Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Negative capability in portrait painting

Facing Facts, acrylic gap filler and paint, 76 x 102 cm


‘The great virtue in life is real courage that knows how to face facts and live beyond them.’
                                                           D.H. Lawrence

I have been searching for a medium that allows impasto work (registering palette knife and brush marks) but that is much cheaper than oil paints yet suited to larger, more complex works. I chose a water based acrylic gap filler used in the building industry. The locally available product that i used is called Selley's No More Gaps. This sealant is water-based and therefore mixes readily with acrylic paints on the canvas.

It's native white color does not alter acrylics colors dropped into it though they are left with a matt finish. However,  once cured, after 24 hours, it can be sealed with polymer gloss which restores color vibrance and prepares the surface prior to glazing with oils. It gives off no toxic fumes during use and so can therefore be spread in large quantities in an enclosed space. Spraying with water softens it into a white buttery slurry.

a charcoal doodle for Facing Facts
The cheapness of the material and its haptic qualities are highly conducive to experimentation, exuberance in application, and exploration in image making. The medium itself contributes significantly to the finished work, becoming an active agent in artistic practice. All this leaves one open to a form of artistic practice that is more open-ended, vague in its intended outcomes, responsive to fluxus and receptive the gifts that serendipity can bring. All of which brings to mind John Keats' notion of negative capability.

John Keats, in 1817 when writing to his brothers about poetry, in a tantalizing brief reference said in his letter:
"I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." There is no surviving record of his ever mentioning it again but it has spawned a considerable commentary over the years ever since.

Robert French, Peter Simpson and Charles Harvey of the Bristol Business School, of all places, summed up the literature on negative capability.
"Negative Capability suggests a peculiarly human capacity for ‘containment’: that is, the capacity to live with and to tolerate ambiguity and paradox, and to ‘remain content with half knowledge’ (Ward, 1963, p. 161), ‘to tolerate anxiety and fear, to stay in the place of uncertainty in order to allow for the emergence of new thoughts or perceptions’ (Eisold, 2000: 65). It implies the capacity to engage in a non-defensive way with change, without being overwhelmed by the ever-present pressure merely to react. It also indicates empathy and even a certain flexibility of character, the ability ‘to tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment’ (Hutter, 1982: 305)."

Particularly pertinent to my questing for images from the unconscious is Diana Voller's application of Keat's notion to psychoanalysis:
"Negative capability’ is the advanced ability of a person to tolerate uncertainty. This does not mean the passive uncertainty associated with ignorance or general insecurity but the active uncertainty that is to do with being without a template and yet being able to tolerate, or even relish, a sense of feeling lost. ‘Negative capability’ involves purposely submitting to being unsettled by a person, or situation, and embracing the feelings and possibilities that emerge ... In my search for clarification, a psycho-analyst I talked to described ‘negative capability’ as ‘the experience of the conscious mind in the presence of the unconscious’."

Her description of what it feels like to be in a state of negative capability is drawn from the accounts of experienced psychotherapists and is most illuminating:
"They described it as being immersed in something, feeling alert and aroused, having a sense of wondering where this is going to go, the excruciating sense of unknown-ness, shame and fraudulence at ‘not knowing’, a familiarity with the recognition that ‘this is the anxiety of not knowing’. At the same time it was also associated with playing, intuitiveness, and experienced as good fun!
No wonder we don’t communicate about it a lot outside the therapy world – shame, fraudulence, playing and fun – how can that be professional?"

This feeling of being a fraud, of floundering in the world of art ... how familiar!

In working on Facing Facts i ran the gamut of emotions. Sometimes i felt i was tapping something true in my character; other times it felt i was contriving an image. Sometimes the work felt spontaneous; other times it felt over-planned. Sometimes i really enjoyed myself and was fully absorbed; other times it was hard labour and a struggle. Sometimes i thought i knew what i wanted to say with this painting; other times i was groping blind and waiting upon the painting to tell me where it was going. Sometimes i felt like an artist; sometimes i felt a sham. I had to be content to be a state of fluxus. I had to be at ease with negative capability.

