On Creative Process: Expression (2 of 4)

On Creative Process: Expression (2 of 4)


In the first part of this series I talked about the first two steps of the creative process, Inspiration and Idea, or the Why and What of what we do. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to go back and do so. The ideas proposed here are best understood in correlation with the ideas from the previous article. Today I’m going to talk about the next piece of the puzzle, Expression and leave the last part, Design, for the next week. Both of these are considered to be the How of the painting process. Once again, I want to stress that the ideas proposed here are my own conclusions and views on the painting process and art making.


I consider expression to be the most personal and sensitive aspect of the creative process, most closely tied to Inspiration. It stems from our inner drive to create; it involves emotions. Ideally and in its purest form it is not contrived and thought-out. It is the most direct manifestation of our character. It is the pure, the true, the honest about us transferred onto the painting surface. It is our natural way of thinking, seeing and doing – our personality made visible. In other words, expression is our idea transformed by an emotional charge.

Another angle from which we can look at Expression is style. Many an artist undergoes great mental anguish through worrying about their style. Unless we have an understanding of the “big picture”, we often struggle to grasp what’s beyond the mechanics of the work we attempt to produce. And this blinds us, we think expression is all there is to painting, without ever realizing it is only one aspect of the process. And so we bring our technique to the highest levels of mastery, without the support of the other elements, and it comes crashing down on us. It feels empty. We paint pretty pictures and we love the way we painted them but we cannot find much else about them to appreciate. If we instead use expression to better support our Idea, our work would immediately satisfy us on a much deeper level. As with the rest of the elements – Inspiration, Idea and Design – the emphasis on Expression changes dynamically not only in each individual artist, but in each individual artwork. However, when viewed from a distance, it can be recognized as the underlying style of the painter. Expression sums up our interests, fears, joys. We choose to be either reserved or  to be outgoing, to speak, to scream to the whole world who we are, to let our emotions show.

From the point of view of looking at expression as our style, we can conclude that it shows itself in our work in the most insignificant details, in the physical mechanics of the painting process as well as in the big gestures and ideas behind our work. How exactly does expression show itself though? How can we spot it? Well, we have to realize that expression seldom stands on its own. Usually artists don’t make a painting for the sake of expression but through their ideas and designs they express themselves. And so it makes sense to think of Expression in relation to Idea and Design. It is, I find, closely tied to these two elements and can be observed through them.

Expression through idea can be observed in how we say what we want to say. It is not about the idea itself and it being, let’s say, controversial or boring. The expression lays in the way we say that it’s boring or controversial. It is our approach to explaining it. It is our point of view, it is how we approach a boring or controversial subject. This is common in language too. We can judge a person’s character by the way they express themselves in their words. Two people can talk about the same thing yet use completely different vocabulary, intonation etc., and that’s how they reveal their character – not necessarily through what they say but how they say it.

Expression through design is the physical part, or the tools we use to express ourselves. We use the media with our hands, either subtly or boldly, to give life to our painting. We detect expression in our brushwork, colors, textures, values, in the rhythms – the way we put our painting together in a literal sense. The choice of media and the handling of it already reveals quite a lot about who we are. The color palette does so, too. Today we have, for the most part, absolute freedom of choice of the media we want to use to express our ideas.

These two views are just two sides of one coin. Thinking of expression this way may be helpful in attributing it the correct context and level of importance in not only viewing work of others but in the process of creating our own.

Let’s consider expression in the context of actual paintings now.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print), circa 1649, Etching, drypoint and burin on japan paper, 28 cm x 38.6 cm

I would like to return to the Rembrandt that we discussed in the previous article. If we were to look for expression in this scene, we would observe that Rembrandt doesn’t reveal his character here in an obvious way. We see him using very subtle expressive measures. The linework is the most pronounced element, but that is to a large extent given by the media used to produce the work. No, the expression in Christ preaching is found in the gestures of the people, in the subtle shape distortions, in the facial expressions of the people portrayed; in other words, this is an example of what I call Expression through Idea. As to the idea itself, it is expressed in a very classicist way. It is a scene that one could easily find in a Bible. The halo radiating from the central figure of Christ is one of the strongest expressive elements in the work which supports the idea of Christ’s holiness and divinity. In this picture, Expression through Idea clearly dominates, supported by excellent Design.

Wheatfield with crows (1890) by Vincent van Gogh

Unlike Rembrandt’s Christ Preaching, Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with crows paints a different picture. It is said to be one of the last paintings, if not the last one, that Van Gogh ever painted. Here we see an enormous emphasis on Expression and Design. The Idea element seems to be of secondary interest. The picture tells us about a wheatfield over which a dramatic cloud formations and black crows hover. There certainly may be deeper meaning behind the picture, especially in the symbolism of the crows. Van Gogh, in his letter to his brother Theo, after all said that he wished to express “de la solitude extrême” or extreme loneliness and sadness. And so his inner emotional state projected itself upon the picture. The crows might have not been on the picture otherwise, as in Wheatfield under thunderclouds (painted at around the same time), but this alteration of the Idea element through expression is very insignificant as to the selection of his subject matter, I think. The expression through design in this painting, on the other hand, is very prevalent and strong. This can be observed in his treatment of the planes and distortion of his point of view. Wheatfield with crows is a major deviation from his earlier works that dealt with pictorial space in an Impressionistic manner. This is a creative approach to design, a work that does not simply copy the observed. His usual strong brushwork, as one of his most obvious expressive trademarks, is present, but the wide format and almost fisheye point of view is just as impressive, if not more. In other words he distorted the world around him so that it correlated with the world inside him.

