They say you can teach someone how to draw but you can’t teach anyone how to paint.
You can of course teach anyone how to hold a brush or a knife or use a finger, how to mix colours and how to balance a composition, but you cannot, it is said, teach the sensibility by which simple tools can be used to reinvent reality in a way that offers insights into the soul.
An example of this truth can be found in a current exhibition by Ugandan artist George Ogwaps, who clearly has been taught how to draw — and to draw fairly well — but has found the mystery of painting to be elusive.
He therefore faced a double bind when selecting paintings for his show, called Migration Series, at the Banana Hill Art Gallery to the west of Nairobi.
Firstly, he had the problem of promoting his Big Idea, which I take to be the great annual migration as a metaphor for our own journey through life; and secondly he faced the difficulty of its efficient execution.
LIVE FOR ART
To take the technique first: Ogwaps has taken shelter in the refuge of many an anxious painter — use acrylics because they dry quickly, lay them on thick as you like, straight from the tube, and make the brushstrokes swirly.
I think this stems from a general admiration among painters of Van Gogh… but surely it is his life and not his art that really inspires them.
It constitutes a ready-made get-out clause.
They see Van Gogh’s paintings as a by-product of the archetypal tortured artist, hoping for peace in the asylum because the world did not understand him.
But the important things about Van Gogh, once a lay preacher and a deeply intelligent, thoughtful man who took up painting aged 27, are that his work was wholly autobiographical, that he painted to try to understand his own life.
He lived for his art and he died for it, at only 37. He had painted for just 10 years.
I get the sense, looking at Ogwaps’s exhibition, that he not only means well but also is sincerely making a huge effort to get it right.
What he needs is greater restraint. Practically every other painting is of wildlife flocking before a blazing sky or running pell-mell towards a fiery horizon.
When the artist steps away from migration he offers a few village scenes in which warriors or women with water pots meld into background flurries of vertical brushstrokes like reeds in a swamp.
It just won’t do.
Ogwaps is — or certainly could be — better than that.
It is fun to splash around with a loaded brush, flailing at the canvas in paroxysms of creativity. That’s what happens in films and books, but only rarely in real life.
Let him thin his paint, open his palette from the endless combinations of milky white, bilious greens, sludgy browns, weak yellows and a bit of fire from the oranges, and focus instead on quietly colouring his drawings, which are usually sound.
You can see that in canvas after canvas where he captures the flow of flamingoes, the tense huddle of antelope, the pent up fury of buffalo and the mad dance of zebra seeking their mates.
There is the occasional lapse in drawing; with elephants’ ears like open umbrellas, but that can be corrected through observation. Generally, the drawing is OK.
It all goes wrong when he lifts his brushes to paint.
If he would just ease off a little he will find a renewed sensitivity to form, and, as he moves forward, a greater understanding of his subjects, now frequently obscured by rich swathes of pigment clogging the surfaces of his canvases.
It is as though he is trying to force movement into his paintings, yet the animals themselves have that in plenty.
All Ogwaps needs to do is to capture that dynamism without trying to mimic it with heavy sweeps of his brush. The rapier, perhaps, not the bludgeon.
And he could make his scenes luminous by applying washes of colour as glazes on a white ground.
But perhaps I am hoping, quite unreasonably really, that he will become a different painter from the man he is; for Ogwaps is neither the 19th Century mystic William Blake nor his contemporary visionary Samuel Palmer… although his subject matter, rich in allegory, suggests he is straining in that direction.
And when Ogwaps does get it right, his imagination, drawing, and thrashing painterly style unite to produce a single glorious statement.
High Jumpers (reproduced here) presents wildebeest streaming towards the setting sun, or metaphor permitting, an apocalyptic vision of us heading towards a fireball representing the Revelation.
In this we are back with Blake and Palmer, lacking only the finesse.
High Jumpers is for me the only one of his 37 paintings that hits the target, but it does demonstrate what a fine painter Ogwaps could be if the rest of his work had this energy and enthusiasm properly harnessed and under control.