Poetry in Painting

The greatest challenge with art is the subjective nature of it. Something may be ‘technically perfect’ with a piece when measured against traditional principles – the values may be spot on, the design seems fine, no glaring drawing problems.

So if it’s ‘perfect’ why doesn’t it wow us?

Just because we get all the basics correct doesn’t mean we’ve created something awe-inspiring. A perfectly drawn image of a plaster head or a painting that looks exactly like an egg might show impressive drawing skills, but how many other thousands of artists have done the same thing?

Plaster Cast

Plaster Cast


Light and shadow on a sphere drawing to teach form by Paul Calle in his book The Pencil

Light and shadow on a sphere by Paul Calle in his book The Pencil

It’s obvious these are academic exercises in sculpting or drawing. But, how do we know when our paintings have gone from academic to poetic like Scott Conary achieved in his painting of an egg?

Cracked 6 1/2" x 6 3/8" – oil painting by Scott Conary

Cracked 6 1/2″ x 6 3/8″ – oil painting by Scott Conary

Is it a feeling that tells us when we’ve scaled the summit?

Can we judge by our sales?

Is it based on the awards we win?

All of those situations can be helpful and probably influence our decisions to some degree, but none of them is complete. In fact, they can be misleading because they can change from one moment to another.

How often have you finished a painting, and heard someone say “wow, that looks just like a photograph”?

The danger in comments like that arises when they cause us to think, “oh, they really like my painting because it looks photographic. If I learn to paint and draw everything in perfect detail, collectors will be so impressed – I’ll sell like crazy.”

Maybe…but probably not. You see, most professional artists can do that. That’s the starting point – not the coveted mountain peak of artistic achievement.

Have you ever seen Charlton Heston in the short clip from Wayne’s World?

That’s what we’re talking about!

Now, the first guy didn’t do anything wrong – technically – but when compared against Charlton Heston his blandness becomes obvious. Charlton Heston performed with a command and mastery that were entirely his own. Nothing forced, completely engaging – it was pure poetry! (although, I feel a little bad for the first actor…)

Going Beyond the Basics Takes Courage

Mastery of the basics – sound drawing, accurate values, correct color temperatures – all of that is hugely helpful and worth the time it takes to learn. The ability to accurately draw or paint exactly what we see is a strong tool to help us achieve our dreams.

If we want our paintings to mesmerize viewers – to grab ahold of their hearts and create a desire to return again and again just to look at it- that takes something more.

Is it possible to break down exactly what that ‘something’ is and put it in a nicely packaged formula for others to follow? I don’t believe so.

I believe that ‘something’ that takes us from merely competent to a Charlton Heston is waiting dormant inside each of us, and it’s anxious to be released. This type of mastery doesn’t come easily or without concentrated, sustained effort, time, and courage.

Why courage?

Because it takes courage to look at our work against a Charlton Heston model and see if it measures up. Do our paintings shine with poetry?  That poetry which causes others to want to look over and over, because they can’t get enough? Or is it looked at once with the comment,  “that is skillfully done, boy they’re good”, and then move on because it failed to keep their attention?

Clyde Aspevig is a perfect example. He made a major leap in the naturalism of his work in the late 80’s. Here’s an example of his earlier work:

Mountain Colors 30x35 – oil painting by Clyde Aspevig during the 80’s.

Mountain Colors 30×35 – oil painting by Clyde Aspevig during the 80’s.

Notice all the small details – thin strokes for grasses and branches, predictable and repetitive leaves on bushes.  The edges are mostly hard and obvious even as they recede into the distance. It’s a beautiful painting and expertly crafted but it does not feel natural.

What was the cause for him to decide it needed to be changed? I mean, technically, there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s a nice piece.

Somehow Clyde saw through the superficial merit of his early work, ignored the successful sales that begged him to keep going in the same direction, and reached for something more.

Now, look at a painting from 2014:

Autumn Evening 40x50 – oil painting by Clyde Aspevig completed in 2014

Autumn Evening 40×50 – oil painting by Clyde Aspevig completed in 2014

The edges are softer with gentle transitions between shapes.  The colors feel rich and varied with a lifelike atmosphere and harmonizing light that infuses every area in the painting. It feels natural and real – even though he has simplified the details – or rather, because he has simplified the details.

His collectors complained strongly when he began to simplify saying he was ruining his career. He is now considered one of the greatest landscape painters in the world.

Tears Ran Down My Cheeks

You know, I never tire of watching Charlton Heston in that scene with Mike Meyers. How many of our paintings can we say that about? Do we have pieces that call us back over and over because there’s something magical about them?

In 1989 I felt that way while I sat in a room filled with large wildlife paintings by Carl Rungius. They were so beautifully crafted – they brought tears to my eyes.  I’ve never forgotten that experience – I yearn for my paintings to do that for someone one day. This is what I want from my work, this planted a seed for me to reach deeper and push harder in my role as an artist.

Moose 30x40 – oil painting by Carl Rungius

Moose 30×40 – oil painting by Carl Rungius

Did Carl Rungius begin his career with such colorful, engaging work?

Nope! Look at this painting from his early days.

At the Deadwater 24×32 – oil painting by Carl Rungius in 1908

Carl experienced his own transitioning journey from darker academic work to imaginatively crafted visions. The key is to be aware and open.

Rungius noticed a shift from darker somber paintings to the light and color filled art of the Impressionists. He was influenced by that movement but did not become a slave to it. His style was uniquely his own.

Conclusion – Climbing Art’s Everest

We all begin with a spark – a desire to create something wonderful.

Jumping right in with both feet doesn’t qualify us to create masterful works of art just because we have a lofty vision.

Generating that blazing wildfire of emotions and awe in our viewers doesn’t come easily. It takes years of study and searching deep within – and miles and miles of applying what’s been learned to our canvases. We can’t become too discouraged when our struggling seems constant.

Quote from Spencer W. Kimball

We also must never become complacent – especially when success strikes.

If we spend our days seeking greatness beyond our present limitations, not to gratify vain ambitions, but to add something beautiful to life, we will each eventually bring tears of gratitude to the heart of another.

So, the challenge now is to look honestly at our own work and efforts. While being grateful for where we are right now, let’s ask ourselves “can we do better? How can we keep reaching higher?”

What George Mallory declared about climbing Everest can be said of our climb as artists: “What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

In a week or two I’ll share with you examples of my own reaching for higher ground. You will see two paintings of mine that I recently reworked – aspens and hollyhocks.

Gold Rush 30x40 – reworked oil painting of aspens by Bill Inman

Gold Rush 30×40 – reworked oil painting of aspens by Bill Inman

There was nothing technically wrong with them. They simply didn’t feel like they were enough. They lacked poetry.

Or, maybe I see differently now than I did then.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if I succeeded in reaching a higher summit. Whether I did or didn’t, I feel much better about them and have taken each to the boundaries of what I can presently see.

I’m excited to keep moving forward and scale art’s Everest with each of you!

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