Monday, May 30, 2011

Edward Hopper's Secrets About Drawing


When I was in graduate school at Indiana University I used to have a postcard of this painting pinned to my studioi wall. It's by Edward Hopper who was sort of a guiding saint to my art career even back then. It was funny as I had mixed feelings about the painting. It's titled Western Motel and it's from later in the artist's life. Even though I felt the figure  seemed a little uncomfortable on that bed, there was still something that kept drawing my eye back to look at the painting. Here's a preparatory drawing Hopper made to figure out how to do the oil painting. 


As you can see it's really different than the final result. But one thing that hasn't changed is his commitment to using an oversized window to give the viewer a panorama of mountains in the distance. His painting became about that window and how it evoked a hard won balance between the interior space and the outer world (a personal theme that's always cooking away in the background for all of us as we live our lives). There's not a lot of detail in the drawing, and much of what is there was subsequently rejected for another arrangement, but Hopper held on tight to the shape of the big window frame. For him it was the large shapes that were his starting point. And he held onto this perspective as he worked.

Probably he decided the window frame looked a little lonely or too dominating in the drawing. As he moved to the painting version his thinking gelled, and he added a prominent diagonal shadow and highlight on the greenish wall at the left of. This is to me a "drawing move." It's about the contrasting of one big shape against another that has an opposing character. This is like the engine that pulls the painting along.  The mountains are another engine that get some extra horse power added to them as he moves from the drawing to the painting. They get bigger- large enought to hold their own against that window frame. They're perhaps not the greatest mountains in terms of detailed information, but Hopper drew them in as  powerfully contrasting silhouettes against the stark window.

Here's Hopper's early etching Evening Wind. An etching is like a drawing done into metal (especially the  way Hopper did them with simple line work). Think for a moment what the print would look like if you removed the blowing curtain. The curtain's given personality that's just as impressive as that of the figure. It's contrasting the figure with its silhouette, yet its axis runs on a diagonal that's parallel with the woman's spine. Again to me that's what I think of as a drawing move by Hopper. 



Also look at the tightly squeezed interval of empty dark space between the woman's shoulder and arm on the right pushing so close to the bottom edge of the curtain. Squint your eyes at it to see it more simply and the expression is still there in the largest shapes. In Hopper's mind's eye before he drew his model as a woman or the curtain as billowing cloth both were simple flat white shapes that had unexpected and constasting silhouettes. That's a drawing move once again.

Below is another early Hopper etching, House by a River.


Again squint your eyes at the piece until the details of the windows fade away. You're still left with a house that's a simple flat shape with dark unexpected and unpredictable outer contours. (Unexpected and unpredictable, doesn't that sound just like life? No wonder people are drawn to look at these things- they're little portaits of ourselves).

Here below are two of my own drawings, different in style but both showing some of this big flat shape expression I learned from Hopper. First is Land's End, a vine charcoal. When you focus on the foliage, it's rigorously complicated, but very similar to the above Hopper if you look instead at the silhouette of the darkened house. I'm not sure if Norman Bates lives there or not.



And here's another vine charcoal. I was staying at the Hopper studio in S.Truro on Cape Cod and had been looking for just right viewpoint to do a piece about the studio and it's lofty setting up on the dunes. First thing early one morning I ambled down the path to Hopper's beach on Cape Cod Bay. I turned around at the highest point on the little dunes closest to the shore. The just risen sun had pushed entire mass of the distant dunes and the studio together into one giant shadowed form. Thinking to myself "big shapes, big shapes" I emphasized  the curving silhouette of the big dunes and contrasted that against the band of horizontal clouds. 


It felt both heroic in scale and a little somber in feeling (it was Fall and a chilly wind was blowing in off the water). Perhaps because of this I was in a memorializing mood, so I chose for a title the date that Hopper left us, May 15, 1967.

Friday, May 27, 2011

"How to See" by Rockwell Kent




















(photo courtesy Scott Ferris)

Here's a wonderful oil by Rockwell Kent, Early November, North Greenland, that I was fortunate to see in the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art a few years back. If you haven't seen this museum with its special focus on the art of New England, rest assured it's well worth a visit. (The painting was loaned from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia).

