It was a strange feeling. Suddenly, I was asked to become the subject of someone else's art-making. And not just to sit for a portrait in the usual sense of the word. Portraits are usually fairly straightforward affairs, either commissions or records of friends and colleagues. Artists tend to use their fellow artists as subjects because they esteem them, share creative time together (such as Edouard Manet painting Monet working in his studio-boat) or even, sometimes, because they need an inexpensive model. But my request to be the subject was a little different, I learned.Read More
Listening to the vitriol of the American Presidential campaign from overseas, it sounded pretty extraordinary. Now that I am back in the United States, I am saddened to hear the tones of stress and angst in many peoples' voices as they talk during these last days of the campaign. My reaction is to wonder how and if people can take refuge in the beauties of nature, of art, of music, dance and other forms of art. Some form of balance is always necessary, even when the stakes are so high for the future of this country and, indeed, the world.Read More
It is always fascinating to realise how one evolves as an artist. I am constantly surprised at how things change, whilst the core impulses and responses remain consistent.
I was reminded of this yesterday as I found myself responding to the intricate beauty of ancient olive trees and mighty Mediterranean pines in a way that I would not have done a year or two ago.
Yes, I love trees, and have always found them of intense interest and delight. But now, with my eyes more attuned to their texture and patterning of wood and bark because of the way I am frequently drawing in metalpoint, I “see” differently. And more than that, I find myself learning more and more adapting and moving to a very selective mode of drawing en plein air.
There is an interesting passage in a book I read some time ago, Monet by Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge, published by Abradale Press in 1989. Discussing painting (and by extension drawing) en plein air, “To paint directly, to follow the rules of the plein air game, means to start with what is given from a particular position. Studio painting avoids occlusion problems (i.e. one near form hiding another behind it), but plein air means you have to choose your position and you have to deal with being blinded by overlapping features.”
Where you chose to stand or sit, what details you pay attention to: these are critical decisions for the artist to make at the onset of a work of art. The passage in Monet gives the example of a view down a straight road.
It establishes the visible world in depth at the same time that it establishes the position of the observing eye. It defines the relationship between seer and the seen within a geometrically precise structure.
Every time now that I start a metalpoint drawing, I need to decide on my position – where I am going to sit. This determines the details that visually jump out at me amid the welter of detailed information on the patterned bark of a tree, for instance.
Those selections dictate the “geometrically precise structure”, the composition that I have in mind (although that tends to evolve as I work). It also means that I have to “prune away” details that will not fit nor strengthen the drawing towards which I am almost instinctively groping.
It is indeed ideally a rather instinctive, non-conscious-thinking mode that I hope to achieve because I find that is when the best drawing happens. Not always possible, alas!
These are some of the more recent choices I made whilst sitting in front of mighty trees as to where I sit and what details are thus predominant and visible.
The rules of the plein air game become paramount.
During my stay at DRAWinternational in Caylus, France, I found myself with the eternal conundrum – to work en plein air or to work in the studio. Partly, in truth, the colder weather made the choice a bit easier, but nonetheless, I was constantly aware of the tug of war internally, for I love to be out in natural surroundings to try and create art.
The other side of the equation is that in the studio, conditions for working are more organized and it is easier, physically, to work, particularly in metalpoint, which tends to be slower and more demanding of time and energies.
However, at the back of my head was a quote that I had read about Monet. He wrote, “All ‘motifs’ are mirrors – or else the project of plein airisme is as shallow as Baudelaire had once argued. The painter’s transactions with the ‘motif’ have as many dimensions as his sense of self and of his place in the world.” ("Motifs" are subjects and themes in a work of art.)
It is true that one brings to any artwork a sense of what matters, in most cases at least, and I think that when the work is done outside, perhaps the additional, often subliminal, messages are just as important. Man’s “communion” with natural surroundings underpins everything, whether or not today, we realize it.In general, ignoring nature imperils us in so many ways, as we keep finding out.
For an artist, in particular, the web and waft of nature informs every gesture, every impetus, consciously or not. Thus when an artist works outdoors, there are so many complex and often enriching issues that influence the execution of a piece of art.
The other challenge is of course that there are indeed all those other considerations. An artist has to make choices, sometimes quick choices as light changes, or the scene disappears, or whatever. How to distill what one is trying to say, how to select the most simple and hopefully impactful aspects, how to mediate between a considered, controlled choice and a much more spontaneous, perhaps less “finished” piece of art, especially a drawing. Those are other aspects of plein air work. Each of these choices means that the work becomes a mirror of that artist, his or her sense of place in the world and self-definition.
I came across a lovely example of these simple artistic choices: last autumn at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, a wonderful place, there was an exhibition of silverpoint drawings that the American artist, Marsden Hartley, did.
He travelled in the 1930s to the Bavarian Alps and there, he drew a series of silverpoint studies that captured the spare geometries of these mountains. Very simple, very direct work – Hartley was communing with those mountain landscapes.
Travelling south from Hamburg to Garmisch-Partenkirchen,in the Bavarian Alps, Hartley apparently produced 21 of these spare distillations of the mountains.
Marsden Hartley produced a body of work that validates Monet's observation about "motifs" or subjects being mirrors of the artist.
Down the ages, man has historically turned to the surrounding world to create a virtual reality in art, through the complex interplay of what the eyes perceive, how the colours have impact and what emotions are invoked. In other words, artists have used the world around them as the major source of their artistic inspiration and subject matter.
After the invention of photography in the decades before 1850, the basis for art making changed. As Henri Matisse observed, "The invention of photography released painting from any need to copy nature," which enabled the artist "to present emotion as directly as possible and by the simplest means."
