October 27, 2014 § 4 Comments
Look at any slice of nature and the eye is assaulted by a nearly infinite assortment of colors, shapes, textures and surfaces. Is it any wonder that painting from observation can be so vexing at times? Beginning painters often think to start with a detail and can carry on working for hours without considering the structure of the whole. When I point this out they’ll say, “Well, I just haven’t gotten to that part yet.” I came across the picture below in a magazine many years ago. It’s an advertisement for carpeting, but for me it’s emblematic of the problem of getting the cart before the horse. Thinking of painting as a kind of construction site rather than a picture we can draw analogies and insights from the basic logic that inheres in any building process.
When we build a house we don’t start with the curtains. We begin with a big hole in the ground. Into the hole go strong structural elements that flesh out the basic shape of the house, and that will support everything that follows. On the foundation go the partitioning walls that divide and subdivide the total space, followed by the large, interconnecting systems the make the house function: things like plumbing, electrical wires, heating ducts, etc. A builder prioritizes. Without a sense of what logically precedes what, a building would degenerate quickly into a shapeless pile of material. That, in fact, might serve as an apt description of a lot of bad paintings.
The color mass, or what Charles Hawthorne liked to call the “color spots,” is to painting what a foundation is to building. The first task of the painter, assuming he or she has some desire to work from nature, is to sort and prioritize the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of nature into pictorially meaningful color events. The process is one of discerning what is essential and structural in the bewildering display that lies before us, and distinguishing it from what is merely cosmetic. A tree, for example, we know to be composed of millions of tiny leaves and branches. This knowledge alone nearly overwhelms the mind of the beginner. Luckily the eye is more intelligent than the mind, and in the end it’s the eye that enables the painter to begin to sift out the essential color masses of nature into something that actually makes sense on the canvas. Maurice Denis put it this way: “Remember that a painting, before it is a nude, a war horse, or some anecdote, is simply a plane surface covered by color shapes assembled in some order.” If you find it difficult to see these simple masses, you have a built in tool to help you – your own eye.
Close one eye and instantly the three-dimensional world converts to a simple two-dimensional pattern. Squint and all fractional half-tones merge either with the dark end of the value scale or the light end, producing a simple, high-contrast image devoid of 90 percent of the details. The millions of tiny details, all vying equally for attention, are what bog down and frustrate the beginning painter. They actually disguise the larger, structural events that we can use to build a painting. Squinting is like asking all the various tones to choose sides, light or dark.
A further use of this wonderful tool, the eye, is what Joshua Reynolds, in his 17th century Discourses, called “dilating” the vision. When the eye focuses on something the area it takes in is miniscule. We patch together a sense of the world by all these disparate focusings connected by the saccadic movements of the scanning eye. By unfocusing the eye, vision is diffused over a larger area, making the mass colors more apparent. What you see is a collective sensation. The millions of tiny bits that we usually see are gathered up into larger, contrasting color areas that are, effectively, the common denominators of all the many variations of color in our subject. A textured sunlit wall becomes a simple warm color mass. A tree, or a human body, reveals a simple structure of two essential planes, shadow and light. Seeing that, we now have something to take to the palette.
This self-portrait by the Post-Impressionist painter Edouard Vuillard is a kind of textbook in the constructive logic of painting. The head is simplified into a few telling structural color-shapes that evoke the complexity of the subject but stop short of supplying any detail or nuance. Looking at the painting we are confronted by a kind of visual haiku. We are thrilled to see more than is actually there. This is the power of simple color masses in painting. The operation of one color against another puts the whole thing together in a very simple, structural way.
The painter Fairfield Porter was passionate in his study of Vuillard. In his self portrait below you can see how Porter, like Vuillard, simplifies the complex scene before him, succinctly stating the structural breaks between light and dark in his face, his shirt, and legs. Squint at the painting and you can almost imagine the omitted details. Like Vuillard, Porter found poetry in this sort of simplified arrangement of astutely observed color shapes.
The simple color mass as a construct for building representational paintings can be found throughout the centuries. Leon Battista Alberti’s 1435 treatise on painting advises the painter to follow three simple steps which he calls Circumscription, Composition, and Reception of the Light. Circumscription is the reduction of three dimensional form to simple silhouettes, followed by a subdivision of those shapes into component masses formed by the break between light and shadow. You can see this kind of thinking in Nicolas Poussin’s numerous tone studies from the 17th century.
