Monday, August 31, 2009

"The important thing is to remember what most impressed you and put it on the canvas as fast as possible." Pierre Bonnard

"The museums are full of uprooted paintings," Bonnard once said. His pictures were created out of a combination of observation of very particular places, memory, and intuition, but are also the result of "the inner processes that give shape to experience over time." From what I've been able to gather, he was more interested in the act of perceiving than anything else, including the objects perceived.

Reading about him, and noticing the woman who is practically fused with the vase of flowers, I guess it's not too surprising to hear he had no interest in "mere detail." His primary interest was in the act of seeing, "the gaze." He would go out for a walk, chat with acquaintances along the way, and then make quick notes on a paper he kept in his po
cket, always on the look-out for what he called "the idea" or "the seduction," something that would draw his attention.

The everyday, his familiar surroundings, usually drew that gaze. According the Julian Bell in Bonnard, his gaze "would often include large stretches of nothing in particular--a slowly reced
ing wall, say--between the objects that are the natural foci of interest. Dwelling on those expanses brings the gaze itself in to focus." Above left is Dining Room from the Garden (from Writing about Art.)

Bonnard was very wary of allowing any one face or object to be painted
in too much detail, lest it run away with the picture. He would "hold back involving elements," and instead buildup very gradually a whole field of colors juxtapositions - oranges, lavenders, pinks, yellows- covering every last scrap of canvas.

Talk about not worrying about detail: Bonnard once had a visitor point out that the figure in a painting of his had two right feet. He didn't change it: "After all, somehow it seems to me better like that. It makes an interesting shape."

Sometimes you can look at a painting of his for some time before you even notice a figure there in the background, often in the corner.

Is there a clear center of attention in your works?
How much attention to you giv
e to the strength of its pull or its ability to dominate the painting more than you might like?

Especially in beginning art classes, it seems there's a dangerous and unnecessary emphasis on the center of interest. Clearly it was not a concern for Bonnard.

Here's one I'm still noodling over, trying to decide whether or not to let these cars run away with the composition. Maybe it's better to let the indistinct buildings carry equal weight. Or how about a fifth tire on the car?

Friday, August 28, 2009

"It is precisely from the regret left by the imperfect work that the next work can be born." Odilon Redon

Does it ever get easier to keep the critical mind at bay while making art? Maybe it helps to realize that not every piece will work out, but that maybe something small can be salvaged or learned from every piece.

My new int
erest in printmakers and their influence on Western art has led me to the discovery of some contemporary printmakers whose work I like. Below is a linocut by Anne Moore, an artist from Dana Point. When we discusssed attitudes toward regret about imperfect work, she recalled the words of one of her teachers: "first time, mistake; second time, technique." Here's Catching the Wind:

You can't look at a lot of prints without having it affect your approach to composition, so I've been spending a little more time on notans, making a few simple, small ones before I begin any painting. I think they're very helpful in clarifying value choices. Sometimes when I'm already in the middle of a painting and feeling lost, I can return to the notans to get my bearings. Do you do thumbnails, more complete sketches or something else?

The first notan was reversed, with more dark than light, but I wound up choosing this high value pattern in the end. Based on a picture taken while heading to Bainbridege Island and called, Crossing at 2. Couldn't resist including my daughter's sandaled foot in the foreground since I seem to interested in curves and shape fragments lately.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Color is a plastic means of creating intervals." Hans Hofmann

I don't ever get tired of looking at these mash-ups of color, texture, style and visual complexity. It's surprising to learn that Hofmann had already taught in America for twenty plus years before painting most of the works he's most famous for. He was 80 when he painted this -- in and of itself inspiring.

In class, I recall my instructor, Franklyn Liegel, quoting Hofmann and advising us to go for "bold fragmentation." I had no idea what he was talking about, but I dutifully wrote it down. (At the time we were tearing down two rooms and building on a few more while living in it, complete with 3 kids under 8 -- fragmentation should have been familiar.)

I don't know if artists coming out of art school today view him as a relic of the past, but I do see now that an interesting tension arises when you separate elements to be enlarged upon or made more visually complex -- and then go to work to bring them back into unity. I think Matisse said something along these lines, but I'll have to look it up.

