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Red and Rational

This painting by Keven Wilder is three feet square. It is monochrome; painted with only two tools, a wide brush and a wide squeegee. And it is immediately appealing.

Monochrome: the artist used only one color, red, and then the same red mixed with white for a paler, heathery red near the border.

The red was applied with a flat 3” brush. Then came the squeegee.  While the red was still wet (this is oil paint) the 3” squeegee, loaded with white paint, deposited white paint in the center of the painting, scraping some red into it in the process.

Appealing. The painting is immediately moving and intriguing.  How can that be? How can something be intriguing, when it can be described so easily, even mechanically?

The first reason is that in all cultures red is perceived as emotionally evocative. Red is sensuous:  enveloping, round, cozy, sweet, ripe, luscious, delicious.*

The second reason is that the strokes of the brush and squeegee are the opposite of sensuous.  They are abrupt, quick, random, indifferent, angular, flat, rational, raggedy.

These two qualities, red and rational,  are contradictory.  That contradiction creates drama in this painting.  You can deconstruct this all you want.  But the painting is not a well-argued paragraph in a debate or a dissertation at the Sorbonne.  It’s a paradox.

The paradox is to be inhabited.  And once you’re in it, you’ll be scintillating and lose your self.

*I want to talk about red in greater depth in future posts: symbolism, psychology, history, language.

Next, let’s run this painting through different hues.  What’s special about red?  We’ll see about that!

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) is most famous, arguably, as having been the teacher of Rembrandt (1606-1663). Rembrandt was brought up Protestant, Lastman was Catholic. This is noteworthy because it shows that even in religiously torn Holland, people—artists, at least—still managed to respect each other.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century involved a lot of violence, for example, the destruction of stained glass windows, tapestries, paintings and statues in Catholic churches so that these stripped down buildings could then be converted to Protestant houses of worship. Holland became officially Protestant with Catholics being restricted to worshipping in private homes. How did this religious turmoil affect art and artists?  Drastically.   Painters, sculptors and craftsmen lost their primary client, the Catholic Church.

To work as an artist (to teach and to sell your work) you had to be a member of the Guild of St. Luke.  They met regularly and discussed art and business.  You can imagine these discussions when the big client was no longer there.  Paintings with religious themes were no longer being ordered.

Well, what about the genre called history painting? That was still popular. All the more so, since the shipping industry was booming, merchants were getting rich, built themselves huge houses and, ta-tah, needed paintings for their expansive walls. Given the religious-political climate, these had to lean towards the secular.

History painting gave the artist the opportunity to present edifying tableaus with figures, both clad and not-so-much, congregating in idyllic landscapes.  This required some acquaintance with Greek and biblical mythology. The owner of such paintings could throw a dinner party and feel cultured.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague recently acquired the Lastman painting we’re looking at here.  Their website offers a nice entry into the painting:

https://www.mauritshuis.nl/en/explore/the-collection/pieter-lastman/

What fascinates me about this painting is the composition.  (No surprise to the reader who has followed this blog for even only a short time).

Shall we?

I’ve asked a couple of people what they see as the most prominent thing in this painting.  One said, the man on the left in that long red coat.  The other said, the huge man on the right, striking that showy pose on that too-small horse.  I agreed with them.  My attention was also drawn to these large figures – but only momentarily.   Then my focus landed in the middle and got stuck there.

Look! Lastman put a white circle smack-dab into the middle of his painting.  What was he thinking?!

If he had made that headband brown it would not stand out.  If he wanted it white but had made the background figure’s tunic light, then there would be no white circle to command our attention.  What was he thinking?

Not only is the white circle exactly in the middle, two diagonal lines (pink 3 and 4) lead directly to it.  Lastman contorts the figure along line 3 so that the leg line leads our eye directly to the white circle.  On the other side, along line 4, the woman’s garment is forced up to conform to a line that leads to the white circle. And then it leads along the dog’s paws, perfectly.

What was he thinking?

The picture purports to illustrate John the Baptist preaching.  There he is.  You look at him because, well, because you’re supposed to.  The title of the painting tells you to.  Then your eye wanders to the more colorful, theatrical characters in the crowd and then, wham, there’s the circle in the middle.

This is not a photo.  Did he work at this carefully, deliberately constructed composition to create an effect in our minds?  But what would that be? Why would he want us to keep coming back to that white circle in the middle? Maybe he didn’t think about that.  Maybe it was a joke. Maybe he was jaded and cynical.

The painting measures only 24” x 36.” Twenty-seven people, a horse (or three) and a dog are crammed into that small frame. Maybe, as the article on the Mauritshuis page says, he wanted to show how well he could draw anatomy in difficult poses and from different angles. Maybe that was good enough. It was a living. The nouveau riches bought it.

His pupil, Rembrandt, created paintings with mystery and depth.  We stand before them, fall silent, are drawn into them. They pose questions that we cannot answer. They silence us. And we come back to Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and etchings over and over, to be silenced.  We never say, maybe he was jaded and cynical.

More paintings by Lastman:

https://www.google.com/search?q=pieter+lastman&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=uVlE-pYGwlWo8M%253A%252CjZbTIFugtDKwJM%252C%252Fm%252F07hgdr&usg=AI4_-kSDtwmzQCXWf1jxlBs5IvYZWq-qjg&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiH1ZiRvbTgAhURTawKHe3RBkEQ_h0wDnoECAUQDg#imgrc=y5URQBjXaAGrAM

For paintings by Rembrandt, try:

https://www.google.com/search?source=hp&ei=dytiXJnbKOrF_QbVi4mQCA&q=rembrandt+paintings&oq=rembrandt&gs_l=psy-ab.1.2.35i39j46i39j0l4j0i131j0i67.2927.4915..8996…0.0..0.179.1357.0j10……0….1..gws-wiz…..0..46j46i131j46i67.jqZ9b3kqCm8

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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This how you last saw this painting.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2018/10/29/that-big-brush/

It has a firm solid base.  We like that, don’t we.  We like stability.  A solid object is good to behold, looks like it’s been here forever and will be here for another millennium.  Hmmm.

