The mid-twentieth-century French artist Jean Bazaine once said “An artist has a very small number of things to say, which are ever emphasized and ever identical.” This viewpoint has been shared by many other artists: Vincent Van Gogh obsessively painted sunflowers, William Turner focused most of his energy on the sea, and Edvard Munch painted at least four versions of The Scream throughout the course of his artistic lifetime.
In fact, it has been said that one of the differences which separates amateur artists from professionals is amateurs tend to continuously shift their focus, from one medium to another, and/or from one concept to another. The preceding statement may seem a bit unfair, and of course exceptions exist, but generally even when professional artists do shift the entirety of their focus or some parameter of it, an underlying conceptual constant exists between the seemingly disparate styles – an idea or principle that ties together a large body of work.
More often than not, these same artists spend years, if not decades, perfecting their craft and seeking out their unique conceptual constant, in discovering what it is they want to “say” and how it is they want to “say it.” Edward Hopper famously remarked, “What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.” Gaining this simple insight into what he wanted to do probably resulted from years of experimentation, as did the development of his technique and the way in which he decided to employ that technique so he could explore something as profoundly simple and beautiful as “sunlight on the side of a house.” And, just as every artist is a unique and individual person, so too is their concept and the approach to that concept. An obsessive desire to capture “light” is fairly well-worn in the visual arts community. “Sunlight on the side of a house” however, is unique to Hopper, as is his decision to combine “the side of a house” with oil paint. Had he been a different person, had the unique path lain down by the unfolding of his life taken a different course, he may have perhaps approached “light” abstractly, or as reflected off the water.
This takes me to my own work, which has, like the work of countless artists before me, developed over the course of many years. Through the endless hours of experimentation, I have found four basic visual motifs have developed, motifs that continuously crop up in my work and that are represented by: water, sky, trees and birds on branches.
Why these motifs? I would say many artists have a difficult time determining how they arrived at the subject matter that defined their work. The type of repetitive subject matter that I’m referring to rarely develops quickly or during some sort of eureka moment. Instead a visual motif will usually emerge over time, filtered from the background noise of numerous other ideas. On one level, each of these seemingly disparate motifs allows me to explore some different aspect of the compositional process: negative space, visual rhythm, color scheme, etc. But on a deeper level, behind the surface of the painting, so to speak, the exterior subject matter that I have developed allows me to explore the more important interior subject matter. To the viewer: a bird, water, clouds in the sky, these are the perceived “subject matter.” To me: the color, the light, the atmosphere that is created by the different elements that combine to create the composition, this is the point. The “subject matter” is merely the means to an end, the medium through which I explore the atmosphere that exists in the inexplicable and beautiful moments of life. In short, I seek to render permanent the fleeting images, carved in light, which ceaselessly enter our minds throughout the day. I seek to recreate, through my painting, a “true” experience, a re-instantiation of the past, with all the concomitant sensory, spatial and emotional associations that defined that moment in time. I seek to capture, as Proust put it, “a fragment of time in the pure state.”
With the four visual motifs: water, sky, trees and birds, acting as a unique perceptual and associative filter, each “captured moment” then exists at the heart of every painting, working as the conceptual constant that binds my body of work together.