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Sometimes a painting doesn’t work because it’s too complex. The artist may love the individual colors, while finding that they don’t hang together. Zooming IMG_5880in to a passage of the painting may lead to new inspiration. Here, on the right, is the original, troublesome painting, 30”x20”. By isolating the lower left corner and using it as a point of departure for a new, large painting, the artist saved the day and produced a fresh, dynamic painting. (See above)
Painting by Jane Donaldson, acrylic on canvas, 20” x 30”.
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PurpleGreenRectanbleFinal
In this painting, the rectangular shapes were added last. They add a counterpoint to the curved forms, create planes in perspective and play on the idea of frames within frames. The most startling discovery for us in class, however, was the fact that the purple square PurpleGreenRectanbleFinalLettersbecame green as it crossed the purple field. (This is barely perceptible in the small image here.)
The color of the line did not change, but our perception changed. The line (L) became green (G) because the purple of the line was cooler, i.e. more blue, than the warm, reddish purple of the field(F).
We don’t see a patch of color absolutely. We see it in relation to what’s next to it.
The authority on how we see color is Josef Albers (1888-1976), who was born in Germany, taught at the Bauhaus in Weimar, Dessau and Berlin, emigrated to the US and taught at the Black Mountain School in North Carolina.

JosefAlbers1

For an excellent overview of his work and dazzling examples of how color fools us, see http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/08/16/interaction-of-color-josef-albers-50th-anniversary/

JosefAlbers2
Painting by Michael Quoss, oil on canvas, 30”x40”.
Josef Albers, two examples from his book, “Interaction of Color.” 1963
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MatisseGoldfish
Goldfish and Palette,oil on canvas, 57-3/4 x 44-1/4. Some sources give the date as 1914, others 1912-17.

Today is Henri Matiisse’s birthday. He was born December 31, 1868 in northern France, near the Belgian border and grew up in Bohain, where the main commerce was beets and weaving. His father owned a seed shop. When he was about fifteen, his mother gave him a paint set and he knew that he wanted to be a painter. Becoming a professional painter was out of the question since that was a disreputable occupation. He was sent to Paris to study law and worked as a law clerk for a while. He studied at the École des Beaux Arts, with Gustav Moreau, copied paintings at the Louvre to make money and lived in abject poverty with two roommates, also painters, who had one decent pair of pants between them.
He married in 1898, saying to his bride, “I love you mademoiselle, but I will always love painting more.”
Until his late thirties, his work met nothing but ridicule. When he visited his family in Bohain, the town folk called him “le sot Matisse” (the Matisse idiot). In Paris, when he exhibited his paintings at the Salon des Independents (non-juried shows) people congregated around his work in uproarious laughter. Matisse played the violin and had a reputation among friends as a ham actor, who did  satirical impressions. But about his work he was so serious that young artists called him “the Doctor.” His concentration on his work caused insomnia throughout his life. In 1903 he wrote to a friend “describing the state of misery and emotional numbness to which insomnia had reduced him, and which he feared might end in total disintegration.” (I, 250) He “approached the act of painting (with) a tension so extreme that those closest to him risked being sucked in with him to the verge of breakdown or vertigo.” (I,324)
In 1910 he had a one-man show at the Bernheim Gallery. “The critics responded with a dismissive brutality that even Matisse had scarcely encountered in this scale before. They accused him of vulgar excess, willful confusion and gratuitous barbarity. Even the more serious reviewers found him incapable of following any consistent line or evolving a style of his own. “(II, 41) The same year, the Bernheims tried to swindle him and Matisse fell ill. A doctor explained that “there was nothing clinically wrong with him, that black despair would inevitably follow bouts of such intense nervous pressure and emotional exhilaration, and that all he could do was learn to manage his condition by sticking to a regular work schedule and by being less exacting towards himself. “All artists have this particular make-up, that’s what makes them artists, but with me it’s a bit excessive,’ Matisse told his wife, adding optimistically, ‘perhaps that’s what gives their quality to my pictures.’” (II, 59)
matisse-f9d8dTowards the end of his life, Matisse was in a wheel chair and incapable of painting. He worked with scissors to make “cut-outs.” He did not buy the paper, he painted the paper he used for cutting. He worked with an assistant in placing the pieces. There was nothing restful about this work process. The current exhibit at the MoMA has people sitting in quiet contemplation of these often huge cut-outs. People generally perceive them as tranquil. The largest one is hundred and four feet long.

