Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Painter as alchemist: From colors to archetypes

The Alchemist 17th century Oil on Canvas by Mattheus van Hellemont

After pondering over the significance of what I do as a painter and the message my work carries with its narratives, it becomes interestingly notable the similarities between the alchemist and the painter. The alchemist obsessive pursuit of transforming lead into gold serves as a perfect metaphor for creative people living today in a consumerist society that have to come up with new ways of transforming all the rubbish into something beautiful and significant. In an age where we are constantly bombarded by mind numbing news and consumer culture propaganda, we are in need of artists that work as alchemists. These lotus like souls float over the muddy waters of our consumer driven society and their art blooms like a gleam of hope for a better future. The artist that becomes aware of the world around him/her can filter, distill and transform the experiences and information the keeps the masses asleep. Their art is like a golden bell that wakes up the dormant souls in this world. Art is indeed a very powerful tool. Just consider for a moment that about 10,000 years ago human civilizations on this planet developed agriculture. Long before this, about 40,000 years ago we started to paint in caves. That is how ancient and fundamentally important art is in our society.

Cro-Magnon artists painting Font-de-Gaume, France by Charles R. Knight
Imagine an art class where you would be required to paint with pure primary colors straight out of the tube without mixing. How would you create a landscape, a portrait or an abstract painting using only ultramarine blue, cadmium red or yellow? It can be done of course but once we create these primary color exercises we start to realize, how much more advantageous it is to be able to mix any of these colors and create a much more rich, and varied palette. After all, painting without the knowledge of mixing and expanding the chromatic spectrum is like learning just a few words in a new language. We expand our vocabulary and learn to pars and conjugate once we learn how colors interact and behave with each other. For a narrative painter, concepts, stories and archetypes are equally important as colors.

A star shapped color palette arrangement by Patrick McGrath Muñiz

It seems quite natural therefore to see the painter as an innate alchemist who creates work by association, destruction and construction.. This is someone who is constantly experimenting with different amalgamations of pigments and media in order to find the perfect recipe that will produce a gem, a work of art. Not only is the formal/material process important in order to achieve success, but the content (not just for a narrative painter) is just as important and becomes another layer added to the color palette. In the content palette one may find a limited number of archetypes. We may already be familiar with them but it is always good to refresh our memories be mindful of their existence. They come in many shapes and forms throughout time and different cultures. They are primary forces behind the gods, the saints, the heroes and villains we hear about in all world mythologies, religions and folklore. The different combinations of these archetypes produces a wide array of possible stories with specific ends and messages to be derived by the viewer.  

Study of archetypes derived from Roman Catholic Iconography by Patrick McGrath Muñiz

Going back to our art class, I have to ask myself when was the last time I learned how to compose a story with archetypes in a painting class? If mixing colors was seldom taught in both my undergrad and graduate painting curricula, I don't ever recall archetypes being mentioned as counterparts to color when it comes to conceptualization or storytelling. There can be many reasons for this huge gap in art academia but something remains crystal clear to me as a keep studying art on my own. The study of archetypes for an artist (even abstract) is as important as knowing your art history and as important as knowing how to mix the primary colors. As  alchemists, if we strive to create gold (art) out of the most basic materials, we should also be aware of how to construct our stories. No matter how abstract they may be, our creations will never escape or be independent of color, hidden archetypes and our own human history.
Studying archetypal themes in my journal.

In the following blog posts, I'll delve deeper into the understanding and exploration of these building blocks of narrative painting called archetypes. This will be part of the documentation for the development of my next project: A Tarot inspired by human history, social inequality and the environment.