Sunday, April 24, 2011

Intimate Interiors: What we learn from Vuillard


On Friday I was speaking with a student in my Painting class at MICA and told her I saw similarities  in her work to that of Vuillard's. She hadn't heard of Vuillard, nor had two other students I'd mentioned his work to in the previous week. So I thought it would be fun to summon up some of the old guy's paintings. They're really lovely sometimes.

Edouard Vuillard was a French painter (1868-1940) who inhabited those fertile waters in that country between the advent of impressionism in mid century and the plunge into full blown abstraction of the early days of the 20th century. Vuillard did lots of different kinds of work, going from these adventurous pattern oriented oils to timid commercial portraiture that almost nobody looks at these days (he had to pay the rent too). But at his best, like the ones I've chosen here, he's a delight. 

In the above painting, two bentwood rocking chairs are placed facing each. Vuillard loved their pretzel-like curves. So to make those the focal points of the painting, he poses a flowing white dress behind their dark curving lines to spotlight them. The dress is carefully shaped to include not only similar curves but also a sharp vertical edge falling straight downwards. This vertical line is intentional and critical to "anchor" all the swirling shapes in the dress and chairs.

Vuillard more than any artist I can think of used the shapes of fabrics to define his figures. Certainly in the painting above. And below is one I love but I'm only fairly confident it has a figure in it, though it does seem a cat or dog makes an appearance. What he's showing us is that there are lots of ways to install human personality into a painting.




Vuillard is famous for exploiting decorative patterned fabric. Below is a fabulous example with the standing woman's dress dominating the painting.



He's is careful though to not over do it with the heavy patterning. The standing figure for instance is also a carefully posed silhouette, and her dress gradates beautifully from lights near her neck to a midtone shadow as we desccnd to her knees. Her dominant pattern is contrasted purposefully against empty flat surfaces.

I think Vuillard is a master at creating abstract rhythms to move your eyes through his entire composition. In the above oil, squint your eyes and focus on the chain of irregular black shapes that skip across the painting's surface. Part of his success is his willingness to put in almost too many forms to crowd his spaces. Then he adjusts and edits his way to a composition that's tied together like a seamen's knot.

Landscape painting might at first glance seem unrelated to Vuillard's interiors, but actually they're close cousins. Vuillard created what might be called "interior jungles" with his heavily decorated rooms. Anyone who's looked at the overwhelming complexity of a forest interior like those painted by a Barbizon School artist or an American like Worthington Witteredge has sensed this affinity. 

We find ourselves drawn to paintings like Vuillard's because they remind us the possibility of making a powerful, unified world is real. As humans, that's terrribly good news. And for artists, Vuillard remains one of the great teachers about how to do it.









Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Victory in the Studio


Philip Koch, From Day to Night, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2011

Here's a new painting completed yesterday. It will make its public debut this July when the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Virginia open its Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch (July 23 - October 2). The exhibition was organized by the art historian Eva J. Allen, Ph.D. for the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and is on an eight museum national tour.

It's got a long, long history. Begun in 2003 I actually included it in my first solo exhibition at the Cape Cod Museum of Art that year and the following year at UMUC's A Vision of Nature: The Art of Philip Koch. It was reproduced in the catalogue UMUC published for that show. 

Then it came back to my studio and I got an itchy feeling I could make it better but wan't quite sure what I wanted to do with it. So I assigned the status of an NFL player on injured reserve. 

We eyed each other on and off as I worked on other paintings. Finally about two years ago I started working in earnest on it with a sense I wanted a more somber and subtle painting. 




















What had been troubling me about the piece was it seemed to be equally about the sky and the water. While there was lots of energy to it, the feeling wasn't one of all the horses pulling together. Looking at it was a little like having your eyes bounce between two opposing ping pong paddles, only moving back and forth vertically instead of horizontally. You are supposed to stimulate the viewer rather than exhaust them.