RecensieCutOuts1
About Goldfish and Palette, André Breton wrote: “I’ve examined this picture twenty times. In truth it possesses at once innovation, profound penetration of every object by the artist’s own life, magical colors, it has everything…I’m convinced Matisse has never put so much of himself into any other painting.” (II, 168)
(The quotes are from Hilary Sperling’s two-volume study of Matisse.)
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MatisseOpenWindow

Amélie Parayre married Henri Matisse in January 1898. Part of her family came from Corsica. Since Henri’s career wasn’t going too well in freezing Paris, they spent their honeymoon in sunny Corsica. For Matisse it was work as usual. He produced fifty-five paintings in those five months. What’s important is not the prodigious output, but that he GOT COLOR: “Soon there came to me, like a revelation, the love of materials for their own sake. I felt growing within me a passion for color.”
Well, you might say, he was twenty-eight, what took him so long? We take it for granted that not only painting but our daily lives are filled with color and we assume that it was ever thus. The sky’s been blue, the grass green and flowers in flowery colors since the dinosaurs. That’s true, but cloth for clothing and furnishings was dreary and drab until very recently, januaryducDuBerryspecifically the second half of the 19th century, when analine dyes were invented. Prior to that only king and gods could afford color. Everyone else slogged around in browns and grays.
We can see this reflected in the illuminations of the 14th and 15th century and in Renaissance paintings, which depict only the rich and divine and therefore give us color to enjoy. But there was also a tradition of painting that honored the browns and considered them noble, RobertHubertdignified, stately, eternal. The Ecole des Beaux Arts, the Salon and their powerful judges looked down on color. In drawing classes, for example, color was expressly forbidden. So was working from nature. Students worked strictly from plaster casts and en grisaille (in shades of gray).
Matisse grew up in the north of France, in Bohain, a drab, cold, confining town where the main industry was weaving textiles and growing beets. After he dabbled with the little paint set his mother had given him, he knew that he wanted to become a painter. At twenty he went to Paris, where he abandoned his law studies and struggled for fifteen years before anyone bought a painting from him. His Corsica “revelation” about color was reinforced by an older artist living in the south, Paul Signac, who worked in a style called Divisionism, later known as Pointilism. Lucky for us, Matisse stuck with it.
In 1905 he worked for a few month in Collioure in the foothills of the Pyrenees. That fall he submitted to the Salon d’Automne exhibit two paintings made in that southern light. They were hung in the then infamous Salle VII, where visitors gestured obscenely and doubled over in derisive laughter. The critic Louis Vauxcelles noticed a couple of conventional, academic sculpture in the room and made the now famous wisecrack: “a Donatello among the wild beasts.” Fauves, French for wild beasts, became the nickname for a group of artists, including Matisse, Derain and Vlaminck. Matisse liked the name: “Frankly, it was admirable. The name of Fauve could hardly have been better suited to our frame of mind.” They were artists who felt that art made of shades of brown and gray was passé. They didn’t know where their experiments would lead, but they knew it was time for a revolution that would replace the worn out pictorial language of the 19th century.

MatisseWomanHat
One of those two Matisse paintings sold. Woman with a Hat was priced at 500 francs and an offer came in for 300. Henri and Amélie Matisse were flat broke. They had three children, who needed  winter coats. Amélie wouldn’t accept the 300. They waited. The prospective buyer agreed to pay the full 500. He was Leo Stein, brother of Gertrude Stein from San Francisco.
The Steins thought the new pictorial language might just be the next big thing and might be worth investing in. By investing in it, they made it happen.
Stay tuned.

Henri Matisse, 1869-1954. The Open Window, Collioure, 1905.  Woman with a Hat, 1905.

