Iglesia de la Soleda, Oaxaca by Walt Gonske
by Kevin Macpherson
Earlier this year I had the privilege of seeing a major John Singer Sargent exhibit in Washington, DC, and an important van Gogh show in Los Angeles, CA. Both artists were masters of representational art. The Sargent exhibit was overwhelming—painting after painting was so skillfully done. Sargent [1856-1925] was capable of portraying any subject through his mastery of draftsmanship, color, value, and materials.
Van Gogh [1853-1890] was not nearly as academically correct, but his expressive paintings filled me with inspiration. His personality flowed forth in each juicy brush stroke. His passion preceded his craft, but the chronologically arranged exhibition revealed the development and refinement of his technical skills. Although van Gogh’s skills never approached Sargent’s mastery, we can overlook his shortcomings because of the overwhelming spirit that lives within his canvases.
In previous columns I have spoken of the need for technical skill; an understanding of color, composition, and the like is absolutely necessary to communicate the artist’s message. But without heart, soul, spirit, and passion, the canvas is merely a lifeless academic excuse for art.
As an example of passionate painting, consider Walt Gonske’s Iglesia de la Soleda, Oaxaca. We immediately sense the artist’s passion for his subject—he is not a mere spectator copying the scene but is personally involved with it. “I am trying to let my emotions show through in the paint. It’s the power and energy in the paint quality that I’m after,” says Gonske. The artist stimulates the viewer with his bold use of brushwork. This artwork, although loosely painted, is by no means sloppy. On the contrary, creating it required the artist to make careful choices. Gonske selected some aspects of the scene to emphasize or exaggerate while editing out others. His painting is based on keen observation and individual choices; it is not a compilation of facts but rather a careful selection of certain facts to express emotions.
An artist will never be able to compete with the imitative powers of a camera—photography has given us an unreasonable standard of representation. What the camera lacks, however, is the human element, the artist’s personal vision and expression of human experience, which elevates a work to art.
If art is only a laborious mechanical recreation of reality without any emotional direction or purpose, it is only a technical exercise. If the artist has no vision, no feelings to express, no emotions to share, what good is all of his or her acquired skill? The emotions must guide the artist to create a skillful rendition of a subject that evokes the senses and moves the spirit. Art is more about how the artist felt about the subject than about the subject itself. If as artists we can reveal our emotions in a well crafted statement, we are nearing excellence in art.
Kevin Macpherson is an award-winning artist who lives in Taos, NM. He is the former president of the Plein Air Painters of America and the author of Fill Your Paintings With Light & Color [1996 North Light Books]. This is his fifth column in a bimonthly series.
Featured in “Artist’s Voice” September 2000