But to work with negative capability in portrait painting carries implications for me in how i conceptualize my creative practice. It colors my take on portrait painting, which is beginning to take shape as follows:
1   i feel a need for a freeing up and broadening of the definition of a the term portrait
2    i need liberation from realism and the quest for a 'likeness' for its own sake
3    i see 'painting' as process not as an object; the act of creative practice, not the product of that practice; i conceptualize painting as a verb, not a noun; i see a painting as the frozen track-marks resulting from the act of painting
4    the process of portrait painting is one of searching for personal emotional truth
5    in that sense, the work is expressive at its very root
6    freedom to search aspects of identity of the sitter apart from physical appearance
7    a greater openness to instinctive, non-rational creative processes (Surrealists)
8    a sensitization to inner emotional states during the process of painting
9    letting those inner states guide the the choice of, and especially the handling of, media
10   allowing the media to have significant agency in creative practice
11   if the emotion is true, then it is recognized by others (viewers)
12   conceptualizing painting as being an emotional communication stops the work sinking into solipsism, becoming mere self-indulgence
13    being a communication means painting to an audience, not for an audience
14    painting for an audience - for the sake of exhibition, adulation, commissions, or sales - puts static in the way of negative capability
15    for me, painting for an audience interferes with emotional integrity in the work, for the work likely becomes ever more consciously manipulative and formulaic
16   formulaic technique without emotional truth is painting without soul, it tends towards decorative illustration rather than serious art practice
17   a portrait must contain not only a truth but also a kind of beauty - it may be a seductive beauty or a terrible and dark beauty but there needs to an aesthetically satisfying load in the image or in the traces of its mark-making.

Whether i achieve these aspirations in any given work is a matter of doubt but these notions are gradually firming up into a personal 'manefesto'. (Manifestos in painting went out the window many decades ago which makes having one all the more anachronistically and archaically attractive to me).

In the meantime i always have .... negative capability!



  1. Hello Harry,
    And what a manifesto it is! As I read this post, everything made perfect sense, each point expressed a truth. My only question is, where do I sign up?
    Of course, the irony of my zeal for what you have expressed is my seeming inability to comply with it. Talk is, as they say, cheap and I have produced nothing to suggest I'm capable of working to such pure and lofty standards.
    What you have written should be chiseled into stone and taught to every aspiring creative person. I do believe you have beautifully shared the very essence of what each of us should strive for in our work.
    I better stop, Harry, or you'll need REALLY BIG CANVASES for your self-portraits!

  2. Fantastic paint Harry, always so powerfull, I become will to paint !

  3. Oh I like the phrase "active uncertainty" a lot better than "negative capability!"

    This new painting is beautiful, Harry. In it I see everything rendered in paint that you then explored in words. I can see expression, and process, a portrait that is not a portrait, but also nothing but a portrait, and all the dichotomies of confidence and doubt, freedom and struggle, joy and despair that go into any good artwork, if the artist is honest enough to admit it to himself and others. This is the human condition - duality of face, duality of intent and action, asking questions with every answer we manage to formulate. I wouldn't have it any other way! I'd rather see a painting that explores and embraces the struggle than one that claims it does not exist and thus both betrays my trust and insults my intelligence. That is the true sham, pretending not to feel, at least some of the time, like one! What you do with those feelings is the very heart of the artistic process, giving it whatever passion will later bring the resulting works to life for any stranger viewing them. I can feel the intelligence of the medium and the message of "Facing Facts," but I can also feel its passion - it is yours, and it is mine, and it does not end there. Thank you for sharing this!

