Impressionism is not dead, nor is it’s modern application a sentimental reflection of 19th century fine art. I am a modern Impressionist painter and fine artist. This is a simple statement of who I am. As a modern Impressionist painter, I ‘see’ the environment differently, expressing my interpretation of the land and sea using Impressionist techniques and theories. As a fine artist I create paintings that are ‘historically reflexive’, and according to Beardsley “capable of affording an aesthetic experience valuable for [their] marked aesthetic character” (Davies, 2002. pp. 171-173). This may appear to be an outdated way of thinking confining me to a narrow perspective of who I am and what I do, but it is my opinion that an artist must develop a clear understanding of themselves and their work, to place them in context with (or against) the broader ‘Artworld’. This is in contradiction to Lieu, who states that the distinction between fine art and other definitions is artificial and that most art can be placed into any category (fine, visual, illustration) (Lieu, 2013. p. 5). Davies also argues that with the introduction of ready-mades by Duchamp in the early 20thcentury, the definition of art has only become more difficult. Their opinions, however, do not mean that I have to agree with them. As an informed and experienced artist, it is more important, in my view, to clearly establish my identity and purpose, whilst remaining mindful of the movement and artists that have inspired me.
In consideration of this, my objective as a ‘fine artist’ and modern Impressionist painter, is to ensure that my paintings are created with an aesthetic and intellectual purpose (Przybylek, 2019). This is not in ignorance of the existence of culturally diverse Artworlds but is reflective of my area of focus, which includes the appropriation of ideas from any genre, but in particular, Australian Impressionism. A movement exemplified by artists like McCubbin (1855-1917), Withers (1867-1943) and Sutherland (1853-1928), and recently, successful Melbourne artist and art teacher David Chen, with whom I studied from 2012 to 2017. Chen’s workshops covered the principles of Impressionist painting, like colour and tonal theory, composition, and how to create a distinctive painting based on our aesthetic appreciation of the subject and artistic sensibilities. Figure 1 shows how Chen uses colour, and tone, to create an atmospheric and beautiful view, using simple dramatic shapes and a limited cool palette.
Figure 1: David Chen. Preparing for Sail, Oil on Canvas. Size unknown. C. 2008.
Some may argue that Australian Impressionism has had its time as a basis for the development of Australian Art; I disagree, based on what I have learnt over several years. Just as Shakespeare is open to modern interpretation in the theatre, or a movie (Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo and Juliet, 1996), I believe that Impressionism is equally capable of transitioning to respond to the changes in contemporary society as it becomes further removed from rural life. It, in fact, may be needed because of more people living in cities and the suburbs according to the United Nations (2018. May 16). For that reason, my Impressionist paintings are vehicles by which aesthetic appreciation of fine art instigates a conversation about the beauty of the natural environment. Carlson states, that art and nature require a different type of knowledge but a similar aesthetic appreciation, which in principle I agree. My belief is that the manifestation of aesthetic appreciation and expression in my modern Impressionist paintings can raise awareness of the natural environment, and inspire a desire in viewers to protect it, as both are ‘genuinely aesthetic’. This is with the understanding that each must be treated on its own cognisant terms, despite having certain ‘shared features’ (Eaton, 2004. pp. 66-67).
Responding to these issues means that I seek attention through positive aesthetic responses rather than any attempt to use sensationalism or controversy. My goal is not to prompt fear or hopelessness by portraying slaughtered animals, or rubbish filled polluted rivers and beaches. On the contrary, I aim to confirm that beauty in art can inspire the protection of the natural environment, rather than provoke people to shame. Collingwood called this my ‘emotional truth’, in contrast to scientific or philosophical truth, which a good artist constantly works to improve with the goal of it being generated in others by its expression in the future (Collingwood, 2007. p. 2). He goes on to say that such expression in an artwork is achieved without thought of future viewers, but I tend to disagree with him on this point, as it is often my experience, especially with commissioned pieces, that it is important to keep the tastes of the client in mind, as a consideration but not a priority. When this is successfully achieved, I create paintings that respond to my artistic sensibilities, express my ‘emotional truth’, and encourage engagement with the subject by future viewers of my work. This however does not guarantee a similar response or aesthetic attitude by these viewers, as being in the state of mind to be receptive to anything I have expressed is purely voluntary. Sheppard describes aesthetic attitude as a kind of ‘detachment’ or specific behaviour, related to aesthetic experience. She admits, however, that writers like Kant, Schopenhauer, and Bullough have all differed in their opinions about what it is exactly. Her view is that it involves “attending to objects [art] for their own sake – and by a distinctive kind of emotional response…” But as she says, there is more to aesthetic appreciation than these attitudes. (Sheppard 1111, 69-72). As a result, what I glean from this is that I may present my case for aesthetic appreciation of my work, but it is still the right of the individual, based on their taste and interests, to make up their own minds. My aesthetic response to the sublime nature of a bushfire for example, is not likely to be appreciated by a victim of the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, on February 7th, 2009. This, however, may depend on whether the painting is perceived as an artwork, unrelated to, but inspired by, my perception of the nature of bush fires, or an imitation of an actual event that has impacted a particular viewer.