So I'm still working at this. It helps to cover up most of the painting with brown paper to isolate the area and focus on just one section. I try to stop worrying about how each area will work against the rest of the painting, and instead, follow Hofmann's lead in playing with color relationships, textures, and using overlapping shapes to create depth.

Nevermind that I still don't quite understand his statement that"any line placed on the canvas is already the fifth." Shouldn't have quit those piano lessons. Is he saying that a line adds a harmonic component just by its being there?

What do you think?
Do you like his paintings as much as I do? Does he seem like, as one critic described him, a masterful conductor of competing elements or a painter who is too "loud" and needs modulating?? Above left is In the Wake of the Hurricane, 1960.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pictures of the Floating World: Ukiyo-e

Why have I resisted looking at Japanese prints? The fact that I have daughters from Asia should be enough reason to at least educate myself, but I always seem to be stuck in Western art from about 1870 on. Kind of limiting. Reading about Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the others, you are constantly reminded of the influence Japanese printmakers had on their art --- the lack of depth and volume, the use of bold color, and the liberties taken with perspective. So, it was time. I started with just two, Hokusai and Hiroshige.

After just a little reading it's getting easier to see the difference in the way they approach ukiyo-e, woodcut printmaking. Above is Hokusai's Red Fuji -- he is not at all interested in illustrating a motif from nature, but intent on creating a composition that's been abstracted and stylized from the landscape. Apparently he had a sense of humor: one story has it that while participating in a brush painting contest before the shogun, Hokusai painted a long blue curve the piece of paper. Then he ran across the paper, chasing a chicken whose feet had been dipped in red paint. He explained to the shogun that he had depicted the Tatsuka River, with red maple leaves floating in it. He won.

Hiroshige, (who was up and coming in the mid-1800s as Hokusai was reaching old age), is described as a "lyrical artist" -- whenever I see that adjective I scratch my head. . .what is that supposed to mean? It seems to have something to do with his ability to create a mood. Although the places he depicts are recognizable to anyone who's been there, he has omitted some details in his effort to evoke an emotional response. I love this one, succinctly called A
Sudden Shower on the Ohashi Bridge and Atake.

The horizon tilts, the rain is a series of stylized cross-hatches, and the people seem to have forgotten their pants. Well, I guess they're in Japanese attire circa 1857.

I just came across the book, Contemporary Printmaking in the Northwest by Lois Allan, and feel inspired enough to find a class. It seems that it's often hard to know when you are trying new approaches in a sensible effort to enrich your background and uncover new ways of working and when you are just traveling on a side spur that will not ultimately take you anywhere you want to go. How can you know?

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Landscape! It simply doesn't exist!" Amedeo Modigliani

At least for him, it didn't. As Claude Roy puts it in his book about the artist, Modigliani's career was "one long meditation on the mystery of the human face."

I remember seeing a show of Modigliani's work in LA severa
l years ago - at first glance they all looked remarkably similar, but on closer examination, it was amazing to see how much the distinct personality of each individual came through. The woman with the cigarette at left, entitled Portrait of Madame Amédée carries a whiff of smugness, a haughty air, doesn't it?

How does he manage to model the form and give such a strong sense of the person with just line and color? There are few accessories, no watches, books, or decorative wallpaper for him.

You always hear about his drinking, use of drugs, and how early
death of tuberculosis at 36. But I didn't know much about his destruction of his own work. Apparently, in 1909, he spent a lot of time meeting and talking with Brancusi, and was very much encouraged to spend time sculpting. He did so, creating scores of African-influenced pieces. Imagine, if we could look back to Leghorn, Italy somehow, and watch from our vantage point 100 years later, and see a 25 year old man, piling a load of sculptures into a hand-cart, and hauling the whole thing down to the the canal, and dumping them in.

