I just attended a painting workshop conducted by Robert Genn, and, rather ironically, Alan Wylie as a substitute for the second afternoon because Robert had to be absent. Ironic because the two men, while both exceptional, successful, even iconic artists, are at completely opposite ends of the style spectrum, Robert's landscapes being virtually abstract paintings, while Alan paints in a highly realistic, detailed, precise style. As one of only two openly realist-style painters in this group of 25 participants, by the second day I was finding myself in need of some sort of reassurance that my approach to painting was at least equally valid as the minimalist, "painterly" approach. It was a relief to hear Alan say, as he entered the room, that it was perfectly okay to paint with small brushes, knowing full well that using large brushes on tiny canvasses had been the order of the day for the first day and a half of this workshop.
I hasten to emphasize that absolutely nothing that Robert or any other participant said or did in any way demonstrated any prejudice or discrimination towards the two realist painters in the group. In fact, our work was very well received, somewhat to my surprise, but the fact remains that we realists are heavily outnumbered in current painter ranks, and suffer the scorn and disdain of many who have been enlightened by the religion of the "painterly" way of painting, making us rather sensitive to our perceived place in the grand scheme of contemporary art.
The word "painterly" itself is an excellent example of the subtle discrimination we face. Who decided those who painted quickly, loosely, even sloppily were "painterly"? The implication is that we who paint with precision, methodically, carefully, and with attention to detail and reality are somehow outside the brotherhood of painters. This is the burden we realists have to bear in a world of painterly fashion. We are but nerds in the nightclub of High Art.
How often have we heard that we need to "loosen up", that our work is too "tight", that there is no "emotion" or "feeling" in our work? I'd like to see the proof that a sloppily and quickly painted approximation of a particular scene conveys more feeling and emotion than a lovingly crafted, joyfully detailed rendering of the same scene. Just believing it is so does not make it so. Ask the Emperor about that. Show me some hard proof.
Where did the odd idea come from that a painter should pare down a scene to its most basic elements, leaving it up to the viewer to fill in the details in his own mind? To me that is like suggesting a chef leave out the spices, sauces, and condiments of a meal, leaving it up to the diner to imagine the flavours and aromas of the meal. It's like suggesting that Beethoven should have limited his symphonies to a simple melody line, allowing the listener to fill in the chords and harmonies in his head. H.D. Thoreau said: "The more a painter invents, the further he takes us from the world which actually exists; and to that extent may even encourage us in the alienation from the real".
What is wrong with delighting the viewer of a painting with the richness of abundant and beautiful detail that can be discovered through the adventure of exploration by eye over the whole painting?
I suspect what is wrong with it for some painters is that such richness is beyond their ability or inclination to produce. It can be difficult, and require an enormous amount of work. Could the elevation of paucity ("less is more") to the status of a virtue in painting merely be a convenient way to justify a painting process that allows higher productivity with less effort while providing the credibility of being "in style", and therefore of value?
The outstanding work of Robert Genn demonstrates the high level the so-called "painterly" style of painting can reach when exercised by the hand of an exceptionally talented artist. However, the very fine art of Alan Wylie shows that realism need not take a back seat to any style of painting, and that being a realist painter is totally okay, even if we are outnumbered. For now.