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Copyright © Russell Spencer 2012-2018
Last updated 2018-09-08


About Me

I was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1965, the baby of a family of six. At Victoria University I studied Philosophy which I'm very pleased about because it taught me so much about how to think. Pending fame and fortune as a painter, I support myself by working in IT in the public service.

My Auntie Moag tells me I drew well at age two. I know I started painting spaceships seriously at twelve. I showed and sold frequently at The NZ Academy of Fine Arts in my teens and early twenties, mostly landscapes. In later years my efforts became more sporadic, and I tended to paint portraits, figures, still-lifes, and very bad abstractions.

In 2008 I decided I should take painting more seriously again, and since then I've been trying to find a style or a voice, or to put it another way I've been trying to figure out how to make some good paintings. I had always painted quite realistically, paying too much attention, I often thought, to what things look like. So to force myself to try new approaches I forbad myself to look at any subject matter, and painted anything that popped into my head. I also tried to finally do some tolerable abstractions. That experiment lasted four years and then I ended up back at realism, where I expect I'll remain.

I have always loved the art of painting, and I feel I have a stake in its fate, and I have often asked myself questions such as... Is very realistic painting a sensible or valid thing to do? Why hasn't photography made realistic painting redundant? Will computer generated imagery make painting redundant? Why are there so many different ways to make great paintings? How do you make good art? What is art? Does it matter what art is?

The following discussion has a go at some of these questions, and others like them.


Abstraction And Representation

An abstract painting is a painting that is not of anything - it is just an arrangement of colour and texture on a surface. However, all paintings are arrangements of colour and texture on a surface, and so can be appreciated on an abstract level. A painting of fruit can be appreciated as simply an abstract arrangement of colour and texture, without reference to the fruit it represents. For a long time in the mid twentieth century the dominant voices in the artworld said that serious painters should be honest about the true nature of their medium, and stop trying to represent fruit or anything else, and concentrate on the abstract arrangements of colour and texture. The poster children for this movement were Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. I find it sad that some great representational painters were marginalised during this era, and that it took a long time for representational painting to become completely respectable again.

For me the case for representation is very simple. An abstract painting is about itself. A representational painting is about itself, and also about the thing it represents, and also about the interplay of those two things. There's just much more there for the audience to look at. And much more there for the painter to do. However much imagination a painter brings to creating arrangements of colour and texture, that imagination is more fertile when it also converses and conflicts with an outside world that it is struggling to represent.


Realism And The Psychology Of Seeing

When most people say that a painting is "realistic" they are saying that it is photographic, or visually accurate. For me "realistic" just means that it represents the real world, and there are a number of quite different approaches to doing that. To understand them I find it useful to relate them to the psychology of seeing, which I will clunkily (and I'm sure very inaccurately) divide into four steps.

Step one of seeing is when the retina measures the colour and intensity of the light that is arriving from thousands of different directions. At this point we have just an abstract arrangement of colour. In step two thousands of clues are used to interpret this abstract arrangement of colour as an arrangement of shapes in three dimensional space. At this point we have the size, shape, direction, and distance of the physical objects around us. In step three we use all our knowledge of the world to decide what those objects are. At this point we have identified the physical objects around us. In step four, now that we know what the objects are, our feelings and attitudes about those objects can colour our perception of them. At this point we see the beauty of a desired thing, or the scariness of a threat.

When a painter focusses on describing the pattern of light in a scene they are focussing on step one. When they focus on describing the size, shape, and location of objects, they are focussing on step two. When they report the identity of objects without focussing on their appearance they are focussing on step three.

The Impressionists famously tried to paint pictures that are all about step one. One of them, (I think Renoir), said "I know the girl has a nose on her face but if I don't see it I won't paint it". They chose their subjects, and their painting techniques, to emphasise and explore the glories of the patterns of light that step one works with. When we look at the paintings we naturally perform the other three steps and we see the girl or the haystack, but the initial impression of light is what dominates. I suppose Claude Monet is the Impressionist who best exemplifies this. The Impressionists are the most popular painters in history, and I think it is partly because by focussing on step one of seeing, they are working in an area that everyone can understand.

When children start to draw and paint they ignore steps one and two and go straight to step three. A stick figure drawing of a man says, "man = head + body + arms + legs", in the simplest possible terms. It conveys the idea of a man, but tells us almost nothing about the actual size and shape and arrangement of arms and legs and heads. And it tells us nothing at all about how light reflects off those things. We can look at a lot of mid and late Picasso in the same way. He gives us the idea of a physical object, without giving us many facts about the physical nature of that object.

