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HenryRaeburnI like to present my students with art work that feels modern but was actually done centuries ago.  Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) was a Scottish portrait painter with a modern, romantic sensibility.  In our fourth drawing class we were working from Raeburn’s portrait of one Robert Brown of Newhall (1790’s), about whom I know nothing, but Raeburn must have seen him as self-confident and introverted at the same time.

Now, the catch is that we drew Mr. Brown upside down from a b/w Xerox copy.

HenryRaeburnBWusd

This is a difficult assignment!

It’s difficult because, even looking at it upside down, you know it’s a face and that means you want to do it justice.  You want to get it right. You know, for example, that the grayish smudge you’re looking at in the Xerox copy is actually representing an eye. An eye is a highly intelligent feature and it’s super important in getting a likeness.

20190905_114033

As you can see, this student could not resist the temptation of drawing a clear face with clearly articulated features.  It’s interesting that Robert Brown’s keen intelligence somehow comes through in Justin’s line drawing.

But, alas, the assignment was not to produce a line drawing but to observe and duplicate the various shades of gray. So difficult, takes so much patience and detachment.  We will have more exercises like this to practice.

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

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Gainsborough

As some of you know, I recently moved to Indianapolis.  I am now happy to let everyone know that I have recently started a drawing class in nearby Columbus, In.  Columbus is famous for its world class modern architecture with a tourism center kept busy by an international crowd lining up to see those eighty (!!) famous buildings.  This city of 47,000 has a branch of Indiana University but it did not offer a drawing class for the public until—tatah!—I jumped in to fill that vital void.

Our Columbus drawing class meets in the library–designed by I.M. Pei.  The class, called “Drawing as Seeing,” has met only four times so far.  I’ll start by showing the work done in our third class. Ready?

Our topic was “Markmaking,” which is a scribble/shading technique that is as individual and unique as your thumb print.  After a brief demo with students looking over my shoulder, I sent everybody to their seats with a Xerox copy of Thomas Gainsborough’s masterful drawing called “Landscape with Horsemen.”  You can see it at the top of this post.

What happened in class was highly rewarding and led to the discussion of an important topic:  “incompletion” in a work of art.

ShwetaGainsborough

The time allotted for this exercise was only an hour and that proved to be an advantage because it meant that students had to leave with their drawings incomplete.

JudyGainsborough

I held up all the drawings and introduced the idea of Incompletion as a topic in modern art.  I suggested that it’s precisely because these drawings are incomplete that they are so engaging.

MaryGainsborough

Incompletion in a work of art reaches us with evocative power. It engages us—paradoxically, perhaps—more than an image that’s carefully worked out in every detail.

Katlandscape

The next drawing was done by a left-handed student.  I had copied him a mirror image of the original Gainsborough to work from because the left hand moves in a different radius than the right hand.

JustinGainsborough

I reminded students that they had the option of leaving the drawing as is, “incomplete,” or doing more work on it at home.

MaryLandscpe1

In the next class, this teacher was gratified that none of the students had “completed” the drawing.  Every student seems to have gotten the modern bug.

We will get back to this Topic of Incompletion many more times.

We are off to a promising start!

Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Gainsborough

Columbus, Indiana https://columbus.in.us/architecture-story/

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While we were analyzing Bellini’s Madonna of the Trees, someone in the class said, but these paintings were not made to be analyzed, they were made as objects of devotion.  That is true, but as artists we have to analyze how these objects of devotion were constructed.

You can see how strongly this drawing emphasizes the horizontal and vertical axes.  The drawing has conviction because of that.  In a weaker composition the psychological focal points would be the faces.  But here, without that easy emotional appeal, the drawing holds our attention by the force of that vertical and horizontal intersection.

It would be great to see Bellini’s sketches for this painting.  In the Renaissance, preliminary drawings for paintings and frescoes tend to be more energetic than the final product. It’s uncanny. The paintings will  look  16th century and the sketches will look modern.

The last element added in this sketch was the background scribble in the upper left, over the woman’s right shoulder.  I say “background,” but it’s no less important than any other scribble in the drawing.  I think those last lines, without representing anything or being part of the figures, make the drawing complete.

