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Archive for July, 2013

13PosterMondrianClass

That’s the title of the painting class I proposed for the fall. 

The class used to be called “Impressions of Landscape”  and it will retain this title for the plein air class held in the summer, but for the indoor version it’s just not a good fit. My students actually pointed this out to me during the winter term because what we were doing in that class was really all about abstraction.  True, we talked about what makes a painting landscape-Y and we referred to the Impressionists a lot. But basically, folks, abstraction is what we thought, felt, breathed and painted.

Unfortunately, the word abstraction is intimidating. It sounds cold, unfeeling, merely cerebral. 

But the experience of working abstractly isn’t anything like that!  It’s a passionate, highly personal, engaging process.  So much so, that at the end of a three-hour painting session, you’re likely to be exhausted and ready for a nap.  Well, you can’t put language like that into a class description. 

After much doubt and procrastination,  I came up with a class blurb that asks “What would Mondrian do?”  and then goes on with a short paragraph like this:  “…or Diebenkorn, or deKooning, or Hofmann?  Learn from the masters of modernism and from your own experience how line, value, edge and weight can create tension and movement in your work.  Learn what pleases the eye, tickles the mind and draws the viewer into your painting.”

Someone in the office must have liked these words, because they put them on a poster, using a Diebenkorn painting as ground.  And then this: “Take Katherine Hilden’s ‘What Would Mondrian Do?’ or choose from many others.” 

Oh, do!

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13LindaGlobePhThe picturesque Harley Clarke Mansion, home of the Evanston Art Center, is a bit of an architectural sampler in the sense that it features turrets, balconies, gables, dormers and stone carvings. One of my plein air students has fallen in love with the entrance to the greenhouse, which combines a Palladian reference and a carved wooden door frame with overgrown vines.  In previous sessions she drew the door itself and the view towards the Clarke’s ornamented main entrance.  This week she turned to draw one of the cement globes that announce the fern-and-lily lined 13LindaGlobeDrawingStraightpassage to the greenhouse.

When Linda’s drawing was finished, we considered cropping possibilities.  The fence in the distance behind the globe forms a sturdy horizontal line.  Perhaps too sturdy.  When the drawing is cropped conventionally with the fence horizontal, the image is, well, too conventional.  Notice what happens when we tilt the drawing and chop off the top of the globe.  More tension, more movement.

13LindaGlobeDrawingTilt1While we were playing with these cropping choices, a photographer from the Chicago Tribune came by and, with our permission, documented the little tutorial scene. The next day, the Trib ran an article about the plight of the Clarke Mansion , not with the tutorial scene by the greenhouse, but with a wide-angle shot of the whole building, which was, after all the focus of the piece. The piece summarizes the debate over the fate of the mansion:

 http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/suburbs/evanston_skokie_morton_grove/ct-met-evanston-lighthouse-beach-hotel-20130714,0,849034.story

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13JohnWatercolor2I do watercolors from time to time, but not enough to be considered a watercolor-IST.  But I love looking at them and studying their technique.  For me, watercolors fall into two categories: 1) the fussy, goody-goody, neat-huh, look-at-me-I’m-coloring-in-the-lines types and 2) the real thing.

A real watercolor makes me sigh.  For many reasons, but today I want to focus on just one reason.  Namely, a real watercolor lets the white of the paper do half the work.  This is difficult to pull off.  It requires that you study your subject—hard—before you dunk your soft sable brush into that pot of clean water.  One of the tricks of this medium is that in order to make this unforgiving medium look spontaneous and airy, you have to carefully plan your steps ahead of time. In other words, before you start with the brush, you know in what sequence you’re going to apply the colors.  And you know where you will apply nothing at all.  You plan the omissions where the white of the paper will shine through and make your watercolor look like…the real thing.

So you’re in my “Impressions of Landscape” class and you’re set up in the little pavilion on the other side of 13JohnMacsaiMansionPhjpgthe parking lot.  You see the old mansion, the cars and an overwhelming thicket of shrubs and tree trunks.  Good grief, how can this become a “spontaneous and airy” watercolor?  John Macsai obviously was not overwhelmed. He knew what to omit, what to edit out.  To let the tree trunks “breathe” he turned them into dashed lines, which is actually how they look when you notice that all sorts of foliage interrupts their upward sweep.  Easier said than done.