Since the late Nineteenth Century many painters have felt at liberty to pick and choose which physical elements of a scene they will describe for us. Often they would describe the shape and size of objects with a reasonable amount of detail, but use colour expressively or decoratively rather than to accurately describe the fall of light on the objects. Often they would use visible lines, which emphasise the shape of an object, but are destructive of any attempt to accurately describe the patterns of light. We can say these painters are focussed more or less on step two of seeing. Sometimes their focus falls somewhere between steps one and two, sometimes between steps two and three. Paul Gauguin and Alice Neel are two of my favourite examples of this kind of painter.

Another kind of painter tries to focus on all four steps at once. They try to accurately describe the fall of light. They struggle to bring out the beauty of the shapes of objects. They are always mindful of the identity of the objects, and of what they want to say about them. Examples of this kind of painter include Velazquez, Goya, Delacroix, and for a current example I will pick on Eric Fischl. I would love to be this kind of painter, but it is not easy to focus on all four steps.


Techniques Of Illusionism

When painters focus strongly on steps one and two they often produce the kind of picture that makes people say "wow, that looks real". I call this kind of painting "illusionistic", because it creates the same kind of illusion of seeing the real thing that a photograph does. I will now distinguish two kinds of illusionistic painting. In both cases, when people stand back they say "wow, that looks real". The difference appears when they move in for a closer look. In one case they say "look at the detail - you can see every hair". In the other case they say "but up close it just looks like a few blotches of paint".

I call the first kind "jewel paintings", because the good ones are like glowing precious jewels, and they make me feel quite affectionate about a painter who is prepared to put such loving effort into one painting. They achieve their illusion of reality by describing or cataloguing a vast number of physical facts about the scene. They accumulate illusion by accumulating facts. This approach was very common in the Renaissance, especially the Northern Renaissance. Not long ago I visited London's National Gallery for the first time, and the painting that most won my heart was a jewel painting by Rogier Van Der Weyden called The Magdalen Reading.

I don't have a good name for the second kind of illusionistic painting, but "blotchy paintings" will do. Blotchy paintings seek maximum illusion with minimum detail. They take advantage of the fact that the senses are quite ready to work with limited information. Provided the information available makes sense, the eye will fill in the blanks and create a fully detailed picture in the mind. Because the blotchy painting uses far fewer details, the painter has time to make sure those details are right, and consequently they often create a more powerful illusion than all but a very few jewel paintings. Blotchy paintings became very common in the Nineteenth Century, when photography and photographic reproduction showed painters that convincing illusion can be created with a remarkably limited amount of information. In previous centuries experiments with camera-like optical machines produced the same awareness, and "photorealistic" painting has been with us since at least my favourite painting in Madrid's Prado, Velazquez' great work of 1656, Las Meninas.

For many years I have had a desire to be a blotchy painter, but for decades I have had the jewel painter's habit of accumulating clearly defined detail, and this habit reasserts itself whenever I forget to suppress it. It is one of the great cliches of art that we are not supposed to suppress our instincts, but I am very pleased that recently I have shown increasing signs of successfully suppressing this one.


The Survival Of Painting

When photography appeared in the Nineteenth Century many quite naturally supposed that it would make painting redundant. Painters survived partly by starting to make less illusionistic kinds of paintings that did not compete directly with photography. But completely illusionistic painting has also survived, including "photorealistic" painting that is actually about photography. To date, film and television and computer imagery have also failed to make painting redundant, but these are evolving at a startling rate, so perhaps painting will be dead next week?

I will admit that photography and new media have hugely changed the landscape in which painting works. Before photography all images were handmade. Now we are flooded with images and only the tiniest fraction of them are handmade. I imagine it was much more common to be a professional painter in 1815 that it is today. So in that sense painting has been marginalised, and we might suppose that it is on the way out. But there are also signs that painting has undiminished status. Some photographs have changed hands for millions of dollars, but some paintings have changed hands for hundreds of millions of dollars. The great art museums are filled with visitors, and are filled with paintings that would fetch even higher sums if sold, but will never be sold because they are among the most treasured items in our collective inheritance. It is true that the really huge prices go for works by dead artists, but there are also numerous living painters who fetch prices in the millions.

