John Constable

"Art – in every lane" by Jeannine Cook

It is always fascinating to discover the wellspring of artists' sources and inspiration. John Constable once remarked, "My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up."

Plants by a Wall, 1825, John Constable  - Not even "under a hedge"!

Plants by a Wall, 1825, John Constable  - Not even "under a hedge"!

It is somewhat amazing to realise that he described his art as "limited and abstracted". If you look at a wide array of his paintings in oil and watercolour and his drawings, on a site such as John Constable.org , the overwhelming impression is his close, detailed attention to the flat, wide world of East Anglia and even beyond to the sea when he was staying at Brighton.  His studies, when working en plein air, are wonderful in their atmospheric evocation and detailed information.

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, 1824, John Constable

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, 1824, John Constable

Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance, 1811, John Constable

Barges on the Stour, with Dedham Church in the Distance, 1811, John Constable

Suffolk, where he was born and mostly lived, is open to the blustery winds off the North Sea, with clouds banks shadowing the wide fields, tree-lined lanes and stretches of water (such as the Water Meadows near Salisbury). Constable never forgot his rural surroundings, but he certainly did not show them to be limited. Abstracted, maybe, but not in the sense we tend to use "abstraction" today.

Water-meadows near Salisbury, Oil painting, 1820 or 1829 (Image courtesy of the V & A Museum, London)

Water-meadows near Salisbury, Oil painting, 1820 or 1829 (Image courtesy of the V & A Museum, London)

I find that it is indeed rewarding to go for a walk in our quiet neighbourhood along the riverside and by the marshes. Here too, there are always sources of ideas for drawings and paintings, and even though I know the area very well, the changes of season and light make everything fresh each time. And whilst it may be something that no one else notices, I find myself getting all excited about different things and views.

Along our sandy lane is an endless fascination for me: the remains of a cedar tree, clearly once a mighty seer, but now sinews and lace that become a myriad abstractions.

Cedar Remains, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Cedar Remains, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

I keep drawing different portions of it in silverpoint . At left is one version of my "art – in the lane" abstraction, "Cedar Remains". Below is a smaller drawing I have done from the same cedar skeleton of "Cedar Lace", also in silverpoint which I am donating to the Newhall Art Collection, at Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, England, for their fund-raising auction in February-March. It should be up on their website in February.

Cedar Lace, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Cedar Lace, silverpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Constable was indeed wise when he went seeking his art "under every hedge and in every lane". We have all benefited ever since.

Skies by Jeannine Cook

After the many glorious days of cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine, today was cloudy and grey. A bit of a shock, in a way. The change in the light and the sense of space was marked.

Skies, for an artist involved in any depiction of the natural world, are so important. Their role in setting a tone, a mood in any painting or drawing, is key. As a child of Africa, where the vast skies arch brilliant and endless, I love the wide vistas across the salt water mashes of coastal Georgia because here too, the sky is so expansive. Such views allow a sense of liberty, an expansiveness of soul that are allied to a sense of the infinite vastness of nature, of space and those countless galaxies far beyond our world. All these feelings are often filtered through the art one creates, in spite of oneself. In essence, it is "painting about something", versus "painting something". Whether the something is the light, the space, or much more complex philosophical concepts, the sky is central to the art making.

The painting below is the famed Deadham Vale 1802 depiction of rural England, where Constable used the sky to set the whole tone of the landscape, to flood it with northern light and give it a gentle expansiveness that is memorable.

Dedham Vale with Ploughman, 1814, John Constable, (Image courtesy of Scottish National Gallery)

Dedham Vale with Ploughman, 1814, John Constable, (Image courtesy of Scottish National Gallery)

John Constable RA, Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right, 1821. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)

John Constable RA, Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right, 1821. (Image courtesy of the Royal Academy)

John Constable believed that the sky was "the key note, the standard of scale, and the chief organ of sentiment" in a landscape painting. This 1821 Cloud Study, (above) a plein air study, is an example of his famed quick art done to record skies and weather conditions.

Despite the ever-increasing divorce between man and nature that we are witnessing today, there are still many artists who are enthralled - nay, obsessed - by skies and the wonders of light, clouds and atmospheric effects.  Graham Nickson, the British-American artist who is Dean at the New York Studio School since 1988, had a wonderful exhibition at the Jill Newhouse Gallery in 2009, entitled "Italian Skies".

Graham Nickson  , Sarageto III , 2008 (Image courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery)

Graham Nickson, Sarageto III, 2008 (Image courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery)

Jeffrey Lewis, who teaches are at Auburn University. He works in encaustic, and his series of paintings are lyrical in the extreme.

Towards Ontario mirus caelum, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

Towards Ontario mirus caelum, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

Towards Ontario Vespers, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

Towards Ontario Vespers, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the artist)

He speaks eloquently about the emotions that these skies inspire in him and what he seeks to convey in his paintings.

Towards Ontario Eventide, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the Artist)

Towards Ontario Eventide, Jeffrey Lewis (Image courtesy of the Artist)

Photography too is a wonderful medium to celebrate skies, the light that emanates from them, and thus also the passage of time. One artist who has devoted much of her life to exploration of these subjects is Erika Blumenfeld, a Guggenheim Fellow and photographer. She discourses at length about such research and work in a recent fascinating interview with Art Interview, and clearly shares the same deep awareness of skies and their influence on all of us below their domes.

