Saturday, January 19, 2019

"Bayou Scene" by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith

One of my articles, "How to Create an Interesting Still Life", produced a question from a reader who mentioned how people waver between whether they like abstract art or representational art (such as a still life). I think the wavering is understandable, as both styles have much to offer. They are also very much intertwined, as both use pictoral elements like composition, form, contrast, and especially color to create a mood or a message. Paintings like "Bayou Scene" by Alice Ravenel Huger Smith further show the blurring of lines between the two styles.

Alice Ravenel Huger Smith was an American painter from Charleston, South Carolina, active in the early 20th century. She worked in a variety of painting and printmaking media, but eventually settled on watercolor as her preferred medium.

Smith's watercolor work seems to be evenly divided into work that is more representational and work that is almost completely abstract, with some slight representational aspects. "Bayou Scene", painted in 1920, is clearly in the latter category. It looks like she was probably doing some wet-on-wet painting with different colors, starting with an abstraction based on color alone and letting the merging shapes inspire her as to subject matter. We can see that she indicated some wading birds and reeds at the shoreline of a bayou, hidden away in a thick, dark wood.

Owing to its transparency, watercolor has a singular ability to produce an incredibly luminous effect. Smith was known as a master of color, and I suspect she chose watercolor for this property. In the painting, the ethereal glow of the water could be interpreted as reflecting the chance glow of a sunset. It frames the two shore birds and serves as a striking focal point against the dark clusters of cypress trees. The ripples on the water are a mesmerizing pattern, and the abstract shadows in the forest make it look even more mysterious. The blurry, nebulous quality of this piece makes it look at once like a frozen snapshot in time that will quickly change, and also like a mystical vision or apparition that might not even be there at all, possibly a glimpse into some magical fairy realm.

All this from just playing with light and shadow, shape and color! It's a mysterious, playful piece; very lovely and fun to look at. It's also an ode to creativity, and a marriage of abstract and representational art that explains and expands upon the appeal of both.

Image is in the Public Domain.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Watercolor Sketch of Free Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

When I was attending Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia, we would occasionally venture out of the classroom to work on location, en plein air (French for "in full air", this is a typical art term used to mean working outside). Because the school is located on Logan Circle in downtown Philadelphia, there was no shortage of cool subjects to draw or paint, from the stunning Swan Fountain on Logan Circle to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul and other such historical buildings as The Franklin Institute, The Academy of Natural Sciences, and the country's first library, The Free Library. The Free Library consists of two buildings, so I cheekily referred to them as Volume I and Volume II (and I am probably one of only a few hundred thousand people who thought that up).

One day our class went outside to do some watercolor sketches. Yes, watercolor is paint, but if you aren't doing what you consider a "finished" painting, you can refer to it as a sketch. Although it's true that sketches are frequently done in pencil or charcoal, a "sketch" is simply a quick rendering, sometimes as a preliminary to a more developed piece, and is not related to any specific medium. This can also be referred to as a "study", if plans are to use it as reference for a finished work. The choice of subject was ours, and the way the afternoon sunlight played across the westernmost building, or Volume I, if you will, of the Free Library caught my eye. A tree in full blossom in the foreground provided a nice framing device to enhance the composition (read about framing devices here).

I made a sketch in colored pencil on my small (9" x 12") Arches watercolor block (watercolor blocks are basically a pad of watercolor paper that is sealed almost all the way around, leaving only a small area into which you slide an X-acto knife to carefully cut around the edge to release the sheet once it is dry. This is to spare having to stretch the paper--it stays taut while you paint. Quite a blessing for us lazy folks!) and then went to work with my watercolors (half-pans by Schminke, a very good German brand) until it was sufficiently developed. I used white gouache to lay the white blossoms into the foreground.

