Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Is it the craftsman, his tool or his skill?

I have just seen some of the greatest works of John Singer Sargeant (American Painter, 1856-1925). His watercolours were exquisite. I wonder what type of paper and paint he used.

Couple of years ago, when I picked up watercolour again, I came into contact with a group of enthusiastic watercolourists at a forum. The topic was techniques and materials. Subjects came into play centered around paint to use and what paper to buy, etc. Of course, there were questions on brushes, too.

The elderly artist who was the sole panelist surprised everyone when he said you could use practically anything to paint as long as it gives you the pleasure since art, particularly watercolour, is not about using the priciest paper nor paint nor brushes to craft your works.

"It is about your skill and your understanding of the medium, both the colour, paper, brushes, etc," said the artist. "And as you gain understanding of all the materials, you will develop your skill in your craft. And when you do that, you will turn rubbish into gold."

It was an enlightening advice but was met by laughters all round. Some of the sceptical ones even went to the extent to whisper that perhaps the old artist did not want to share his secrets - hence the excuse.

The came the bombshell. The old artist diverted from the talk and took out his painting set - a compartmentalised dinner tray (his palette), some Japanese poster colours, a beat up brush and some newspapers.He poured some water into a small plastic container and proceeded to paint.

Then he returned his brush into his bag, rolled a piece of newspaper, dipped one end into water and plucked it off to make an uneven end.

Then he started dipping that wet end of a newspaper into paint and started painting. It was an impressionic painting of a swamp taken from a photograph. What started as a mess turned into a piece of art, a watercolour piece, to the amazement of the forum attendants. The painting was purchased by one of the attendants who apparently attracted to the piece. He paid USD 300 for it. Did he see something all of us missed?

Everytime I find myself in a bind over what paper or paint to use, I fall back on the thought of the incident. Is it skill or material that contributes to art? You tell me.

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