It's ironic I stumbled over an image of this piece just this morning while in my studio I'm working on a painting of mountains in Vermont. What draws me to Kent's painting is the sharp, crisp light blasting its way over these looming mountains and ice bergs. It reminds me ever so much of being a boy playing among the massive ice hills that would form along the shore of Lake Ontario as the winds drove the splashing water up onto the shore. Successive layers of new ice would coat whatever lay below forming mysterious hills and caves that reached way over our heads. It was a magical, if slippery, playground that's left a vivid memory impressed on my minds eye.

Kent's painting success stems from the many years he had trained himself to see the world. In turn when we take a close look at what he has done, we too train our eyes to see on a deeper level. Such is the power of art.

The entire painting is composed of various combinations of ultrmarine blue and a warmer color like raw sienna or burnt sienna, plus of course a lot of white. Kent deliberately chooses a mostly cool feeling to cover most of the canvas. While he uses warm colors they're deliberately held to a minority of the surface to make them seem more dramatic. They're also never allowed to express themselves as an intense orange. Instead Kent wants the blues and sometimes blue-violets to dominate the scene. I think in the hands of many other less able painters the work would have been overly colorful and come across as cheesy.

Notice how low in the sky the sun must have been. Kent had a life long fascination with the far north in part because he loved the long shadows that came from a sun that never rose that high in the sky. In all his marvelous wood engravings of figures (my favorite part of his artwork) that highly dramatic lighting is used to push drama into his works. And so it is here too.

















Here's a detail that shows some of the fine tuning of the color reltationships. See how all the moutains in the background have highlights that are a little darker than the icebergs in the foreground (and a little warmer too). In the same vein see how the sky has been darkened down far enough to add umph to the highlights in the snow. The water of course is held very dark for the same reason.

This detail illuminates how simply Kent conceived of the volumes of his mountains. They're pared down from the complex and detailed forms they actually were to closely resemble simple geometric solids like four-sided pyramids and three-sided pyramids. Kent had to visualize them in his mind this way to create the feeling of their massive scale. The painting wonderfully expresses the feeling of "they are great but we are small." That's not a new theme in landscape painting, but it is brought to life by the visual talents of this very fine artist.

In my own case it was seeing Kent's engravings that illustrated his book N by E, that propelled me into working in a new way- imagining the painting based on drawings I'd done outdoors rather than painting in oil plein air. Much as I loved the work I'd done outside in oil I was prodded by Kent's example to reach a little harder for the spirit of the landscape in addition to the facts of the place I happened to be painting.

Here are the sources I'm working on right now in my studio. The vine charcoal drawing was done last June on location and the two small oils are from back in the studio. I'm working on expanded versions right now.










Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Edward Hopper- Looking Out



Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Morning,  oil on canvas, 1950,  Smithsonian American Art Museum

Above is a painting I've loved for some forty years. I'm fortunate to be able to see it often as it lives in the SAAM in Washington, D.C. . This painting contains a real clue to Hopper's art. I visit there often as it helps me learn how to see better.

Often writers will talk about the loneliness of Hopper's paintings or how his figures feel isolated and rarely interact with one another. While there is some of that in Hopper's painting, it begs a question-
why is Hopper's art so widely loved? I'd offer a couple of answers. First, he's one of the most talented painters and was able to invent visual equivalents for strong emotions we humans experience as we live our lives.  He saw color combining in unexpected ways and offered up generous servings of the most delicious color combinations. Yum.

Usually, as in the SAAM's Cape Cod Morning above, when he paints a figure he shows us the figure intently looking out at something. Often we're not shown what they're peering at, which only heightens our curiosity. Our eye goes immediately to the woman in the house. Take a look at that window for a moment and measure its size compared to the woman. You realize Hopper has subtly enlarged it well past what's a normal scale. He wants you to be able to look into the interior world of the woman and the house. Had his window been smaller, the effect wouldn't have been as compelling.

By all accounts, Hopper was a painfully shy man who actively avoided social interaction. Yet he was as vivdly alive as any of us and put his energies into looking. You might say he lived through his eyes.

