Friday, October 28, 2016

My Full Circle Moment - Being Critiqued by Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman - Critiquing Visual Artists
Earlier this month (October 2) I was given a unique opportunity to have my watercolour painting (The Abiwin") critiqued by renowned artist Robert Bateman as part of Culture Days in Ontario.

Robert Bateman critiquing my "Abiwin" (2015) watercolour

My Full Circle Moment

When the Sanderson Centre for the Performing Arts in Brantford, Ontario issued a call for artists interested in having their work critiqued by Robert Bateman I jumped at the opportunity.

I have admired the eighty-six year-old Robert Bateman since the 1980s when I was living in southern Ontario and canoeing, camping, hiking, birdwatching and sketching some of the very same places that Robert Bateman was painting at the time.

My poster signed by Robert Bateman in 1983 and framed

Above is a signed poster of an event that I attended in 1983 ("Be There With Robert Bateman" at the International Centre in Mississauga, Ontario) which has ALWAYS hung in a prominent place in ALL of my residences throughout the years.

My art books signed by Robert Bateman
Above are a few of my Robert Bateman's books that I would take to get signed by him at galleries where he was showing his work in southern Ontario in the early 1980s.

On one such book signing, Robert Bateman asked me if I was any relation to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to which I responded that I was actively doing genealogy but had no idea if we were related. Robert Bateman suggested that I write to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan which I did and received a wonderful reply (The Senator's Irish roots go back to County Kerry as well)

Thirty years following all of these 1980s experiences, I am now creating art full-time and this was a perfect full circle opportunity to see Robert Bateman again and have him look at my work and tell me what he thought. How could I refuse?

I was both excited and terrified.

 What I Learned About Robert Bateman's Art

Before Robert Bateman began his critique of the work of the twenty-four artists who had assembled at the Sanderson Centre on October 2, he took us all through his power point slide deck so that we could easily understand his approach to art and some of the language that he would be using during his critique.

I won't share ALL of the slides, but I will highlight some of the slides that I know that I will keep with me and incorporate into my future thinking with my own art.

The presentation started with Robert Bateman's favourite quote by Willa Cather:

The two slides that I will remember most from Robert Bateman's presentation are "Bateman's Buzzwords" and "The ABCs"
"Bateman's Buzzwords"
This slide (above) is a painting called "Bateman's Buzzwords" that was created by Robert Bateman's students in Montana in the 1980s. The items in the painting represent things that the students had heard repeatedly during their art retreat.

Bateman's Buzzwords included:
  • Top: Bateman "sponge method" - something Bateman employs to his own painting to create atmospheric effect. There is "purple" in the painting above which Bateman NEVER ever uses (and he observed that other painters, as they get older, use more and more purple in THEIR paintings.)
  • "KILL": the branch coming out of the top right is an example of something that Bateman would recommend to "kill". This branch is entirely "cooked up" (meaning "not based on reality" and another phrase we would hear through the critiques.).
  • "Ace In Your Hand": this is something in your painting that you keep in your hand and nver play it until you have to (i.e. white)
  • "Cookie Cutter"
  • "Blended Things"
  • "Fried Egg": where the subject is in the centre
  • "Peanut Butter Sandwich"
"The ABCs"
This slide (above) would be referenced frequently during Robert Bateman's critiques of our work. Paying attention to tone is the secret to realism and it was a three dimensional exercise that he used back in the eighties when he was teaching art.

Screen shot: Google search of Robert Bateman's Art

Other thoughts and quotes from Robert Bateman that I will remember forever:
  • "Because something is a lot of trouble does not mean it isn't worth doing". (Robert Bateman's tundra swan painting he made was painted and repainted using saran wrap)
  • Bateman does not think of himself as an excellent painter. He believes himself to be a good painter and not excellent like John Singer Sargent or Velázquez
  • "There's no such thing as cheating in art" and on this point he differentiated "copying" from "forgery" which is against the law.
  • He is troubled if someone praises his painting for the details. He said no one ever says, "I love your sweater because of the stitches" "Detail has nothing to do with quality" he said.
  • "Lines don't exist in the real world, they exist in maps." Bateman urged the artists to have the courage to leave the line out!
  • Bateman uses photography and he prefers back-lit, rim lit, and NEVER photographs at noon or subjects that are front-lit.
  • Bateman has carried Tom Thompson in his psyche for over fifty years. He also carries Clifford Styll's abstracts (inspired his mountain goats on a cliff painting) and Rothko
  • "Emptiness is NOT nothing. It's something"
  • "To be real, art must have a sense of mystery."
  • Never "paint for market" and never use a "cooked up landscape". By cooked up landscape, Bateman referred specifically to the use of "blue water" in landscapes adding "never in a month of Sundays would I paint water so blue".
  • Every artist should have "Five Easy Pieces". This is a direct reference to the Jack Nicholson movie "Five Easy Pieces". In Bateman's context, he said he has five easy pieces that he has perfected that take little effort and when asked to donate a painting for a charity event (which happens frequently) he does one of these.
  • "If someone does not understand your painting, that's not THEIR problem. It is YOUR problem as the artist"

