Several years ago, I coined the phrase ‘a collage of ocular facts’ to describe what I aim to have collected on a canvas when I have completed a painting. The phrase could be deemed accurate in its use of the words collage and ocular, but I guess that some may quibble at the word facts. Ones perception of the accuracy of this word as it relates to any finished realist painting depends on one’s knowledge of the subject represented, and virtually nobody gets to see that from the same physical viewpoint as the painter, let alone through the painter’s eyes, so to speak.
Having just watched a video entitled, “From Edwin Dickinson to the Perceptual Painters, Observation and Invention: The Space of Desire.” I was reminded of the general tone of Max Meldrum’s book, “The Science of Appearances” which stresses time and time again the necessity for the tonal realist painter to forego all thoughts of modification of the natural world in our work and to paint only what we see.
Her we have a problem. As painters, is what we see modified in the process of visual interpretation due to our different experiences of the world?
I suppose that Mr Meldrum may say ‘so what?’ We can only put down what we see if that is our aim, and the differences in perception will be governed by our ability to be objective about what we see. This is why I believe that it is easier to paint a portrait of a stranger than a close relative. We face fewer pre-conceived notions or imprinted memories.
In our need to label things Max Meldrum’s work has been called Tonal Realism and I will happily wear that epithet for my own work. I note that Edwin Dickinson’s paintings have been variously labelled Expressionist and Neo Romanticist, probably because some are hard to categorise. According to his daughter Helen, he became enthralled by all he could see and learn of early modern art from abroad, when he went to New York in 1910 to attend art school. This interest would set Dickinson apart from Meldrum who showed no interest at all in Cubism and Impressionism and what would come to be known as Modernism.
The major similarity between Dickinson and Meldrum to my mind is their insistence that the painter work from life only, without the assistance of two-dimensional data, particularly photographs. They appear to have understood the difference between painting an instant in time from a photograph and working from life to produce a picture which includes some of the changes that occur during the time spent in front of the subject.
Apart from possible changes in light, still life does not change, but all other subjects from flowers to portraits and especially landscapes change constantly, and my belief is that these changes are what gives work done in this way a greater reality, hence the ‘Collage of Ocular Facts.’
On scanning Dickinson’s catalogue raisonne and comparing it with my knowledge of Meldrum’s work I would say that Meldrum is by far the most conservative painter of the two.
From what I have seen of Dickinson’s work it shows more variety and experimentation than that of Meldrum. The work of his which appears to have been commissioned shows his apparent need to represent reality in much the same way as Meldrum did in the bulk of his work but when painting for himself, Dickinson moved away from reality, sometimes to the point of abstraction.
Both Dickinson and Meldrum were classically trained utilising the skills passed to them by their teachers and continuing in that line of painting ancestors which stretch back as far as Caravaggio and beyond.
Meldrum had developed a method of painting which involved, as far as possible a scientific approach to the mixing and application of tones and colours as a set of patches on the canvas without any preliminary drawing as he believed ‘there are no lines in nature.
For someone who wants to be an artist, this method can be seen as restrictive but for one who practices the craft of painting from life and who is interesting in representing reality on canvas and producing work which will last in a physical sense, I believe it is the way to go. Once the painter has achieved sufficient skill using this method, moving to the realm of the artist is not just possible but readily achievable as the painter will know how oil paint works, a skill that is sadly ignored by some artists today.