Hopper inherited money from his wife Jo's family and carefully designed a painting studio for himself where he would live half the year for the next three decades. In 1934 it was built high on a barren sand dune on Cape Cod in the little town of South Truro. Some time ago I was able to see the cardboard model Hopper painstakingly constructed of his design in an exhibition at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

His design was telling- the space of the new house was devoted to his big painting room that occupied the entire northern half of the building. And topping the painting room off were five casement windows, a dutch door with a window on top, and a massive ten foot tall north facing window. The studio was really an observatory where Hopper could look out at the world. It literally catches the first and the last rays of sunlight each day.

Below is an oil painting I did from life back in '83 during my first (of thirteen) residencies in the Hopper studio. Back then the surrounding foliage had started to fill back in compared to its more denuded state in Hopper's day (in the 19th and early 20th century, Cape Cod's trees were all but wiped out for firewood).
Though the surrounding trees are taller now, when one enters the studio now one is presented with amazing views in all directions.




I think the location and design of Hopper's studio give a huge clue to the artist. He felt most comfortable and most alive when he was looking at the world. While he didn't have children or many friends, he did have an intensely warm engagement with his visions of the world and its people.

Great paintings, like the Hopper at the beginning of this post, startle the viewer a bit. Their composition and their colors wake up the viewer's eyes. They make the viewer a bit more alive.
Hopper's painting Cape Cod Morning, could be thought of as a celebration to his years of living and his countless hours of looking and painting up on Cape Cod. What the woman in the painting is doing as she looks out at her yard was something Hopper had done thousands of times before. Perhaps she's seeing something for the first time and is bending forward for a closer look at her discovery.

One last photo- here's my wife Alice standing in Hopper's painting room in the Truro studio last September. You get a sense of the imposing studio window that casts its intense north light throughout the room. In Hopper's day he furnished the studio very minimally. It was here he conducted his personal romance with the act of looking. He saw more freshly than most. In this room he created so many of the world famous paintings that show us important things we'd have otherwise overlooked.

Hopper wasn't a teacher. He once commented that he'd tried to teach someone to draw and it was one of the worst experiences of his life. Ironically I think I've learned more about the elemental value of simple looking long and hard at the world from Hopper's paintings that from anything else.


Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to Paint Cats


OK, I'm being silly with my title for this post. I went down to Washington, D.C. to the wonderful Smithsonian American Art Museum yesterday, perhaps my all time favorite museum. 

Above is a detail out of one of SAAM's holdings, titled Man with a Cat. It's a portrait by Cecilia Beaux (1855 - 1942), an American painter who was a contemporary of John Singer Sargent. I believe it is reproduced often to meet the insatiable demands of the cat-loving art public (of which I am a member).

Born to a wealthy Philadelphia family that owned a silk factory, her mother died at age 33 after giving birth to the future artist. I've always imagined the family dynamics must have been pretty tough for Cecilia after that. Perhaps it gave her extra determination and pluck as Beaux went on to be come an amazing artist and one of the best known female painters at a time when women were almost entirely dismissed as artists. 

Beaux knew her stuff. Let's look at the detail of the cat for a moment. The artist very carefully avoided getting sucked into trying to render the actual texture of the fur or the cat's whiskers. Instead she picks a pose where the light from above falls on the cat's body in a way that creates clear and simple volumes. 

For example, see how the cat's face, neck and chest are lost in shadow. Then Beaux pushes the cat's two front paws out toward the viewer and into the direct light. Each paw is conceived in Beaux's mind's eye as simple cylinder. I particularly like the short curved dark lines Beaux puts on the end ot paw on our right to indicate the individual toes. Their lines curve beautifully around the cylindrical paw and evoke the "footness" of the form. You can tell Beaux was a big fan of cat feet. Who isn't?

Here's the entire painting below.



Beaux is showing us another great lesson for would-be cat painters. If you want a convincing cat, construct a place for the cat to be. Look at the space of the man's lap where the cat is ever so comfortably ensconsed. The light-bathed lap is farther away from us than the man's shadowed arm and thigh. Beaux has created an foreground that feels differently than the middleground space of the lap. Then immediately in back of the cat's fluffy ears we leave the light and plunge back into a more distant shadowed void. 

Artists succeed when they fall in love with spaces. As I often tell my students, space is an emotional issue in art. Think for a moment of a dream you have had where you're being pursued by some fearsome or dangerous character. As they come closer, you get more afraid. Or the dream where someone you miss is moving still farther away from you. There you experience the physical distance as emotionally painful. Artists instinctively know that our experinece of our feelings is inseparably connected with how we experience the spaces in our lives. We feel Beaux's cat so well because she places him so convincingly on the man's lap, just as we believe the man is really sitting in that half shadowed room. 