  4. When I first saw this portrait, it didn't hold me; I skipped to the words and read them slowly and thoroughly. Each bullet point is so true and valid to anyone who wants to paint, leaving something for themselves behind on the canvas or paper. I returned to the portrait and looked closely. I saw a bitterness in the downturned mouth, a haughtiness in the eyebrow, perhaps even a cruelty...and then I looked more closely, the left eye and side of the face revealed a deep sadness, a sharing of the true face that lives in and with negative capability. You've done it again, Harry, made me look and see in a more appreciative and clear way. Thank you for sharing so much.

  5. Thank you Harry for this post. I identify with everything you have said about painting portraits and after I have conquered the 'mechanics' I hope to develop an expression which is more than a resemblance. I feel that what you say also applies to any artwork I do. It is not easy to paint 'emotional truth' as some people just can't recognise it. More importantly I strive to find it in all my work. Pretty much 'unique' to the painter but do we want our work to be commercial too? I'm pretty erratic, sometimes expressive and at others trying to find something - but not sure where or what I'm trying to say. I'm going to pin up your post on my studio wall to remind me of what is really important. As to whether I can achieve it is another story.

  6. Powerful, very powerful, Harry.

  7. Negative capability AND a manifesto? Is it possible to have both?

    Great painting--it begs touching.

  8. the portrait has the effect of halting the viewer, pushing me back to an invisible line... fascinating, i've never experienced that with a painting before. and when i click on the image to look closer, it gets smaller!
    negative capability is one of those slippery phrases that i could easily get lost in...
    your 17 tenets of what you wish to achieve in painting are admirable yet i feel when i am painting, i hate anyone to be looking over my shoulder, especially my aspirations... i deal with those at the end of the day when i read and work out solutions to things that were challenging me while i was painting.... often, all i need is inspiration to experiment and develop my own way. your tenets seem to keep you grounded and serve you well:)
    thank you for bringing these thoughts to your blog for all of us to reflect:)

  9. Harry,

    I fully understand your struggle, as I am right in the middle of it myself. You are a master painter and a beautiful human human being. Happy Holidays, my dear friend!


  10. is it that you can be so talented on so many fronts? what you've written is right on the money---and the painting is too. I'm in awe of you--!

  11. Goog brain, good emotions and awesome conclusions!
    Good health and creativity in the next year!

  12. Hi Gary,

    Sorry for the delay in responding. The run-up to Christmas has been rather hectic (phew).

    As to my evolving thoughts about how i want to approach painting, they are very fluid. Hardly the sort of thing to be chisled in stone - unless one takes a line from Shelly, "Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair", haha.

    My musings here are not prescriptive, not even for myself. They are merely an dialogue with myself as to what my aspriations in portraiture might be. Other people's aspirations will be quite different and i make no judgement about how they want to paint.

    There is room for everbody and everything. There is no Must in painting.

  13. Hi Laura. Absolutely love your recent vibrant and oh so expressive portraits!!

  14. Thanks so much Gabriella for you very aware and beautifully expressed, lucid response to this work and the process that gave it breath.

    Of course you would understand - i see similar questing and questioning in your writing and your photographs!

    So exciting seeing you make a new start in a new place in the New Year!

  15. Rhonda, thank you for the careful looking and rich rich seeing.

    Yes, one tries to outstare the Fates, to put on a brave face distainful of life's blows, but they take their toll in a harvest of sadness which we try to tuck out of view of the world.

  16. Hi Carolann. I think erratic is good. It's Human. Walt Whitman once wrote,

    "Do i contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes".

    I guess i harbour a belief, most likely just wishful thinking, that if one achieves enough intensity, authenticty and uniqueness of voice, then one day the work might also find a commercial market. But i expect that's not how it works. Marketing, networking, and youth are the way to reputation in the art world nowadays.

  17. Thanks, Steven. Hope you had a great Christmas.

  18. Haha, Hallie. Well spotted!

    Yes, doubt and certainty do seem to be vinegar and oil - you can shake em up in a bottle but they just want to settle out. And yet they taste great together. Add a little mustard and everything emulsifies into a unity, so maybe there is hope yet, lol.

