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Posts Tagged ‘Beatrice’

Beatrice K. finished this painting yesterday.  The collage that inspired it was quite small, 3 inches on the long side, and itself a result of cropping from a much larger collage.  While collaging, she found this gem in the corner of a large collage measuring about 11 x 17. (See previous posts under “collage”)   It was so powerful that it had to be painted in large format and its odd dimensions had to be accommodated.   Working out the proportions and considering that the painting had to be carry-able, the final painting was going to be 18 x 32 inches.  But that size canvas is not readily available.  What to do?  Build the custom support out of high grade ply wood and reinforcing borders.  A new adventure, and well worth the trip to the lumber yard.

When we work from a collage we don’t slavishly copy.  The paint has a mind of its own and we enter into a conversation with it.  So, when it drips, the artist has to decide whether to honor that drip or to erase it.  The drip at #3 adds vitality and immediacy to the painting. It adds the elusive dimension of time:  here’s something in the process of happening in a random way. We know the drips must be dry by now but at the same time they convey the feeling that they could go on.  This note of uncertainty draws us in.

It also acts as a chaotic counterpoint to the otherwise layered, rational-appearing composition.  Black (3) is the topmost layer.  That’s clear in relation to 1 and to 4, where at 8 the artist created a faint backlighting to create the feeling that 3 is floating.  We can see that 2 overlaps 1, but at 6 things get disorienting.  3 is on top of 2, but at the same time 2 drips over 3 and therefore 2 overlaps 3.  Oops, not so clear and rational.  Where are we?  Can’t figure that one out, so the viewer’s mind drifts and most likely zooms up to 5, where the contours are clear.  What a relief, we know what’s going on there!  That rectangle is nicely delineated, has a white sliver around it and a prominent white wedge leading up to it and on top of all that, it’s got texture.  How nice.  It’s restful and clear.  Oh, but wait, 5 relates to 4, by virtue of being the same color.  If 4 is the bottom-most layer and 5 is the top-most layer, how can they be connected, of the same cloth, so to speak?  The artist has created a visual paradox that is both pleasing and disquieting.  There’s nothing to do but to go into a visual mode and let the experience take a hold of you.  This is how art works. And I’ll have to say that again at the end of this essay.

What about #7?  What’s going on there?  #7 is stippled with the tip of the brush.  It forms a textured swarm over the already atmospheric #2.  The swarm of #7 takes the form of a wedge and therefore relates to the white wedge at the right.  Once you see that, you also see the wedge under #5.  We have a play on this triangle-form  that keeps the eye moving from one to the other.

There is an even larger repetition of a motif and that’s the L form.  We have it in the yellow at left and the large mass of black.  Even the turquoise in #4 intimates the L form and the burned sienna of #2  suggests that underneath the whole black thing there’s a massive L in reddish brown.  The repetition of a motif in a painting, as in music, focuses the attention, keeps us in the piece.

None of this was articulated before the collage was chosen as material for a painting.  When that little collage bit was framed with white strips of paper, there was a gasp of recognition:  this was something worth exploring.  The understanding of why it was brilliant—all that came later, in the doing.  This how art works.

(I use numbers to refer to passages in the painting in order to make the discussion clear and simple.  I want to avoid “artspeak.”  I recommend that you read through this and then go back and look at the painting—without numbers—just look.)

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

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Creating a painting from a collage has a liberating effect, in that the process allows you to experiment freely with color and textural techniques.  You can study the emotional impact of color relationships and the expressive effects of brush handling without having to worry about verisimilitude since you’re not depicting any part of visible reality “out there.”   This 20×16 painting, inspired by a collage, afforded the student/artist Bea K. the opportunity to work with a limited palette of black, white, purple and green. But much of the compelling effect of this painting derives from her handling of edges, both hard and soft, definitive  and transitional.  (See “collage” under Topics.)

The next project, working from a photo of a willow tree and a lagoon, added the challenge of credibly representing a real landscape while at the same time remaining in the painterly mode that governed the earlier collage inspired  painting.

In fact, this new project demanded even greater freedom and experimentation. No element in this painting is the result of coloring-in an outlined form.  Everything is painted directly and that is what makes it lively. The finger of water in the distant part of the lagoon (3) had to be painted with one sure sweep of the brush. The willow tree would only be willowy if the paint were allowed to drip (2 and 5).  The dripping of the paint has its own wildness but at the same time it has to be controlled.

