Soul vs Technique in Fine Art


Metamodern Art. Soul vs Technique in Fine Art.

”Art is a thing so much of the imagination, of the soul, that it is difficult to descend to the fundamentals of technique and yet make it plain to the student that these are but the ‘means’ and not an end in themselves.” – John F. Carlson


By EJ Wickes
“My Back Pages” by Paul Villinski (above)

When we think of the word soul as an adjective to art, the popular music genre from the 50’s and 60’s comes to mind. Soul gets its spiritually charged roots from African American gospel music and its emotional inspiration has been carried into many other forms of music since. Soul in terms of music is stimulated by an emotional and physical reaction to the vibrations of the sound waves and the inflections or movements of the performer. Even though a great deal of technique is being applied the performer appears at ease and the performance unlabored.

Static visual art is unique among all the art genres. No sound, no movement, only the illusion of life through effective use of technique. With non-objective or expressionistic work the soul or life energy has to be conveyed with application, color, depth and movement. With surface conscious work it may be elements of design or color interaction that produce the emotional response. To complete the entire experience with a painting, nothing is more inspiring than to see the actual brushstrokes or splatters made by the artist, or lack thereof. A painting, print or sculpture is not performed or played or listened to or even watched per se. It’s looked at, examined, admired or rejected, but existentially it’s felt.

In the era of metamodernism new aesthetics arrive. Digital media provides less tactile engagement and connectivity to organic materials. Digital media begins with the human factor in concept and from there it becomes complete through artificial means. At what point does the soul leave or enter that process? I think this has led to challenging questions when discussing the interaction between soulful expression and the techniques of fine art. When a famous artist is commissioned to do a mural, who’s soul is felt when the artist’s assistants are in reality doing the work? Which is more important, the idea or the execution?

Soul can be what an artist captures in the gesture of the form, more than just carefully placed marks on a two dimensional substrate. In other words, how real or alive does it look? Does the viewer’s mind’s eye pass through the two-dimensional picture plane and try to see around the object or does it bounce off the surface? Unfortunately the majority of casual art aficionados in contemporary society tend to regard accurate representations of life to be more credible for example, than non-objective styles, abstract expressionism or other movements that have broken away from realism.

Most visual art studies begin with life drawing and still life. It is important to teach the eye to see. Exposure to the techniques of perspective and foreshortening are needed. Da Vinci through his complex study of the figure and its anatomy, made it the focal point of Renaissance art as the image of God’s Holy Spirit in Man. As the human figure embodies almost every form and texture in life, it is the one of the most complete and complex subjects to draw.

Color theory, proportion, composition and perspective are all about the techniques of art. They are the tools in the artist’s box. The mechanic needs to learn how to use the tools before he starts inventing with them. The artist sometimes needs to learn the rules before he can justify breaking them with his own aesthetics.

There are talented artists who can draw with remarkable accuracy, or duplicate the chiaroscuro technique of Caravaggio to a minute detail. Those who pursue art at an early age generally start producing very technically proficient work by the time they’re ready to enter college. To them it’s about formalism; rendering and realism. They learn how to draw very well and then they learn how to draw with paint very well. But does the work project any soul?

“On Painting” by Leon Battista Alberti, established that the figures are to be so ordered that their emotion will be projected to the observer. There is to be variety and richness in the painting, yet the painter must exercise self-restraint to avoid excesses.”  (John R. Spencer) – Source

Another kind of soul is the feeling the viewer gets from the narrative itself. The artist being successful in projecting the soul through the portrait has the other challenge of compelling a soulful or reflective response from the viewer. In the study of the arts, eventually a departure occurs somewhere in the process of finding truth. Truth could be a word to describe the level an artist reaches when they no longer wrestle with the question of what to paint, but why they would want to paint it.

In his book The Courage to Create” (1975), Rollo May explains how the persistently active consciousness can block out the expressive functions of the subconscious. Each keeps the other in check. The conscious mind needs to exercise rational thought and cohesion to the standard models and from the subconscious come the distractions and abstractions that keep the conscious mind from losing itself in perpetual anxiety. When it’s least expected, an epiphany comes out of nowhere.

Some individuals engage the arts much later in life; perhaps after they retire. The desire of the experience is sometimes more important than the mastering of the technique. There tends to be less of a competitive nature among older, more mature aficionados. There is no career at stake and the personal demand for proficiency becomes less of a burden. The creative experience becomes a therapeutic exercise for relaxation rather than an intense mind bending curriculum for professional development.

Under these conditions there is less conflict between the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious mind being more relaxed allows the subconscious, where many thoughts and feelings linger, to seep through. Some artists might find meditation before going to work helpful in reducing some mental static or anxiety.

This might be one reason why a young talented artist’s work could appear cold and lifeless compared to a senior citizen’s work executed with much less technical ability. The energy or life experience of the older artist can sometimes be felt resonating from the work.

“Technique isn’t enough on its own – emotion has to come through – but when you’ve got the technique sewn up, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about.” – Zoe Benbow

Technique is important. How well an artist becomes familiar with the fundamental techniques and chemistry of art is crucial. Whether it is in their search to manipulate a certain media in new ways or to develop their skill in portraying life through their own personal narrative; where technique leaves off, the soul begins and neither can exist without the other in truly honest art.

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