Here's one last lovely detail- the lapels of the man's jacket. 


Beaux has a ball sculpting these lapels like the giant petals of a blossom of a Georgia O'Keefe flower. Beaux is finding personality for her subject in a detail others might overlook. Imagine replacing this guy's formal ourfit with just an ordinary t-shirt. You could do it, but then Beaux would have had to come up with some other unexpected detail to amplify the feelng she wanted from her sitter. 

In the actual canvas if one looks closely Beaux has painted in a subtle trace of alizarin crimson (cranberry) color underneath the man's tie. Was that color actually there so prominently? Who knows, but it plays off so beautifully against the restrained creamy warm and cool greys of his jacket. Beaux probably played around a lot with the actual colors she saw, trying this and then trying that until she evoked the personality she was after.




Thursday, May 19, 2011

Upcoming One Day Landscape Painting Workshop July 23











The Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Virginia is showing my eight museum traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch July 23 - August 2. There will be an opening reception and a brief artists talk Friday evening, July 22.

Coupled with the big show of my landscape drawings and paintings, the museum will have me teach a one day landscape painting workshop. Regular readers of this blog are familiar with many of my ideas about the landscape from its philosophical significance to more practical concerns like how to connect one's drawing skill to oil painting. I hope some of you can join us for this workshop- these are always a lot of fun to teach and I know my students alwasy come away stronger painters.

Here the information from the Peninsula Fine Arts Center's website. Here's the link to their site.


PAINTING WORKSHOP WITH PHILIP KOCH
Saturday, July 23, 9am-4pm
$100 Pfac member / $125 non-member

Instructor: Philip Koch

Students will study what to look for, 
how to select and crop; 
to choose key shapes and to draw them; 
to build pictorial space; 
to structure of darks and lights; 
to mix color; 
to learn strategies to build strong compositions and
effectively handle paint.

Weather permitting, students will work outdoors during
botha morning painting session and an afternoon
painting session. A group critique will follow both
painting sessions.
All mediums and all skill levels invited. A suggested
materials list will accompany your registration and will
reflect your emphasis on oil, acrylic, or watercolor.
Pfac will supply a lightweight aluminum easily if you do
not have an outdoor easel.

Philip Koch is well known for his vividly colored
contemporary landscape paintings. His work is featured
this summer in Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch,
part of an eight-museum tour that begins at Pfac on
July 23.

For more biographical information, refer to
 www.pfac-va.org.

Workshop location: Pfac
Special registration information:
May 22-28             Registration for Pfac members
May 29                  Registration open to the public
Limit: 10 students. A limited waiting list will be taken. 
To register:
Please call Visitor Services at (757)596-8175.
A deposit of $50
is required to register. Final payment is due Friday, July 1.
Cancellations must be made by email to
vservices@pfac-va.org .
For cancellations received July 8, a $25 cancellation
fee will be deducted from the amount paid. After July 8,
 no refund is available. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In the Adirondack Mountains



















In many ways art is like a particularly vivid dream- it feels so real when you fall into its grasp.

Here's perhaps my favorite oil by Asher  Durand, one of the key Hudson River School painters. Usually he busied himself lovingly painting forest interiors. Sometimes his studies of trees almost feel like portrait paintings. But this one is atypical as the rocks get the starring role. He's down in the gorge painting the Ausable River in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York State.

Because Durand wanted you to have a deep experience of his river he didn't just paint what he saw. Instead he had to first envision the scene in his pictorial imagination. He had to see it in different terms than it really was. In a way he had to make a better gorge than the one nature had provided him.

Now this was a really hard painting to pull off. Potentially the rocks could have all competed with each other for our attention (as they do in so many other less successful paintings). But Durand skillfully charts a course around that trap.

Most important of all is that he decided he wanted to paint the space of the gorge. All his subsequent decisions follow from that. In his mind he carefully constructed the space divided into three contiguous zones. He controlled what was happening with the forms within each zone so they'd stay put like well rehearsed players in a marching band. Everything in the foreground is toned down toward a middle grey tonality and a nearly neutral grey hue.