In anticipation, and in consideration of the feelings of bushfire victims as an example, my goal is to avoid confronting views of actual events by appealing to the innate ability in all humans to ‘read’ images and symbols based on their tastes and cultural influences. I include symbolism, to help viewers to remain ‘detached’ enough to prompt aesthetic contemplation via a visual dialogue or story. It is speculated by scientists that reading figurative and abstract representation was the beginning of communication and higher functioning thinking, indicating the creative nature of humans as distinct from our closest living relatives (George, 2016. p. 2-4). Eaton says that the concept of art, although not realised in that manner at the time, is evident in ancient cultures (Eaton, 2004. p. 64). In each, we see symbolism and the ever-changing idea of what is beautiful. Painters have been using symbolism and contemporary notions of beauty for generations, in Classicist and Romanticist paintings for example, and in particular in religious artworks. These depend on convention (Sheppard, 1987. pp.9-11). For example, a person from an eastern religion would not necessarily understand the symbolism of the lion for St Mark, just as someone who was not aware of local indigenous culture in Victoria, would not understand my use of the symbolism of the crow for the Bunurung people. So, it is up me to use additional visual guides to underpin the essence of the representation in my Modern Impressionist paintings of the landscape that I have learnt to love.
Figure 2: Janice Mills. Seaford Looking Towards Frankston, Oil on Board. 9×5 inches. 2014.
My ‘artistic love affair’ with the Australian environment and urge to express it in paint grew over several decades. During this time, as I experimented with a variety of materials and subjects, I decided on oil painting as my preferred medium. Oil painting, is an extension of who I am, enriching my life with its presence, and impoverishing it in its absence. For me, no other medium has the same buttery texture as it is mixed on the palette, or approaches the richness of colour as the paint is built up layer over layer, each allowing a little of the underlying hue to shine through as it is scumbled across the surface. Oils are also the most ‘forgiving’ of the mediums I have used, allowing for my missteps to be lifted, or painted over for a new painting adding underlying textures that intensify the depth and creativity in the new work. Oils work with the distinctive characteristics of canvas, hessian, wood, archival acetate, and glass surfaces and I love applying traditional painting techniques to a variety of unusual surfaces. The properties expressed through the use of this medium on such diverse surfaces, creates beautiful textures, dramatic light and movement. Each responding differently as the paint is applied, creating feelings of delight, or sometimes surprise, and occasionally frustration. This can sometimes create the need for delaying further work on a painting to allow drying, or time to rethink its direction, like why certain properties are not ‘working’.
This raises the question of a shortcoming in skills on my part, or an aesthetic property that needs to be addressed. When speaking about art, Sibley lists aesthetic properties such as balance, power, and serenity which can be expanded on, but not necessarily understood, or noticed, by viewers who lacked the correct taste. Cohen disagreed with Sibley pointing out that such properties could be equally applied to non-aesthetic objects, and that recognition of a ‘graceful line’ did not require his definition of taste (in Gaut & Lopes, 2001. pp. 182-185). Such disagreements have tended to confuse my understanding of what aesthetic properties are evident in my processes and choice of medium, however I tend to agree with Beardsley when he states that they are ones that “contribute to the evaluations and values of art works.” My interpretation of that is that the energy I imply in the subject, the emotive qualities of the application of colour and paint on the surface, and resultant overall ‘feel’ of the painting are its aesthetic qualities. That being said, recognition and responses of any of these will vary with different viewers, despite my intentions.
