It occurred to me recently, as a phrase I hardly understood, that the artist flashes his brush across the surface he is working on. I say that I hardly understood it in this sense: from my perspective as an artist, the proposition seemed hard to integrate with my knowledge of the intensity of focus and deliberation that goes into each slow element of the painting process. The thought stuck with me though, as a nagging loose end, there was something to it that sounded right. It is this: an artist does work in flashes, in that he relies on the movements of his hands to translate his inspiration while it is occurring to him. These flashes can be the eruption of an idea, or the slowly rising tide of its development, or the softest whisper of a voice—some idea working through you as your hand moves, as if without guidance, to that next perfect spot, line, or mark.
At each of these levels, we work by setting the idea before our eyes, as closely as we can see it in our minds; we have never moved our brush this way before, we know not even where it is going, because that which we paint did not previously exist, was not seen before. Artists see the idea as we form it with our hands. This is the first efficient flash of the brush, the first mark on paper in the form of a sketch (though the prior imagined vision, if one existed, qualifies as inspiration, though not yet physicalized).
This first flash is then established as a standard; it sets the central subject of the artwork, and the perspective taken on the subject. The slow tide of developing this sketch into something more is a series of flashes set to paper, expansions of the central structure indicated by the sketch into a more vivid perception, and, consequently, into perhaps the most important flash: the identification of the design-theme.* The design-theme consists in the relationship of the central elements (i.e. objects and and their distinguishing attributes) in a composition as it, the relationship, is expressive of the painting’s theme (i.e. its widest conceptual meaning). The design theme, in a sense, is that same outline we saw in the sketch, but now directed by the conscious process of making every element of the composition theme-expressive.
In the process of developing a composition an artist must try different things, adding here, omitting there, discarding whole elements that may or may not be crucial, and then seeing where the picture stands, what it has lost or gained. The design-theme is the standard by which he makes these countless decisions. The implicit question behind every decision is: does this integrate with my design-theme? Integration is the key to composition making. It is integration that makes an artwork what Aristotle called an "organic unity," as opposed to a jumble of unrelated items signifying nothing
The design-theme acts like a long tunnel, unlit except by a distant light at the end. In this twilight, flashing across the walls of the tunnel are a few rare images, glimpses of those things which the distant light can only faintly illuminate, yet still they are reflections of that light, and carry it with them to our eyes. The tunnel is the design-theme, the light is the theme.
When the design-theme has been established and the artist is working with it as his motor, it is the rumbling of this motor that determines each separate movement of his brush. It is not a consciously directed process, but one set in motion by the previously established premises—and the focus of the artist on these premises in the form of a commitment to the design-theme (this is the conscious element of the process, and the key to good art). These movements, which can cascade in frequency, are instances of inspiration being directly physically transcribed as it occurs—and at a wide range of precision, from the choice of an undertone color, to the subtle touch of paint in the smallest corners of the composition. At their highest frequency, the image seems to appear before your eyes, as though you were a witness to its creation, not its creator. Your brush just flashes across the surface, knowing where it must be, with what color, at what instant.
The "flash" is really this: we try something with our brush, and we look at it, and we see it as a possibility, as a means to the end. The looking and the thinking are slow, as they should be. But the hand flashes out, and in an instant the mark is made, the image is drawn, the concept breathes.
* Tore Boeckmann defines a design-theme as: "A unity of representational content and design means that isolates thematic meaning and that can be structurally expanded." For a fuller explanation of this concept and to see it expertly applied to analyze the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, see Mr. Boeckmann's article "Caspar David Friedrich and Visual Romanticism" inThe Objective Standard, Volume 3, No. 1.
I have used this blog exclusively for publishing my own work, but the attack on the French cartoonists on January 7 demands an exception. When blood runs through our streets, it is the duty of anyone with a voice and a conscience to cry "Murder!" This recent attack was murder—murder in the name of a hatred of freedom, hatred of western achievement, and hatred of life on this earth. I post these cartoons here in honor of the fallen and in defiance of their killers.
Below is a link to an article written by Onkar Ghate, in which he explains what I consider to be the proper response to those who wish to silence the voices of the free. In it he states: "If we now all defiantly make the content and images the jihadists wish to ban widely and permanently available across the web, the attackers will have failed. They may have taken the lives of the editor and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo, for which we grieve, but they will not have taken their freedom." Link to article