Since this was freehand, the railings and columns aren't perfectly straight. I would definitely use a ruler to get that right if I were to develop this into a finished piece. There are some things I would re-think (the tree and blossoms in the foreground are well-placed, but rendered clumsily), and some others that came out just right (I was delighted with how well the quality of the light came out). Our professor always wanted us to make our preliminary sketches with red pencil, but I would definitely do that differently, as it does not disappear after paint is added and tends to look incongruous. These days, I always make an underdrawing with a related color--usually the primary color in the painting, so that would be green, brown, or blue, usually. I might use red for an Arizona desert landscape!

Anyway, just wanted to share some work with you in hopes to educate and inspire. Thanks for visiting!

Image is original art by the author.

Here's another story about working on location in Logan Circle:

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault

The Raft of the Medusa, created in 1818-19 and exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1819, is a huge painting in the Romantic style by Géricault, whose work I have mentioned before, here

This painting, which is a self-promotional piece Géricault created to advertise his skills as a painter of large-scale commissions, is based on an actual event in French naval history. The frigate Medusa ran aground on the coast of Mauritania, in Africa, in July of 1816. A few days later, more than a hundred people set off on a large raft, but by the time they were rescued 13 days later, only 15 remained alive, weakened by starvation and dehydration. It was a tremendous scandal at the time, mainly due to the incompetence of the captain, but probably in no small measure owing also to the sad fact that those who survived had to practice cannibalism.

Géricault was fascinated by the story and felt that it would make a good subject for a large, dynamic work. The Romantic style of painting was beginning to take hold in France, depicting emotional, dramatic subjects in contrast to the classical themes that had been the prevailing style. The terrible human tragedy of the Medusa fit right in, especially as portrayed by Géricault.

The painting depicts the raft, sloshing in the waves, covered with a mass of bodies—some clearly dead; some bent over and grieving the dead or trying to comfort the dying; one crouches with his hands to his head, lost in stress and despair. But there is a glimmer of hope, here: A ship can just barely be seen on the horizon, and those who have the strength have climbed up onto the highest point of the raft and are waving cloth around to catch the eyes of possible rescuers. Maybe Géricault was depicting the point of the actual rescue, as there are 13 people on the raft who are clearly still alive, and certainly a couple more who could be (some are clearly dead, and one body to the lower right of the painting seems to have the head submerged.

Géricault reportedly visited hospitals and morgues to observe the appearance of dead and dying bodies for the sake of getting skin tone and other details correct, although the individuals depicted in the painting seem fairly well-muscled to be suffering from starvation. Perhaps 13 days doesn't make much difference, but of course Géricault was also working from non-starved models, including his young assistant, the model for several figures on the raft, including the dead youth stretched out over the lap of the older man. At any rate, the musculature adds to the dramatic, tense poses that depict desperation, elation, torture, and agony.

The colors in this painting add to the emotional impact. This is not a sunny day on a blue-green ocean; the colors are dark and murky, with a foreboding sky and deep, dark shadows that contrast with the pale flesh of the corpses strewn across the foreground. Géricault is masterful at conveying movement, as well: the wind lashes the sail and billows the cloths of the signaling survivors. Sun slants down from the left side of the painting and illuminates a diagonal swath through the middle of the scene, picking up the slumping shoulders of a man hunched dejectedly over the body of a dead youth, then along the backs and outstretched arms of the people who are desperately trying to signal the boat. The use of this illumination cleverly leads the viewer's eye to the tiny boat by creating a path through the painting that culminates in the waving white cloth above it.

This painting is full of diagonals, which create the most dynamic compositional framework. The lighted path of the sun shining along the bodies goes from the lower left to the upper right; the mast with the sail tilts to the upper left of the canvas, surrounded by various other diagonal ropes, and the dead body in the lower right is also on a diagonal. The composition as a whole is a kind of X, with the southwest-to northeast arm emphasized more in order to guide the viewer's gaze along that path. There are no true verticals in the picture, and the expected horizontal—the horizon—is broken up by the swells of the ocean. Overall, this is another example of Géricault's mastery of composition and of creating a dynamic and powerful narrative with painting. It is hard to imagine that he was only 27 years old when he finished it, and sad to know that he lived only a few years more, dying in 1824. One can only imagine all the further masterpieces he might have created!