I suggested we turn the painting over.

Look what’s happened here.  It now feels like something suspended.  Still well-constructed, but it conveys so much more energy.  Of course, you can’t have stability and suspension at the same time.  This is a deeply personal issue. With the feeling of suspension comes the feeling of energy.  We like energy, but energy means movement or potential movement and that means “no” to stability.

Cassie Buccellato, oil on canvas, ~5’ x 5’.

The artist currently is showing her paintings at WeWork, 111 W Illinois St, Chicago,.  (312) 818-3060

https://www.wework.com/buildings/111-w-illinois-st–chicago–IL?utm_source=Google&utm_campaign=Organic&utm_medium=Listings

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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The box you saw a couple of posts earlier is now fully integrated into the painting. In full frontal view its third dimension disappears.  But notice the added wit—feathers!

Having completed the painting, the artist now has to name the thing. When she walks her dog by the lake, Terry Fohrman takes pictures of sidewalks with their cuneiform cracks and collects found objects like Robert Rauschenberg. In general, she feels appalled by our culture’s wastefulness.  The title came easy: “Don’t Throw It Away.”

I look forward to seeing this piece displayed on a wall.  Here you see it leaning against a wall, which requires a certain effort on the part of the viewer.  You have to ignore the floor and the baseboard.  As you put up with that task, you may feel that thinking and painting “inside the box” was/has been not such a bad idea after all.  Right. Following the rules is the common thing to do, it’s easy, which is why “thinking outside the box is rare.”  And we call that “art.”

You can see the earlier stage of this piece at

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2018/10/29/art-outside-the-box-and-with-the-box/

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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That Big Brush

Notice how big that brush is.  And what kind of brush is that, anyway? Is that even a painting brush? No, it’s not.   It’s  a brush used by wall-paper hangers.  Are you allowed to paint with a brush that’s not made for painting?  Yes, Virginia, you’re allowed to paint with any ol’ brush you can find. Or, for that matter, use any ol’ tool you can lift to transport paint onto that canvas.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) said that when she was getting into the NY art scene in the 50’s, it was taboo to buy your brushes in an art supply store.  You bought your brushes in a hardware store!

I remind my students to use the biggest brush they can. We buy our brushes in packages, yes, in Hardware and, yes, at the bulk price.  The smallest brush I like to see is 3”. 

The artist making this large painting is using only one brush, about 6 inches wide. Notice that she uses this one brush for every effect, from broad fat stokes to thin faint lines. There are two benefits from this loyalty to one big brush: a) the painting achieves a unified look because it’s made with only one tool and b) the artist can work in a more relaxed way. No switching, no calculating, no deciding.  She works gracefully in tune with her instrument. Harmony all around!

See the finished painting in the next blog.

Cassie Buccellato,  Painting on L’huile paper.  (Huile is French for oil.  It’s sturdy, museum grade paper that can take oil or acrylic.)

For Helen Frankenthaler:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhM5nw_skNQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ij5PDIZ1h6k

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Frankenthaler

I love this next video. It shows her pouring paint from a bucket and using a hardware store brush:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9kfufFMRvg

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Our studio at the Evanston Art Center faces south. Needless to say, we greet an overcast sky with a sigh of relief. On a sunny morning, we pull the shades.

When the shades are pulled, the sun coming through the cracks creates a dramatic pattern on the floor. Now, you can ignore that, seeing it as literally what it is, the sun coming through the cracks.

But you can also go into exercise mode.  You can switch your perceptual apparatus to seeing the whole picture.  Instead of labeling what you see (floor, light, people, easels),  you can flatten what’s hitting your retina.  Yes, flatten.  It’s what you do when you paint an object (three-dimensional) on a canvas (two-dimensional).  You create a composition on a flat surface.

Well, you can also do that as a composition exercise—whenever and wherever you are.  As a further aid, there’s your phone camera. You’re never without it. The camera flattens everything you point at into a two-dimensional composition.  Thank you, Mr. Gates, Mr. Jobs, et.al.  You’re never without the opportunity to see at this more conscious level.

What’s extra wonderful about those light strips on the floor is that they appear as the most striking, most important thing in the composition.  They read as positive space.  Ha, gotcha.  It’s always thrilling when your expectations are overturned.  Negative space reads like positive space.  And people, who normally count as positive space, are relegated to the shadowy part of the background.

You may now slide that insight into the light of day.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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Here we have a painting (with mixed medium) that feels almost done.  Not quite.  It needs something, but what?  When stuck or undecided, turn the painting in another direction to get a fresh look.  I suggested turning it upside down.

Ah! Now the dense “heavy” part is at the top, which means it is unstable, it has a ways to fall: it has energy. So much better.  But, still, the painting as a whole needed something.

What to do?  The artist snuck out of the studio, walked around the building and came back with a box.  Ha! She plopped it down in just the right spot, the spot that had invited “more.” Voila.

I don’t like to say “perfect” about anything. But the way that box nested there and especially how its left flap formed a triangle with the paintings lines, that was too good to be anything but uncanny. It happens.

In the next class the artist integrated the box with some splashed paint.  Stay tuned.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2017/03/05/black-black-black/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/in-half/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/09/29/popping-out-of-the-frame/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/09/28/found-objects/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/09/27/shapes-and-light/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/exhibit-at-ethical-humanist-society/

 

Painting in acrylic with mixed medium by Terry Fohrman, 48”x24”+.

 

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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