    Ive got a copy of Marinetti's Futurist Manefesto and must confess my creaky brief dot points fall a long way short of starting a new world order! So maybe i'll just confess that they're some temporary working hypothises as i paint, until some more satisfying ones come along.

    See, just part of my negative capability after all.

  19. I know what you mean, Rahina, about aspirations peeking over one's shoulder. Self-consciousness is the enemy of creativity. It kills immersion in the process. Millipedes daren't think about how they walk.

    Worse still is setting out to paint a master-piece. Some stilted abortion is bound to result. Best just to get lost in the haptic joy of paints.

    So i don't actually use these reflections as tenets. They are me trying to articulate to myself, after the event, what it is i've most likely been doing recently as i paint. They are part of my studies which require me to be able to give a rationale of my art practice. (that's the whole problem with academic approaches to painting).

    Yes, i should definitley not have gotten carried away with manefestos, haha.

  20. Your very kind, Brian. Hope you and the wonderful Ms G had a lovely Christmas.

  21. You make me blush, Celeste. You are so generous.

    I do what i can.
    We all do.
    What else can we do?

    Big hug.

  22. Thank you Jaime. An inspiring and creative 2012 to you too.

  23. Hello Harry:
    His words about the art and the artist are really spectacular,
    It nescessário resist, even if the compensation for our work is not fair .. The artist creates his work, act into a purely egocentric and narcissistic,this process of creation of the work was completed only after he put
    the image of his creation on the screen.
    If I may quote from the essay written in September 1913 in number from 178 to 179 of Der Sturm, written by Wassily Kandinsky, the book "Du Spiritual dans l' art " , bibliography ISBN 85-336-0529-3.
    The pure art of paintin

    Every work of art is born from an inner feeling of the artist, one emotion, that feeling, makes the artist creates his work., Once created, the work is placed in the holder, this image makes the viewer feel the sensation and allows the viewer to find the content of the work, this is a purely spiritual phenomenon. The work of art This is the path that allows the material to communicate with the soul of the spectator, that is, the language of the soul to soul, so we are witnessing the spiritualization of aesthetic. If pure art painting is used to communicate spirit to spirit - pure art is a spiritual element in art which is isolated from the body element independently and develops uncontrollable and touch the soul of the viewer.
    So I think it is possible to explain why the pure art and pure artist
    lasted for centuries, even without receiving fair compensation for the creation
    their works of art.
    I wish you that next year 2012, you can make all your projects
    and that peace and harmony are present permanently in their ways of life
    Big hug

  24. Marvelous self-portrait Harry.

    I find that I am fascinated by this post. I have been thinking about it for the last few days. I think I comprehend what you are getting at. Negative capability means accepting the artistic tenuousness of what I do. I know that an idea I have visualized will never be realized exactly as I envisioned it. I also know that once I begin, I have to let things unfold. That unfolding may go into places that are radically different from my original intention. Giving up control of the process is essential to the process.

    Giving up control to the inherent quality of certain materials is also part of this process. How will a material behave under varying conditions? What tricks can I play? What surprises will be forthcoming? The element of surprise is the fun. Allowing the surprises is the learning.

    You mentioned process taking precedent over the product. I have said that to myself. I have also said it to my students for all the years I have been teaching. Focus on the process and the product will take care of itself. I have found that if I try to make good work, I am always dissatisfied. Once I let go and immerse myself in the process I am far more pleased with the outcome. By not caring about the outcome, the outcome ends up worth caring about.

    And sometimes it means realizing that whatever it is, it's as good as it's going to get and no amount of picking is going to make it any better. It's one more learning experience. It is time to move on to the next one and continue the process.

