Creative viewing / by Jeannine Cook

Before the glory of Christmas cactus flowers fades on my different Schlumbergera, I have been drawing them in silverpoint, especially the delicate white-flowered ones.

Christmas Cactus

Christmas Cactus

As I gazed at the elegant cactus flowers, I could not help remembering a quote I found some time ago by Monet.

He said, "To see, we must forget the name of the thing we are looking at." It is almost as if I needed to blank out my conscious mind and just let the rhythms and undulations of the petals and the strange leaves tell me where to go and how to compose a drawing. It is absolutely academic what it is that is the subject of the drawing - only the aspects of it that resonate and excite one are the ones that drive the mark-making. In fact, as soon as the left hand side of the brain begins to get active, defining or thinking consciously, that is when one gets into trouble with the drawing. And in silverpoint, that is a bad place to reach, given you don't erase the marks made in silver.

Claude Monet knew well about the need to view things in a different fashion. His wonderful use of colour and Impressionistic techniques are testimony to this philosophy. When you think of his extraordinary series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral, for example, his was a very creative view of this wonderful structure. Given the very complicated act of painting this immense building, with the light that was ever-fleeting and the unreliable weather of this maritime city, Monet was amazing in his ability speedily to record light, darks, abstract shapes, atmosphere – as in this painting done between 1892 and 1894, entitled Rouen Cathedral Facade (Morning Effect).

Rouen Cathedral Facade (Morning Effect),  1892-94, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

Rouen Cathedral Facade (Morning Effect), 1892-94, Claude Monet (Image courtesy of Museum Folkwang, Essen, Germany.

There is another interesting optic on creating a piece of art, whether recording a cathedral's glory or drawing a Christmas cactus flower.

William S. Burroughs observed that "Nothing exists until or unless it is observed. An artist is making something exist by observing it. And his (or her!) hopes for other people are that they will also make it exist by observing it." A perfect description of "creative viewing"on the part of artist and then the public. I am sure that most of the French who walked past their looming cathedral did not see it in any way similar to Monet; they probably did not often raise their heads to its soaring facades as they went about their daily lives. Yet after Monet painted his series on Rouen Cathedral, certainly many more people became aware of its massive structure and the extraordinary play of light on it as the seasons turned.

Monet has made the Cathedral "exist" for art lovers ever since he began his series of paintings there in the 1890s. They, in turn, validate Monet by observing his paintings and completing the circle of creative existence.

In the same way, an artist who embarks on a painting, drawing or other form of depiction of something "real" is, in essence, bringing that thing to life, creating it according to his or her artistic eye. This gives one wide licence to create, to bring into existence, but it also implies an often revealing personal involvement - assuming that the art is being created with passion. Sobering thoughts, but mercifully, during the painting or drawing, as Monet wisely observed, we need first to turn off our brains.