Monday, August 24, 2009

Bridge to the Beach, plein air painting & The Importance of Themes and Motifs in Art


copyright 2009, Jan Blencowe, Connecticut, USA
6x8, acrylic on panel, unframed
$200, +$10 sh/h
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Several years ago I was introduced to the concept of discovering themes or motifs in your paintings as a way to unearth deeper dimensions of meaning in your work. Like most really good ideas this one was simple and straightforward. It asks you to gather up a large sampling of your paintings from the past few years and line them up along a wall and study them for frequently repeated elements. This might be as broad as subject matter, or more particular like a certain shape, use of light, a specific color, the way you arrange elements, the quirky way you bend your trees or the fact that somehow you always seem to include rocks or water in your paintings. What are you doing naturally, unconsciously in your paintings? Once some themes or motifs are identified you begin to ponder what they might mean. What associations might they have for you that would account for them springing up again and again in your work?

Of course some things may be remnants of your early training. Something like, my first painting teacher always told me to include a bird, animal or building in my landscapes. Once you realize this you can decide whether this habit is helpful to your work or if it's time to put it aside and move on in favor of something more personal and authentic.

One of the things I learned right away about my painitings was that I frequently included a way in my compositions. A pathway, waterway, or roadway was very common. Even in paintings without a definite way, a hint of a foot path or just the brush work in foreground grass often subtely suggested a path.

What did it mean?

As I reflected on this I realized that besides being a nice compositional element to draw the viewer into the painting it had a deeper meaning for me. The idea of life as a journey is a strong one for me. I do in fact view my life as a journey. I also like books and movies with "the journey" as a theme. The Pilgrim's Progress for instance is a favorite book, about both a literal and spiritual/transformational journey. So I learned that one of the more hidden meanings in my work is about being on a journey of transformation.


A second motif I noticed was that I very often have a dark foreground and the strongest light in the painting is in the distance. Once I understood that the pathways and waterways symbolized a journey in my paintings I also understood that the arrangement of light worked in concert with that, taking the viewer on a journey out of the darkness into the light. That idea is in sync with many of my most personal beliefs about life and spirituality.

Ever since I began evaluating my paintings for themes and motifs I've been able to spot them developing more quickly. Recently, I've noticed a new motif, bridges. What does it mean?
I am very fond of Celtic Christian Spirituality ( if you are too, you may want to take a look at my Celtic Prayer Book website). For the Celts, bridges, gateways and burial grounds were all revered as "thin places" where the Spirit was most tangible. While I haven't unravelled exactly what the meaning is (yet!) I know that this idea of a bridge as "thin place" is percolating in my subconscious and has something to say through my paintings.

I have several sketches in my summer sketchbook of bridges and 3 or 4 recent paintings that feature bridges and my desire to paint more is high so I believe that a new motif is taking root, which is very exciting both for the possibility of new paintings and what I will learn about myself along the way.

1 comment:

Miranda said...

This is an awesome idea! I did an exercise much like this in my fourth year of Fine Arts, only we were asked to bring our ten most prized possessions from home. Then we shared them with the class and discussed the common themes in those objects and what it meant aobut our values and our ideas, and ways that translated into our art. It was fascinating!