Figure 2 is oil on marine ply board, where I have allowed the texture to show through the painting. I believe this adds to the aesthetic quality, which on a smooth surface would not be as interesting, or as enjoyable to paint. As my brush touches the canvas, or more recently wood, or roughly woven hessian, in response to a scene like this, there is anticipation and hope of achieving expression in the painting that reflects how I see and respond to it. The process creates a ‘bubble’ where the mind, the hand, the brush, the paint, the canvas, and the subject are one. A symphony begins as the brush moves across the surface, and dialogue carries the story from the landscape to the artist, to the emerging painting. I am part of the environment, but in a sense, removed from it as a ‘disinterested’ observer, as time disappears from consciousness, and the process of painting wraps me in a warm blanket of creativity. The result; a testament to a current time, place, experience, and a story to be reinterpreted by each new viewer. An emotional experience that I share with painters that I have worked along-side who explore vastly different genres to that of my own, like local Victorian artist Peter Biram.
Environmental Expressionism, coined by Biram, describes how he expresses man’s misuse of the natural world with painterly use of pattern, bold lines, LED lights and views that take in what we can’t see in and under the landscape (Biram, 2009). I have often shared passionate discussions about our shared love of the land and desire to express our aesthetic responses in our work with him, despite our very different methods. Other landscape painters that I have studied and worked along-side have displayed a love of painting the environment, and methods such as painting en plein air, and experimenting with surfaces. Additionally, we share a love of experiencing the Australian landscape. However, I differ by my adherence to Impressionist methods and styles of painting, and inclusion of symbolism to create more than a realistic view of bushland or the ocean. I also represent the passage of time, as the viewer looks from left to right across a single painting, along with Indigenous and western symbolism which I have not seen done elsewhere. An example is my painting Blast of a Furnace Breath2019, where the change in colour left to right implies the passage of time, the fleeing crows the displacement of indigenous peoples by western settlement, and fire is used as the symbol of violence in the process. This places me in a fairly unique position as my paintings are landscapes based on the Australian environment, but they express my interpretation of Impressionist methods and techniques, colour to represent time, symbolism, and analysis of what I want to express, that are not widely adopted in landscape painting to my knowledge.
As a fine artist using the above techniques, I ‘see’, rather than merely observing without analysis, the Australian landscape as its unique colours and textures change through the seasons. Each of which I find is so beautifully translated in the subtle earthy colours and vivid hues mixed on my palette. I think about its history, and I try to understand its uniqueness. I love the beauty and sublime ‘nature’ of the land, so I continually question how that can be translated into a painting. I question where the beauty lies in a raging bushfire or a storm-ravaged seascape, and how I can bring my interpretation to life in my art. Clive Bell’s notion of aesthetic emotion describes how artists use aesthetic responses, and emotions to summon awe, or an overwhelming sense of peace, which is a concept that I can easily see at work in my ocean seascapes (in Robinson, 2004. p. 175).
Tormey, on the other hand, contended that art can have expressive (emotive) qualities without the artist experiencing them, which I tend to disagree with (in Robinson, 2004. p. 179). I don’t think it is possible for me to produce a painting without a certain amount of ‘emotional energy’ going into it and being expressed in the result. Collingwood’s thoughts about expression in artworks and ‘intuitive knowledge’, support Bell’s notion adding that this ‘special intuition’ of the artist’s emotional state is “expressed in the creation of a new, original, unique work of art.” (ibid, pp. 178-179). Therefore, despite the contrary arguments by Tormey, my position is that articulation and expression of my feelings as I engage with the landscape are subtly relayed through the brush into the painting, validating my support of Bell and Collingwood’s remarks. It a matter of which emotions I may be expressing, the ones that are generated by my personal life and health, the ones that are realized by my love of the subject and the process of painting, or a complex mix of both, and which ones are identified later by viewers with different backgrounds and tastes.
