Yesterday I posted a quick nothing on “Bill” my new, as yet unnamed and unidentified bird painting. Since then, I’ve been both guilt-ridden over such a flippant blog post, and consumed with discovering the genus and identity of the aforementioned “Bill”. I’ve checked bird books, searched google, even drafted a letter to the aviary where the picture was originally taken. All of which brings me to the question: why does it matter?
Because it DOES matter, at least to me. Part of being a representational artist is that whole “representational” part- in other words, you should be able to identify the subject of your painting. There are various arguments for and against this, ranging from freedom of artistic expression to the validity of photorealistic artwork to a postmodern deconstruction of the form. All of those points are valid, and each artist interprets them in different ways. In my humble opinion, you have to first prove that you understand a form before you can deconstruct it. When people think of Picasso, they think of his heavily abstracted forms, his multiple povs and stylized figures. What many don’t know is that Picasso could draw like an angel by the time he was fourteen. His early artwork was full of such fully realized nuance, technical skill and beauty that he was able to build on an absolute rock solid understanding of form to systematically blow it apart in his later artistic exploration. Once you understand that about him, his artwork takes on added meaning.
We are taught as kids to color “inside the lines”. Trees are green, sky is blue, the sun is yellow. (And there’s a whole fascinating science to the progression of how children learn to draw, such as when everyone starts adding hundreds of fingers to hands or everyone is depicted on profile. Absolutely fascinating stuff that follows a very set timeline in child development.) As we get older, middle school art classes introduce the idea of photorealism, usually through he whole “copy half of a magazine picture” idea. Your skill as a middle school artist is determined by how precisely you are able to mirror the magazine page, and some people become extremely accomplished at this. (A big tip of the hat to my bff, whose graphite rendering of “Makeup Ad Girl in Sunglasses with Beestung Lips” on bristol board STILL hangs in a prominent place in my “memory” gallery.) Some people take this photorealism to astonishing levels. Carl Brenders comes to mind as someone whose artwork can literally make you weep with amazement and gratitude for his exacting “exactness” of hair and stone and grasses. Unbelievable.
One of my childhood dreams was to be an animator. Because of the demands of their work, an animator MUST have a rock solid understanding of anatomy to be able to move that character properly through space. The work of really good animators (ANY of Disney’s 9 Old Men or the newer greats like Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, to name just a few) has such a purity of form and function to their line. They can draw an anatomically correct arm in one line, with such fluidity and grace that it becomes the best one line rendering of an arm you’ve ever seen. Animators know anatomy.
As an (primarily) equine artist, I know horses. I also can look at someone else’s art and tell immediately whether they know horses. Whether they’ve spend time with a horse, laid their hands on a horse’s neck, sat on their back, looked into their eyes. That understanding of pure form transfers to the art. Yes, some technical skill is required to accuratley depict the shading of bone and muscle, but the basic anatomy should still be seen to be correct.
So why all this fuss for “Bill”? I’ve always loved animals, I’ve owned and studied and read about them most of my life. My art has dovetailed (tee hee) perfectly with my desire to know and learn more about the animal kingdom, and part of that learning and exploring has been learning a smattering about my subjects. Even if finding out what kind of food this bird eats (mostly fruit, is my guess) and where it lives (Central or South American temperate forest is my bet) doesn’t have any bearing on the actual picture itself, I’ve learned something and added to the story behind the painting. And that to me, is just as important as the finished piece.