Le Christ jaune (1889) by Paul Gauguin

Now let’s look at the final example, the painting Le Christ jaune (1889), or Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin. In my opinion this is a painting where Idea meets Expression and Design in a wonderful balance. We can see a much more evolved, refined and balanced combination of the creative elements.

The literal Idea in this painting is to show the crucifixion of Christ. But is it really? The setting is not the first century, but the 19th. We can infer this by the architecture of the village in the background and the clothing of the people in the painting. There are three Breton women praying in the foreground and a man jumping over a wall in the middle ground. However, it is only when we start reading the Idea of this painting as a metaphor that we get a glimpse of its true meaning. Just like in Klee’s Fish Magic that we discussed in previous article, here the scene is built on the symbolic meaning of the parts of the painting. Though I think this is a still more refined and evolved approach, since the symbols tell two stories at the same time; in other words there’s a subtext to it. Without getting too involved with the Idea of this painting, let me briefly outline what some of these symbols suggest to me. One – even if a bit obvious – interpretation may be that the thought of crucified Christ remains in the minds of people regardless of time and place. After all, what we read in the Bible is a good story and a symbol that still holds a very strong presence in our culture. This may be a satisfactory explanation to some, but if we consider the Idea further we can find deeper layers of meaning still. For example, the face of Christ resembles very much that of the artist himself, which suggests that he himself perhaps felt like someone suffering from a metaphorical crucifixion. His peers, his people didn’t accept him. This is confirmed by the fairly indifferent looks of the women sitting at his feet. Then there is the man running away which may be meant to add context to what was going on in the society at the time, representing the late 19th century desire to “get away” from the city life and back to the primitive, simpler life. Though it may also be more personal than that, and tie to Gauguin’s own literal escape from the life he didn’t want.

Those are just some of my thoughts on the Idea in this painting and they should give you sufficient background and context. But let’s talk about Expression now, and how is it applied in this painting through Idea and Design. Let’s start with the color scheme: The color palette here is warm, yellows and oranges with some contrasting cool blues and greens. In Design, yellow is not a wise choice when used as a flesh color – it’s unnatural. But here the artist knew this very well. If we look at the faces of the Breton women, their complexion is not the same sickly yellow color. And so clearly, yellow was chosen to evoke negative emotion intentionally. The rest of the painting was built around it, because the yellow figure does very well in the overall color scheme. Yellow color for the landscape, on the other hand, is very pleasant to look at. And so we witness psychological contrast. When we now look at the Expression through Idea angle, yellow is a color that ties to joy and cheerfulness, hope and happiness, sunshine. That doesn’t really fit with the Idea either, since the scene is rather morbid. Again, contrast is introduced that disturbs our beliefs and views. More expressive elements used here in this painting are distortions of anatomy such as elongated limbs, the trees being unnatural and treated as geometric shapes and the facial expressions being out of place, indifferent and as if oblivious to the sufferer in their midst. As for Design, we can observe the harmony of the color palette, which may speak of the artist being at peace. The flattened space, the shapes and sizes, the value pattern could all be dissected further. And many of these things probably were done quite intuitively. I don’t believe every last detail in the picture is thought out. Either way, the point is that it all adds to and supports the main Idea, and tells the story. This is obviously a personal picture, though it has a front. The front being the most infamous crucifixion in history, a very open and public occurrence, underneath which lies the very soul of the artist.

From these examples we can conclude that it is important to learn to read expression in the context of the period in which the artist lives. Because expression is the artist’s feelings and emotions, they manifest themselves in his work. In the Rembrandt shown above, we can hardly see any personal form of expression. It was not a time to use bright colors and expressive brushwork, to show one’s inner life (at least not as directly and obviously). Today, on the other hand, emotions and feelings are so much more public and out in the open. Much fewer fear to show emotions nowadays. One very clear example from history is the Fauvist art movement. Their work was so expressive, so full of emotions that they were called le fauves, or wild beasts. They took the insult – and it was an insult – and made the most of it, they accepted it for their own and showed that they indeed embraced Expression in full. In the context of their time, their work was indeed too expressive, too sensitive and too emotional, and the name they’ve been given was actually very accurate. Consider Van Gogh, who sold a single painting in his life; tet today, his work is among the most expensive art you can buy. What does this mean? It suggests that the emphasis shifted from Idea towards Expression. And these shifts happen regularly throughout the history of mankind.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousands words. And so Expression is truly a very potent tool to make our point, to strengthen our Idea and Design and to say how we think and say who we are, who we really are. What we produce, the work we do – it all makes up the web, the mosaic that is the mirror of our race.

Please note this is an article repost.
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