ultimately I think that words are inherently insufficient to describe what is going on in the art as well as is the art itself. Words themselves are an art form. I’ve seen wonderful art which combines painting or photography with words, where both are equal partners in the product. Neither tries to explain the other. Can you imagine someone trying to explain a symphony by painting it? My wife, Susan’s, art journals are a great example of the power of combining words with visual art, rather than trying to use one to explain the other. I think it is useful to contemplate our own work but the effort to translate those ruminations into words useful to others seems doomed to failure.

Adams recommends that if we want to understand an artists work, the best strategy may be to look at the work of other artists that they like. The reflected light from that art may illuminate their work more than any direct explanation could possibly do.

By the way, I’d also like to announce the launch of my new website, www.bobcornelis.com, which replaces my old site (cornelisarts.com). I recommend taking advantage of the full screen mode in the galleries to see the best view of the work. Enjoy!

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Doing it Twice

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Louis D. Brandeis

I often find myself comparing the creative process in different artforms in which I have some experience: photography, painting, music, writing in particular. It’s interesting to examine the similarities and differences. Sometimes it can be revealing and perhaps will cause you borrow some approach from one for use in another.

This quote speaks to the process of editing one’s writing. Of course there are small edits you make along the way, changing a word, rephrasing a sentence. But when writing anything of significance, usually there are drafts, whole versions which are re-examined and reconsidered in their entirety.

The process of making a photographic print  is similar. There are minor adjustments you make as you make your first print, but that print usually serves as a proof (like a first draft) and often multiple proofs with revisions are made before a final version is created.

In my experience painters don’t tend to incorporate this concept into their work as often. I know that there are often preliminary steps that can precede the final painting: value studies, sketches, even smaller versions done in a different medium (pastels as a study for oils, etc). But rarely does a painter actually repaint a painting – do it over.

Part of the reason may be that it can take a long time to complete a painting and it’s hard to think about doing it again. Rewriting a book draft can take a long time as well – one reason it can take years to complete a book. Part of it is that some of the spontaneity which can make a painting fresh when it is repainted could be lost. Writing and photography are perhaps more “studied” artforms where that spontaneity is not as important or even wanted. Music is an interesting comparison – the writing of music is more like writing a book, with many revisions possible. Musicians obviously repeat performances of the same piece many times – each is unique but clearly the same piece.

What is your experience? Are there times when you’ve “redone” a painting? How has that worked for you? Does it depend on the type of painting, the medium, the subject matter, etc.? What are your motivations for doing or not doing this?