For more analysis of paintings, please check out the following:

Image: The Raft of the Medusa, 1819, Musée du Louvre- Click image to view larger


Saturday, February 17, 2018

I Don't Know Why It's a Challenge

Growing up, it was clear that I had some artistic talent. I came by it honestly, as my mom was an artist. Fortunately, she was also a teacher, and so she knew how to nurture creativity in me, and unlike some parents (including my dad, sad to say) who may have viewed art as a somewhat worthless pursuit, she encouraged me to pursue my drive and ability for drawing and sketching right up through sending me to art school for college. There was never any question of who I was and what I was going to be.

However, although I had had a full head of steam regarding the production of art as a kid, filling up the margins of my school paper and literally stacks of notebooks with my drawings, the older I got, and the better I got, I mysteriously stopped being nearly as productive. In college, I produced work as assigned, but I was a bit slack about working on it out of the classroom, unless a grade deadline loomed. I did, at least, contribute a decent amount to my sketchbook.

But by the time I graduated, I didn't choose to enter the art field, despite my having done quite well at my internship and my school's having a great placement program. I felt that having the pressure to create every day--for some soulless ad agency, no doubt--would take all the joy out of it. I might have been right, but as I entered a succession of service-industry jobs, I didn't spend much of my spare time indulging in that joy.

I find myself filling my spare time with non-productive (and even counter-productive) things like watching television or playing video games. I make time to hang out with friends or check my social media accounts, and I do write (although I also don't do that as often as I'd like or feel I should, although the very high number of blogs that had a flurry of posts at the beginning and then went completely dark would indicate I'm certainly not alone, there). But why don't I make time to create art? I managed to do three whole drawings for Inktober's 31 days, even though, as a kid, I would empty ball point pens with regularity.

When I see artists at work, I watch with fascination, just as people watch with fascination to see me at work (with this in mind, I have sometimes taken a sketch pad to a public space just to entertain folks and keep myself motivated, but I don't do that often enough). I feel inspired by them, and awfully jealous that they seem to have that drive that I have found lacking in myself. Just to get some sort of "art" going, I will sometimes fill in designs in those popular coloring books for adults. It's fun, but I always feel a little ashamed, thinking I should be producing those designs, not just filling them in. I have the ability, after all.

I do know this--once I get started, I can go for a good bit, just like I've done in writing this article. But what do I need to get me started? And why do I need it?

Image of something cool that I colored in but didn't draw, so kinda yay.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Random Search Story - Discovering a New Artist with some Surprising Connections

The other day, I was thinking of the word kitsch. I thought I understood the meaning of the word pretty well, but I wanted to be sure I knew, so I looked it up. I had always associated it with somewhat tacky objets d'art that featured prominently in home décor in the 60s and 70s (and beyond). Some things, I know, are deliberately kitschy, as a kind of fun irreverence. Being goofy on purpose, of course, is a far cry from being goofy inadvertently, and these days, there's a great deal of “irony” (thanks, hipsters).

Wikipedia's official entry on it describes kitsch as being associated with tackiness or cheesiness; most importantly, it is an art form that appeals to common sentiment, so that it is not considered “high art”. I guess it's “low art”, then, or “common art”. Thomas Kinkade's work is cited as an example, and things like velvet paintings and “Dogs Playing Poker” would probably qualify. So yeah, I had it right, but here is where things get interesting...

Under the subheading Art, which is, of course, my favorite subheading, the entry states: “The Kitsch movement is an international movement of classical painters, founded in 1998 upon a philosophy proposed by Odd Nerdrum and later clarified in his book On Kitsch in cooperation with Jan-Ove Tuv and others, incorporating the techniques of the Old Masters with narrative, romanticism, and emotionally charged imagery.”