    I really don’t think it’s not caring. It’s visual thinking. Visual thinking is non-verbal. By banishing language one has the sense that one is not thinking. We are so used to thinking in a verbal way, that not thinking verbally seems to be not thinking at all. But in actuality, it’s a high order intellectual activity that is so absorbing it feels like an altered state of consciousness.

    But I ramble. This was a fascinating and stimulating post Harry. Your imagery never fails to deliver an emotional punch and that pleases me much.

  25. Hi Paulo, how wonderful of you to quote Kandinsky. His "Spiritual In Art" became my compass last year. His, "There is no must in art because art is free" has become my key to open the doors of experimentation.

    First Jung, then Kandinsky - we are reading the same things and have become brothers in art.

    Have a great 2012!

  26. Davida, what can i say! What a wonderful response to my post.

    "accepting artistic tenuousness"
    "let things unfold"
    "allowing the surprises is the learning"
    "visual thinking ... feels like an altered state of consciousness"

    YES! YES! YES!

    "Giving up control of process is essential to the process" - how pithy, how lucid, how germaine!!

    You have said so succinctly and clearly what i've been struggling to chase into a corner with a clumsy stick over numerous recent posts. I'd love to be in one of your classes. I hope they appreciate the quality of teacher they have!

    Thank you for taking the time to share such fully thought through comment.

  27. Your welcome, Harry.

    You are far too advanced for my classes. I have students who walk in the door with little or no experience with drawing or painting or art history. And they are not very contemplative. So I teach on a very basic level.

    My greatest problems are the kids right out of high school who believe the photograph is the standard by which one judges drawing ability. When I talk about process taking precedent over product, it goes right over their heads.

    That's even when I tell them in a rather crude way they should understand: "The second you don't give a shit, the drawings come out great!"

    But, my older students get it. They have had enough life experience to be more open to alternate ways of doing things than the kids. They try things where the kids dig their heels in and stubbornly plod on practicing the same error over and over again.

    Whereas the adults figure I can offer something of value to them, the kids view me as the dinosaur who has nothing to impart. Sometimes they snap out of that, but most times not.

    I'd much rather teach older, motivated adults than the kids right out of high school. They are discriminating enough to recognize what might be helpful to them and what might not. Then they can run with what's helpful. The kids have none of that discernment.

    Enough whining. Your provocative posts have me hooked. I keep coming back for more. That please me much.

  28. Harry,
    I came here today to say that I hope your new year is full of good surprises, a lot of art and great accomplishments!
    Grateful for the presence, support and friendship!
    a real hug!

  29. I dont need art history, to tell you, that this painting, is a powerful piece of art...
    Thanks a lot for your presence and support!
    Healthy creative 2012,Willy

  30. Just here again to wish you a happy new year, and thank you for your support for me it is very important because you are a master! Grazie Maestro!

  31. Harry this one is a masterpiece.a first class of art!

  32. Harry, I wish you a happy new year. Thank you for your comment in my blog.You are a Big master.
    Feliz 2012. All the best.

  33. Davida, i don't think it's kids just out of high school who use the photograph as their yardstick for judging a drawing. I think it's the implicit standard of all Westerners who have had a life-time's exposure to photography but very limited personal experience with drawing.

    To point out that a self-portrait by Rembrandt is not Rembrandt, but a painting, is already too subtle in its obviousness. That paintings have their own requirements, their own raison d'etre quite apart from their subject, is quite lost on them.

    But in understanding this lies a key to their own liberty. They are not who their parents and teachers say they are. They are not simply framed by society. Like a painting, they too have their raison d'etre. Children do not 'belong' to parents. They are merely discovered by them.

    Well, you did ask for prevocative, lol.

    Keep up the great work with your students!

  34. Hi Denise. Thanks for your friendship.

    Willy, thanks for your support during the year. Have a great New Year.

    Thanks Laura. have a wonderfully creative 2012!

    Thanks Leni. Wishing you an inspired New Year.

    Hi Azucena. Thanks for your very generous comment.