This dialog between chaos and control is repeated in the composition itself.  The spit of land (1) has a definite shape and dominates the right half of the painting while the willow tree (2) conveys total chaos, not only in its organic form but also in the very way it’s painted and it covers the left side of the painting. The parabola shape of the green meadow (1) is repeated over and over:  the sky under the drips of the willow bows (5),  the  sliver of lagoon (3),  and the island on the left (4).   This repetition of a motif, though not obvious or mechanical, focuses the attention of the viewer, like a melody in a song or a refrain in poetry.

How about putting in some people, maybe under the tree at 4?  No need.  Birds in the sky?  No need.  The painting does not need any trickery, no sentimentality, no cliché.

The painting is restrained in its color scheme: green, blue, a sigh of pink in the sky, some sepia and a stroke of deep purple in the shadow at lower left.   It’s quite an accomplishment to evoke this delicate mood and at the same time to work with clear formal elements.

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

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A collage can be a work in itself or it can serve as a stimulus for another work in a different medium, like painting.  In my landscape painting class this past term we took the second option.  For a discussion of the first step, the actual collage work, see post for November 15, “Colliding with Collage.”  That class was a revelation to all students because up to that point they had painted fairly representationally.  Now this!  After an intense three-hour session of composing with snippets of color paper, the students were eager to realize these compositions in painting.

To transfer a 3” x 5” idea to a 24” x 30” canvas we used an old, well-established method.  In the Renaissance, the master would make a drawing on a piece of paper.  His assistant then drew a grid over the drawing.  Then he drew another grid on the wall that was to hold the final mural.  A square on the drawing’s grid might be 1 inch wide and might correspond to 8 inches on the mural wall.  Similarly, for my students, the 1 inch on the 3 x 5 collage corresponded to about 5 inches on the 20 x24 canvas.  The ratio was, obviously, not exact, but adjustments were made.  It was a creative process throughout.

I want to emphasize that the 3 x 5 passage was selected from an 8½ x 11 collage. That selection process in itself was quite exiting and revealing. Once the drawing was transferred to the canvas in pencil outlines, color selections and painting techniques concentrated the student/painter’s energies.  This is not a mechanical process.  Never a dull moment.

The work I’m highlighting here is by Beatrice K.  The red as a background will pop up again in other students’ work.  The red was an accident.  I happened to have a supply of gently used red construction paper to recycle—happy grist for the collage mill.  It turned out to be a fortuitous accident. Red is a color that is perceived to move forward. It’s conventionally used as a foreground color. But here it was used as background.  The effect is that it is neither or both.  Our perception of the red shifts, like an optical illusion, between foreground and background.  This makes for a dynamic visual experience.

Let’s look at the painting from left to right.  We can see three over-lapping shapes:  the beautifully nuanced orange-to cream sphere is over the brown squarish patch, which is clearly on top of the purple leaf-shape with the green-orange mirage inside it.  And the next step in this progression into the center of the painting takes us to the red, which must be the base, background color.  But the purple recedes visually and the red pops up, negating our expectation.  This is exiting.

There are echoing shapes.  For example, the purple leaf shape shares the canvas with other leaf shapes, such as the green-yellow one in the lower right corner, and you can easily find others.

There is also a play on edges:  the wonderful ambiguity in the upper left corner with black and white; the purple leaf’s white backlighting; the swan’s-neck shape on the right appears to be on top of the red background when we look at its left edge, but on its right edge,  the red appears to be on top of the white.  Once again, the red is coming and going.  You can also see the interplay of sharp edged and fuzzy, graduated ones. This guides you in out of various degrees of certainty and disorientation.  Without telling you what you’re looking at or what you’re “supposed to think” the painting engages you visually and thereby subdues your need to verbalize.  It keeps you alert, like a hike through new territory.  Even though for the purpose of this little exposition, I used words like “leaf” and “swan,” you will not get stuck in any interpretation anchored in these concrete images.  The excellence of this painting will not pin you down with a facile interpretation.  It will be fresh and offer new mysteries every time you glance at it.

The original collage was chosen on intuitive grounds.  It needed to be realized in paint—and in a large format—to offer up these wonderful mysteries and revelations.  Snippets of paper, ha!  Never underestimate the power of scraps and their coincidental meetings on a studio table.

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