Like so many of the other "little" adjustments I've decided to try on my paintings, this one ended up taking way longer than anticipated. In the end I repainted about 85% of the oil's surface, and the sky many times- seriously there have to be at least 25 different skies on this painting,

As I've written before my wife thinks I'm the least patient person she knows. But at least in painting I can  pretend  I'm patient. I could see the painting was growing in a good new direction as I kept working on it and that I shouldn't stop until I was confident I'd brought it to where it should be. Why can't I work in a straight line and just take it right to where I want it to be? Well, I imagine the farmers here in Maryland ask themselves the same question after they've planted several hundred rows of new corn. Art is a lot like a growing plant. A new cell has to build on the foundation layed down by the previous one. Our understanding of where a painting needs to go unfolds like that.

Of course there are breakthroughs and sudden flashes of insight. But we're not in a position to take advantage of them without all the painstakingly slow and methodical work.

One of my secrets (please don't tell) is that I balance off the big and slow-to-complete studio paintings with very small and quick studies in oil or, even quicker, pastel. And fastest of all, my vine charcoal drawings. Here's the one I did to help me figure out what direction I wanted to head in making the changes on the 72 inch oil version.














Philip Koch, From Day to Night, vine charcoal, 7 x 14", 2011

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Edward Hopper's Secret Life as a Circus Performer


Last week I got a thoughtful response to my post on Edward Hopper.It included some intriguing questions. One of them follows-

One question I do have though it how much you think his style of handling of the paint was intentional. Hopper was such an incredible editor and something as fundamental as "his style" must have been one of the most intentional decisions he made. 

No one can crawl inside Hopper's head, so right off the bat my opinions are just educated (I think) conjecture. But here goes.

I believe there is more to all of us than meets the eye. That there are depths to our emotions and understanding that lie just beyond the grasp of what we normally can know. People look to art because on some level they just sense it's going to show them something they can't learn any other way. 

When I was a kid I saw jugglers when my folks took me to the circus. Impressed, I hurried home to grab some balls to start practicing this amazing skill. I tried juggling first with two balls  and managed to keep them airborn for about two seconds. Undaunted I dropped back to practicing just with one ball, figuring once I had the necessary hand moves deliberately clear in my head it would be possible to slip a second ball into the mix and then build up from there. But no matter how determinedly I practiced, I could never get past the threshold of just one ball. No doubt most of us had the same experience. Painting is a lot like juggling, but it means keeping lots of balls in the air.

Even the relatively simple Hopper self portrait oil above is instructive. It's pretty good. Hopper had to contend with a zillion decisions to pull this one off so well. Looking at it one gets a sense of quiet but powerful personality emanating from the figure. Much of it comes from which forms he chose to emphasize and which he held back in subordinate roles.

Nine out of ten portrait paintings put the high contrasts in the face, usually in the eyes and mouth. Hopper instead lightens up the dark accents in these areas and softens their edges. Instead of looking here within the face, he pulls your eye to the outer silhouette of he figure. Look closely at the right hand outer contour of Hopper's jaw as it bends inward to the left, meets his neck, and then bends out to the right again as you ride down his far shoulder. With these moves he's given the empty white wall just to the right of Hopper's head a role as a co-star with the figure itself. 

Hopper instinctively knew the personality of the sitter had to flow out of every part of the painting, so he focused his efforts on writing a duet for the head and the brightest part of the wall to sing together. 

Another great touch is the bottom of his hat brim. You know he wants your eye to fix on it because he's chosen to make it so much darker than the features of the face. It just stands out. Just to the right of his forehead it climbs upwards along a diagonal trajectory that runs exactly parallel to the diagonal junction of the wall and floor. 

Then a third amazing design idea is Hopper's left shoulder. Trace the diagonal line of his shoulder starting on the left side of the painting and keep going. You run directly into the upper right hand corner of the canvas.  It helps the figure "fit" the canvas seamlessly. The figure is completely at home in the world of this painting.

