Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rockwell Kent, A Master At Teaching How To See.


The earth, and everything on it is always moving. That's the problem, and the opportunity, for landscape painters.

What I've talking about is that landscape forces an artist to be an activist. There is so much out there within the space you are painting, most of it constantly shifting darker or lighter and waving in the breeze.  To paint that you have to take charge. If you don't you don't get a painting to happen. 

Above is a Rockwell Kent (American, 1882-1971) oil from Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. If you remove the white capped waves, you're left with a dreadful painting. Kent has chosen to pull all the other tones down into a dark middle grey or darker so you really need those two key white accents. Kent played around with the shape of those whitecaps. They have two very differing silhouettes, each moving across the painting surface in its own trajectory. I think these white waves feel alive and hint at  having distinct personalities. 

Below is a Kent wood engraving, one of his illustrations for Moby Dick (this image is from the wonderful Plattsburgh State Art Museum way up in northernmost New York State and the museum that has the most Kent's anywhere. Definitely worth a visit). The figure in the bow raises his arm and gazes to the heavens, straining to make a connection with whatever is great and forceful up there. His pose is simple, direct.  A cross-shaped bowsprit serves as a  perfect foil for the praying man shapes and it too strains heavenward. Together the cross and the figure do a powerful duet to get across the feeling Kent wanted to express. 



I teach figure drawing at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. It's a class I love. As an art student myself I couldn't get enough time in front of the model. I found drawing the nude painstakingly hard.  I also saw it made for undeniable and rapid progress in my work, so I kept at it. 

Drawing the model isn't just looking hard and recording what you see. No matter how hard you look you find some parts of the body make way more sense than others. Even the best pose has areas where the foot may look more like a sagging balloon than something you could stand and run on. At times like that the artist has to come up with a better foot that what she or he has been given. You improvise, adjusting the silhouette in a bit here and out a little bit there. And you begin to move the direction the light shines down on the form to see if a light coming more from the right hand side might make things more forceful. In short, you invent.

Below is another Kent wood engraving, this time of Prometheus. The figure is most likely drawn completely out of Kent's imagination. He was an artist who had mastered subtle adjustments to the silhouette. Look for example at how the figure's axis leans diagonally uphill to the left, just like the lightning bolt and the big shadow on the rock. Then, Kent breaks this overall diagonal thrust, shooting a hard and sharp horizontal across the image, moving from the left elbow to the right. Out of this comes much of the movement implicit in the composition.

There's a further elegance to these limbs. Notice how the figure's left arm (our left) creates an almost enclosed equilateral triangle of empty black space. In contrast Prometheus' right arm pulls down to squeeze the space above his deltoid into just the narrowest sliver. It's little surprises like that that convince you Prometheus was a real go-to guy. Bringing fire to us humans after all proved tough. 

























The actual world of outdoor spaces is often maddeningly complicated. Just this morning as I was driving I looked at the emerging buds on nearby trees. Only just beginning to come out, the new buds gave a startling pink cast to their filmy shape. Yet their edges were imperceptibly soft. One was left with something that was movingly beautiful but almost completely lacking in identifiable shapes one could draw on a canvas.

An artist could have a deep personal response to these budding trees, but to make the experience into something they could share with a viewer they were going to have to do on heck of a lot of inventing. Art after all is translating one's responses into something others can actually see. I think the kind of training the eye receives from learning to draw the figure well gives one the ability to invent clear form and shape to hold diaphanous, and improbable things like a hillside of ten thousand just-budding trees.

I look at Rockwell Kent's figures a lot. I love them, but they also teach me about seeing. He was a master  of the nuances of an outer contour line. As he explores the possibilities in a pose he takes you on the most marvelous journey. See a good figure by Kent and you'll find some shapes you never knew existed. I keep looking. Every time I come away with some new tools and a determination to use them.

6 comments:

  1. I'm with you. Learning to draw the figure is 'painstakingly hard', but it will gain a reward that is worth the staying power and effort. It allows after that freedom to create from the imagination and communicate to viewers the drawers thought, that 'diaphanous', illusion 'of ten thousand just budding trees'.
    I enjoyed your post. Thank you.
    ingrid.

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  2. Lillies, that's quite a moniker you've given yourself!

    In addition to what's been said, I think drawing is just plain fun to do. Best of all there's no brushes needed to be washed. One of the most enjoyable things about how I work is the rhythm of swinging from painting to drawing, then when it feels right going back to painting again.

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  3. I just love drawing! However, I still need to wash my brushes!! I use the brush and ink.

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  4. Mmm. Lillies, I wasn't really thinking of a monica for myself, just an interesting title. The blog was for something else entirely but I have ended up using it to communicate about drawing to you. Talk about drawing is much more interesting.

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