Working with color massing is not so much a style as it is a strategy for organizing color. Reducing a complex reality to essential contrasts reveals the inherent design in any appearance of nature and gives the painter a different sort of criteria for deciding how to move the painting forward. Every artist, depending on where his or her aesthetic emotion lies, makes choices about how far to develop the painting from this simple abstracted state. It’s like riding a train. You simply choose where to get off. American illustrator Norman Rockwell was admired for his almost photo-realistic images, but if you study the small preparatory oil sketch below it’s evident that this sort of structural search informed his process. It would be a mistake to characterize working with color massing as a style, a school, or an “ism.” It’s simply a tool, and a powerful one, for building paintings because it addresses the fundamental nature of painting, a “plane surface covered by color shapes arranged in a certain order.”
September 13, 2014 § Leave a comment
Columbus, Ohio has the distinction of being the birthplace of one of America’s most distinguished artists, George Bellows. On a recent trip to the Columbus Museum of Art to see an exhibition that honored this native son, I was taken, as usual, by the way the man “speaks” with his brush. If you stand too far away from the paintings, as most people do, you will miss one of the most engaging aspects of his painting: the lively dialogue between the marks and patches of paint.
Bellows was as much a sculptor as he was a painter. His paintings are like bas-reliefs. A blind person could enjoy them with only the sense of touch, so energetic, varied and inventive are their painted surfaces. To fully appreciate and absorb this crucial dimension of painting you have to put yourself in front of the actual object. You can’t get it from a computer screen. A reproduction reveals only the inventory, as it were. But it’s only by being there, in-person and up close, that you begin to put together an understanding of HOW painters think and how they MOVE. In the presence of the visual-tactile evidence you can glean how paintings are physically made, what marks lie on top and what is coming from underneath, how edges are defined or blurred. You enlarge your vocabulary. You learn just how varied are the ways that form can be shaped. This is a body of knowledge that has been passed down from painter to painter for centuries, and as convenient as it is these days to have everything at our fingertips online, this knowledge can’t be downloaded in a jpeg or pdf file. It only takes the eye a few minutes to absorb it, but you have to be there.
September 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
OWU Alumnus Chris Kahler discusses his work in these videos from the Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis.
September 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
Visiting Artist Chris Kahler graduated with a Fine Arts degree from OWU in 1991. He has taught painting and drawing at Eastern Illinois University for the past 16 years. Currently on view at Ohio Wesleyan’s Ross Art Museum is a twenty year retrospective exhibition of Kahler’s work.
March 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
A Visual Conversation: The Paintings of Matthew Dibble
By Katherine Aimone www.artswrite.com
“Too much thinking can be an obstacle for me when painting; the ‘judge’ always seems to get in the way. My connection can only be found in the moment, and I often come back to a sense of my feet on the floor while painting. During these moments some real work is possible…. As artists, we do much better trying to keep things simple. We do better to compare ourselves solely to ourselves. Self-inventory is useful, while self-condemnation is not. Without calling our whole identity into question, there are inquiries that we can fruitfully ask. How am I developing as an artist? Am I doing the work necessary for me to mature? Did I work today? Yes? Well, that’s good. Working today is what gives us currency and self-respect. There is dignity in work.” —Matthew Dibble
September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment
OWU is fortunate to have Dennison Griffith’s encaustic paintings at the Ross Art Museum all of next month. Griffith is an OWU alumnus and is now head of the Columbus College of Art and Design. The artist candidly shares his process and his views on art-making in this excellent video.
January 17, 2011 § 1 Comment
“Remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.” -Maurice Denis, 19th c. painter.
“The plastic arts, at their most perfect, must become music and move us by the immediacy of their sensuous presence.” -Schiller, 19th c. poet.
Maurice Denis’ statement above was a battle cry against the moribund academic painting of the 19th century, and a key to how this course is organized. One of the most popular salon painters of Denis’ time, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, said of Manet, “Manet doesn’t know how to finish a painting.” Manet’s retort was, “Bouguereau doesn’t know how to begin a painting.”
How do you begin a painting? What are you most aware of? How does your awareness move, shift, or splinter as you push the work along? How do you define your task at each stage as the painting develops? Are your thoughts dominated by the struggle to create a likeness, or by a desire to depict a particular subject matter? To what degree are you aware of the medium itself, its tactility or even its smell? What ideas come to you from the material itself in terms of how it can be manipulated?
When you look at paintings in museums or galleries you only see how they ended, not how they began. We begin the semester by looking at paint itself. Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “The medium is the message,” is our motto. To impose a bit of structure on the problem -like the grain of sand around which the oyster spins the pearl – we borrow on the earliest roots of painting: the emblematic images of the paleolithic cave painters, a strategy that has been adopted by many contemporary artists. Paul Klee, Philip Guston, Jasper Johns, Jim Dine, Susan Rothenberg, Basquiat, Andrew Crane, Vivienne Voorland, and Jayne Johnson are pictured here along with comparisons to their prehistoric ancestors. Despite the sophistication gained in the intervening millenia, there is still something in painting that remains of the ritual magic of its origins.