So I guess it's good not to live too close to a body of water - or maybe it is. Do you ever destroy your work? Sometimes I fiddle with them so long I might as well have started over. In this one, August, I started with 3 figures, painted one out entirely, changed the background, redid each figure, and then finally decided to stop. It's in the corner mocking me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"There are spirits in my country and I strain to listen to their voices." Rufino Tamayo

There are huge holes in my art background, and this is another artist I didn't know much about. While he was a young man, Tamayo began studies at the Academy of San Carlos i
n Mexico City where he was told to copy plaster casts as accurately as possible; it didn't take him long to realize that this was not for him. His teachers did encourage him to visits the museums, and he did. What struck him when he studied the European masters was not their subjects or styles so much as the strength of their personalities. But in his classes, the teachers seemed to be interested in extinguishing personality. So he left.
Above is Tres Personajes (from Todo Artes/Creative Commons)

A contact from his hometown of Oaxaca helped him get a job at the archeology museum in Mexico City, and there he was exposed to pre-Columbian art. H
e realized that this would be his source. While critics have pointed out the influence of Braque, Picasso, and Cezanne in his work, once you have a chance to see more than a few you can see the clear stamp of his personality on the work. (He lived from 1899 - 1991.)

He seems to love strong shapes, a flattened pictu
re plane, and layers of color. Scroll downto see this diptych which is not-exactly pre-Columbian, but I tried to interlock shapes and build up layers of colors. If you look closely there may be some clunkers that are almost pre-Columbian.

Monday, August 17, 2009

"Never does Mlle Morisot finish a painting, a pastel or a watercolor. It is as if she were composing prefaces to books she will never write."

I don't know about you, but that's one of the things I like about Morisot's work, nevermind Mr. Paul Mantz, 19th century art critic quoted above. Been reading about Morisot lately because she seems to get lost in the crowd, blocked by the shadow of Cassatt. She was one of the earliest of the Impressionists to exhibit regularly at the Paris Salon, and later when the group broke away, she was invited to join Degas, Pissaro, Monet and others to exhibit in the Salon des Refusés with them. She married Eugene Manet, Edouard's brother, when she was 33. In 1872, Edouard painted her in black for mourning following her father's death - at right:

I like the unfinished quality of many of her paintings - you get the feeling they were executed quickly and with spontaneity. In the one above, A Summer's Day, you can see how dashed off that lower left hand corner is - just a flurry of brushstrokes.

How do you decide when your
work is done? D0 you consciously try to leave an area unfinished? What strategies have worked for you? I have none yet. Here's one I'm working on of the 520 bridge over Lake Washington. Trying to leave it alone:

Friday, August 14, 2009

A portrait is a likeness in which there is something wrong with the mouth." J.S. Sargent

Years ago my artist father quoted Sargent and whenever I recall these words, I feel a little less bad about my attempts. I remember a teacher at UCLA suggesting years ago that I throw the entire face of my subject into shadow.

Sometimes when I see the finished works of someone as immensely talented as Sargent I forget about the periods of infrequent comm
issions, the criticism that he was merely clever, and most of all, the huge amount of time he spent wrestling with the paint.

I keep taking out Carter Ratcliff's Sargent from the library because it's so full of background. Ratcliff talks about all the work that went into the infamous portrait, Madame Gautreau. He worked and reworked the canvas, explaining:

One day I was dissatisfied with it and dashed a tone of light rose over the former gloomy background. I turned the painting upside down, retired to the other end of the studio and looked at it under my arm. Vast improvement.

Here it is at left, a copy Sargent made that he never finished.

Of course, the one he did finish kicked up a firestorm of protest, including this from the subject's mother: "All Paris is making fun of my daughter. She is ruined. My people will be forced to defend themselves. She'll die of chagrin."

It was called "monstrous," "detestable." But his stongest defender, Louis de Fourcaud, had this to say: "The purity of his model's lines must strike one first of all.
From head to toe, the form 'draws' itself - in one stroke, it becomes a harmony of lines."