Forget kitsch, who the heck is Odd Nerdrum???

So, of course, I clicked on that link, and I found out that Odd Nerdrum (his real name) is a Norwegian painter of some renown, actually. I had never heard of him, myself, so of course I was intrigued—if his work is in museums, it must be “high art”, though, eh? But no, he insists in his manifesto, On Kitsch, his paintings are that and only that. Well, let me see for myself. There was no art featured in the Wikipedia entry, and indeed, Wikimedia Commons yielded nothing but a photograph of Nerdrum's atelier, so I went back to the wider internet and was not disappointed. Nerdrum has plenty of work out there, and it's absolutely gorgeous. His style seems to be a hybrid of Renaissance and Impressionism, and his subject matter refers frequently to Greek mythology, as did the paintings of classic masters (Rembrandt was a strong influence of his—his painting Daniel, from 1976, shows just how strong—it can be seen here). It's certainly high art, as far as I can tell, but Nerdrum attended an art school in Norway that made a particular emphasis on modern art, and his natural attraction to Renaissance work was scorned. Perhaps he identifies his work as “kitsch” because he knew that figural, representational work does appeal more to the general public than abstract and high-concept work. Good for him, I say! I never understood how people can be so judgmental about art.

One of Nerdrum's works, entitled Dawn, looked very familiar. The grouping of figures screaming upward toward the sky reminded me of a scene from the 2000 movie The Cell, starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughan, and Vincent D'Onfrio. Sure, enough, going back to Wikipedia, I learned that Dawn was indeed the inspiration for that particular image from the movie—it seems that The Cell's director, Tarsem Singh, saw the original while visiting the house of its owner—none other than David Bowie!

Speaking of musicians, there are a couple more to add to this interesting, convoluted path of connections: The images from The Cell were also utilized in the Missy Elliott video “Get Ur Freak On”--although the Wikipedia entry for the song does not mention this, it's a bit obvious; the set for much of the video is clearly also Cell-inspired. Watch it. Ozzy Osbourne also seems to have been inspired by it, as well, here.

So, thanks to the internet and all its lovely, oh-so-clickable links, I learned about another fantastic painter and his interesting connections to various other forms of art, from movies to music videos. Inspiration bounces around all over, just like clicking on one link after another online, to lead to many new things to learn and enjoy. I hope you found out some fun stuff today, right here in this article, now another one of the many pieces of the story. If I can connect Odd Nerdrum, Jennifer Lopez, and Ozzy Osbourne, it's a small world, indeed!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

How to Create an Interesting Still Life

Whether you are just learning to draw or paint or have many years of experience under your belt, a still life is an excellent way to practice your rendering skills. Unlike working on location or from a live model, you can control the weather, keep the lighting consistent, and your subject is unlikely to fidget, want to chat, or need a potty break. But do be aware that for an interesting picture, you must have an interesting still life; you can’t just throw things on a table and call it good. Here are some suggestions to make your still life setup creative, interesting and well-balanced.

Variation. This is the main watchword for still lives; variety is the spice of life, and a still life needs spice, too! Give the viewer some different things to look at by varying the sizes, shapes, textures and colors of your setup. Imagine how a brilliant, velvety red rose would look against a fuzzy white shawl, with a shiny black glazed pitcher in the background! Make sure you use contrast to your advantage—don’t make everything light, or dark, or soft, or shiny. Mix it up and your picture will be much more lively!

Elevation. Also when setting up your still life subject, try to vary the elevations, as well—either use taller things to contrast with shorter, or use props to create different levels. For example, you could place boxes of different sizes under a drape and arrange items on the differing levels created, or you could stack smaller things on books of varying sizes.

