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Posts Tagged ‘collage’

This is the third of four posts about the process that starts with a collage as a source of inspiration and ends with a painting.  The early steps of the process were outlined in the November 15 post, titled “Colliding with Collage.”  We’ve seen how Beatrice and Naomi adapted the process to make their paintings.  Now, let’s look at Elaine’s adventure.

From the several collages Elaine had made, she was most attracted to the red one.  She brought a 24 x 30 canvas to class.  The red paint she started to work with immediately appealed to her and was never changed throughout the painting process.  It remained a given to which the other color choices had to relate.  When all the elements from the collage were roughly painted in, we talked about the use of a horizon line as an orienting device.  There was no such line in the collage, but the painting seemed to call for a horizon.  It came about, not as a line, but as a differentiation in hue, the top being more orange than the red ground below.  While the elements in the collage referred to clouds, skyscrapers, and roads, once these were rendered in paint on canvas, they lost their literalness and seemed to demand their own painterly existence.  This became Elaine’s struggle, a challenge none of the other students had to face.

The first breakthrough came when the cluster of black vertical rectangles achieved a coherence and completion that set the visual language for the whole painting.  When a painting has found its language, the artist is more than half way there.  Now the painting has taken a stand; it’s become a partner in a dialogue.  From this point on, we’re merely solving problems.  Merely, ha.

The blue elements on the top easily adjusted to the pictorial language Elaine had found, but the other elements did not.  Yet, they were there, filled a lot of space, and had also taken up a lot of her time.  For those reasons it was difficult to give them up.  If they were eliminated, there would be a large “empty space,” a concept that sounds chilly and lazy.  As it turned out, however the “empty space” adds drama to the whole composition.  There is no such thing as empty space.  That space on the left directs the eye to the black vertical elements on the right.  The blue elements on the top direct us to the left.  Once the thin white lines at the bottom were added, we had a distinctive foreground because the white pops forward in our perception.  The result is that the eye circles through the composition.  While we have a strong sense of foreground-middleground-background and a feeling of deep space in a landscape, the painting does not pin us down in specific references to known reality.  The painting’s intellectual severity is counteracted by the tactile, emotional attraction of its texture.  When she painted over the diverse elements the painting had inherited from the collage, the artist did not obliterate them completely (which would have been easy), but left them “bleeding” through, an effect called pentimento, which adds emotional depth.  (Pentimento deserves a full discussion, planned for future posts.)

This painting underwent its most drastic development during the last class period.  It shows the most dramatic departure from the original collage of any of the students’ projects.  Elaine struggled for six hours in the previous classes and then, finally and suddenly, the painting came through with clarity and integrity.

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In the December 14th post I described how Beatrice transferred the outlines of her collage to a medium size canvas.  For precision, that’s the way to go.  But not the only way.  Naomi, for example, decided to make the transfer freehand.  Her collage was on 8½ x 11 paper and her canvas measured about 11 x 15. She painted directly without a preliminary drawing on the canvas. In comparing the collage (right)) and the painting, one can see that the collage definitely presents a sense of foreground, middle ground and background but that the painting allows for a much richer sense of depth. For a landscape painter, the techniques of creating the illusion of receding space are essential.  In this regard, a fantasy landscape is an ideal challenge:  the space has to be made convincing even though it is plainly incredible.  In this fantastic landscape we can identify references to real landscapes: trees, mountains, ocean. This makes the task easy, because a big tree has to be in the foreground and a small mountain in the far distance. Not only that, the mountain has to be hazy and soft edged, while the tree has to be sharply delineated.  The willowy orange tree trunks on the right read like something in the distance because they are so much smaller than the black tree in the left foreground, but they are also bigger than the mountain and therefore they simultaneously pull us back into the imaginary world.  The effect tickles the imagination and keeps the eye wandering through this enjoyable illusion.  In the collage the foreground vegetation took the form of crinkled clumps of colorful paper.  In the final work this “vegetation” is masterfully painted to suggest clarity, detail and proximity to the viewer without being painted with any specificity or literalness.  It’s juicy and painterly and thrilling.

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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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