Pastel Pointers | Determining Why We Paint What We Do

What motivates an artist to create is based in a deep-seated desire to communicate. The subjects portrayed and techniques utilized are uniquely personal and reflect our diversity. The earliest images represented in prehistoric cave paintings typically depicting animals and hunting activity, a crucial aspect to everyday survival. During the cultural rebirth of the Western Renaissance period, the depiction of biblical and social allegory became popular. The next several centuries saw additional artistic genres come into fashion in the spirit of subsequent social evolution. Most of these continued to place humans at the forefront. While the landscape may be represented, it was merely there as a backdrop for the story of the painting, not the main character.


Here, Richard McKinley’s friend, Jan Olson, who continues to work in spite of an approaching storm, demonstrates how the motivation to capture a beautiful landscape sometimes demands that we brave the elements.

This trend began to change with the advent of Western Industrialization. Coinciding with society’s recognition of a need for environmental conservation in response to the filth of the factory, were scientific break-throughs that provided a better understanding of color theory and the introduction of new pigments that better represented the sunlit landscape. During this time frame the work of British pastoral painter John Constable influenced a young generation of French artists to paint the landscape—directly from nature. These young painters, lead by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, became known as the Barbizon School, the name reflecting the region of France in which they painted. Their efforts laid the groundwork for what was to become the contemporary landscape plein air painting movement. Subsequent generations have continued to reflect the personal, cultural, and historic influences of their time, bringing us Impressionism, Expressionism, and the Abstract Movement.

No matter with which genre you more closely associate, one thing is clear: We all have to find our inspiration, the driving force behind why we paint. The better we understand it, the easier it is to develop the skills required to communicate intent. Whether our goal is to reflect the way we see the world, or to portray the way we wish it to be, how it makes us feel, or the way we want others to feel. Knowing “why” will provide the answers as to “what” to put in, “how” to do it, and “when” we are done.

I was recently reminded of why we paint what we do. While on the beautiful Minnesota shore of Lake Superior, Jan Olson, a pastel artist and good friend of mine (see photo), was the sole remaining student to stand strong against a thunderstorm that had driven the rest of the group back to the classroom. As she steadfastly held her ground against the wind and approaching rain, I silently stood next to her, witnessing the beauty of the light play across the sky and water. After a few minutes, Jan quietly said, “How special it is to be witnessing this. This is why I paint the landscape.” As I nodded in agreement, a bolt of lightning flashed. Mother Nature had let us know it was time to pack up, but Jan had captured the moment!


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