The exhibition, "The Hidden Cézanne; From Sketchbook to Canvas" is still on until September 24th, 2017, at the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland. Cézanne's drawings, kept very private during his lifetime, tell of his questing, learning, thought processes in creating art or just recording for inspiration much later on. It reminds us all that drawing is a pathway to many ways of analysing, understanding and forging an artistic identity that is unique.Read More
Looking at the glowing oranges hanging in such bounty from the trees in the garden, I find myself marvelling in the play of light on their rough skins and the intensity of the colours. The lustrous dark green leaves are the perfect foil for the fruit, the brilliant Mediterranean blue sky above the ultimate enhancement. The temptation to paint these oranges is constant, but I have learned that watercolours are not the best medium to convey the intensity of these glorious winter fruits.
I began thinking of the paintings I have seen over the years of oranges; I realise that of course, it is mostly artists who have lived in the Mediterranean area - or at least visited - that have used oranges in their paintings. One of the earliest artists that comes to mind who used oranges in a wonderful still life painting was Spanish Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664). I was spellbound, like so many others, when I saw this painting at the Norton Simon. It glows - and the oranges could almost be smelled in their tangy citrus perfume.
Another Spanish artist that comes to mind celebrates oranges in a different fashion - oranges growing in orchards or being sold: Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Valencia-born artist of light and Spanish life, straddled the 19th and 20th century, and recorded history, landscapes, portraits in vivid, lyrical fashion.
Another artist who loved the brilliance of oranges in the South of France was, of course, Vincent Van Gogh. He returned to these golden marvels several times, and I am sure their colour not only echoed the golden yellows he loved so much in sunflowers, ripe wheat fields, or his chair, but they must have cheered him up when he was in mental anguish.
Paul Cezanne used them too in some of his still life paintings. One of the most famous is a complex feat of celebrating fruits, including the oranges.
At almost the same time, Henri Matisse was also experimenting with still life paintings that included oranges. It was a theme to which he returned...no one can resist these golden orbs!
Every time I walk in the garden and see the oranges, I understand why these artists used them in their brilliant still life studies.
There was a wonderful quote at the bottom of an art site that I saw recently: "The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude." The wise man who said this was Friedrich Nietzsche, author and originator of countless bons mots.
It is true. Think of how you feel as you come out of a wonderful art gallery or museum, where you have feasted your eyes on wonders and stretched your mind in new directions.
When you encounter a portrait or a self portrait of someone who inspires and humbles, it makes one grateful. Take Rembrandt, for example, with his unflinching self-portraits, that tell one of life's experiences, the highs and the lows. They give one perspective for one's own life.
I am always delighted when one feels a connection to past artists, a sense that there is a marvellous heritage to inspire one's own artistic endeavours. As a silverpoint artist, I love it that Rogier van der Weyden recorded Saint Luke drawing the Virgin in silverpoint.
Think of the way Paul Cézanne can take one to expansive, simplified yet oh so powerful places, thanks to his obsessive staring as he painted his beloved landscapes around Aix-en-Provence. His watercolours of Mont Sainte-Victoire take one to magical worlds.
Nietzsche was right about the gratitude. He also remarked, "Art is the proper task of life".
Definitely a coherent man in his thoughts about art and artists.
Sometimes reading a biography of an artist helps a great deal. I have just finished the superbly detailed Cezanne: a Life by Alex Danchev, and am still absorbing the many lessons about art practices, as lived and learnt during Cezanne's life.
One of the main lessons I derived from this biography and from other wonderful publications and exhibitions of Cezanne's work is that tenacity needs to be allied with a dogged belief in one's own artistic vision or voice. Despite all his doubts and setbacks, Cezanne kept going back and back to certain subjects - apples, his beloved Mont Sainte-Victoire, self-portraits, etc. Each time, he did something new, something inventive, something better, stronger and more personal.
Another lesson that can be learned is how valuable it is to paint sur le motif as Cezanne called plein air painting. He went out time and time again to work in the sun and heat or difficult conditions - he found new ways to render the landscape. He told young painters, "The main thing in a painting is finding the right distance." But finding the correct distance often meant a great deal of innovation, a break from previous, Renaissance traditions of what was far and what was near. He collapsed distances, he gave us all licence to make horizontals and verticals indistinct one from the other, he showed that colour could serve as "all the ruptures in depth". In essence, he allowed us all to become 20th/21st century artists who can paint in whatever way seems appropriate.
Another vital lesson is that Cezanne looked and looked so hard at his subject - to find its "truth". He was frantically absorbing all he could about what he was seeing, trying to understand it, trying to grapple with it so that he could mutate it onto his canvas. "Cezanne at his easel, painting, looking at the countryside: he was truly alone in the world, ardent, focused, alert, respectful," as Renoir wrote. Every artist working from life needs to scrutinise the subject as carefully and attentively as possible - then, and only then, can one really hope to transmute it and interpret it according to oneself.
