The Complex Simplicity Of Opinions


“I want to touch people with my art. I want them to say, ‘He feels deeply, he feels tenderly.'”
Vincent van Gogh

The movie “Loving Vincent” is set to open in theatres shortly. This ground-breaking movie is entirely hand painted, and I am eager to see it. Not just for the way it was crafted, but for the story of Vincent. Much of what he wrote over his all too short of life really resonates with me, as I’m sure it does for many other artists.

While I am always striving to improve the technical mastery of my work, my main concern is expression, as I believe it was with van Gogh. I want my work to resonate with other people in the world who also feel deeply and tenderly. In that regard I have reached out to a couple of (so-called) experts over the past year to see how my work is perceived by others and if it is meeting the goals I have for it. 

In one instance I was given the advice to continue to work on simplification to allow the emotion to be more easily expressed. To represent the figure with the slash of a well crafted brush stroke, rather than excessively rendering it. In another the person said: “Consider removing the figures from your work until you can render them so well that they have something strong to say and aren’t props in a painting. ” The point is the figures are just props. As I’ve written before about staffage: figures placed to help guide the eye and tell the story, but not to form the story itself.   

I was recently at the Monet exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery and while studying some of his work a discussion about the figures in his landscapes occurred. His painting ‘Snow Effect Sunset’ was one of my favourites from the exhibition. In it, his rendering of the figures are exactly what the first expert had been pushing me towards. Nothing more than a well placed slash of paint.  What would happen to the painting if the figures were rendered more? Would the focus shift from the light and feeling of cold, to the figures alone? The hint of warmth in the sky would not have the same importance in telling us what a chilly day it is here if our attentions were diverted to more highly rendered figures. 

How do the figures inform the composition of this painting? 

“Oh! I must somehow manage to do a figure in a few strokes.”
Vincent van Gogh 

In the painting ‘Iron Mill In The Hague’ by van Gogh, the eye enters the painting at the start of the canal and follows it down. If not for the figure it would likely continue right out at the bottom right, but the figure says “hey wait a minute, look here”, and helps guide us up to the chimney stacks that tells us about the heavy industry and pollution happening in this seemingly idyllic village. The figure here is rendered in slightly more detail than that of Monet’s painting, but still not what one would consider ‘well rendered’. Was Monet’s version of the figure what van Gogh was striving for in his own work?

In my work, I am aiming for expression. To tell a story which the viewer can feel more so that read. My staffage figures are somewhere between the two artists. Probably closer to van Gogh, but trying to get more like Monet’s without them looking like accidental marks I forget to finish! I want people to see the passion more so than the technical mastery or technique. That’s not to say I don’t want the work to be better technically or for me to have better technique. Far from it. But the problem with trying to reach that goal is the goalposts keep moving! The closer you get, the further out (or higher up) you move the goal.  

The person who told me to leave out the figures had started off saying “The work is viable. It’s painterly, it’s abstract landscape, a good sense of color”, but then finished by saying “your work isn’t compelling – your subject matter isn’t interesting to a general public and the way you render it isn’t either.  You don’t seem to understand the importance of division of space, line and mark making, paint/brush work, edge, shapes, values, color, form, or drawing.”. Confused? Me too. 

Why such completely opposite opinions from the people I sought advice from, and even from one so called expert? A viewer’s background and past history has more to do with their reaction to any given painting than the technical mastery and intentions of the artist. The opinions may even depend on the kind of day that person has had and where they are struggling in their own life.

Therein lies the problem with art and, especially with seeking someone’s advice, there is no one answer. Where one person comes from may be completely at odds with where another person is coming from. Where one artist is aiming for high realism, another’s goal is personal expression. At it’s simplest, it all boils down to “do you like the work….does it move you”. The complexity resides in the why’s and why nots.

So how do you know who you should seek counsel with, and who may be at complete opposition to your artistic intentions and style? The whole process has spurred me to want to write an article about what to look for before seeking someone for art advice, coaching, or critique, and I would like to ask my fellow artists if you have any stories about hiring someone you’d like to share. I am looking for good and bad situations. How have you benefitted by a critique? How has it hurt you? Do you have any tips for making sure you have hired someone that you will get along with and provide YOU with valuable but trustworthy opinions?