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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Brees

Truth and Art

by Deb Brees

July 18, 2023

I was in my 30’s before I recognized the compelling relationship between truth and art. Now I realize that truth in art is the bedrock, the foundation, for everything I create. Back then, I already understood, in part, that creating art began and ended with asking myself lots and lots of meaningful questions and answering those questions as best I could. For instance, in rapid-fire succession, the questions that popped up in my brain were, “How wide? How far back? Is this color too light? Too dark?”, and on and on. In essence, all the art-making questions could be summed up under one master question: “How does it look?”

It’s handy to spend a lot of time around other artists. I have yet to meet two artists who are exactly alike and that is a good thing. From time to time it’s beneficial to incorporate the aid of another artist’s set of eyes by asking them for their opinion, “How’s this looking to you?” (Kids are great for this, too, because they will have interesting observations and aren’t necessarily bound by the niceties of adults.)

It was while working with a fellow artist years ago that I began to understand better how important it was, not simply to answer only those art-making questions truthfully, but to tell the truth for every question we have. Witnessing a certain fellow artist’s frustration to be able to see and create what was right in front of them, paired with their habit of casual and habitual lying, made it obvious that there was a solid connection between the two.

That was a eureka moment for me! It suddenly became crystal clear that the secret key to growing into a better artist was this: Ask yourself a meaningful question and answer that question truthfully. This is no small thing. It involves and encompasses your entire life. Why? Because telling yourself the truth is not something you can turn on and off. You must tell yourself the truth in every aspect of your life. Every aspect of your life. Wow!

But something wonderful happens when you train yourself to recognize the truth. With humbleness and love for all, you understand yourself to a greater extent and feel your place as a small part in a larger community. You can look in a person’s eyes and know if they’re speaking the truth. Hemingway wrote "when you hear the truth, it has a certain ring to it. When you hear it, you know it."

And, in case you think that means I now know all the answers, let me assure you that I don’t, because the answer to many of my questions is, “I don’t know”, or “I don’t know, yet”. And it definitely does not mean I am perfect. Like my artwork, I am ever a work in progress, constantly striving toward something transforming. Many, many, so many times in my life, when I’ve lost my temper or acted foolishly, I have had to come back, and say, “I’m sorry; I was wrong; Please forgive me; Can we start over?.”

A similar thing happens with artwork. You paint something on your canvas Friday afternoon, come back in the studio on Monday morning, and realize with sinking dread that what you thought looked awesome when you painted it two days ago, is not….quite… looking… right. You can’t just leave it. You must take the time to correct and move on.

But how do you know? Here is my practical advice. You must learn to recognize the value of two “P” words. They are Perception and Perspective.

When you start any creative endeavor, you have no visible, clear-cut path directly towards the end. You have an idea. But you must start somewhere, and so you put down, on canvas, paper, cave walls, etc., what you perceive of the world around you. That is your perception. Your filtered version. But how do you know it is right and not warped or funny looking?

Here, I am reminded of the parable of the blind men and an elephant. Skim through: “A group of blind men had heard of a strange creature called an elephant, who had been brought to their town, but had no knowledge of its physical appearance. Out of curiosity, they decided to inspect it by touch. The first person felt the elephant’s trunk, and said, "This creature is like a thick snake". Another’s hand reached its ear, and he thought the being was like a kind of fan. Meanwhile, another man touched its leg, and said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. One blind man’s hand landed upon its side and said the elephant, "is a wall". Finally, the last two felt its tail, and its tusk, describing the elephant as being a rope or hard, smooth and like a spear.”

To gain perspective, you can’t focus on only one part, you must move around. You cannot gather all your information from one spot or one source. You must view your subject from different angles, understanding that often you need to look at your artwork with fresh eyes. That is, take breaks, use a mirror, put your canvas upside down, or ask a friend for input. This is especially necessary in the field of animal art, where there will always be those few people who are more knowledgeable about your subject than you are. As artists, we have many sayings. One of them is, “It doesn’t have to be right, but it can’t be wrong.”

I knew a mural artist. Every time I walked by the big room where he was painting a huge mural, hanging on the wall, he seemed to be just sitting in his chair and looking. Staring at the mural. If you stopped and asked him what he was doing, he would say, “Working on the mural.” Thinking, really looking, asking yourself meaningful questions and answering them with truthful answers, is hard work and seldom comfortable.

The overall benefit of taking what you perceive, your perception, and verifying it through a studied perspective, by telling yourself the truth, is that you will find this process spills over into everything else in your life. Perspective is seeing something from a new or different angle, and no better example of this is how the first astronauts felt when they saw our Earth from above. David B. Yaden, et al (2016) describes this phenomenon as the Overview Effect. They state broadly that “the aspects of the astronauts' experience were awe, appreciation and perception of beauty, unexpected and even overwhelming emotion, and an increased sense of connection to other people and the Earth as a whole.”

This, in a nutshell, is the feeling which many wildlife artists, through their artwork, modestly hope to arouse in their viewers, a sense of wonder and veneration to glorify the greatest Creator of all. A child grabs their parent’s face, forcibly turns it away from whatever incessant chatter, and says, “Look!”, and through our images, we artists also hope to softly but firmly clasp your chin, lift your face, and redirect your gaze to see the amazing beauty around us. Look!! And the best part is that when you instruct yourself or ask for guidance to see the truth, all the good stuff surrounds and accompanies it. Truth and love go hand in hand like best buddies. Peace, kindness, and gentleness follow closely. Wisdom leads.

Keep your eyes open and blessings to you as you follow your own path.

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