As you approach the first prominent boulder in the river things change. From there back to more distant green-brown foliage things get much higher in tonal contrast (white water against strong darks). Any warm hues to be found in the painting are strictly fenced into this middleground zone.

Then moving farther back into the space he changes gears again- dropping an imaginary translucent curtain of cooler blue-grey colors over the far distance. It pulls the extremes of darks and lights we'd found in the middleground back towards middle greys again. And like a real curtain, it obscures what perhaps was a too complicated distant space that would have competed with the middle ground's key players. Durand here is exercising restraint, sensing that few rocks will be more powerfully expressive than many.

There's an old saying by Degas that "an artist needs the cunning of a criminal." He's talking about the little lies artists tell in the service of a bigger truth they've discovered. It's funny as the words "truth" and "beauty" were bandied about all the time in the 19th century to describe the goals of art. Nowadays arts writers would rather die than use such outdated language. But those words were just how people 150 years ago talked about the struggle to create something that felt ultimately real. For me Durand's Ausable river feels more real than the actual place. He did it by selecting, editing, adjusting, and finally, lying,

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How Michael Jackson Influenced my Painting.


A few years ago the contemporary art world was making a big fuss over the artist Jeff Koons. Above is his ceramic sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles. The prevailing wisdom was that Koons was making a tongue in cheek sculpture that broke lots of rules about what constituted "serious" art. Some art critics said Koons was exploring the monumental role played by entertainment celebrities in our culture like Michael Jackson. The scupture was a reference back to renaissance pieces of the Madonna holding the Christ child. Replacing Christ with Bubbles the Chimp was meant to illuminate the withering influence of religious iconography in our lives. So some said. 

I suppose one could say this sculpture is "so bad that it's good" with its strenuous attempts to go with over the top cheesiness. For many in the art world, one's ability to "get it" with Koons' work was a badge of honor. You had to be very sophisticated to like such stuff. 

Below is another area of Koon's art, a series of large scape photographs of himself and his then wife in compromising positions. Again the appeal of purposely choosing "bad taste." Liking it revealed one was in on the joke. Personally the photo seems a touch narcissistic, but perhaps that's my sour grapes.  Surely it wouldn't match any of my furniture.



A friend of mine had her father die recently. I've found myself thinking about how hard it is to face the painful emotions that stirs up.  When one is gripped by sadness, very few things strike one as funny. For the life of me I can't imaging experiencing real grief while living with either of the above pieces by Koons. 

The art I love the most is a friend and companion to me in good times and bad. That's one of the big reasons we have art- it's a comfort, a guide, and quiet enduring source of energy. At its best it's more meaningful than clever.

Sure there is a place for art that's humorous and even frivolous. I myself enjoy drawng cartoons of cats doing ridicuous things. The art world is and should be a wide open panorama of differing choices. But along with that comes the need to ask oneself what one likes best, what one would want to live with.

Years ago when I first started painting I knew almost zero about art history. And my drawing skills were rudimentary to say the least. But I found myself attracted to art that hinted at atmosphere and space like the big color abstractions of Mark Rothko (below). I imitated them, turning out dozen of simple acrylic color -oriented canvases. And I learned something about color and proportion. Looking back I realize I was taking my first steps toward a goal that would only reveal itself years later.



As so often happens, I first started catching glimpses of my future self in the work of other, earlier painters, especially in the romanticism of America's 19th century landscape painters. One was Worthington Whittredge. 





In his forest painting I felt at home. They reminded me of nothing so much as my boyhood growing up on the heavily wooded southern shore of Lake Ontario just east of Rochester, NY. Whittredge I think excels at suggesting a multitude of branches and trees by employing an overall color. Usually it's a gold/sienna or a greenish ochre hue that infuses every form in his far distance. In the above painting note how the only really cool color is segregated up into the immediate foreground's white birch.




Whittredge is interested in evoking the feeling of being in the special space unique to the deep forest. He's very careful not to overload his canvases with too many accents. In the painting above see how he restricts the darks almost entirely to the foreground archway that opens up to beckon you to enter the painting's space. The same device is even more stated in the following oil.



























I think it would be terrible if everyone painted alike. Human experience is so diverse that we need artists to bark up all kind of different trees. And there are lots of people who honestly are going to like Jeff Koons' work more than what Worthington Whittredge did or what I'm doing today in my studio. That's really OK.

