I always come back to Edward Hopper.
Sometimes I go for months without looking at his work, almost like taking an extended vacation from him, but then something calls me back. After an interval like that I check out a couple of his paintings and I'm always glad I did. Hopper's sort of an extra father for me- he bore more than a passing physical resemblance to my actual dad who died when I was young. I think unconsciously when I was just beginning as an art student that drew me to him.
But what really pulled me in of course was his painting itself. I had been doing colorful acrylic abstractions when I began painting my freshman year in college. One day sitting in the art library at Oberlin College with a book on Hopper open on my lap it just hit me- I wanted to drop what I was doing, teach myself how to draw (at that time I couldn't) and try to paint like Hopper. It really was that simple.
Here are two favorite Hopper's. Above is a wonderfully gentle and contemplative painting. This woman seems so lost in thought as she sits in her apartment. A lot of the feeling of this painting is evoked by Hopper's inventive use of light and of geometry. Leaning forward, the woman's light back contrasts sharply with the dark chair to set up a dramatic diagonal pathway across the painting's surface. As you look around the canvas you see echoes of that same angle. In the lower left foreground strategically placed books and a newspaper repeat that diagonal angle exactly. So too does an orange highlight on a back wall at the left, and the pale yellow hightlights on the window frame just to the right of our model. Then you look out the window and see that same angle repeated in the subtle blues on the most distant building. Even the framed print hanging on the wall above the woman has the same diagonal in it. This guy is thorough!
Played off against all those rhyming diagonals are the strong and sharp verticals of the door frame at the left and the window frame at the right. Hopper has reinforced these with dark emphatic edges. And just to show the woman is in concert too with these verticals, Hopper poses her lower leg on the left as a pure vertical.
The sunlight piercing the room gives us some energy and accents, enlivening the whole scene. Imagine for a moment the sun disappearing behind a cloud and how the brilliance of the light would leave us. draining the painting of energy.
Below is Hopper's famous New York Movie. In many ways it's like the above painting. Again the figure has a diagonal lean, though more subtly this time. As our uniformed usherette leans right, the orange curtain next to her leans left. Notice the reinforcing dark accent Hopper places on just the one curtain and not the other. He's trying to create a dance between the woman and her surroundings.
The light in this painting is more about color than about shapes. Hopper bathes the woman in a warm yellow light while the mostly unseen audience is soaking up a cool colored light from the old black and white film projected on the screen at the far left. The usherette has seen the movie, probably way too many times, and a very different movie is playing in her head. It's best to shine different colored lights on very differnent feelings.
I like Hopper also because he wasn't the most skillful of artists. He's not a John Singer Sargent with a dazzling paint application and brilliant paint surface. But the depth of his emotions came through just as clearly in his slowly built up and methodically constructed compositions. Paintings is a bit like the old Hare and the Tortoise story. What matters is that you keep going until you cross the finish line. No speedster, Hopper still came in first a whole lot of time.
I don't really paint that much like Hopper these days. Instead I've moved over into working with an imagery of the natural world with a very different mood to it than Hopper's world. But I couldn't do the work I'm doing now without my many happy years sitting at the feet of this grand master of American realism and raptly listening as he told his wonderful stories.