pull your brain out before painting roses

Matisse rose quote

In high school I had an exceptional teacher in art class. She was an eccentric woman in her late middle age with her long hair tied in a bun and floating wide dresses, always black in my recollection. The odd thing is that I remember the name of my professors in maths and chemistry classes that I loathed, but not the name of this woman who taught my favourite subject and who was far more original in every way than the rest of her colleagues. Only our teacher in religion history came close with her two waist-long, black braids and colourful scarves, describing nirvana in technicolor!

This teacher was certainly an artist herself and she went very seriously about introducing us to the different techniques used by great painters from throughout the history. She explained pointillism, impressionism, cubism, you name it, and we got exercises in all directions to understand how these masterpieces were created. She showed us how to paint the negative space between the objects rather than their outline or to turn a picture and draw upside-down. Then we chose an art piece that we found interesting and made a replica of it, as good as our new skills allowed. This might sound horrible, pretty much as far as you can get from creating authentic and original art. And yes, it could drive the students nuts trying to imitate Van Gogh or Monet for hours and hours! BUT… it taught us some essential lessons, like mixing colours and choosing different brushes depending on what we were aiming at. In the process of imitating you’ll face the same challenges as when creating your own art later. In fact, you train drawing and painting exactly the same way as you learn a language as a baby – you imitate. During this process you get familiar with the grammar and you train your muscles to follow the signal of the brain in order to make your hand a sensitive instrument, like learning how to use our voice for speaking or singing.

But the most important lesson of all was learning how to SEE. With these exercises you trained yourself to really look at objects without a preconception. Apart from her passionate exclamations when describing awful colour mixes (“It’s like herring in vanilla sauce!”) this is what I remember her saying over and over again; DON’T PAINT WHAT YOU KNOW, BUT WHAT YOU SEE.” Instead of drawing our conception of a fir-tree, knowing that it has a stem, branches, needles etc. we should try to forget the fir and paint what we truly see, that is shades of colours in different shapes. Or even the emotions we get from looking at it. Then we’re using our “inner” eye to see the object and its impact upon us. Picasso once said: “If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes!”. But following this we also need to FORGET every fir-tree ever painted to do it in a new, surprising way. What makes the artist unique is the way he astonishes the viewer and makes him see the familiar from a totally new perspective. Matisse said that he never literally painted a table but the emotion it produced upon him. Thus he filtered an everyday object through his own emotions to depict it in a completely new and original way. The way to surprise others (and ourselves even!) is to forget what we know about an object and show how we feel about it! This is the complete unique angle that makes every piece of art different!

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