Focal Point. While you do want a variety of objects in your picture, you should give the viewer something to home in on so that your picture draws attention in the first place. You will want to have one main subject to act as the star of the show, and once the viewer is drawn by this, the supporting players will be there to add variety and interest. The best results are usually obtained by selecting one really fascinating piece, such as a gorgeous cut-glass vase or a brightly-colored kite, then choosing a few other items that provide contrast in color, size and texture. In this picture by French painter Anne Vallayer-Coster, the ham is clearly the star of the show, but there are a lot of supporting players that add a variety of textures, colors and shapes to create interest. 

Themes. Most people think of a vase of flowers or a bowl of fruit when they think of a still life subject (or both, as seen in the picture at top, by Flemish artist Clara Peeters). These are fine, but you should also try to come up with more creative setups. Pick a theme for your still life, and then try to come up with all the things that could fit the theme. You might choose music as a theme, and you could feature a beautiful old violin as your main subject and then add in the bow, some sheet music, a metronome, a pair of opera glasses and some white gloves. You could pick food as the theme, but instead of the typical bowl of fruit, you could use vegetables instead, or even candy displayed in different dishes and scattered across a cloth. As a student, I drew a still life of the “heavy metal” theme, composed of spiked and studded leather cuffs and belts from my own rockin’ wardrobe!

Personalization. Did you know that you can actually make a portrait out of a still life setup? Instead of making a direct likeness of your sitter, use meaningful objects from their life, such as mementos, awards, and any items that reflect their personal interests or hobbies. If your client is a baseball enthusiast, for example, you could make a still life from their own collection: maybe an autographed ball or glove, a pennant from a favorite team, a pair of tickets and a game schedule, even a box of Wheaties with their hero on the front. Or instead of a theme, use many different items to represent all of their interests, like posters of favorite movies, favorite books, musical instruments, travel souvenirs and so forth. Use your imagination and get creative! This is a great way to make a special, personalized picture for someone who is shy or uncomfortable with the idea of having their portrait made.

Now that you know that still lives can be so much more than just a bunch of flowers or a bowl of fruit, go find yourself some cool African sculpture, antique beer steins or carved wooden toys and set up something that will really make an interesting picture. After all, if it ain’t creative, it ain’t art!

See my breakdown of a Vincent vanGogh's still life, here:

Make sure your still life has a strong focal point! These tips will help:

At top:  Still life painting by Flemish painter Clara Peeters, from Wikimedia Commons

Still life with ham by French painter Anne Vallayer-Coster, from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Empire of Light

Above is a painting by my favorite artist, Belgian surrealist René Magritte  (1898 – 1967), called The Empire of Light. It's actually one of a series, and all the paintings have the same title, so they have to be distinguished by their locations--this one is in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, located in Brussels. 

The series, which attempted to show a juxtaposition of a street at night against a sunny, daylight sky, was painted in 1953-1954. One website states that the painting "became so popular that he made several versions", but I think that it's possible that Magritte painted several versions because the subject is very challenging, and he was trying to get it just right. He was attempting to show a surreal contrast between night and day, but there is a time in the evening that the sky is still pretty bright, even when the city below is cloaked in shadow, and he had to strike just the right balance to make us realize that it was, in fact, a daytime sky, and not simply a twilight one. For example, this one, at the Museum of Modern Art, could be mistaken merely for a twilight picture: 

I think of all the paintings in the Empire of Light series, the one at the Royal Museums in Brussels does the job best, probably because of Margitte's choice to include the large puddle on the street. It accurately reflects the night scene, but is unaffected by the blue sky above. This makes a stronger statement, in my opinion, of the marked difference between day and night, eliminating the possible confusion of twilight. 

If the images seem familiar to you, it might be because you own or have seen the 1974 album cover of Late for the Sky by Jackson Browne, which was inspired by the painting(s). There is actually a credit inside the album that says,"cover concept Jackson Browne if it's all reet with Magritte". Magritte was dead by then, but I guess it was "all reet" with his estate.  

By Source, Fair use,