But I want to bang the drum for a differnt kind of painting that picks up the thread we saw in Hudson River School artists like Whittredge. Their sincere and genuine delight in the natural world led to some great paintings. And in my own time I'd like to take my artist's eyes that grew up on the likes of a Mark Rothko and cast them back upon the forests and seas. It sounds a deeper chord in me than anything else. And that's what I feel compelled to do.

One final note, I think Michael Jackson was an incredible dancer. I bet even old Worthington would have liked his moves.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Is It Blasphemy To Criticize Famous Artists?



















Drove up to Philadelphia yesterday as I realized the Philadelphia Museum of Art's "George Inness in Italy" exhibit is closing next week. A serious Inness lover, I didn't want to miss it. More on that later.

In another nearby gallery were some of the PMA's showpieces of 19th century American landscapes, including the above western panorama by Albert Bierstadt. He's in all the art history books. While I've always admired his patience and descriptive skills,  my favorite examples of his work are very small oil studies that are only a few inches wide. This one above must have been six feet and have taken him months cranking away in the studio to finish. To me it's one of those paintings that looks best when one stands so close to it that you can't see the entire canvas.

Here's it's neighbor, a painting I've written about before on this blog, an oil by Sanford Gifford. Comparing the two is instructive and makes Gifford look good in my opinion.


Standing a good thirty feet back from the paintings you lose all your sense of their details and brushwork in favor of their overall movements and color.  If you're serious about understanding painting and what makes one piece superior to another, this is a very good method. It coaxes your eye toward essentializing the painting's visual message. I tell my students to walk away from their work all the time and gaze at it from across the room. All the painters in history who were any good at all did this all the time.


Here's a close up of the Gifford (forgive me the photo quality- it's the best my phone could muster yesterday). There's still a lot of detail in the Gifford, but he corrals all the tiny brushstrokes into big groups according to how they move across the painting's surface or by how they're colored. The artist combines a richness of information with a simplicity of his expression. And he makes a bigger emotional impact on you. In short, he knew what he was after. 

Hanging to the left of the Bierstadt was a lovely Frederick Church tropical landscape (see below). Like the Gifford, it has a clear and simple sweep to its composition. 




Let's go back to the Bierstadt again.

Now, in a move that will horrify some, I'm going to give Mr. Bierstadt some  painting advice. I'd say something like "Albert, listen up. Your painting is giving me fits. It seems to be three or four paintings all lashed together. Hold your hand up over the highlight shining down of the rocks at the far right. With that detail covered up, your eye can focus instead on the contrasts between your best parts- your sky and the central mass of trees. Tone down that hightlight on your rocks right now."

Now I imagine Bierstadt smiling with immense gratitude. "Mr. Koch, how can I ever thank you? You've saved me from ruin. I am forever in your debt, noble Sir" (hey it was the 19th century and those guys favored rather florid speech). Of course some others of you might be asking how many of my oils are hanging in the Philadelphia Museum of Arts galleries this week? But I'd rather not go there.

To be more serious, I feel all painters stumble from time to time. If one is learning to see the art hidden within the great paintings, it's vital that we approach them with an open heart. The most common mistake I see people making is stifling the urge to say (even to themselves) "I don't like that." You can't like everthing you see in a museum equally. It is important to find your favorite two or three pieces each time you visit a museum. Of course you may change your mind later on. Lord knows I've changed mine
(at one time I thought Frank Stella's early minimalist oriented geometric canvases were the cat's meow).

So maybe I should give an assignment to go to a museum and find a Renoir, a Cezanne, and a Picasso or the like that you hate. Go ahead it's OK, as long as you ALSO discover a few new favorites along the way.

I had promised to show you some of the George Inness work. On the way back to the Inness show I passes this great Winslow Homer winter coast oil.




And here's my personal favorite from the Inness show, The Monk. It lives up in the Art Museum at Phillip Andover.  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Making Sense of Color

Above is a new oil painting, Monhegan Dawn: Emerald I just completed. It's 6 1/2 x 13", fairly modest in scale.  I chose that because I wanted the freedom to experiment with colors that aren't the ones I routinely pull out of my toolbag. 

