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Posts Tagged ‘process’

15JaneWhatFour
You’re not inclined to interpret this painting. You’re probably not asking “what is the significance of the number four, what does it symbolize or refer to, what is the sum of all the fours here and what would be the meaning of that large number, ditto for multiplication,” etc. This kind of interpreting is what we used to do. For example, when you look at this painting by Nicolaes Maes, you can’t help but try to figure out what the NicolaesMaesIdleServantartist is illustrating. Why did the artist put in the cat, the sleeping maid, the guests in the background? What is the hostess saying to us by gesturing that way? What was the social status of servants in mid-17th-century Holland?
We stopped digging for meaning about a hundred years ago. I recently found this 1923 Picasso quote in an announcement of the current MoMA show: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?”
If this sounds perverse, it’s because prior to about 1900 images were used for didactic purposes and that’s what we got used to. They illustrated a story, a myth, a compositional ideal, an ideal ratio, an ideal body, an ideal color relation, etc. Ideals are culturally defined and over time get enshrined as absolute and immovable. By the early 20th century, these ossified standards were crumbling in Western culture: in the place of capital-t Truth we got evolution, relativity, psychoanalysis and the leveling of social classes. This is not to say that Cézanne, Manet, VanGogh, Matisse and Picasso were now illustrating these new theories. Not at all. They painted in a new way because to be alive at that time felt new.
The major societal shift involved the relationship between artist and client. Whereas before, the artist was a servant, he is now of the same middle class as his client. Whereas before, the client (pope, emperor, czar, king, archbishop, et al) was interested in the finished product and how it promoted his power status, now the client becomes more and more interested in how the work is put together and what philosophical dynamics those artistic processes embody. Whereas before, the work of art “appeared” in a mythical sense, like Athena from the head of Zeus, now the painting or sculpture shows the traces –the brush strokes, the chisel marks, the scratches, the nuts and bolts—of how it was made.
This is why the reviewers of art exhibits and the critics in art magazines like Art in America and Artforum will write at great length about the process that went into the making of the work of art. Most of the writing does not attempt interpretation of the pre-19th century kind at all. It’s assumed that you, as a contemporary, love process. You love to stand in front of a painting or sculpture and try to figure out how the artist made this thing. Reconstructing the process will trigger empathy with the artist, will vicariously pump you up with energy and, generally, make your day. Later you’ll meet a friend for lunch and, gesturing energetically,try to convey your aesthetic experience.
Well then, what was the process behind “What Four?” You can see that the painting, 30” x 40”, started as a color study: blue/purple and greens. What followed was only one layer of paint, but a layer produced through complex procedure. The artist, Jane Donaldson, decided to mix media. The first layer is painting. This second layer is printmaking. She carved the letter four on a linoleum plate. She painted it white and pressed it onto the canvas, one four after the other, until the white paint was worn from the plate. She now inked the plate again and started another set of “four,” and so on.
I find this very exciting. It has something child-like about it, but at the same time it hearkens back to that incision in Western civilization when in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Mainz, Germany, and literature was able to take off. Without printing, no Renaissance, without the Renaissance, well, you know, on and on.
That’s one of the chain reactions set off in the mind. There are others, because the process of decline/degeneration/fading and rejuvenation/fresh start is so true to the experience of life. The process tempts you to interpret metaphorically, but remains unspecific. It reverberates deeply in the imagination because it is visually rich. That richness comes from its process.
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13BoyerrGrnSquVaseArrow

I encourage my painting students to work big.  Working on a large canvas helps you think in the modernist mode.  You’re more inclined to work with a big brush and a big brush makes an assertive, juicy, gestural stroke.  When you work small, you’re more inclined to think “decorative,”  more inclined to want to please someone else and more inclined to adhere to what you think are rules.

So, go for the big picture!

Bruce Boyer has definitely been converted to the big canvas.  He paints on 30 x 40.  Yesss!!  Because he works in oil—slow drying—he prepares the underpainting ahead of class.  The tones he chooses for the underpainting are rich sepia browns, reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance, or equally serious deep blues.

Then the shapes appear.  How?  I don’t know, exactly.  I do know, however, that whatever you put down on a canvas will trigger an association.  In the above painting, the green square came first.  The painting takes over.  From step to step, it lets you know what’s needed.  Boyer seems to be investigating the illusion of planes and spacial depth.  Notice that as soon as you think you know where you are, situated in credible space, your attention wonders to some element in the painting that throws your certainty out the window.  Endlessly fascinating.

When, as a painter, you’ve hit upon a game like that, it’s good to keep poking at its possibilities, variations and mysteries.  How does this work?  How does my mind work when I do this?