Notice the restraint in the use of complementary color: greens, blues and sepia.  Restraint, both in omission and use of color, is rooted in a love for this medium.  It’s not everybody’s choice but in a real watercolorist’s hands, it makes me sigh.

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13SAICsophiekahn2

When I saw the MFA exhibit at the School of the Art Institute in May, the piece that I found most moving was a sculpture, or rather the shadow cast by a sculpture.  The sculpture itself, the bust of a woman, was fragmented.  It wasn’t clear whether she was in the act of becoming or was being shredded to disintegration.  But in the shadow cast on the wall, she was whole.  It seemed to me that the work was not about a piece created by strips of white clay, but about the shadow. 

It seemed obvious to me that the artist, Sophie Kahn, was working with light. Her medium was not clay at all, but light and shadow. People who only saw the raggedy clay forms were missing the point.  Look!  The shadow!  That’s where we have the art—the life of this piece is in the shadow!

How did she create this effect?  I imagined her sculpting with a certain light source precisely placed on one side of her sculpting stand and a wall precisely distanced on the other side.  Then, for the installation in this gallery, she had to precisely duplicate these distances and angles.  A daunting task.  And for what? To create a shadow! 

This is profound, I thought.  When watching a movie, I’m inclined to think it’s about something other than the plot; when reading I’m inclined to be skeptical; in drawings and paintings, I’m inclined to look at the so-called negative space (an inclination well-documented in these posts) ; in general, it’s all about illusions.  Or as Goethe says in Faust:  “Alles Vergängliche  ist nur ein Gleichnis”…Am farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben.”  (All that must disappear is but a parable…We live our life amongst refracted color.)

Those lines are wafting through my brain whenever I contemplate art. Add to that the fact that in May when I was looking at this sculpture-shadow, I was reading “A Short History of the Shadow” by Victor Stoichita.

Well, I had to meet the artist.  I did and she talked about her work.————————–

13SAICsophiekahn1

Stay tuned.

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1306KumiloStillLife1It’s well known that eyewitness accounts don’t carry much weight in a courtroom.  That’s because what you see is affected by your emotional state, your past experience, your desire to see order and on and on all the way to what you had for breakfast that day.  Well, you might say, that’s to be expected 1306ColleenStillLifebecause you’re witnessing a horrible scene, like a murder or a collision.

But what about the ol’ still life, a mess o’ drapery and a heap of pots!  Same caveat.  Five people in a tranquil setting on a lovely  June day will produce five very different takes.  It’s always amazing. Always thrilling.

1306LinneStillLife1306MegStillLife

And a wide view, with much information, perhaps too much…

1306JanetStillLife1…cropped for more tension, compositional cohesion and immediacy.  Notice how with the following, cropped view, you are more drawn into the scene. You feel more alert and you’re more inclined to pay  attention to the placement of lines and shapes, asking yourself “why is it like that?”

1306JanetStillLife1cropped

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13BoyerrGrnSquVaseArrow

I encourage my painting students to work big.  Working on a large canvas helps you think in the modernist mode.  You’re more inclined to work with a big brush and a big brush makes an assertive, juicy, gestural stroke.  When you work small, you’re more inclined to think “decorative,”  more inclined to want to please someone else and more inclined to adhere to what you think are rules.

So, go for the big picture!

Bruce Boyer has definitely been converted to the big canvas.  He paints on 30 x 40.  Yesss!!  Because he works in oil—slow drying—he prepares the underpainting ahead of class.  The tones he chooses for the underpainting are rich sepia browns, reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance, or equally serious deep blues.

Then the shapes appear.  How?  I don’t know, exactly.  I do know, however, that whatever you put down on a canvas will trigger an association.  In the above painting, the green square came first.  The painting takes over.  From step to step, it lets you know what’s needed.  Boyer seems to be investigating the illusion of planes and spacial depth.  Notice that as soon as you think you know where you are, situated in credible space, your attention wonders to some element in the painting that throws your certainty out the window.  Endlessly fascinating.

When, as a painter, you’ve hit upon a game like that, it’s good to keep poking at its possibilities, variations and mysteries.  How does this work?  How does my mind work when I do this?

13BoyerRedSnakeFinalPlusBlueThat’s Boyer’s 40 x 30 painting, starting with bluish-black underpainting.  And here are two earlier stages for you to puzzle over. Notice how your attention moves through the painting.

13BoyerRedSnake113BoyerRedSnakeFinal

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