Indeed, after the mid-19th century, artists' experiments grew more and more divorced from nature in many instances. Monet, for instance, still based his work on nature but it was often a very different vision and interpretation of nature, which meant, of course, that he was regarded as a main innovator in the new school of Impressionism.
As the years passed and artists grew less and less interested in the old, academic way of depicting the world around them, experiments multiplied. Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne, then Picasso, amongst others, led the way to an art that put more emphasis on colour, emotion and thus a psychological impact. Cezanne compressed, distorted, changed perspective, volumes, relationships, colour relationships and played such games with "reality" than he was viewing in his surrounding world that we are still indebted to him in terms of interpretation of subject matter. He stared and stared at his subject matter, but then he in essence produced metaphors about the nature he was looking at; he was "a total sensualist. His art is all about sensations", said Philip Conisbee, curator at The National Gallery, who put together an exhibition of Cezanne's work in 2006.
Beyond Cezanne, of course, the art world turns to Cubism, abstraction and any number of other forms of presenting emotion directly andurgently, leaving behind any remote reference to a virtual reality of the world. Photography's invention as a "liberation from reality" indeed, for a time, ensured that artists used a very different language to convey aspects of their world. Georges Braque was one such artist.
After Piet Mondrian's early experiments with Cubism, his path led to works that have become iconic.
As the 20th century advanced, artists strayed further and further away from their surrounding reality, totally divorced from it by photography's invention - whether the artists were conscious of this fact or not. But then, of course, the pendulum began to swing back the other way as perhaps, artists began to run out of ways to express themselves that were truly new and different abstractions. So photography comes back into play, manipulated and used in new and sophisticated ways to depict realities. Richard Estes, Chuck Close, Audrey Flack and many others, especially in the United States, have worked in amazing ways that also built on Edward Hopper's reclusive reality that had been a more lonely stream of 20th century art in America..
And so the circle is closed and artists once more have recognised the potential of photography in making art. Indeed there are many artists who predicate their depiction of the world around them on photographs, even, in some cases, to tracing images onto canvas. Nonetheless, even their interpretations of reality have been influenced by the long deviations in art-making, away from the need to copy reality. We are all heir to what has gone before us.
I have been reading Simon Winchester's book on the Atlantic and found it interesting to read what he wrote about this mighty ocean being the subject of paintings. It started me thinking of paintings I have seen in museums which depict maritime scenes. Then, of course, there is the distinction to be made of where exactly is the body of water that each artist shows.
Think, for instance, of all the wonderful Impressionist painters' works showing the sea off the Normandy coast of France. Is one being purist in defining those maritime scenes as of the English Channel, rather than the Atlantic? Eugene Boudin with his base at Honfleur, Monet, Manet, Courbet, Pissarro, Sisley - they all gravitated to the Normandy coast from the 1860s onwards. Their paintings show the sea in its many moods - sparkling, like Monet's wonderful
Gustave Courbet studied the power of the waves at Etretat too, but his paintings show the darker moods of the sea. In 1869, he did two paintings of
There was, of course, endless experimentation amongst artists working on the French coast. By 1885, Seurat was treating the sea very differently. This is his English Channel at Grandcamp.
Gauguin perhaps painted the Atlantic more directly, during his stays in Brittany in the 1880s. Based in Pont Aven and at Le Pouldu, he painted feverishly, both looking to the green Breton lands and out to sea, the ever-changing Atlantic.
However, earlier artists had depicted the sea, further north in what is perhaps even less the true Atlantic Ocean and more the North Sea. During the 17th century, when the Dutch were consolidating their mastery of the sea, their artists were celebrating the many moods of ocean and shore.
Willem van der Velde, both father and son, were also famed both in Holland and England, for their maritime scenes, in which naval engagements were often depicted. Both showed a knowledge of the Atlantic and the North Sea, but again, it is, I suspect, often hard to distinguish where the divide between Atlantic and adjacent waters exists in the art.
However, by the 18th century and the era of great voyages of exploration (think Captain James Cook on the HMS Endeavour, with Sidney Parkinson as the official artist on board during the 1768-71 voyage, or the much later, famous 1831-35 circumnavigation of the globe by the HMS Beagle, with Charles Darwin as naturalist and Augustus Earle as artist), maritime art had widened its scope. It was not just the Atlantic Ocean that was now well known, but the other great bodies of water around the globe.
Nonetheless, J.M.W. Turner, in some of his great sea paintings, looked back to Williem van der Velde the Younger. In his amazing use of light, gave the feeling of the ocean new and dazzling interpretations. In the painting of the Slave Ship, based on anti-slavery poetry,Turner depicted the slavers disposing of dead and dying slaves before an impending storm.
By the mid-19th century, many sailors knew first hand of the fury of hurricanes and typhoons. On the Western/American side of the North Atlantic, artists were also beginning to address marine painting. One of the first was Massachusetts-born Fitz Hugh Lane, (1804-1865), known as a Luminist painter and a most successful exponent of the Atlantic as seen from the New England coast.
Other famed exponents of the Atlantic include Winslow Homer. His most acclaimed marine paintings date from the 1890s, when he was living some seventy-five feet from the water in Prout's Neck, Maine. Like so many artists, he was fascinated by the power of waves crashing on rugged coastlines.
Today, we artists have a wonderful heritage to which to refer when we think of paintings of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. There are countless artists working today along the coastlines of North and South America, Western Europe and Africa, for the power of the ocean summons us all.