The Beauty of Shapes

September 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

“We look up and see a coloured shape in front of us and we say – there is a chair. But what we have seen is the mere coloured shape. Perhaps an artist might not have jumped to the notion of a chair. He might have stopped at the mere contemplation of a beautiful color and a beautiful shape…”                                        -Alfred North Whitehead

“Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”                          -Maurice Denis (1890)

How often we forget the simple truth of Maurice Denis’ statement as we peer into our three-dimensional world and try to “make” a tree, a face, a figure, or a teacup on our canvas. Annie Dillard’s essay on seeing, from a previous post on this blog, reminds us of just how far we’ve come from the infantile state of innocence when visual sensation was just “color-patches unencumbered by meaning.” The struggle to regain this innocent vision of color and shape is a large part of our “training” as artists. We want to be able to see our sensations, not just the things those sensations add up to, because this kind of seeing is what allows us to form questions that we can take to the palette. What is that hue? What is its tonal value? What is it’s degree of saturation or intensity? These three questions are the Holy Trinity of color mixing. (There’s a fourth, but we’ll save it for another post.)

But mixing color is only one piece of the puzzle. The color has to have a boundary or shape. This is the meeting place of drawing and painting. Stripped of the third dimension, the world’s forms and spaces precipitate two-dimensional shapes. Out of this distilled essence painters compose their paintings. Here are some painters who remind us of the beauty of shapes, all kinds of shapes. That’s what paintings are made of.

Week 1: Paint and Process

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.

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