Paul Signac, 1863-1935Robert Hubert, 1733-1808 Les très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, 1412-1416


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14MayPlugByTheSea4

From our Evanston Art Center mansion by the lighthouse, we have a view of the lake and the 14MayPlugByTheSeaStartbeach. The lake and sky always play with color effects for us to gasp at. We get horizontal stripes, basically, and you might think those would make for a boring, too restful, composition. Well, yes, relentless horizontality can be challenging, but a challenge like that gets you thinking about your assumptions.
Bruce Boyer started with this recognizable sky-water-beach composition. Nice, low horizon, very comfortable and serene. Just for kicks we 14MayPlugByTheSeaStartUSDturned the canvas around. Now we have a high horizon with a yellow sky and a sunset-colored beach. Too weird, not realistic at all. Your mind then tries to see this thing as pure stripes: yellow, blue, pink-ish. You try. But the texture in the blue stripe is unmistakably watery and your imagination can’t let go of that association. That association overrides all the color weirdness of the yellow sky and pink beach because the mind really is attached to realism and is desperate to identify something with a name. Ah, lake! The lake is still there. From that assumption, all else falls into place.
14MayPlugByTheSea2But Bruce Boyer does not let it rest there. He needs a twist of irony, some semiotic double-coding, something to jab at your assumptions. Let’s play in the semiotics sandbox and put something on that beach. Something totally disassociated, something not from nature, something rectilinear, mechanical, man-made…the plug appears from nowhere and, behold, it’s just right.

14MayPlugByTheSea3
Well, it’s just right if you get Magritte and have a few brain cells that conduct surrealism for you. If you do, stay tuned. If you don’t, ditto.
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14BoyerMitosis2
The works produced in my class, from one student to the next, all look different. I’m actually very involved in each student’s work process, but at the same time (I’m proud to say) the overall feeling in the class is one of intuitive play and experimentation.
In the next three or four post, l’ll show the recent paintings of one artist/student, Bruce Boyer.
Above is a finished painting, 30 x 40. Below, the first layer, which took one class period of three hours, is 14BoyerMitosisalready puzzling. For example, by virtue of their color the two orange areas relate to one another, but the one on the left, triangular in shape, appears to be in the background, the deepest background in fact; the one on the right, the round one, occupies the top plane. When we look at this painting our perception becomes purely visual. That’s a good thing.
The second layer is somewhat anticipated while he’s painting the first, but the triangles, rectangles and strings of the second layer position themselves of their own accord.
Even though I was a witness to the painting process and I have an image of the first layer to refer to, the final painting draws me in with its multiple associations and illusions of depth. I just want to look at this thing. It frees the mind to all sorts of possibilities. A good thing.
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I worked with Utrecht marker on gloss paper, very fast.  The twisting of the feet and the weight-bearing shoulder had potential for development, but not in this medium, which does not allow for nuances. In markers, it’s all or nothing.  The figure as a whole can be seen as a diagonal line, not very interesting by itself.  Should I give up on this drawing?  Giving up teaches you nothing.  I prefer to dig in and see how a little nothing can serve as a point of departure for an exploration.  The figure invited some kind of counterpoint.  Earlier in the class I had given a demo on how various markers behave and so I just reached for some of my brighter markers and created a context for this languid,  passive, pretty boring figure.

Notice what happens with the addition of color in the “background.”

1. The abstract, freely invented background affects the way we interpret the figure. The figure, rather crudely drawn if regarded by itself, now can be read as an abstract design, a play on lines.  But it’s still a nude, with all the psychological and existential pull of that motif.

2. Enter the power of color.  The figure is a white empty space and the so-called negative space or “ground” –because of its vivid, stained-glass colors–now pulls our attention.  You get a tug, a dynamic, call it what you like, it’s the experience that counts.  And what you experience, going back and forth between figure and ground, is the whole image. That’s a paradox and when you’re inhabiting that paradox, you have what you can call an aesthetic experience.

This exercise illustrates the tremendous emotional pull of color.  If you put a scribble in pencil on paper, the scribble would have to dance in a most cultivated gesture to affect the viewer.  But if you take a bright marker and scribble any ol’ clumsy mess on the paper, it will have appeal—simply by virtue of the power of color in itself.

This goes a long way towards explaining why drawing classes are small and painting classes pull in a larger registration.  Drawing is harder.  The only tool you have to work with is a black line. Now, do something with that.  This assignment can be rather austere. You have to stick with it to cultivate your hand and eye.  Whereas, with color, the medium itself makes you sigh, ahhh, how beautiful, I love that color.  Add to that the comfort-food gooiness of the paint, and you’re seduced.  It’s deceptive, though.  If you rely on the power of color alone, you’ll produce sentimental stuff and we’ve seen too much of that, haven’t we.  You  do need to draw.  And once you do, you’ll experience the seductive power of the pencil line.  Or the marker line, or charcoal, or pen, or whatever you want to make a mark with.

Back to the drawing board!  Drawing is, so to speak, the bottom line.

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