13BoyerRedSnakeFinalPlusBlueThat’s Boyer’s 40 x 30 painting, starting with bluish-black underpainting.  And here are two earlier stages for you to puzzle over. Notice how your attention moves through the painting.

13BoyerRedSnake113BoyerRedSnakeFinal

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PicassoSketchesDailyPl

Picasso didn’t like to travel.  When he was in his twenties he would go back to his native Spain every now and then, but always with his painting materials.   Later, when he was absurdly rich and able to go anywhere in the world, he preferred to stay close to his studio.  He worked.  He worked every day.  He died April 8, 1973 shortly after getting up at 11 a.m. after having worked til four in the morning.

PicassoDaleyPlazaJacques Brownson was the architect who designed the heroic, modernist Daley Center with the firm Loebl Schlossman and Bennett.  Richard Bennett, a partner in the firm, asked Picasso to create a sculpture for the plaza, to be its “spirit.”  Good choice: go to the co-inventer (with Georges Braque, let’s not forget) of cubism.  Picasso, knowing that he would not accept any commission because he intended this to be a gift to the city of Chicago (he never visited), set to work.  I don’t know how many sketches he made, but the visitor guide at the Art Institute features six of them on its cover.  I love the fact that we honor the work in progress.

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This is a sequel to the previous post. One student, Maggy, really got into the Up-Side-Down thing—meaning, the value of this approach really sunk in.  So much so, that when the Caravaggio exercise was done, she was the only one in the class to draw a face upside down from a photo.  In the process, she noticed how asymmetrical the face was and was delighted by this discovery.  When you’re drawing right-side-up it’s harder to notice such things because you tend to equalize, to perfect.  That’s a no-no!   The expressiveness and character in a face lies precisely in asymmetry.

Being all fired up by the Caravaggio exercise and then by drawing a face up-side-down, she then turned the magazine page right-side-up and drew the guy again.  This was easy now, because her seeing was “true” and it took her no time at all, with very impressive results.  It’s interesting to compare the two versions.  The second view of the face, with the photo placed right-side-up, didn’t look anything like the UPS photo drawn previously.  So, it’s not a case of doing the same thing twice, not at all.  What matters here is the ease with which the second drawing came about and that was the result of the nature of the exercise itself.

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The Bauhaus was a school of art and (later) architecture in Germany, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919.  In the first three years of its existence the school’s teaching methods and aesthetics were set by Johannes Itten, an artist inclined to Eastern philosophies and meditation.  He was instrumental in bringing Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee to the school.  The twenties is a time of tremendous energy in German art movements, for example German Expressionism and The Blue Rider, both concerned with the primacy of color.

Itten wrote “The Art of Color” and devised the Color Sphere, shown here.

He abandoned 19th century teaching methods, involving rules and the traditional subservience of color to subject matter.  Instead of color filling in a drawing, color became the starting point.  He discovered that students find color associations that are unique to their temperament and sensibility.  You start with color, he said.  Then you contemplate it and the next color will follow from this contemplation.

This sounds easy.  What could be easier than plopping down a dollop of color.  Turns out, it’s not. When we’re  in preschool, yes, but when we’re adults, there are often too many psychological barriers.

I suggested Itten’s approach in my class.  Through our windows we could hear the wind howling.  The lake was turbulent and muddy, the trees were bare and raggedy.  Elaine C. put a wisp of green on her white canvas. Itten would have noticed, as I did, and he would have kept his meditative distance, as I did.  The colors developed, as if on their own.  I can’t explain how this happens.  But I do know that the painting comes out of the process itself.

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If the question posed in the previous post seems simpleminded—of course it’s not art, it’s only an illustration!—then why do all beginning painters and limners get obsessed with illustrating what they see? And more often than not they get stuck in that obsession.

Just this morning, a student (in a painting class that I was subbing for) complained to me that she’s been working representationally for five years and now she can’t get herself out of that way of seeing.  That’s her first false assumption.  Her second false assumption came in what she said next:  I can’t get my painting to look the way I want it to look.

1) Well, you can find a new way of seeing.   The way out of old habits is to adopt a new working PROCESS.

2) You don’t know ahead of time what your painting will look like.  That’s because you’re not coloring in the lines, you are going with a PROCESS.

Picasso put it this way:  “A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand.  While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it.  A picture lives a life like a living creature, undergoing the changes imposed on us by our life from day to day.  This is natural enough, as the picture lives only through the man who is looking at it.”  (From Christian Zervos’ “Conversations with Picasso,” 1935.)

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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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