In consideration, my application of Modern Impressionist painting principles, is more than an exercise in copying something ‘beautiful’ from nature, or an expression of my aesthetic or ‘personal’ emotions in isolation. Nor is it a vain attempt to capture what Plato described as the ideal ‘Form’ of an object, or its flawed incarnation on earth. It is via representation and not imitation that I plan the landscapes in my paintings. In many cases I ‘borrow’ aspects from several locations to create a single landscape, as my goal is recognition of the ‘Australian nature or flavour’ of the work, not its geographic accuracy. As Sheppard states, when looking at Constable’s The Haywain, we know we are looking at a painting, and we may recognise features of the English countryside, but we admire it for more than it’s imitative qualities (Sheppard, 1987 P. 7). As such, when I am painting I am not holding a mirror up to the real world to copy, as much as I am to my interpretation of that world. I also consider the tradition of Impressionist artists ‘borrowing’ ideas and learning from their predecessors, and peers, to add to their own repertoire of methods, and styles of painting (Collingwood, 2007. p. 4).
As a result, there is a complex process operating as my aesthetic emotions work in collaboration with cognitive and rational analysis in response to the land. The importance of this artistic process is emphasized by David Best who states, ‘We need to reject the still prevalent subjectivist clichés, and to insist that artistic feeling is itself essentially rational and cognitive.’ (Best 1989, p. 84). My interpretation of this is that although I may have an emotive or positive aesthetic response to a landscape or seascape, that will not guarantee a successfully completed painting if emotions are all that I rely on. From that initial ‘spark’ of inspiration, I need to glean the aspects that prompted my reaction so that I can use what I think is necessary, and discard any elements that I think will detract from the painting. As a result, the cognitive edits and refines the emotional response to ensure that fundamental ‘rules’ of colour theory, perspective, and application of tonal values are not lost during the process of painting. Such exploration and elucidation of my emotions as I work with the paint according to Collingwood results in an outward manifestation based on the use of the imagery, metaphors, and rhythm that I establish as I work (Robinson, 2004. pp. 178-179). Levinson digs deeper into the questions of how artworks achieve such expression, and how the artwork is then able to be made manifest. According to him, artistic expression is “the manifestation and elucidation of an emotional state of an artist…” which Robinson says “ties the emotional state of the artist to the expressive state of the artwork” (ibid. p. 181).
These theories answer some long-held questions I have had about my paintings when observing the intense emotional reactions of people who went on to buy them. On one occasion, early in my career in February 1979, after a break up of a relationship, I saw a man standing for an extended period in front of one painting I had in a solo exhibition. I asked what attracted him to the work, and he said that he felt extremely guilty but didn’t know why, and then immediately bought the painting. I remember completing that painting in greys and yellows, with naked bald figures staring out with blank expressions from the canvas. Before it was completed I had friends asking if they should be worried about me. It was then that I began to question the power of art to express emotion and how it is picked up by viewers who took time to think about what they were looking at, and who were in emotionally responsive states. Robinson calls this expression theory, where the emphasis is on the manifestation of the emotions of the artist in the artwork, which are perceived by the viewers (Robinson, 2004, 178-179).
Following this line of thinking, Robinson speaks about the ‘tortured emotional state’ expressed by Post-Impressionist van Gogh in his landscapes, or the ‘anguish’ expressed by Munch in The Scream (Robinson, 2004. p. 187). As so much is commonly known about the life of van Gogh, I question the feelings described by Robinson, as they may be more about sympathy for the artist. In contrast, I have experienced a powerful reaction, in the form of fear for the figure and a sense of extreme tension when looking at The Scream, while knowing little about the artist behind it. Whereas I know a significant amount about van Gogh, but do not see so much his emotional distress, as I do his love of colour, texture, and the night sky passionately expressed in his flowers and landscapes in particular. Whilst rejecting some concerns of Impressionism for symbolic content in these paintings, there were aspects which I think that van Gogh enthusiastically applied. In my opinion, based on my emotional responses to his work, and letters to his brother I have read, van Gogh often found a way to cope with his negative emotional and mental issues, by expressing his positive aesthetic responses in his art, whilst in his own creative ‘bubble’ exploring new techniques of painting. I have learnt recently how this works, as I have been able to overcome personal anxiety by placing a priority on my positive responses to the landscape, and my love of the medium when painting.