The design ideas are somewhat easier to see with Hopper standing on his head. It helps us forget what we're looking at and see instead how it's painted.




Hopper had been trained to begin his paintings with thin turpentine washes to establish the basic forms and colors covering just about all the canvas. Then he'd go back over the painting with a second pass, adding thicker layers of pigment where he needed to make an adjustsment. Or he'd scrape out an area with his palette knife, or wash out an area with a turpentine soaked rag. Adding and subtracting pigment, a gradually realized image emerged that came closer to the only partly-sensed vision in his imagination. 

Sometimes it would happen that the initial underpainting in one part of the painting would prove to have been just right. Satisfiied with parts like that, Hopper would leave those sections very thinly painted. Other areas he'd have to go back over again and again dozens of times trying to get them to match the sensation he was after. 

How much of his own decision making was Hopper aware of. I'm sure a great deal of it. But my feeling is the richness of his paintings is achieved by the paintings operating on so many levels at once. Even the most brilliantly clear minded artist couldn't see every implication of all his paint strokes. 

Here's where painting gets like circus juggling. The juggler has to move fast, catching and tossing at just the right moment as each of the circling balls fly into his hands. Sometimes you'll see jugglers handling four or five or more balls at once. Impressive as that is, I think Hopper's achievement is like keeping hundreds of balls in the air at once. Like the well-practiced juggler, his hands were guided by his intuition and instincts as much as by conscious thought. 

So my guess is that Hopper was extremely deliberate in his struggle to make paintings that came as close as possible to an inner experience he was having. He was a deeply receptive and inventive guy. Often he could do paintings with more and better relationships hidden in the shapes and colors than most other artists. 

His ambition reached far ahead of the skills he could consciously control. But he somehow opened a door to that hidden, unconscious side of his personality where other parts of his talents dwelled. Those mysterious and wonderful qualities of his best paintings resulted from Hopper painting from his whole personality- the part he could direct and the parts he could only hope would arise from his unconscious to aid him in his studio. 

The really old time artists used to talk about this mysterious side of their creativity by using the term the Muse. Always it was described as a she and often they'd complain she wouldn't always make an appearance when they needed her. Below is a Hopper oil where I feel Hopper could have used some additional help from the muse. To my eye the standing woman is awkwardly painted and falls below the level he achieved with the sense of the light flooding into the room. (right now as I write these words Hopper of course is up in art heaven conducting a blistering critique on some of my worst oils).





Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Emily Campbell, Graduate School & An Edward Hopper Question


I received an intriguing comment on my last blog post, Edward Hopper's Women, from a reader wondering how much Hopper chose his style of painting? Mulling over how to answer I found myself thinking about Emily Campbell, the graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art who's been helping me teach my Life Drawing and Painting 1 classes. Above and below are some of the pieces Emily unveiled in her MFA Thesis show last Friday.

In the oil above a little house seems to fall to pieces as it flies up over a forest. It's the sort of image one could easily encounter in a dream. How Emily came up with it I'm not sure, but I know she has a collection of little dolls and toys that likely set her mind to weaving this tale for us. I like the painting quite a bit, largely for her unexpected and quirky details in the background. The foliage isn't naturalistic, rather it's giving us a particular gestural rhythm not unlike the patterns you'd see in a child's kaleidoscope. It's a forest unlike any I've ever seen before yet it seems the perfect accompanyment to the flying house. I imagine Emily fussed around for a very long time trying this kind of tree and that sort of branch until she arrived at the look that felt "right."

Below is a a half a horse teetering on a rocking chair. I know the arist sawed a toy horse in half to get it to fit on the chair. My guess is she tried the rocker with a whole horse and it just looked too improbable a combination. Now the hind legs of the horse get our full attention, and they seem right in step with the diagonals of the chair legs.



