Character and characteristics
Robert Genn

January 8, 2010

Dear Rodney,Like a lot of boys, I was interested in cars. You might say I was nuts about 
them. I drew them at the drop of a hubcap--filling the margins of my 
schoolbooks with their curves. Perversion? Maybe. One just automatically draws 
the things one loves. In my case, I drew them from memory. Yep, I could do a 
pretty good '53 Chevy or a '36 Cord while making a cameo appearance in Math 
101. Fact is, I knew the principal characteristics of so many models, I was 
able to extract their essences from my mental bank.

The trouble with reference material is that we tend to paint that tree, that 
rock, or that barn in the specificity we happen to have in the reference at 
hand. On the other hand, with loved images dragged in from recollection, we 
tend to catch their spirit.

Let's take larches. I've been painting a lot of them lately. Larches are the 
high-mountain conifers that turn yellow in the fall and eventually lose their 
needles. With a charm of their own, they are often scraggly and seemingly 
ill-designed compared to say pines or hemlocks. Their eccentric branches reach 
in unexpected directions and take un-treelike turns. Up in the mountains last 
summer I made myself spend a few hours getting to know them. Rather than 
trying to render a specific larch, I was looking for larchness.

Painting, as I've said a few times before, is a matter of cooperating with the 
needs of the painting. If my painted larch is needed to reach out awkwardly in 
the direction of another pictorial element or shy back from one, then so be 
it. To heck with how the larch in question actually was.

To understand the characteristics of things, it doesn't hurt to assign 
anthropomorphic connections. Larches reach out, droop, befuddle, dance, 
embrace each other and inadvertently pray to the sky. These sorts of 
considerations help imbed vital characteristics in our mental banks. There's 
another benefit: having insider knowledge helps us love the stuff even more. 
Without necessarily going all the way to caricature, the end result can be 
work that has character.

Best regards,


PS: "Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making 
something exist by observing it. And his hope for other people is that they 
will also make it exist by observing it. I call it 'creative observation.'" 
(William S. Burroughs)

Esoterica: Awareness and observation are the habits of blessed artists. It is 
our life blood. "Art," said Vincent van Gogh, "demands constant observation." 
It's not only profitable but one of the greatest of life-enhancers. "A 
heightened sense of the observation of nature is one of the chief delights 
that have come to me through trying to paint," said Winston Churchill. If 
you'd like to read some excellent quotes on the fine art of observation, some 
of them by you, our subscribers, please go here.