Like Impressionist painting methods, the choice of colours, and the texture of the paint passionately juxtaposing across the canvas, as if swept away by the moment, are what move my emotions in van Gogh’s paintings. This leaves me with the conclusion that no matter what state of mind, or aesthetic response I have to a subject when painting it, the expression it takes on will likely be unique according to every individual’s interpretation. Based on these thoughts, I must ask myself if the value of the painting I create is from the characteristics that I include, or the perceived expression that viewers glean from it despite my intentions, considering that I am convinced that my application of Impressionism is relevant and expressive of some emotions. These may include my ‘personal feelings on the day as I created the painting, my aesthetic emotions raised by the subject, or the act of painting it, or those of the viewer for a similar variety of reasons (ibid, p. 179). As a result, the complexity of these issues only makes the analysis of value only more difficult.
Figure 3: Janice Mills. Abridged: Princes Bridge Melbourne, Oil on Canvas. 120x90cm. 2017.
Sheppard claims that it is possible that all artworks share a common characteristic making them especially valuable, but what that is has been the subject of debate (1987. pp. 1-3). As I face the canvas I question how to give my paintings value, in response to my cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic interests, whilst adhering to Impressionist methods and style. I have thought that previously that I precariously applied theories of imitation, expression, and form at the risk losing the most important quality, beauty. By way of illustration, when I recently painted Princes Bridge in Melbourne (Figure 3), my first concern was how to create a representation (mimesis) based on my aesthetic response and not to make an imitation (Sheppard, 1987. pp. 4-17). Application of Impressionist methods of painting allowed me to explore how to add atmosphere to the bridge, river, and background, and how I could make the painting an expression of my artistic sensibilities and aesthetic response, whilst retaining recognition of what and where it is. What I am still not sure about, however, is how Kant’s idea of the intrinsic properties (or form) of the bridge (Kant, 2008. p. 53-57) compares with, and can be expressed, using what Langer describes as significant form (Langer, 1953. pp. 32-33). I assume this involves using line, colour, and the relationship of forms within the painting to stir aesthetic emotions, but this raises the same question about whether this is possible with only certain receptive viewers, including myself. As Bell indicated, I can produce a painting that is technically correct, but fails to cause aesthetic emotion (Ibid, pp. 33-34). which to me, indicates a failure to achieve ‘significant form’ over concerns about recognised conventions.
As a result, I need to know how much, and when I should adhere to conventions that are commonly used to describe the physical world before risking the loss of aesthetic expression and significant form. For me, in a successful painting the sky is not always blue, or trees green. Sometimes, the sky is a hazy apricot, disguising the city skyline, the river a cool flowing green, and a bridge is imbued with subtle additional colours to ‘bed’ it within the painting. When I remove all the unnecessary detail, and conventional use of colour in such a painting, what remains is my ‘impression’, that reflects my experience of the beauty of the bridge which is what I consider makes it valuable. The informed use of specific colours and techniques, however, is not based on emotional considerations as much as they are on acquired knowledge of Impressionist colour theory to unify the various aspects or forms within the painting. At some point in the process of painting, it is my feeling and experience, that to ensure that colour and tone complement and ‘relate’ to each other, cognitive analysis must be considered above my emotional involvement with the process and subject.
Figure 4:George Stubbs. Lion Attacking a Horse (detail), Oil on Canvas. 69×100.1cm. c. 1765.
As Miremont says in his manifesto, The Resurrection of Beauty: “What we are creates culture. Culture informs action. Action defines history. History determines the present” (Miremont, 2010. p. 4). He goes on to argue that beauty in art during the 20thcentury has been rejected as sentimental and naïve. Yet a negative message can be painted beautifully, and understandably as is proven by artists like George Stubbs. A horse being attacked by a lion, as seen in Figure 4(above), is hardly sentimental, it is violent. Yet, in that violence, I can find pleasure because of its beauty, despite being a horse owner (Kant, 2008. pp. 35-42). My interpretation of what Stubbs has achieved his painting is timing the action so that the outcome is unresolved. There is no victim or victor as the strength of the horse may yet fight off the lion. Stubbs’ great understanding of animal anatomy, and painterly ability to present a scene of emotive drama, as if frozen in time, are what initially appeals to my artistic sensibilities. I can ‘hear’ the squeal of the horse, and the roar of the lion, whilst taking in the sensitive use of colour, tone, texture, and light that make this work beautiful and emotive, triggering my positive aesthetic response to the painting prior to any conscious cognitive evaluation. (Robinson, 2004. P. 189-190).