Without them, we would merely have an attempted illustration. With the “background scribble” we have a complete page, where, in the modern sense, positive and negative space are equally worth looking at.

Jeanne Mueller, graphite on paper, ~14” x 12”

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/04/22/bellinis-pleasing-tricks/

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One of the themes in these past few posts has been the challenge to look critically at much admired paintings by much admired artists.

Giovanni Bellini is one of the celebrated Venetian painters of the 16th century. At first glance, his Madonna of the Trees seems harmonious, pleasing and perfect.

But look again.  First, the woman has no right shoulder. Her right arm would have to be attached to that (missing) shoulder.  Therefore, quite a bit of anatomy would have to be visible behind the baby.  Second, the drapery over the right forearm abruptly stops behind the baby’s ankles. You would expect it to circle around, but no, it mysteriously breaks off behind the baby’s crossed ankles. This abruptness would be more obvious if the legs were separated, so he makes this plump newborn stand up straight and cross his ankles. If you consent to the missing shoulder, why not also accept absurd drapery and a posturing newborn!

As I’m writing this, I keep looking at the reproduction of this painting in a book.  Even after my analysis and my full realization of Bellini’s trickery, I find this painting totally appealing.

Once that happens, I have to figure out why that happens, of course.  The appeal of this painting, I think, comes from the rational organization of the composition. It’s as if your brain said, how can something so carefully laid out not make sense?  As for the interrupted drapery around the arm, notice how the curve of that cloth is echoed in the left elbow’s drapery, forming a perfect ellipse.  There you are, your brain says, I rest my case.

For more on how your brain accepts trickery like this, including optical illusions, see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.  Readable, relevant, highly recommended.

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

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Every language has a word for three colors: black, white and what would you think?  Yellow, mauve, turquoise, chartreuse, magenta, grey, beige, orange, purple?   Nope,  RED.  Oh, of course, you say.

There are languages that lump all other colors into one word, something like “colorful.”

Why would we single out the color red above all others? Look at strawberries, apples, cherries.  The color red evolved in nature, in fruit specifically, simultaneously with our love of sweetness.  Ripe fruit tends to be red and sweet.  Think strawberry.  Our evolved taste buds longing for sweetness—and, therefore, red—lead us to eat the strawberry.  It’s the strawberry’s way of spreading its seeds and thereby assuring its proliferation.

But we think red is important because it satisfies our craving for sweetness. The red fruit is a source of nourishment and calories to burn and therefore is important for our survival.

It’s not that your mouth is watering when you see red in a painting.  The association is more subtle. Red is deeply connected to survival.  So, red has gravitas.

Test other colors for gravitas:

Not so much, wouldn’t you agree.

 

 

 

 

Again, this exercise in seeing is brought to you courtesy Adobe Photoshop.

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

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https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/03/03/red-and-repetition/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/20/green-anyone/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/those-blues/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/red-and-rational/

You know by now that I like to ferret out why a painting or drawing holds my attention.  In an abstract painting this is particularly puzzling because no reference, no narrative, no memory is evoked.  Then how is it that these bold non-referential brush marks can be so compelling?

There are two factors. One is composition, the other is color.

The composition here is based on repetition.  There are three “brackets” of different size, orientation and articulation. By articulation I mean how clearly the “bracket motif” is stated. The small one at upper right looks like an emergent, potential bracket.  The largest one of the three is more elaborate than the mid-size one at upper left.  The artist, I’m sure did not analyze her process this way, but rather painted intuitively.  And that’s because the repetition of forms is so compelling in a composition.  We like repetition, rhythm and rhyme in poetry and music. And also in our visual art.

What about that yellow dot? Go back up to the original painting and notice how your eye goes back to this tiny element and how fascinated you are by it. That’s it!  The small yellow dot breaks the repetition, it adds a high note.

The second factor is color, which will come up in the next post.

