Exploring the thinking processes of an artist - Bonnard Spring 2019
In the 1960’s I was introduced to the work of Bonnard. That was when I was a student at Falmouth Art School. Bonnard was a favourite artist of one of the tutors, so of course we were shown examples of his work. At that time I didn’t have much of an idea about how a ‘subject’ became such for an artist. Amongst the pictures we saw was ‘Nude in the Bath’. Having grown up in a reserved, polite home, seeing a lady in the bath seemed a curious ‘subject’! However two things began to make sense during life drawing classes that followed:
…It is March 2019 and I’m at the Bonnard Exhibition. What will I make of the work so many years on? How will I feel? What will I be drawn into? Will I be able to learn from what Bonnard has developed over a lifetime as an artist?
When well on in the process of being an artist, Bonnard says of being a painter:
‘I am just beginning to understand what it is to paint. A painter should have two lives, one in which to learn, and one in which to practice his art’ – Bonnard
What I find almost at once is the immediacy that comes from how Bonnard uses his memory and imagination to develop his pictures. Over the passage of time he gathers up memories of colour, and the situations where they have been experienced – and lets them inform the mixing of pigment, the placement of brush strokes and the sense that the picture is about light more than anything.
Bonnard elected to fill his picture with light - how he does this comes from his understanding how to select pigments that resonate.
He apparently found it challenging to look out at an object he was painting then to re-focus onto the picture space once again. To get past this he often worked on pictures from memory and imagination. This kind of long process is evident in ‘Young Women in the garden’ which was begun and worked on 1921 to 1923; then continued with from 1945 to 1946.
As he says:
‘The presence of the object… is a hindrance for the painter when he is painting’ – Bonnard
On a personal note, I have opted to go down the Abstract Colourist route. For this, one must have eyes and mind wide open, and preconceptions well in control… that is important if one is to gather up all that will inform one’s work either in the moment, or later, in the development of a painting.
Making the choice to focus on colour has given clarity and purpose to the way I paint. Even so, the intention and process contains much trial and revision…. wherein lies the excitement and frustration of the whole business of being a painter. Nothing is for free. Nothing is set in stone. All is to be found.
As a teenager I knew my head was full of colours. I knew I had a brilliant memory for colour but had no idea at all of what use it might be… it did not feel like a talent or of any use. I just felt like the inside of my head was full of paint tubes.
Once I began painting in a serious way I recognized that colours popped up as ideas and I used them as a matter of course. I did not have a developed sense of how to select. It was often intuitive – mainly…. but occasionally informed by study. Then there were one or two light bulb moments. Those moments keep one in focus and able to make progress.
To start way back, the colours I used in my earlier work referred back to growing up in West Cornwall. These references were gathered from the local light; the atmosphere; shadowy places between houses; the changing surface of the sea; the layered paint on fishing vessels. This palette developed out of being a Cornish girl in a traditional Cornish setting.
This ‘sense’ of colour lasted me into my sixties, as I dipped in and out of painting. Recently I have begun a growing sense of unease about continuing with that palette. At that point I see that I need to make progress by thinking anew; take a chance and most importantly asking the question ‘What do I want to communicate in my pictures?’
I have grown past the ‘earlier’ way of referencing colour in my painting life. I have reached past a crossroads where I thought I must definitely learn about how other artists use colour. That has happened, and now I find myself developing and working with colours that come from a present time relationship with life and joy.
At this point I see that the palette I had been so married to was in fact weighing me down and had begun to feel like an anchor that stopped me moving my thinking forward and deprived me of the chance to ‘light up’ and to express what is current and immeasurably wonderful to me.
When it comes to it, I still go back to the environment I live in. In that sense I have not changed. The difference is in what I actually select to put in my work.
Not being squashed under the commercial elephant
‘It’s all very well’ says the struggling artist… ‘all very well to keep to the high ground and assert that we should all be ourselvesand not get caught up in making our work commercial so that we can earn a crust!’ ‘Huh!’ AND….. I have to agree!
Artists are caught between being true to themselves and risking being unmarketable, etc., etc. curtailing their inclinations that lead them into creativity, in order to have work accepted in galleries, to be known and to be acknowledged.
It is an old dilemma but one that is also current.
I wonder if things could be different? Could we live in a society that, perhaps, sees art as intrinsically important to it, and so could put a higher value on creativity.