What I Learned About My Art From Robert Bateman

Robert Bateman finished his slide presentation and then turned his attention to the twenty-four artists in attendance. I texted my sister and niece who were behind me in the audience: 

"Oh no, he (Robert Bateman) is going to hate my painting! Everything he said we shouldn't do, I have done! I should leave NOW" 

Would he say that my  "Abiwin painting" was a "fried egg", that I used too many lines ("lines don't exist in the real world"), or would he ask me why I used his hated purple ("never use purple")!?!  

My sister and niece reassured me that he would love my painting and to stay put and I am thankful that I did because Robert Bateman was so incredibly constructive and kind to ALL of the artists he critiqued that day.

I am attaching the video of the critique (thanks to my niece) and a transcript of what Robert Bateman had to say about my painting "The Abiwin". (If you are receiving this by email, the link to the video is here:

Robert Bateman's critique of my painting "The Abiwin" (see painting below):
"This is of a house in Toronto I think ...or maybe it's Guelph...(I whispered to him that it was Ottawa) that period....and it represents a part of the world and a period of Canadian history that I particularly like. It is done with great skill. The shadows, the way she has handled them, are somewhat strident. If I were doing it, which is my bottomline....I would have killed the um....that's a watercolour... its not as easy to kill.....I would have had some air in behind the tree...if it was acrylic...can even do with watercolour...I would have given a thin greying wash, especially the part behind the tree, and the tree would have then popped off. As is, it becomes part of a flat decorative design which is okay because that is what the Group of Seven does....there's nothing wrong with it.....these shadows (he pointed with the laser) are a little bit strident as well (colours). I like the composition a lot though and the choice of subject really works"

The Abiwin: Watercolour painting: January 21, 2015

Full circle - Me and Robert Bateman at the Sanderson Centre
I am so grateful for this experience. I am also grateful for the hospitality of my sister and her family (especially on such short notice) who drove me around Milton and Brantford and photographed and videotaped the event and were so supportive. And I am grateful for my spouse and children who said, when the offer to participate in the critique arrived, "You must go, if you don't you will always regret it."

I learned a lot. I love that Robert Bateman said my piece was "done with great skill" and that my handling of the tree resulted in a "flat decorative design which is okay because that is what the Group of Seven does...there's nothing wrong with that".

I even don't mind that he found some my shadows and colours were "somewhat strident". I actually looked up the definition of "strident" and it means "loud and harsh; grating". And, in the realist and hyper-realist worlds of Robert Bateman or Andrew Wyeth or Alex Colville my strident shadows and strident colours would never be found.

But my current watercolour style, as a relative latecomer to colour in my everyday work, has a tendency to be completely strident.

Examples of some of my more recent work from my flickr
My plein air instructor David Jones who once critiqued my work said, "your art is so whimsical" and I responded that what I really wanted to do was to paint traditional plein air landscapes like everyone else to which he asked, "Why would you want to do that?"

Photo: Unsplash: (creative commons) Morgan Sessions

The point is that all artists bring to their art their own styles. And styles evolve. Even Robert Bateman's style changed over his lifetime:
"He has always painted wildlife and nature, beginning with a representational style, moving through impressionism and cubism to abstract expressionism. In his early 30's he moved back to realism as a more suitable way to express the particularity of the planet. It is this style that has made him one of the foremost artists depicting the world of nature." (Source: Drawing Society of Canada: Canada's Drawing Masters)

Style in art :

Critiques are important to artists. You can critique your own work (see video below for suggestions on what to look for) but there is nothing better than having your work critiqued by others.
Yes, you will feel vulnerable, exposed and anxious like I did, but there's no better way to see your work through fresh eyes and hear what someone else sees and thinks about your art.

How blessed I am that I was able to receive a critique from a famous Canadian artist who I have admired for so many decades. 

Thanks so much Robert Bateman, 
Ontario Culture Days 
and the Sanderson Centre for Performing Arts! 

I will NEVER forget this!

1 comment:

  1. Cindi, What a fabulous experience!! Bateman is such a great inspiration - I have many of his prints and books.
    Thanks for sharing :).