As I was working on this analysis, I randomly pulled a book off the shelf.  It was a book of poetry by Billy Collins, “Aimless Love.”  I opened it at random and read:

Lucky for some of us,

poetry is a place where both are true at once,

where meaning only one thing at a time spells malfunction.

Cassie Buccellato, painting in oil, 6′ x 4-1/4′

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It’s also called “The Man with the Blue Sleeve.” Titian (1488-1576) painted this portrait around 1510. It’s a good example of the High Renaissance’s self-confidence, the assertion of the dignity of humanness.  The power of his ego is not coming at us in a front view, which would look aggressive or defensive. No need for that.  This man is so self-assured and self-contained that he can engage your full attention with only a sideways glance. The bone of his elbow is pointing at us, but we don’t see any bones or muscles that might intimidate us.  No need for a display of brute force.   This man’s power is deeper, beyond  your peasant understanding.  The sleeve is quilted, it’s soft: poetically anchored power.

If this were a portrait of a member of the high aristocracy or the ruling class we would surely know his real name. The fact that we don’t, suggests he was of the rising middle class, a merchant perhaps. This is the confident face of the future.

That confidence is conveyed in the composition itself:  the triangle, the most stable geometrical shape. We’ve encountered the triangle composition before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rafael squeezes his Madonnas into triangles to satisfy his client, who needs to assure his congregation that this theology is stable, eternal and unbudgeable.

In Titian’s Ariosto notice how pronounced the triangle is.  A black cape is draped over the far shoulder to clarify the two equal sides of the isosceles triangle.  We can’t know what the extra black fabric or fur over the left forearm is.  I marked it in pink.  Whatever that brushstroke represents, it’s important compositionally.  It gets the eye moving upward along that side of the triangle.  In laying out the composition with both clarity and ambiguity, Titian is thinking as a modernist, as one of us.

(This painting by Titian, 32” x 26,” is in the National Gallery, London.)

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Green Anyone?

In the early 2000’s green was a fashionable color, meaning it was associated with romantic love.  In Steve Martin’s 2005 movie Shopgirl (he wrote the screenplay) the walls of the shopgirl’s apartment were green. I remember thinking, how odd, I thought green walls were for hospitals.

So it goes with color associations.  We talked about that earlier, in the post about blue.

There have been paintings of solid black (Barnett Newman), solid blue (Yves Klein), solid white (Bruce Nauman) and solid red (Malevich). But solid green?

In the 1990’s the Tate showed large solid color paintings by Maria Lalic, including a green that is, however, not applied evenly and flat but thinly striped. So we can’t count it.  https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/maria-lalic-2639

What is it about green? Why has nobody made a solid green painting? Kazimir Malevich would not have shown a Green Square next to his Red Square in 1915.

On the internet you can look up “color therapy,” and read that green is the most therapeutic color: “This is the most basic color of all in healing. It is the color which you always use first and last.” https://www.aetherius.org/healing-yourself-and-others/color-therapy/    Is that why walking in parks and woods is restful? But then, consider that there’s more hitting the senses in the woods than green-green-green.

A given color will affect us differently in different contexts.

Try this.

It’s 3 feet square.  In what room of your house would you like to see this?  Really?  For how long?

Next, imagine walking unassumingly into a museum or gallery and there it is, it 8’ x 8.’  Your whole visual field is filled, it envelops you, nothing else exists. Here you have green and its complementary color, red, for maximum contrast.  The Malevich juxtaposition in 1915 would have been comical, but here the contrast may give you a profound jolt.

Now let’s take another break from color.  What happens when you switch abruptly between the Renaissance sensibility and the modern sensibility in which we’ve been immersing ourselves here? We will now toggle back again from 2000 to 1500.

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/black/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/red-and-rational/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/19/those-blues/

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

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When you’re being paid to get a message across, composition is your friend.

Florence, ~1500.  Sandro Botticelli has been commissioned to make a painting in which a baby—quite literally–is the message. The culture Botticelli lives in is built around this theological message. He’s well acquainted with the usual cast of characters, will assemble them again for this painting and he knows he has to work out a composition that makes this baby the focus of attention, again.

