Painting by numbers

September 5th, 2011

I’ve always been fascinated by the painting by numbers phenomenon.

You’re given a board or sheet of paper. All the areas to be painted are already mapped out and numbered. And all you have to do is apply the prescribed colored paints to their respective numbered areas and voilà, an instant masterpiece.

When I first found out about it, my first thought was ‘only in America.’ The ultimate democracy, so art has to be democratized too.

But then, I started thinking deeper.

And I realized, isn’t this what art is all about? Following some prescribed rules and applying them in some formulaic way?

For instance, Chinese brush painting is mostly about formulaic techniques.

There’re specific ways to paint mountains, rocks, flowers. The famous Mustard Seed manual is a good source for all these techniques.

That’s why most Chinese paintings look the same — to me anyway — the same serene misty cloud covered mountains and squiggly lined streams.

But then I probed even deeper, and I realized that western watercolor painting share the same traits and characteristics too.

For example, one of the most influential watercolorists of our time, Edgar Whitney is famous for teaching his calligraphic strokes (that’s the word he uses).

His approach is remarkably similar to the Chinese. Each object is represented by a calligraphic marking, a specific technique. There’re different calligraphic strokes for every object — trees, water, houses, etc.

So is this art? Or is it just formulaic reproductions, just a little less constrained perhaps than the painting by numbers approach?

More to the point, is this creativity or is it just mindless reproduction, or rearranging of the same formulaic elements?

It’s hard to say.

Some musicians seem to think that all they have to do is play a piece accurately, exactly as notated, and they have an interpretation.

Others seem to think that interpretation is about reproducing faithfully what the composer ‘intended.’ So they faithfully go back in time, and by analyzing contemporary writings, try to determine the ‘performance practices’ of the time.

Yet others think that performance is about reproducing what their favorite concert artist did in his/her tenth recording of that same piece.

To each his/her own, I guess.

Those people who paint by numbers, they’re proud of their work –  I’ve seen them even framed up in their living rooms.

So do all those Chinese brush painting enthusiasts; so too, those happy weekend watercolor warriors.

In fact, arguing about whether these are creative pursuits or not becomes almost a moot point, and even smacks of elitism. Who’s to judge what’s creative and what’s not?

Perhaps it comes down to that famous saying by Judge Potter Stewart:

[I can’t define what it is.] “But I know it when I see it.”

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