Tools and Writings for Oil Painters, Draftsmen and Artists


Why realism?

When did we artists start searching for reality as if we didn’t have enough of it? Wasn’t there a time where proximity to the real was deemed ungraceful and profane?

Our intentions are at stake : “It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of – namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography; and moreover that the moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown.”  (Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, A6).

Realist art doesn’t escape this interpretation, for better or worse. It seems that those who achieve the best realism are those who want the idea of “truth” to triumph. They might even be called scientists. But if that is so, where does that leave followers of the ancient art tradition, the so-called old masters? How will they cope with so much bare truth? What should they do with their “western” heritage? Should it be also put under the scrutiny of truth?

My friends, realist art looks more and more like an impossible dive into an oasis pond.

-Assuming that by beauty in art one always understands imitation of happiness-and I hold this to be the truth -depending on how an age, a people, a great person who makes his own internal laws imagines happiness: what then does the so-called realism of contemporary artists give us to understand about the happiness of our age? Its type of beauty is undoubtedly the one we currently know how to grasp and to enjoy most easily. Accordingly, aren’t we definitely obliged to believe that our own particular happiness now lies in what is realistic, in having the most acute senses possible, and in faithful apprehension of actuality-not therefore in reality but in knowing about reality? Science has gained such a profound and widespread effect that artists of this century, without intending to do so, have already become the true glorifiers of scientific “ecstasies”!

1. Learning to see and the truth in seeing

Among the truth seekers, there is a variety of artists that would like to teach us to see better as if they saw better. What is it they see that we don’t? Do they have better eyes?

Honestly, it is not clear that there is any learning in seeing. There might be.

Some other truth seekers, on the opposite side, would have us be as illusionistic as Berkeley and regard only the “non-veridical” in seeing. Our situation is even worse in this case : it’s not that our eyes are faulty, it’s that we’re not sure of seeing anything anymore.

Dear artist friends, once again : scepticism to the core. What we know about seeing doesn’t amount to much.

Sick and tired of people. -A: Know! Yes, but always as a human being! What? Always to sit before the same comedy, to act in the same comedy? Never to be able to see things with any eyes other than these eyes? And how many countless types of beings might there be, whose organs are better suited to knowledge! What will humanity have known at the end of all its knowledge? – its organs! And that might well mean: the impossibility of knowledge! Misery and disgust! – B: ‘That is a wicked attack -reason is attacking you! But tomorrow you’ll be right back in the midst of knowing again and so also in the midst of unreason, by which I mean: in the pleasure of being human. Let’s go down to the sea!

That relations between objects in a drawing are essential, agreed. But it is not clear what “looking holistically” means. Marvin Minsky on “holistic” and “gestalt” : “We’re often told that certain wholes are “more than the sum of their parts.” We here this expressed with reverent words like “holistic” and “gestalt”, whose academic tones suggest that they refer to clear and definite ideas. But I suspect the actual function of such terms is to anesthetize a sense of ignorance. We say “gestalt” when things combine to act in ways we can’t explain, “holistic” when we’re caught off guard by unexpected happenings and realize we understand less than we thought we did.”

2. Light in painting : stripping away preconceptions

It is said that in order to draw objectively, “we must progressively strip away our symbolic preconceptions and verbal identifications” and make “nonsymbolic light our true subject”. However scientific and truthful this might seem, let us not forget that light itself doesn’t escape preconceptions and untruthfulness. That is of course given the fact that we could strip away our own perspective.

2. Reality, light, drawing and crutches

Whatever light is, there is no such thing as terminators, cast shadows, highlights… These are pure creations made by man to make his life easier. There isn’t imprisoning of light in any concept. The painter of reality should finish by leaving these crutches aside.

3. The main problem in drawing

“The first [problem] is that objects at a distance simply do not look as small as they ought to on the basis of the size of the image they cast upon the retina. In fact, objects at a distance often appear to be the same size as when they are nearby.” It seems this should be the beginning of any book on drawing.

4. Retinal experiment

Do you really know what the image on your retina looks like? You will be surprised by the ghosts that dwell in your eyes.

5. To artists and painters : the discovery of appearances

It seems inevitable that you will fall from heaven. You will have to leave what you thought you saw or knew behind. It is not a death : truth will give way to appearances. It is our privilege as painters to contemplate as many perspectives as we like and choose the best.

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