Principles of Art – Part 2

Being, by Kim McElroy

CƐzanne once said that it was the artist’s task to become concentric with nature. When I paint horses, I try to become the horse. I feel what its like to have the sun on my coat and the wind in my mane, I feel the strength of four powerful legs and what its like to move my ears. In my painting titled “Being”, I vividly remember the experience of being that horse, running through the misty morning with the dew on the grass. When I was almost finished with the painting, I felt it needed something… and then I knew what it was, I added the breath steaming out of the horse’s nostrils, and the piece came alive; it is as if in adding that breath, I added one more element to connect the horse as a living being to our own human experience of breathing.

© Robert Vavra http://robertvavra.com/

When I saw Robert Vavra’s famous photo of a charging white stallion, I knew the feelings I wanted to enhance in his already stunning photograph. I was honored to obtain his permission to use the photo, because I wanted to combine the power of the horse and his wild mane with the frothy wildness of a crashing wave in my painting, “Seafoam”. Having experienced the sea, I could vividly feel the viscous and sticky foam of the waves as they froth against the shore. I would remember what it felt like to body surf, and how long after I came home, the feelings of rolling waves were a memory in my body that night as I lay in bed. I could taste the salt, hear the sounds, and feel the pounding heartbeat of the sea. It is like experiencing virtual reality.

This experience is not limited to artists. We all have imaginations. We have all experienced dreams that seem real and three-dimensional. We can close our eyes and visualize a daisy, or hear in our mind’s ear a tree blowing in the wind.

“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.”
~ Georgia O’Keeffe

Miss Yia Yia, by Kim McElroy

I had this experience of virtual reality a few years ago while creating a portrait of a racehorse named Miss Yia Yia. I had the challenge of painting a dark Win Photo of her winning a race. As I looked at the tiny photograph, I could barely make out the distant trees in the photograph, yet they seemed to glow with an amber light that reminded me of the sun after a storm. I stilled my perception, and for a while I forgot I was looking at a photograph. I placed myself at the racetrack. I viewed the distant trees and imagined I was there looking at them and the backstretch beyond. I looked at the running horses and I noticed the track was wet, which confirmed my impression that it had rained that day. The light in the trees was that of a late fall afternoon, which was confirmed by the time and date on the win photo. I came to the realization that the reason the foreground was so dark was because the horses were in the shadows of the grandstand. If I hadn’t been able to enter the place in my imagination, I would never have noticed these details.

The hardest thing about painting the piece of Miss Yia Yia was how upset I became about the grey horse in third place. The jockey was whipping her, and I could see on her face that she was upset. I debated about blurring out the jockey’s arm, or removing the whip, but then I decided to paint what I perceived; to paint the truth. It was clear that the horse was more focused on being whipped than on winning the race. Perhaps someday someone would look at that horse’s expression and think about the horse’s pespective. Conversely, I also noticed the feather-light touch the jockey of the lead horse had on his reins. Like a dancer, his whole body said “Go!” These sensations and thoughts went into the painting. The client may never notice these emotional details, but I know they are there, and someday someone else will appreciate them.

Sea of Fire, by Kim McElroy

I also learned another important lesson from not being able to fully involve myself in a painting. In my Horses in the Elements Series, I create images of the forms of horses I discover in the natural formations of waves, or clouds, or fire. Years ago I created a set of three paintings of the spirits of horses appearing in lava. When I was researching references for volcanic eruptions, I decided to make the series a progressive image from volcanic eruption, to the lava flowing into the sea. For the third piece I found a reference photograph of a perfect horse head preserved in a cooled lava flow at the tide’s edge. The image of the horse was so clearly visible that I knew that people would be amazed at the form in the rock.

When I started the third painting, I experienced unexpected difficulties. First, the paper wasn’t right, and then the colors of the chalks were too dull. I bought new paper and new pastels and started over, but try as I might, the piece looked amateur and totally lacked depth or impact. I stopped to consider, had I lost my touch? Then I began to realize that the more I looked at it, the more the image of the horse frozen forever in the lava had started to bother me. The horse appeared lifeless, as a contrast from the other two pieces, which featured the spirits of horses flowing and merging with volcanic fire. Could my feelings of being disturbed by the image actually affect my artistic skill? I decided to find out. I researched other references and found another beautiful photograph of lava flowing into the sea. This time, where the two elements met, billows of steam rose up. In the steam I found images of three horses. I had no difficulty in feeling the beauty of this image, and when I started the new painting my skill miraculously returned and the creation of the piece became a joy.

This experience taught me that how I feel affects how I paint. I have also discovered over time that people respond most to the art I create when I truly involve myself with the subject, be it horse, or wave, or person. The reactions of my audience have become the barometer by which I judge how completely I have conveyed what I feel.

“Art is the essence of awareness.”
~ Louise Nevelson

When other artists ask me for advice, I tell them “Paint what you love”. I paint what is important to me; a moment I want the viewer to appreciate. Not a static glimpse through a looking glass, but an experience. A work of art can be a way of tapping into our imaginations, but the piece itself has to have the intent of the artist to share something they feel strongly about. The artist can take the viewer there not just to observe, but also to participate.

Seafoam, by Kim McElroy

“All art consists in this: to show the harmony of a part. And having seen the harmony of a part we pass on to a point where we can guess the harmony of the whole. Whether you be painter, sculptor, musician or writer, all your endeavors are toward lifting from the mass of things a scene, a form, a harmony, a truth, and, relieving it from all that distracts, catch it in immortal amber.”
~ Elbert Hubbard

The art that stands the test of time is the art that speaks of the essence of life that illumines the soul of the moment so that another can experience it. If the artists can go beyond the limitations of their conscious, rational mind which merely observes a scene, or a dream, or a memory – and instead, empathize with the subject they are painting, the work will convey that experience to the viewer. The pieces that I most love, both of my own work and that of other artists, is the art that displays this essential principle.

2 Comments

  1. I enjoyed these two articles and have passed them along to fellow artists to consider. Thanks for sharing these thoughts and insights, Kim!

  2. Thank you, for sharing your observations. I am reminded by the paintings I recently observed in a TV news story about the painting of George W. Bush. He’s done a series portraying wounded war veterans, and his work seems to display the empathy of which you speak.

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