Are Labrador Retrievers Good Art Teachers?
I teach painting at a major art college in Baltimore. We have lots of very thoughtful discussions about what makes for a good painting. Technique, process, vision, art history all get thoroughly chewed over. But underneath it all, I always find myself hoping that my students like dogs.
When I was a kid everyone in my rural neighbor hood had a dog, sometimes two. The dogs all had a heck of a good time together having informal running contests or fighting over a stick. Sure they didn't think and reason a whole lot, but they all had PhD's in knowing how to enjoy whatever was at hand. Dogs seem to live in a world of sensation. Their ability to embrace their experience wholeheartedly is remarkable, and instructive. They know they're alive and they know their experience is worth celebrating.
A big part of my life as a painter revolves around going on painting excursions in New England or the Adirondack Mountains in upper New York- traveling to a see new material seems to turn on an inner switch. When I first arrive I feel like a dog who 's just been let outside after being cooped up in a stuffy house all day- I want to run around breathlessly and almost everything I see looks like I could make a great painting out of it.
Unfortunately, Labradors don't really do well as painters, and it's only partly because they have trouble holding their brushes. The real problem is they get overwhelmed by seeing the possibilities in everything they look at. If you love everything you see, you get immobilized.
Above is my painting Adirondack Forest: Red, oil on panel, 24 x 18", 2012. It was done from a drawing I did with my French easel set up on the shore of Lake Placid in upstate New York (where they held the 1980 and 1932 Winter Olympics). It's a beautiful place for painting, but the scene was way too confusing. You can't paint the thousands of branches and colors. On one level it is all great, but as a painter you're tasked with distilling the experience down to its essence. It's here that a wonderful Labrador-like enthusiasm alone fails.
Something that helps me enormously is working in oil not directly from nature but instead doing a vine charcoal drawing first. Here's the drawing I used for the painting I just showed you. If I've chosen well and selected out just the best viewpoint, I'm still confronted with a source that presents a tableau of too many ideas. Doing a drawing, especially in a medium that pushes things together into softly smeared gradations and eliminates color altogether gives me a fighting chance. My head cools down from its intitial frantic enthusiasm. I can play around, selecting first this form to emphasize and then that. Your spirit has to look at the possibilities through tightly squinted eyes.
Who is good enough to stay, who has to be eliminated? At this stage you can't give an uncertain form the benefit of the doubt. It's a little ruthless. Below is a photo of how I feel when I'm trying to select just the very best elements for my drawing or painting.
My other great teacher growing up was a cat. Easily pleased he wasn't. He was friendly enough, but there was a certain look in his eye that made you think he was a natural skeptic- nothing ever seemed quite good enough.
Oil paint is amazingly sensuous, but it can go overboard. Sometimes when my paintings are fighting me and the colors aren't staying just where they should I'm reminded of how slobberingly good hearted a dog can be. Cats by comparison are fussy nay-sayers. Left to their own devices, I think cats would fail as painters as no idea or set of colors would ever be good enough for them to work with.
What an artist needs is to tap both their wild inner Labrador side and their ever-so-critical inner feline nature. It's tricky, as the legendary antagonism between dogs and cats testifies. You have to marry your open hearted enthusiasm to your coldly selective eye. It's a heady combination.