Since I do not have his eye or hand, I have to grasp at the straws of technique. More than just about any other technique, I find the turn-it-upside-down idea very helpful, but not just with seeing the composition more clearly. From a different vantage point, your eye cannot quietly correct a flaw or supply what it believes ought to be there - you really do see the work more plainly.
Have you tried painting while it is still upside down or sideways? Does it help? And what about the mouth? Is it harder than any other feature to capture well? My father, George, tells me the nose has its problems, too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"I can live alone and I love to work." Mary Cassatt

In the 1878 oil entitled Portrait of a Lady, Cassatt depicts her mother, in casual morning dress, reading Le Figaro. So what might have been in the paper that day? No Soduko, I guess. Judith Barter speculates in Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman.

The Cassatt family would have been well read and informed about current events. In Le Figaro, Mrs. Cassatt might have been learning about preparations underway for the International Congress of Women's Rights. This 1878 gathering was to focus on a range
of issues under discussion at the time, including the status of the woman in society, her role in the family, as well as opportunities for education. Following the Congress, education was made free and compulsory for both sexes.

It is clear from other information about Mary Cassatt that she was an independent thinker who was comfortable speaking her mind. A few years after painting this, she was one of a handful of artists and writers (including Monet and Zola) who championed the cause of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of treason, but finally exonerated years later. (Incidentally, Degas took the opposite position during the whole affair.)

A painting of a woman reading the paper seems pretty quaint at the remove of 130 years. I still like it. I have not embarked upon a Kindle series, but maybe somehow else has. Here's one of my daughter reading The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall before the Twilight series took over her life. It's another painting done over the top of one that didn't work out; I seem to have a lot of these.

Monday, August 10, 2009

"The greatest enemy for an artist is ease. . repeating yourself once you get good at it". Chuck Close

Am I the only one who did not know about the struggles Chuck Close endured on his way to being a successful artist??

I have a kids book out from the library right now (there are advantages - shorter, big print, maybe the kids will pick it up) so now I know about the learning disabilities he struggled with as a child, so severe that a traditional college career was not in the cards. In a stroke of fortune that would seem unusual today, his local community college had a terrific art department, and he found his way there.

At right is Chuck Close's Kiki (Photo by bdunette/ Creative Commons). Although as a student he was very good at mimicking the work of other artists, he decided early on to force himself to work in a unique style, throwing away his familiar brushes and trying new tools: an airbrush, rags, sponges, and even an eraser attached to the end of an electric drill.

I had no idea that one reason he began with very larg
e, very detailed portraits was that seeing the whole was too overwhelming. He preferred to handle information in bite sizes. Not content to stay with one mode of working, he moved on from black and white to color.

His later, signature style of using nested circles and swirls of colors was developed after he suffered paralysis due to a spinal artery collapse. You probably know what I didn't: for more than twenty years now he's worked from a wheelchair
with a brush strapped to his hand.

"I think problem solving is highly over-rated. Problem creation is more interesting. If you want to react personally you have to move away from other people's ideas. . . .back yourself into your own corner where no one else's solutions apply and ask yourself to behave as an individual." (page 27, Chuck Close/Up Close by Greenberg and Jordan).

My corner is full of clutter right now, so I'll have to clean it first. Are you already creating some interesting problems? Do you consciously work this way?

Friday, August 7, 2009

"Unless your picture goes wrong, it will be no good." Picasso

Do you sometimes get to that critical point in the making of a painting when you feel as though you are pulling back and letting too much caution enter? I've only made one souffle, but it's like watching a souffle fall. The life starts to drain out of your work and it starts heading toward DOA. Not only do you witness all this somewhat helplessly; you feel a weird mind/body separation begin as you watch yourself wreck it. It helps to have those words by Picasso posted nearby so that I can feel that wrecking it might not be the worst thing, but even a necessary thing sometimes. Have you had this happen?

