Thursday, August 25, 2011

Paul Revere's Painting Secrets



















Years ago whenever I used to gather 35 mm slides to show my classes at MICA from the school's Slide Library I'd fall into gazing at a big poster of this painting by Grant Wood that was hung on the Library's wall. It's of Paul Revere's famous ride to warn of the approach of British troops outside Boston. In a lot of ways it was my real introduction to Grant Wood as previously I'd only known that American Gothic double portrait that's reproduced everywhere. As I didn't really care for that famous painting, I was surprised how much I felt drawn to this narrative from American revolutionary history. What I was feeling I now realize was the expressive power of Wood's talent. He was making me want to look at his picture. 

A really good painting has to first of all delight the viewer's eye with visually surprising and sensually convincing delights. It's gotta look good. Wood's painting does by employing many skillful moves. Let's talk about a few.

First, his point of view is unusual but well chosen to lay out the story. We're offered an invented bird's eye view of a rolling and undulating countryside interspersed with simple geometric shapes of the architecture. To get these two very different kinds of forms to talk to each other,  Wood treats them similarly. He takes pains to gradate the tones on all of his surfaces. In fact, you have to look hard to find a surface where the light and dark isn't gradated. It's subtle but powerfully wraps the painting together.

Wood images a light source (one heck of a full moon?) that shines most brightly down on Revere's horse. See how the light gradually diminishes as you move away from the horse in any direction. How moody and mysterious the growing shadows become once you reach the inky blues of the far distance.  I find one of the most critical strengths found in great paintings is the concreteness of how the painter conceived of the lighting situation. They see the light itself as one of the key actors in their painting. If you have a great story to tell in your painting, what is the optimum way to illuminate it? Painters like Wood offer us a crash course in creative lighting. 

Painters always develop habits that work well for them. One of Wood's favorite devices is creating a landscape full of hills and valleys and then wrapping a prominent winding road over and around them. It is amazing how often the prominent features of a Wood painting are the sculpted masses of the earth- usually imagined as giant swelling forms that seem like sections cut out of huge spheres. Wood seems to say the earth possesses a living, moving personality. Imagine the above painting repainted to show our horseman riding across a totally flat landscape. It would be a far less intriguing painting. One other feature I love in this particular Wood is the way his winding river is made to look so much like the curving roadway.

One final thing that's critical to this painting's success is the placement of the forms of houses and the trees. There is an unconscious tendency to spread one's forms out too evenly throughout a painting. I imagine a sinister figure who I like to call The Art Devil whispering in a painters' ears as they place the houses in a painting "hey, give 'em each a little yard- spread 'em out a little." Watch a truly inexperienced painter place three imaginary trees in their painting- inevitably they'll be equally spaced apart from each other, as if to give each one the most space to grow. It's a nice sentiment, but that's a recipe for a dull painting. 

Wood clusters all his houses close to each other. Then there is a relatively open space where your eye is allowed to rest, and finally as you move into the distance he gives you some fifty individual sphere-like trees, all tightly grouped together. It makes the painter seem decisive. THIS is what I mean it seems to be saying. I think what we're drawn to in a paintings is a vision that shows a sensitive hand painting for us in a very deliberate way. I get the feeling Wood is giving us not just any possible view of Paul Revere but the version he's convinced is the very best vision of this legendary ride. Wood is sensitive and intuitive, but he arrives at his best idea and tells it to us straight out without any mumbling. It's clear, crisp, to the point, and very effective.

4 comments:

  1. Nice analysis of my favorite Wood painting! I've always liked the way the houses he's been to are lit up, but the ones down the road are still in the dark.

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  2. Barbara, yes isn't that a great touch!

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  3. A couple more details that add to this: The horse's gallop is portrayed in the old style, before photography captured the exact manner of an animal's gait. It gives it a colonial flavor. I'm certain Wood chose this deliberately.
    Another detail adds to the narrative: the distant lights of the coming British, seen in the upper right corner. Not only does it dramatize the story in the painting, it activates that part of the painting. The viewer is invited to look at all parts of this charmer.

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  4. Tim good comments. I think you're right about Wood consciously choosing the old fashioned way of portraying a running horse. It adds to the otherworldlly mood of this dream like painting.

    What's funny is I always assumed the lights in the far distance were the awakened citizenry rushing to join their local militia unit. Though I guess it really could be either.

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