Painting and Psychology: notes on David Leffell

My friend and fellow artist Matt Zoll runs Zoll Studios in Timonium, a Baltimore suburb.  He invited the artist David A. Leffell to teach a workshop this week, which he kicked off yesterday with a still life demonstration which I attended.  I’ve admired Leffell’s work for a while now, but because I haven’t read any of his books, the demo was the first time I’ve been able to hear about his process and philosophy.  David’s been painting a long time now: I believe he is somewhere in his seventies, so he’s had some time to think and clarify his thoughts on painting and life, which I found so interesting that I thought it was worth the time to write it up and share my thoughts here. What struck me most about David is how intuitive he is and what a kind and open soul he has.  These qualities have always been evident in his paintings, but as a teacher, he is also able to articulate his ideas well, and I think that the thoughts he generously shared with the 100 or so in the eager audience at Zoll Studios evinced a painting philosophy both bold and humble.  He professes that painting begins with a psychology, or insight into one’s own mind, so that a painting is nothing more than a record of how the painter sees the world.  Now, I don’t think that is the most intuitive part of his philosophy, and in fact, I agree that a painting, at least a representational one, is a kind of visual treatise inspired by things one finds in the real world.  Where one comes in on the scale of fidelity to those things in the world is up to each painter and contributes to one’s style.  The intuitive part of David’s painting ideal concerns the technique of painting itself.  Holding the brush properly, controlling the brush strokes, using one’s whole arm, feeling how much color there is on the end of the brush: “this is the whole technique,” he states.  “There is no other technique involved.”  David’s painting technique then demands a kind of undemanding Zen-ness insofar as the painter must “feel the paint” and “the paint tells you what you can do.”

The question raised is whether David’s particular variant of technique should be called technique at all.  According to the Aristotelian conception, tekne is art or craft, not only as experience and routine, but as action guided by both knowledge and purpose.  Knowledge is the cause, and the final aim or teleological state is why as effect, and had to be known to the artist even before his or her knowledge was to be put to use.  So according to David, intuition—what information or feeling the brush gives you—is cause in the Aristotelian sense.  Intuition however is not pure reasoning, but may be something more like pure feeling or sensitivity, if I might presuppose that dichotomy.  Moreover, it is not something one can teach.  When I asked David at break about this, I got the sense that he would agree and would even go further: not only is this intuition about painting not something one can teach, one does not have to teach it at all, for it is as knowable to us as the meaning of a caress on one’s cheek given to us by a loving hand, and if we are so unlucky as to have that not be knowable, then it is because we have been desensitized in some way.  That is the best one can expect from this workshop, then.  I don’t say that in a sarcastic or trivializing way: I think to uncover a truth of this magnitude and get on the way to unshackling oneself from obtuseness is worth ten times the price of a one week workshop with David Leffell.  But I think there will be people who are disappointed when they find there is no silver bullet.  If they are lucky and they listen carefully, the only true thing that they can get from David Leffell—or any living master for that matter—is some glimpse of how that painter him- or herself works, and the epiphany that everyone’s journey reflects and is one and the same as their philosophy, if they are doing it right.  In that sense David is exactly correct: painting does begin with psychology.

This is a long blog post, but there are a couple more concepts that came up during the demo that I thought were fascinating and worth sharing (if you’re still reading).  Now David talked about the fact that objects are extrinsic to the idea of the final painting, that the objects themselves fulfill the idea and show the movement that you see in life that you want to capture and make visually exciting in the painting. In that sense you aren’t painting the objects, but rather the obligation of the painting—and the objects are simply there to fulfill that obligation.  That’s why David looked more at his painting then the actual set up, and why the painting looked nothing like the still life at the end of the three hours.  This makes a lot of sense given his understanding of why he paints.  He is the causa causati, cause of all causes, the prime mover; the objects in the world are not what dictate, but rather he—or his conception of the painting he already has in his mind even before he has laid down the first brushstroke—are what dictate.  The rest of his philosophy, I think, is very consistent with what ultimately is a worldview for David, and stems from it.

First, one doesn’t have to search for style.  I hope he’d agree with me that if the painter is sensitive to the paint and the brush and channels himself only, then only he—that particular painter—could make those particular brushstrokes in that particular way and in that particular order and pattern.  The gestalt is unique.  Thus, if style is just a matter of color patterns and notes, brushstrokes varying in speed and direction, then as long as one is being true to what one feels, then we need not worry about style.

Second, painting really can be seen as a negotiation of "what to include and what to leave out", as David says. After the first break when we started up again, David dwelled somewhat on the difference between painting and copying, or rendering.  I think he did this partly because of his and my interaction during the break.  I had met David a while ago in New York, but of course I didn’t expect him to remember me.  I reintroduced myself and told him that I had studied with Jacob Collins at the Water Street Atelier in Manhattan, and it came out eventually that what he thinks Jacob does is not painting, but rather copying or rendering.  It is interesting to me that David said this because although the actual way in which David explains his philosophy is somewhat at odds with how Jacob might explain himself, I don’t think that their worldviews are so inconsistent with one another.  What I ultimately gleaned at Water Street was that (a) nature was beautiful and near perfect and contains truths, and (b) painting was an effort to be as faithful to nature as possible while making it even better than it is, without neglecting the constraints that the laws of nature place upon beauty.  David, if I have it correctly, begins with himself and his own ontological view, which is established in nature insofar as David himself is part of nature.  A classical realist, on the other hand, also begins with himself and his own ontological view as well, but that view regards extrinsic nature as supreme, and human nature as having to bow down or vindicate itself through raising up that extrinsic nature.

The funny thing about all of this is that people’s ideas about painting, about themselves, about the world—they are like disease in that ideas have their own etiology.  David Leffell grew up in New York in the height of the post-modern decades, and Jacob (forgive me for using him as a stand-in for most classical realists; his is the mind I knew the best as he was my first, and in some respects my only, teacher) grew up in the same place only a few decades later.  To the outside world and to the art industry as a whole, they could be the same person, but yet David conceptualizes painting as essentially a two-dimensional medium that must work within but also celebrate its constraints.  To try to break free of that is possible, but not without it ceasing to be painting.

(This is an old still life of David's I found online. I'll try to get a picture of the still life he did at Zoll's and put it up here.)