Edouard Manet, whose Tarring the Boat, Berck appears above, was able to work boldly.
Stephane Mallarme, the French symbolist poet and friend of Manet, described the painter's process as he understood it:

Each time he begins a picture. . .he plunges headlong into it, and feels like a man who knows that his surest plan to learn to swim safely, is, dangerou
s as it may seem, to throw himself into the water.. . Each work should be a new creation of the mind. . .The hand . . .will conserve some of its acquired secrets of manipulation, but the eye should forget all else it has seen, and learn anew from the lesson before it. It should. . .see only that which it looks upon, and that as for the first time; and the hand should become an impersonal abstraction guided only by the will, oblivious of all previous cunning. (p. 91, Manet and the Sea, Wilson Bareau and Degener)

Out of desperation I've been trying a few tricks to help me avoid too much caution. I'll stop and apply a layer of Liquin knowing I can rub back to the original surface if I don't like whatever happens next (or gloss medium with acrylics). Or, I tell myself I'm just doing a study and I can start a new one if this one becomes a disaster. I remember a teacher years ago saying that he'd have his students just cut a whole in the canvas and get it over with so they'd feel free to just paint, but I've never gone that far.

Here's a painting called Station #4 that began as something else entirely. I could not make that painting work, no matter what I tried. Instead of painting it out, I wound up using the original just as it was as the underpainting for the new one.

I'd painted this station in Manhattan Beach more than once. I went back a week later to finish, trudging across the sand carrying too much stuff, including a coffee. When I got there I was kind of surprised to see my life guard station had been switched with one that was an entirely different style. I could barely spot my original one, way up the beach. There was no way I was going to start over, so I set off on a slow march.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Not exactly painting from sketches. . .

Do you remember those short pieces the Atlantic Monthly used to run about two famous people meeting each other, say Ben Franklin and Paris Hilton? (Well, along those lines. . .) I've always been fascinated by the intersection of notable artists and writers, wondering what ideas might have come out of those meetings.

Reading about Courbet lately in Courbet and the Modern Landscape, by Mary Morton and Charlotte Eyerman and thinking about how we forge our own way after exposure to the work of others. Eyerman talks about the Courbet's
likely influences, some traditional and some less so. She says that the artist would certainly have been aware of Turner's many seascapes, as well as the work of Gericault and his famous, Raft of the Medusa (depicting a sea tragedy resulting from the bad planning of government officials).

Courbet would have met Whistler and Monet, and like them, would have begun to push his subjects toward abstraction. Courbet took all the people out of his seascapes, and in most paintings, all the boats. In the most abstract of his 30+ wave pain
tings, he starts with what he sees and just invents the rest, capturing tension, movement, and power.

Guy de Maupassant describes his approach:

In a great bare room at fat, dirty, greasy man was spreading pat
ches of white paint on to a big bare canvas with a kitchen-knife. From time to time he went and pressed his face against the window pane to look at the storm. The sea came up so close it seemed to beat right against the house, which was smothered in foam and noise. The dirty water rattled like hail against the window. . .It was called The Wave and it made a good deal of stir in its time. (page 104)

Above is The Wave (detail). I would like to go to the National Gallery in Berlin and try this: Miro said, "One feels physically drawn to it, as by an undertow. It is fatal. Even if this painting had been at our backs we would have felt it."

Are there works of art that hold this kind of power for you?

Monday, August 3, 2009

"I Am Not a Colorist." Mark Rothko

In Mark Rothko, a compilation of writings about the artist, author Jeffrey Weiss quotes the artist as saying that it was "not color, but measures" that were of the greatest importance to him. Obviously he was good at using color for his purposes and had thought a good deal about the effect he wanted his paintings to have on the viewer. He even specified that he'd like viewers to stand 18" from the paintings while looking at them.

In 1949 he went everyday to MOMA in New York after the museum acquired Matisse's The Red Studio so he could stand before it. "You become that color. You become totally saturated with it." Here it is. I guess you could try to get close to the screen but that might not help too much:

Are you a colorist? Does the mere act of trying on a label for a while work to prod you in that direction with your work? Does it feel too late now, in 2009, to talk about such labels? Is everyone "supposed" to be doing hybrid, multi-media, performance-based works involving found objects and/or bimorphic figures? (I remember going to a workshop as many as 3 years ago and being told to avoid using the already worn-out "bimorphic" in an artist statement. I didn't even know what it meant.)

Is your work more closely connected to the work of painters from 20 - 40 years ago, like mine, and does some of your work hark back as far as Bonnard and Vuillard? Does that make it somehow less valid? What do you think?