So, What's It ABOUT?

This question has been plaguing me recently and, I in turn, have tortured my students with it: What is the painting ABOUT? This piece at the right, I did at the class paint out last week in Alamosa and I hope will still hold up after you read my thoughts:
A few weeks back at the PAAC Show (Plein Air Artists of Colorado) in Denver (great show by the way), Sue McCullough and I had the chance to talk at length with Karen Vance about how she judged the show. She told us her first criteria was that very thing: What is the painting about? - brushwork, imagery, color. . .
A week later, at the SPACe Gallery in LaVeta, I spoke with Tim Deiber who judged the Paint Colorado show and our conversation about the work focused on that same topic.

Now, this is not rocket science, if you have painted for any length of time the idea is not a foreign one. We have been schooled to have a "center of attention" at least, but why is the concept so elusive or more to the point - how do so many accomplished artists seem to miss it. Those of us who should know better?
I would site a wonderful example of this idea, as it emerged in a painting demo done by Eldon Warren showing the choices that must be made, to make the point oh-so-clear - THIS is what it is ABOUT.
Click on Eldon's name to see his BLOG and when you get there scroll down a bit to - "Why Did the People Cross the Road?".
This seemingly innocuous demo of a beautiful landscape just hit me over the head. Why? Because it illustrates (we artists need pictures) so well, what happens to almost all of us, at some point. Eldon is a friend and master painter - and I don't think it happens to him as often, as the blog will show.
I encourage you to check it out - and if you are scratching your head - ask yourself this: what is the painting ABOUT? - this, that, what?
In the end I hope it is clear "Why The People Crossed the Road".
Thanks Eldon.


Alan Heuer said...

Mostly it's about the passage of light through the trees, or more specifically about positives and negatives. The center of attention is, of course, the biggest passage between the middle tree trunks that leads to the building that leads to another passage ... the doorway you're trying to get to so you can use the restroom. (Okay, I made the last part up).

Chuck Sale Photography said...


Thank you for your valuable commentary and for sharing Eldon's example.

Teri, my wife, asks me the question, "What's it about," often. She usually says simply, "I don't know what to look at." I find myself a little hurt. After all, can't she see the breathtaking beauty of the scene? Can't she hear the waters, smell the leaves, see the flickering sunlight through the aspen?

As a photographer, I meet challenges that are beneath those of a painter in many cases but above them in others. Being original in a digital universe drowning in photographic images is one such challenge. Creating an evocative image out of an intrinsically mundane, even ugly, scene is another, Photoshop notwithstanding. I sometimes long for the brush and the paint and the drag of the canvas.

But Teri is, as always, correct. Just how much flowing water, smelly leaves, and flickering sunlight through the aspen can any one person stand?

As you said, Coni, "What is the point." The point is more than center of interest. Even if the scene is quite beautiful and even if it is perhaps a bit unusual, it must have something else. Beautiful is common. Unusual is common. There must be something else.

For the moment, I call this something story. There needs to be, nay there is in every scene, a story. How to find it? How to tell it? Aye, there's the rub.

Eldon found the story in the last iteration of his road painting, and he broke some "rules" to get to it. For one, he unbalanced the painting: The action, the "weight" is all on the left side. And that is exactly where it belongs.

I responded to the third painting instantly. The first two were mere drafts. And I did not need to deconstruct the thing critically to discover why it worked and the first two did not. I did not need Eldon to tell me, though as an artist I was happy to read his commentary. His story was in the painting, and I was in the story. I have been there. I have sought the shade on a warm day. I have had a friend, a child, a wife. I have held someone's hand along the way. I have been alone along distant pathways. I do not know what lies ahead, but it is bearable with a friend.

That is my story, and Eldon's painting, both in what it "said" and what it did not "say", let me tell it to myself, not once but many times over from memories and lessons and loved ones who are too quickly fading away.

I may take 300 to 700 images in a day of landscape shooting. Many of these images are quite beautiful, but few can answer confidently the question, "What's the point."

Maybe three of these images tell a story. Maybe one tells a story worth "listening" to.

It is hard work.

Best wishes,


North Star Pottery said...

It's about a focal point, the artist's need to take the viewer into the painting through use of the right perspective and positioning of objects. Visual Interest, grab the viewers attention. Once you have that they can discover the work in full, maybe? :-) Intersting question "What's it about". As a potter I think of my pots as more as a journey of self improvement of my craft than what others think, but I too have thought to myself why this pot or that shape. At the end of the day, making beautiful art from clay or paint is what it's all about, that expression of the moment.