Botticcelli yawns, takes out his sketch pad and draws straight lines and arches.  Those are the most important tools for his composition and really all he needs: straight lines and arches.  The arches will enclose the space around the baby.  The straight lines will converge on the baby.  Botticelli concentrates on his scribbling for two minutes.  Gotcha, he says.  He means the viewer.  The viewer’s gaze will not wander, will constantly be led to the point of convergence, the baby. The client, who is powerful and wealthy, better pay him well for this fine work.

It was the custom for a master like Botticelli to have assistants that were trained by the master to specialize in rendering specific parts of a painting. One student might specialize in painting drapery, one in skies, and one in vegetation.   When the master’s name is followed by “and workshop” we can’t be sure that the master actually worked on the painting. It may mean that he only drew the initial sketch (called “cartoon”) with the all-important composition lines and then assigned his assistants (his workshop) to flesh it out on canvas.  It may mean that he painted only the faces and hands and then turned the painting over to his trained assistants.  But it may also mean that the workshop crew had been trained so well by him that they could work in his style without him being present at all.

As for creating the cartoon, that was the main job and usually performed by the master. But, as you can see, once you knew where the focus had to be—and that came with the all-pervasive theology of the time—you reached for your composition tools and, voila, the thing fell together: arches and converging lines.

What about anatomy?  Well, anatomy has to become subservient to composition. Joseph’s left arm is too small and Mary’s right forearm cannot be attached to an upper arm. Both  are squeezed into place somehow. St. John’s right leg is not attached to his pelvis.  The bodies of the two adults are hulking and humongous in relation to their tiny heads.  The new born weighs about forty pounds. But no matter. We accept it all.  Why? Because the composition tells us so.  Enveloping arches and converging lines focus the mind.  The mind loves that.

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Those Blues

Can you isolate a color from your memory or your culture or art history?

Just the word Blues triggers an association in your mind.  “Feelin’ blue”–you hear the music in your head.

Our culture and history are loaded (and weighed down) with the symbolism of certain colors.   In 15th century France red was the color of power, as in for the king; green was the color of love; blue was for the Virgin Mary. But in Renaissance Italy Mary is often shown wearing blue and red.  Symbolism falls apart easily when you stop to look and think about it even a little bit.

Consider the colors in flags, like the popular red and blue.  Any given country will have historic and symbolic explanations for the color of the stripes in its flag.  Same color, different symbols for different flags.

I’ve read that blue is the most widely loved color throughout the world.  No symbols necessary.

But here’s the thing. Any attempt to pin a color down to meaning, symbolism or cultural propriety has to fail.  The reason for this is simple:  color does not exist by itself, in isolation.  Any color will always be seen next to another color, i.e. in the context of another color.

Back to the hue called blue.  There are many variations of blue.

Does the blue at the top of this post remind you of uniforms?  Official orders? The proper way to do things here?  The energetic brushwork we saw in the red version of this painting, the original painting by Keven Wilder, seems to get dampened by this cold, military blue.  Doesn’t it?  I can’t be sure.  Color is subjective.

If you mix ultramarine blue with a little alizarin crimson, you get a purplish blue, but still blue, a so-called warm blue:

If you mix cerulean blue, which is already cool…

with a bit of yellow, you’ll get a very cool, even greenish, blue, but still blue. Like this:

After that, things get more complicated depending on what wall color you hang your blue painting or  whether the painting next to it will have red, yellow or orange in it, for example.

We’ve looked at this before.  https://artamaze.wordpress.com/?s=albers

The groundbreaking authority on the relativity of color is Josef Albers. For an eye popping introduction, go to: https://www.google.com/search?q=josef+albers&tbm=isch&source=hp&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjw48eBpMbgAhUHTawKHbmvDdEQiR56BAgEEBU&biw=1222&bih=815

Josef Albers is an essential teacher and companion in any study of color.  Keep his little book Homage to the Square at your side. He won’t simplify anything for you.  On the contrary, he will show you how infinite and subtle the perception of color is.  It may drive you a little crazy.  Ahhhh! Color!

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/18/black/

https://artamaze.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/red-and-rational/

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

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