Thursday, June 14, 2012

Housecleaning, Death, and Some Great Paintings

Now here's a real cheer-you-up image!

I did a double take over my morning coffee. It's an oil by the 19th century French painter Millet, Death and the Woodcutter. Like so many paintings by Millet it's a little masterpiece of intriguing silhouettes and an elegant balancing of warm against cool color, but most of all it's really creepy.

Perhaps I'm just in a somber mood because the Apple Corporation is pulling the plug on my website hosting service at the end of June. We've had a good run for the last 5 years or so. Philipkoch.com will still be operational until near the end of the month, but after that it looks like we may have to switch over to a new domain name for my website: philipkoch.org

I'm still hopeful we can arrange to keep the current web address, but unless you hear otherwise, you might want to make a note that my art website will migrate over to the .org world. (Heck, I've always longed to run a major non-profit organization anyway).

On the same website that startled me this morning with the grim reaper (artknowledgenews.com which sends out a great series of art exhibit press releases with cool images every morning) I stumbled across a much friendlier winter landscape by a not so well known landscape painter Dale Nichols (a native of Nebraska, 1904-1995). 

Nichols' painting packs a lot into a landscape. Like so many paintings from the 1930's, the artist models a heavily stated sense of volume into almost every form, and shines in the light from low down near the horizon. It makes for a slightly other-worldly quality I find really appealing (if one honestly looks one finds reality is more strange and unexpected than we think. Otherworldly-ness is often truthfulness to how things feel).



Nichols also does an adept balancing act between his geometric buildings and the more rounded geometry of snowbanks and distant hillsides. Charles Burchfield's watercolor paintings often do this as well, but Nichols working in oil has an extra sense of solidity.

Speaking of solidity, here's one of the most un-solid of paintings, a beautifully luminous and airy winter landscape by the French 19th century artist Camille Pissarro (also stumbled upon on artknowledgenews.com this morning). Pissarro could be a very fine painter and is in the top of his form here. Look at all the different levels of cool greys he employs- from jet black to light grey hints of distant foliage. Pissarro was willing to spend the hours grinding away on his palette to mix just the right chords of colors.

One of the real keys to this painting's success is a drawing move. Pissarro had a deft and sure hand in drawing in the dark trunks of the three or four closest trees- each brings to the painting its own personality. Almost like ballet dancers, they all tell their tale through their own unique gestures as your eye travels up and down their trunks. It seems a simple thing that Pissarro has accomplished here, yet if you look at the tree trunks in paintings by lesser artists you're confronted with either dreadful monotony or just unconvincing and improbable tree trunks that won't hold your eye's interest. Pissarro reminds us there is a poetry to living forms and knows how to show it to you.























While Pissarro could turn out a masterpiece like this oil painting, he wasn't a stranger to creative difficulty. Years ago I read a biography of Pissarro written by one of his sons, also a painter, who quoted from a letter his dad had written him. Apparently Pissarro was going through a bad patch with his paintings and had turned them all around to face his studio wall. Pissarro confesses to his son in the letter that he hadn't the courage to turn any of them around to take even a peek at any of his "little monsters."

Little Monsters- now there's a phrase to gladden the heart of any artist who's lost a battle to make a painting come together and look like something. I'm not happy to learn Pissarro struggled, but I am happy to know I'm in good company when I have to work so hard to make some of my more stubborn paintings behave themselves. I don't seek out difficulty in the studio, but it is a sign an artist is trying to stretch and grow with his or her work. When you're trying to chart new territory you have to take the wrong turn now and again. It isn't the fun part as much as it's the dues you pay to learn how to do something great.

Often I tell my students that painting is hard until it's easy, and then it gets ready to be hard again. Maybe that's not a particularly snappy way to put it, but I find it's an accurate account of the creative endeavor. I'd hasten to tell any artist to be sure to stop and enjoy it when the painting goes well. It's a reward you've earned.

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