A final Campbell painting looks down at a castle surrounded by what look to be battlements and a moat. I think 9 out of 10 artists charged with painting a castle would have focused on the spindly towers  and turrets. Emily focuses instead on a less obious direction- pentagonal battlements swell up to almost fill the canvas, pushing the blue waters of the moat into the most asymetrical and unanticipated shapes. 




Emily has told me she works on her paintings a long time to get them right. Yet the works in her show aren't large and they seem to have a quick and brushy paint stroke. What's most likely is that these paintings go through myriad changes of all the tiny little shape ideas the artist invents, tinkering away until the vision gels. I was telling Emily at the opening reception how much her work strikingly reminded me of one of my favorite teachers in my own graduate painting program at Indiana University, Robert Barnes. Here's one of his oil paintings below.



What I got out of watching Barnes develop his paintings was the inordinate pleasure he took in the little things- the rhythms of the two fronds of leaves or the silhouettes of the puddles our running figures are racing over. I had come into graduate school in love with having "the big idea" for each of my paintings. I could manage a few bold strokes to suggest the bare bones of my story. But the backgrounds and empty spaces in corners just weren't considered important enough for me to have given them a thought. One of the things Barnes said to me in his very first critique of my work is "If the strokes show, they're part of the composition. Do more with your strokes." 

Looking at Barnes' work I could see a level of playfulness and inventiveness with the little things. He'd make up these amazingly intricate little dance steps for his strokes and somehow get them all togther moving to the music. 

I still am big on "big ideas" for paintings. But in my graduate school I learned to find richness and expression in the little moves and supporting characters in the paintings. Looking at  Barnes' work now it strikes me as the fruit of a man who wants to be very generous to his viewers. I try hard to do the same. And I sure mess around with my brushstrokes for hours until some magic starts to happen. 

It's been a real pleasure working with Emily in my classroom these last two years. And it's been very satisfying to watch her grow as a painter over that same time. Here below is Emily and me at the opening. I'm carrying an empty dinner plate which I told people was a prop in my soon-to-burgeon career as a performance artist. Actually it was the plate Emily had brougth to our painting class that morning with cookies she's made to make up for missing the previous class (when she was frantically finishing off her paintings for the exhibition). 




















I didn't get to sample any of the cookies (undergraduate art students move very fast in such situations). But despite that, I thougth Emily Campbell's paintings were the stars of the Graduate Thesis Shows. In a couple of days I'll be posting some more thoughts on the whole question about Edward Hopper's painting style and how it flows from their mode of invention. Maybe I'll eat some cookies before I write the post.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Edward Hopper's Women


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.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A little Rembrandt



Only the time (and energy) for a short post today as I'm dealing with some sad personal business this week. Hopefully I'll be back to a more regular blogging schedule in a few days. 

Above is a very tender painting of one of Rembrandt's wives bathing. I always wondered if she was doing this at midnight or in a cave it's so dark. Yet that darkness is a foil for the brilliant light on the woman's torso. We sense this woman has a depth and personality to her in part because she generates a variety of shapes for our eye. Look at the rounded edge of her updrawn bottom hem compared to the almost straight lines of the "v" shaped neckline. One of the big challenges an artist faces is getting a variety of lines into the painting, and then getting them to look like they're in conversation with each other. Rembrandt does this swimmingly here.

This painting of a stone bridge deftlly knits together the heavens and earth. Notice how the painting has a series of zig zag diagonals running through it. The far shore of the river moves up diagonally from the lower right corner to meet the bridge. Parallel with that trajectory is the bottom edge of the topmost dark clouds. In addition the most distant trees at the left side create an opposing diagonal that slides in back of the one lone vertical tree and continues upward to the right in the top edge of the lower cloud mass. It's all beautifully handled. 

Rembrandt is great with his ability to create softness throughout a painting without getting too mushy. Both of these pictures are perfect examples of this. Nobody but nobody created a mood better than this painter.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Solace




















oil by Lawren Harris


A beautiful painting cannot banish sadness, but it is a light to put next to one's sorrow.