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Peeks and Piques!
Representational Art
ART TIMES May 2007

REPRESENTATIONAL PAINTERS have long struggled with the difficulty of presenting 3-dimensional objects on 2-dimensional surfaces. A host of techniques have been discovered and passed down — “tricks”, if you will, of the trade — that bring about the illusion of “reality” to appear as if by magic under the skillful use of pencil, pen, charcoal, pastel stick, conté crayon, or brush. A Dürer drawing of a rabbit, an Ingres nude, a Chardin vase, or a Venetian vista by Canaletto, for example, “fool” the eye into accepting them as tangible “in-the-round” objects or scenes. Largely sloughed off as pure and simple “gimmickry” by those strictly adhering to modernist theories of “pure” art, the fact remains that trained draftsmanship — the common term for representation — is still a skill beloved by many artists and one that continues to elicit admiration on the part of a great many viewers of art. A well-rendered still life, a recognizable human likeness, a believable city- or landscape, is still able to halt the gallery-goer or Museum muser for a closer look and, more often than not, a silent sigh of satisfaction. The satisfaction, I fully believe, is warranted. Until and unless one actually attempts verisimilitude in reproducing a 3-dimensional world in a 2-dimensional format, it is simply too easy to pass if off as a negligible accomplishment on the part of the representational artist. Capturing even the relatively simple shape of a hen’s egg in a drawing or painting can prove to be a daunting task. Try it! When one moves from objects to, say, street scenes or landscapes the task is compounded a hundred- or a thousand-fold (because objects are multiplied, of course). Furthermore, a bowl is a relatively static form — a human face, less so, but still maintaining a continuity of features over a period of time. Street scenes, however, like natural vistas, are almost in constant flux—one might create a plausible “likeness” of a given neighborhood with certain buildings, street signs, and streets or some rural scene containing landmark natural features such as trees, lakes, hills, or streams — but they can only approximate what actually lies before one’s eyes. An amateur but avid landscape painter myself, I am fully aware of the hazards of trying to paint a recognizable piece of nearby countryside. Like many of my fellow plein air artistes, I fudge, of course. There is a famous story of Camille Pissarro being questioned by an on-looking peasant as to why he had painted three trees on his canvas when, in fact, there were only two in front of him. “Look behind you,” said Pissarro. His “fudge” was to place the tree where he wanted it in the interest of making a more pleasing composition — a practice that all artists are familiar with. You are, after all, making a painting and not shooting a photograph. Moving an entire tree, however, is merely a more obvious “trick” that landscape artists have learnt over the years. Though a distinctively-shaped mountain might demand some precision in draftsmanship, it is well-nigh impossible, for example, to reproduce every branch, every leaf, every stem — so “tricks” of suggestive leaf-filled limbs or open fields of grass are employed. A slice of living nature, in any event, is never an easy subject, no matter how accomplished the landscape painter. My own bugaboo is the very season we now find ourselves just entering. Carting my Julien easel and colors out in the merry, merry months of April, May and June most often end up for me in an acute case of frustration. Although I love to paint a snowed-in field with an ice-fringed stream running through it, an autumnal vista, or a summer, sun-drenched forest-floor, the idea of competing with Nature while it is itself in a full-fledged creative explosion of burgeoning life, almost always immediately drives me indoors with my tail between my legs to turn to my real work — writing! So, whatever you may think about representational art, please just remember this — it ain’t as easy as some masters are able to make it look — or as some of its detractors might want you to believe. A few minutes with a pencil and paper in front of that deceptively simple egg could just prove my point.