Why Paint in a Tradition

Bonnard-the dining room

Pierre Bonnard, The Dining Room in the Country, 1913

I’m a plein air landscape artist and I do some still life paintings when the weather is bad or it’s just too cold to stand outside for three hours. I live in Minnesota. Today, I can say that I paint in the tradition of painterly realism, but it took some time for me to identify the tradition—painterly realism—that I feel most aligned with. In college, I was infatuated with the French Impressionists, and with Pierre Bonnard in particular. Then as now, color and light are nearly the first things that draw my attention to a scene. The Impressionists used broken color to capture the sensation of light. Bonnard was actually considered a Post-Impressionist painter and criticized by some because he broke with his contemporaries, developing his own style. Reviewing an exhibit of Bonnard’s work, Jed Perl wrote:

“Bonnard is the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters. What sustains him is not traditional ideas of pictorial structure and order, but rather some unique combination of visual taste, psychological insight, and poetic feeling. He also has a quality that might be characterized as perceptual wit—an instinct for what will work in a painting.”

In a world where innovation is revered, why paint in a tradition? Why not just paint, like Bonnard did, and ignore tradition? Two separate but related reasons come to my mind. On the one hand, artists who reject tradition and strive to be different can become famous for their original work. But their work appeals only to an elite group—typically intellectuals—it’s not understood or appreciated by the masses. On the other hand, it’s the masses that adhere to culture and tradition and are typical consumers of art.

Innovative contemporary 2.JPG
Innovative contemporary artist Liana Turnbull Bennett

I love the landscape—skies, water, trees, grasses, rocks, flowers. I love its structure and color. I love the light. I love to simply observe until I see how light and color and structure work, and work together.

Painterly realism has its roots in Impressionism. Bonnard, Van Gogh, Monet, and others had a painterly style. Occasionally, I employ broken color, but I’m more interested today in understanding how to use composition, color, and value to create structure and light, and I’m less interested in making colors vibrate (broken color), although sometimes that happens. I do paint for myself, but not so I can innovate. I think helping people see what I see in nature motivates me.

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