On a smaller scale I'm much more likely to adopt a playful attitude. Working goes quickly so you tend to fall into a "what the heck, let's see what happens if I..." frame of mind. Specifically I wanted to try cool greens for the water's surface and contrast that with cooler violets for the rocks. While neither of these hues was present the day I worked plein air from the location, they evoke a powerful feeling I have about the place. 

Color after all is about the chords of two or three hues sounding together. Artists have to paint for years before they do their best work. It takes this long to learn to see chords of color rather than individual colors apprehended one at a time.

Below is the vine charcoal drawing from 2006 that served as my guide for the painting. We'd been eyeing each other for several years. I had the feeling I could use it for some new painting but it took until just a couple weeks ago before a vision for it started to become clear in my mind.

The charcoal was done from life on Mohegan Island in Maine looking out across the island's tiny harbor toward the sheltering rock known as Manana Island. Rockwell Kent, one of my heroes, did some of his finest oil paintings ever looking at that rock so it's something of a touchstone for me (no pun intended). It's very early morning and the rising light is just picking out a couple of smaller slices of the great mass to highlight. Sometimes nature will suggest to you a way of organizing the details into a simpler, better pattern for you and so it was here.

Some years ago I stopped painting in oil out on location. Wanting to avoid following too closely the colors I actually saw before me (the "local colors"), I chose instead to work in vine charcoal to focus on the essential shapes and patterns of darks and lights. Then back in the studio I pick out my favorites from among many charcoal drawings and use them as a foundation for an oil painting.


I like working this way because it pushes the question of shapes and tonalities (darks and lights) right up to the front row. Ironically it helps me to start by excluding color altogether. Color enters only later as a Second Act to the play.

Below is a second oil done from this same drawing.  Titled Monhegan Dawn: Ochre, 6 1/2 x 13", it mixes up yellow ochres for the sky and water with some green ochres as one comes into the foreground. Here the rocks are pushed towards a complemntary blue to blue grey. In pondering color choices for the rocks what stood out was the water and land felt very different from each other. So ochres contrasted againts blues seemed a fitting choice. So too in the first painting above with the pink violets contrasted against cool greens. 




In the end, painting is about making concrete what begins as a psychological and emotional. Accuracy in color really means color that comes closest to the painters internal experience. Some artists must sail close to the  local colors to do their best work. Color-wise I need to sail around the island the other way.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

In The Garden of the Muse



It's ironic that we find it so hard to say something meaningful about the arrival of Spring. This week I was out driving somewhere and the sudden eruption of fluffiness on all the trees hit me with full force. The world seems to be getting another chance. In a way there's nothing more important, Yet at the same time I realized as much as its magic was moving me, I had no special new words to convey how this stirred me. 

When words fail, humans have usually reached for their art and music to help. Above is a detail out of the Italian renaissance artist Botticelli's famous celebration of Spring, Primavera. The woman seems to me curiously modern and very beautiful, almost like she exisits outside of time itself. 

Last year when spring rolled around I was nursing a back injury that prevented me from doing much in my garden ( and finally sending me to physical therapy, which worked beautifully. On the spot  turning me into a believer that Physical Therapists can sometimes work minor miracles). This year I was able to do a whole lot more, including laying down 400 lbs. of crushed white marble chips that look great in accenting the paths through my plantings. 

It was hard work and wondered why I was doing it. I don't literally believe in The Muse who inspires and guides aritsts to do their best work, but still that myth fascinates me. I have an urge to make my studio look inviting, including its grounds. Rationally I know I'm doing it for myself, but on another level part of me imagines I'm inviting more frequent visits by that goddes of creativity, The Muse.  Surely she'd love nothing better than the intrigue of a artful garden as she decides who to visit. Below is me in the garden just behind my studio last week. While I won't be putting up a sign, in my mind I've named my backyard "The Garden of the Muse". 



It took me two days to spruce up the garden. And then the following two days I did two new oils in my studio that turned our way better than I'd hoped. Sure, I know it's a coincidence, but indulge me in my fantasy that I've just been paid a visit by that invisible and elusive Muse. I bet she looks a lot like the woman in my detail above from Botticelli. I'll be showing you the results soon, but for now I want to keep them (and the traces of that mysterious goddess) all to myself. 

And if anyone's curious, here's the entire Botticelli Privmavera below.