Knowing the Dancer From the Dance

“O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, how can we know the dancer from the dance?”    William Butler Yeats

Claude Monet, Water Lilies

Over lunch recently, a dear friend and art buddy and I reminisced about some of our early workshop experiences. We chuckled as we remembered one of the very first workshops we attended taught by a watercolor instructor who was V E R Y popular. In preparation for the workshop, I worked and worked for weeks to understand and learn as many of the artist’s ideas and techniques as I could, reading everything I could find documented about the artist in books and magazines. During the workshop I took pages and pages of notes and I took step-by-step photos of every one of her demonstrations. This fabulous artist had figured out a fabulous way to paint her fabulous subject matter and that was exactly what I/we all wanted. I was so enamored by this artist’s techniques that I remember saying to myself, “If I could learn how to paint like her, I would feel like I had died and gone to heaven.” I was sure that if I could master her ideas and techniques I would become the artist I so passionately wanted to become. I came home from the workshop and worked for months on mastering her fabulous subject matter and her fabulous techniques for painting them. And, finally I achieved my goal! I had painted a fabulous painting that looked exactly like hers. In fact, it so closely resembled hers that I remember thinking that if I put her name on the painting everyone in the world would totally believe she had painted it. And that’s when it began to dawn on me that while I had achieved my goal of painting exactly like my favorite artist, I hadn’t really achieved anything that had anything to do with the artist inside of me.

I had reached the destination I set out for, but I was on the wrong path! And, I had to travel down a few more wrong paths over the years until I finally got it. And when I did, I realized that I had to begin a new journey, and I had to begin this new journey at the beginning – at the place of my not knowing. Beginning at the beginning, I set out on path to discover my own fabulous subject matter, my own fabulous ideas, thoughts and opinions about art, and and my own fabulous techniques for painting them.

My conversation with my friend began with my questioning how and why we teachers teach art. As a workshop instructor, I have a dilemma. I have formed my own ideas, thoughts, and opinions about art, and I have developed some techniques for painting the subjects I love to paint. Many students in my workshops are there to learn about those ideas, thoughts, opinions, and techniques. That is what I have to share – my own journey as an artist. But how do I TEACH that the creative journey begins not with secondhand ideas, thoughts, opinions, and techniques, but with honest feelings and authentic responses?

In his book, No More Secondhand Art, Peter London addresses this idea and my conundrum very effectively:
“Of course technique is important; so are principles of design. But you already know this. You also know what it takes to acquire these traits; long, hard work. Do you want to draw like Rembrandt or Degas? Simple! Just draw ten hours a day, six days a week for forty years. That’s how they did it. Ready for that? How did Monet paint those densely woven symphonies of strokes of light, weaving that luminescent Japanese bridge over the swarming lily pond? First he excavated a huge hole, then diverted a river to fill the hole, planted it with lily pads, then built a Japanese bridge over the whole thing, all at vast expense. Then he bought a boat, made a floating studio out of it and for twelve hours a day, for over twenty years, he paddled around that pond, and painted and painted until his eyes glazed over. If you want to make stuff that has Monet’s charm….have Monet’s passion, devotion, largess, sacrifice.

The techniques of Monet or Degas can be copied; their principles of design are not obscure, they can be learned. If you want them for yourself, you can have them – for a price. And the price is dearer than you may think. Not only will you have to put in at least as much time as they did in developing these same skills, all your living days, but the real price you will have paid is that you will have succeeded in becoming them, and will have missed becoming you.

Monet’s technique and principles of design are Monet. They were created by him so that he could portray what he alone was seeing and thinking and feeling. These are not simply techniques or principles of design. They are conceptions of the world. Monet had to create his own repertoire of techniques and principles of design because he could not portray through the prevailing means what he alone was seeing and feeling. You can’t have his technique or apply his principles of design without becoming him. Better to raise the questions Monet did than to mimic his responses. What are his questions, the task he set himself? They are remarkably similar to the questions any artist, any creative person, any awake person asks. “What is that damn thing out there? What does an idea look like? How can I give form to a feeling? How does this whole mess fit together? How can I speak about the thing no longer there? The thing not here yet? Why am I moved like this by mere daylight, by nightfall? Is there a truth here, or merely beauty? Does this line have integrity, or is it guile? What have I made up, what have I observed? Of all the things I can do, what shall I do, what should I do? Will I ever get it right?”

Your particular techniques and your principles of design will be derived from your struggle with these questions. Monet did it. Rembrandt did it. So did Bellini, Breughel, Bosch, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Byron, Bartok, Berlioz, Bernstein, Brubeck, Basie, Balanchine, Beckett, Bergman, Beckmann, Berryman, Borges, Bellows, Baldwin. You get the picture.

All creative journeys begin with a challenge to introspection, to fathom not only “what’s out there”, but “what’s in here.” They are invitations to original response.”

They are also invitations to dance your own dance, sing your own songs, write your own stories, and paint your own paintings. And through them the world will know who you are.

Bye for now…..Donna

4 thoughts on “Knowing the Dancer From the Dance

  1. Janet Werdin

    That is a great post! We all want to pursue great art but putting in the time, effort and expense to be truly creative and release the artist within takes a single minded persistence at a cost that few are willing to pay.

    Reply

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