I think there are several reasons why painting will survive, and I will start with my "last line of defense", a reason which I think is sufficient by itself to keep painting going for at least a few decades, no matter how astonishing the inventions of tomorrow. The reason is simple habit and nostalgia. Most of us continue to be attached to the stuff we were attached to when we were younger. If there are twenty year olds today forming a strong attachment to painting, then their enduring attachment will ensure that painting survives for at least as long as that generation.

Painting will also survive because it is an ancient physical craft, and therefore closer to enduring human realities than are new media. Many are drawn to the earthiness of painting, just as many are drawn to cooking and gardening. Of course many ancient physical crafts have disappeared, but as I heard someone say recently, painting will be a very useful craft to have around for as long as we live in dwellings with walls.

Painting will also survive because we value what is rare and expensive. I suppose this is an irrational preference, but it is very real. Photographs are so common that there seems little reason to spend much time looking at any one of them. But paintings by Goya are rare, and to see most of them you need to travel to Madrid, and when you get there you are very ready to look very closely. We like it that paintings are rare and expensive. We like it that the painter spent hours and hours of skillful effort and concentration. Many of us feel cheated when we feel that, "my two year old could have done that".

My last reason why painting will survive is related to the other reasons, and it is that the handmade nature of paintings increases the scope for communication between the artist and the audience. A large part of the details in a photograph are caused, mechanically, by the scene being photographed, without any input from the artist. A much higher portion of the details in a painting are the result of the artist making a decision, and these decisions are all visible, so there is much more there for the audience to read. Some of these decisions are about how the painting will look in an abstract sense, and in these cases the artist communicates with the audience about the painting. But when the decisions are about how the subject will be represented, the artist communicates with the audience about both the painting and the subject. From this has always flowed ideas about what is a good or worthy subject and what is not, but of course worthiness is in the eye of the beholder. If you think contemplating small objects is an exalted thing to do then still life is an exalted genre. Ditto for landscapes, portraits, figures, or illustrations of traditional stories.


Art

A couple hundred years ago "art" was about making a few kinds of illusionistic pictures and sculptures. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the kinds of work done by artists underwent a rapid and broad diversification. This was caused by a diversifying market, new ideas, and the challenge of photography and industry. The artworld was so self-aware about it that for many this process of seemingly limitless innovation and novelty became the definition and justification of "art". The natural conclusion of this process was asserted by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 when he offered a urinal for exhibition as art. He hadn't made it, he wasn't saying that it was beautiful or special, he was saying that it was art just because an artist said so, that there was no limit to how an artist could make art. This sort of idea has been widely accepted in the artworld ever since, and makes art professionals into a priesthood with an unlimited magical power to create "art" by decree.

On one level this is strange behaviour. Fishermen don't claim an unlimited right to define "fishing". They don't start tossing urinals overboard from their vessels and claim that avante-garde fishermen no longer concern themselves with outdated practices like catching fish. In such a situation they would I think sensibly agree that they have stopped fishing and are now simply messing about for their own private amusement. But on another level it does make perfect sense, because the part of society that used to just look after painting and sculpture has, by historical accident, become the custodian of every weird and marginal creative activity that doesn't really fit under any other established banner. If it's not quite a film it's "video art". If it's not quite a play it's "performance art".

I've seen many weird things in art galleries that make me glad that the artist created it, glad that there is a social structure available which made the artist feel they could dream that up and make it real. I've also seen many weird things in art galleries that make me sincerely wonder why any of the people involved bothered. A thing's being "art" doesn't make it automatically worthy of attention. A thing's not being art is no reason to stop being interested in it.


Advice From Artists

I will finish with some words of advice from some excellent artists. I chose them because I find them very relevant to my own efforts as a painter, and because for me they have the satisfying quality of making me think while making me feel wiser just for the thinking.

In his interviews with David Sylvester, the mind-boggling British painter Francis Bacon offers three pieces of advice to painters, which I paraphrase as...
1 - Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself
2 - Try to have some understanding of the whole of art history
3 - Choose a subject you really care about

In his wonderful and startling picture book Eric Fischl 1970-2007, Fischl says... "The hardest thing for an artist... is knowing when something is finished. It's a dilemma because there are no rules, no checklist, and no external narratives that allow you to say, 'Okay, I've told the story'.... The way I've answered it is that it's done when I become the audience.... It's finished when I'm looking and asking 'What the hell's going on here?'".

In Martin Scorcese's marvellous long documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, Dylan says... "An artist has gotta be careful never really to arrive at a place where he thinks he's at somewhere. You always have to realise that you're constantly in a state of becoming, you know, and, ah, as long you can stay in that realm you'll sort of be alright".