This response is something that I think is important when I paint landscapes that are based on historic changes in the environment, such as the displacement of Indigenous inhabitants, for example. These are painted sympathetically using Indigenous symbolism that intertwines seamlessly with recognisable western forms that conform to a broader range of definitions of beauty. Furthermore, the use of symbols invites deeper inquiry by viewers instead of depicting obvious bloodshed, which in the case of historic conflicts would be accurate but confronting. Therefore, as an act of respect to Australia’s displaced Indigenous peoples, I use ‘totem’ crows and other animals, so that my paintings can be appreciated by more than one culture. Such sympathetic attention, according to Stolnitz, allows the subject to guide me resulting in a richer experience (Stolnitz, 1960. pp.33, 35), and higher aesthetic value for viewers, rather than mere shock value. Stolnitz and Miremont made valid points in my opinion, as beauty, rather than being naïve, or ignorant of social issues, is a valid method of raising awareness while triggering positive aesthetic responses. This beauty is something that I believe is enhanced by my Impressionist painting techniques, resulting in a coalescence with emotion and intellect.
When describing the French Impressionists, who influenced and were influenced by Australian Impressionists, Hughes states that they saw the world, not only technically, but also morally, possibly with irony but never with despair (1991, p.113). It is through their work that art began to speak to the ‘common’ person, as painters saw the value in the every-day and the public began to see their lives reflected in their work. If indeed, the aesthetic value of a painting is connected to the experience, then this exemplifies how it applies equally to me as the artist and the viewer. If empiricism is correct, I must now ask myself by what values I make my aesthetic judgements. If I determine if an experience is done ‘the right way’, then my standards and my judgement are the most valid (Goldman 2006, pp. 339-341). Therefore, as a modern Impressionist painter, it is my determination to ‘speak’ via the medium of oil paint about the landscape to the ‘common’ person.
To make an analogy, a writer usually writes to a specific readership; science fiction for science fiction readers. This readership understands the genre and can identify poorly and well-written stories. Similarly, I believe that an artist must know the ‘audience’ they are painting for whilst considering their sensibilities. For example, I paint not only for myself but for collectors of my work, who have expressed overwhelming senses of calm and ‘connection’ with me when looking at my landscape paintings. I suspect they would not have these reactions if I didn’t consider their interests, aesthetic sensitivities and values when deciding on what and how to paint a painting. According to my experience, my art fails when it makes no ‘human’ connection with these viewers. In this regard, my adaptation of Impressionist techniques continues to succeed by fulfilling my aesthetic needs and those of my viewers. This is despite it being maligned as passé, or naive adherence to the past, by certain academics and critics I have met, who have failed to “see the commanding form” regardless of genre, or put appreciation based on discursive reasoning above personal bias (Langer, 1953. pp. 406-407).
In response to them and as a firm statement of my position, I state that It is my opinion that Impressionism is alive and relevant. I stubbornly refuse to allow what I consider to be the sound principles of Impressionist painting to go quietly into the pages of art history books as if they were irrelevant to contemporary art and society. My modern application and expression of Impressionist painting techniques as a fine artist underpin my need to visually communicate via the medium of oil paint. A principle which I intend to ardently champion, based on the Australian Impressionist’s legacy of representing the ever-changing Australian landscape in a uniquely Australian style of painting. As I continue working in my practice researching and painting the history of the Australian landscape, its wildlife, and its people, I am encouraged to know that there is a hint that I am not alone, and that painting in general may be in the midst of a revival by 21stcentury artists (Smith, 2010. p. 11-12). This is particularly in regard to Realist ‘drawing’ and painting, which is seeing a comeback placing it in the company of modern trends using, for example, video and mixed media. However, I am a modern Impressionist painter, and whether this is critically accepted or not, it is the passion that I intend to pursue.
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