Background - Sky Scrolls, Erika Blumenfeld photographer (Image courtesy of the artist)

Background - Sky Scrolls, Erika Blumenfeld photographer (Image courtesy of the artist)

"Forgetting about Art" by Jeannine Cook

John Constable, the consummate English Romantic observer of nature and artist of magnificent landscapes, once observed: "when I sit down to make a sketch from nature, the first thing I try to do is to forget that I have ever seen a picture."

I was thinking about this remark of Constable as I settle into my newly furnished studio in Spain and decided I wanted to inaugurate it by painting whatever my eye lit upon as I looked out of the windows. It was an interesting exercise, as in truth, there was a lot of beauty, but nothing that especially spoke to me as potential subject matter. Too many leaves, too much tumbling brilliance of bougainvilleas - in short a jumble of shapes. But I decided I would press on. The result was this small watercolour. I deliberately tried to keep my mind blank and just work by reaciton.

From my New Studio Window,  watercolour,  Jeannine Cook artist

From my New Studio Window, watercolour,  Jeannine Cook artist

Another remark Constable made was equally relevant to this watercolour exercise. Only someone who has worked a lot plein air could have such accurate insights. He said, "No two days are alike, nor even two hours; neither were there ever two leaves of a tree alike since the creation of all the world; and the genuine productions of art, like those of nature, are all distinct from each other."

He was right about the fig tree having a wonderful diversity of leaf forms. He was equally so about the every-changing light, the fugitive shadows, the change in intensity of flower colour... But it was fun to do this study - in a brand new and lovely studio.

The Eye of the Art Collector by Jeannine Cook

Thanks - once again! - to ArtDaily.org's listings, I happened on an up-coming Sotheby's sale of old Master Drawings from a private collection. I spent a fascinated hour on their site, going through the E-Catalogue of the drawings, some eighty of them, the ideal occupation for a dark, rainy day.

It is always extremely interesting to view a collection of art formed by one person, particularly a person who has a trained eye and knowledge of the media involved. I quote from the news release about this collector (who apparently spent about 25 years assembling this collection). "In his very personal forward to the sale catalogue, the collector who assembled this remarkable group of drawings wrote that he embarked on collecting “with the bold aim of looking over the artist’s shoulder”. There can be no question that he succeeded in this aim. The light that these extremely varied studies shed on the artistic creative process is both intense and wide ranging: we see every moment in the artist’s thought process revealed and illuminated."

There is a remarkable energy and life evident in the drawings this collector assembled. The artists are clearly in the throes of excitement and creativity. Famous names or not, it does not matter. The hallmarks of these drawings are immediacy, directness, sureness of touch and stroke. The collector does indeed describe well what he sought - and found - when he selected these works. Different media, different subject matter, some clearly well thought-out and planned, others on the spur of the moment, catching images almost on the fly... Some as aide-mémoires, others as exploration. In short, the collection came across to me as a most interesting selection of artists' emotions, desires, endeavours, aims... running a gamut of approaches and techniques. Little interesting items too, such as remarks about an exquisite study of a seated woman by Jean-Antoine Watteau. "It was executed in a combination of media that Watteau used only occasionally, but to striking effect: the majority of the figure is built up with a network of silvery strokes of graphite (a very rare medium in Old Master Drawings), (my emphasis) while the accents in the face and hands are in a more typical red chalk, an extremely effective juxtaposition that creates a lively yet utterly elegant figure."

When you go back and try to find out about the use of graphite before the early 18th century, it is indeed hard, as a neophyte, to find allusions to many graphite drawings. Pure graphite, first mined in Borrowdale, England, in the 1500s, seems initially to have been used for under drawing in the 16th century. It was more forgiving than metalpoint, especially silverpoint, the draughtsman's favoured medium during Renaissance times in spite of silverpoint's linear qualities and permanence of mark. Graphite does not seem to have been used much for drawing until well into the 17th century. Artists tended to favour chalks, red and black, as well as charcoal for studies and finished drawings alike. (Interestingly, the Venetian artists continued to favour black chalk, whilst the perhaps more flamboyant Florentine and Roman artists preferred the harder red chalk with which they could show off their skills!) Graphite became widespread only in the 18th century, with the increasing difficulty of obtaining good-quality natural chalks and the simultaneous production of a fine range of graphite pencils after the invention of a graphite pencil in Nuremberg in 1662.

Graphite drawings then become far more widespread: John Constable, Jongkind and later John Singer Sargent, for example, all used graphite in their work, particularly when working plein air.

Self-Portrait, 1806, John Constable, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Self-Portrait, 1806, John Constable, (Image courtesy of the Tate, London)

Ingres was famed for his use of hard graphite pencils when drawing his wonderful detailed portraits of people.

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867).  Study for "Raphael and the Fornarina  "  (detail), ca. 1814. Graphite on white wove paper, 10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French, 1780-1867). Study for "Raphael and the Fornarina" (detail), ca. 1814. Graphite on white wove paper, 10 x 7 3/4 in. (25.4 x 19.7 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

By the turn of the 19th century, Cezanne and so many others commonly used pencils, as have we all done since in the art world - often to great effect.

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) , Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne) Sewing,  ,c. 1880, Graphite Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate Bequest, 1978

Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), Hortense Fiquet (Madame Cézanne) Sewing, ,c. 1880, Graphite
Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate Bequest, 1978

But back to the Sotheby E-Catalogue of the drawings that occasioned my little foray into the rarity of Old Master graphite drawings... (and by the way, the definition of Old Masters in Western art is work executed before 1800...), it is well worth going through this collection of images of drawings. It allows one to remember how interesting it can be when one sees an art collection formed by one person with the courage of his or her own convictions and erudition.