A lesson which resonates with me is Cezanne's passion for trees - pine trees and olive trees in particular. He painted them again and again, depicting them as one would depict a close friend, loved and carefully studied. They were noble examples of Nature, which resonated so deeply with Cezanne. As Ravaisou is quoted as saying in Cezanne a Life, "he was a sensualist in art. He loved nature with a passion, perhaps to the exclusion of all else; he painted in order to prolong within himself the joy of living among the trees." We can all learn from his paintings of the Large Pine and other tree paintings.
Paint with passion - that is what, ultimately, Cezanne seems to be telling us with the art, writings and musings that we have all inherited.
In the excellent book about Cezanne recently written by Alex Danchev, there is a quote which is well worth pondering for any artist.
Pissarro and Cezanne painted together a great deal in 1872-74 when Cezanne lived in Auvers and was thus near where Pissarro lived in Pontoise.
They sustained each other in their work and Cezanne learned from the older artist who was a natural teacher. Pissarro's teaching was noted down by the young artist, Louis Le Bail, in 1896-97 and first published by John Rewald. Danchev requotes it and I am indebted to him for its text.
Pissarro taught us all thus:
Look for the kind of nature that suits your temperament. The motif should be observed more for shape and colour than for drawing. There is no need to tighten the form which can be obtained without that. Precise drawing is dry and hampers the impression of the whole, it destroys all sensations. Do not define too closely the outlines of things; it is the brushstroke of the right value and colour which should produce the drawing. In a mass, the greatest difficulty is not to give the contour in detail, but to paint what is within. Paint the essential character of things, try to convey it by any means whatsoever, without bothering about technique. When painting, make a choice of subject, see what is lying at the right and at the left, then work on everything simultaneously. Don't work bit by bit, but paint everything at once by placing tones everywhere, with brushstrokes of the right colour and value, while noticing what is alongside. Use small brushstrokes and try to put down your perceptions immediately. The eye should not be fixed on one point, but should take in everything, while observing the reflections which the colours produce on their surroundings. Work at the same time upon sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on on an equal basis and unceasingly rework until you have got it. Cover the canvas at the first go, then work at it until you can see nothing more to add. Observe the aerial perspective well, from the foreground to the horizon, the reflections of sky, of foliage. Don't be afraid of putting on colour, refine the work little by little. Don't proceed according to rules and principles, but paint what you observe and feel. Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression. Don't be timid in front of nature; one must be bold, at the risk of being deceived and making mistakes. One must have only one master - nature; she is the one always to be consulted.
I don't think one can add much to these wise words
The mysterious process of creating art never ceases to interest and amaze me. An artist's adaptability to circumstances is a vital ingredient in this mix, and one that tests the seriousness of resolve to create. Somehow this self-portrait by Rembrandt expresses some of what I am trying to say.
Depending on the circumstances, an artist can find totally different sources of ideas and inspirations for art. A simple example is when one is working plein air, versus working in one's studio and relying on very different sources than the outside world.
I did both of these pieces of art when I was working on Sapelo Island, one of the magical Georgia barrier islands fronting the Atlantic Ocean. They were done almost in reaction to that small voice inside my head, saying 'this is a scene which could be the source of a painting or drawing'. Of course, once that decision is made, then comes the endless actions, reactions and alterations that are part of my art-making. Working in the wind and sun, with changing conditions, an artist adapts according to the moment, trying to push through on the original idea and inspiration, and yet trying, at the same time, to end up with a respectable piece of art. Incidentally, both watercolour and metalpoint are rather unforgiving media for changes and alterations, especially when drawing in different metals (silver, gold, copper, etc.). It makes for interesting, if not challenging moments during the process of art-making!
By contrast to the concepts and reactions to working outdoors, en situ, there is the work in the studio, when an artist can draw inspiration from a myriad sources, in the head, from ideas derived from the wide world outside, from music, from reading, from films or television, from one's family and its history, from politics... an endless reserve of triggers that suddenly spark an idea for a piece of art. In some ways, the work created in the studio is far more controllable, even if it is complex to execute. Normally, you don't have to battle the weather, light constraints, travel, insects, etc. that you encounter often outside.
Perhaps the only "constraint" in the studio is cultivating what Paul Cézanne talked of: "genius is the ability to renew one's emotions in daily experience". You have to keep fresh, alive, thinking and reacting, to find that springboard to a new venture in art creation. How that trigger comes is often, to me, totally mysterious, but again, I find that that mysterious small voice at the back of the head speaks when one least expects it. Ironing, day-dreaming, a walk - meditative, repetitive jobs all help. Dare yourself to try another medium, another voice, another subject that you have not embraced before. Even an idea that is not perhaps initially the most inspired can evolve and become something special, something significant. Whilst sustained hard work can yield results, there are times when other considerations in life - family, illness or whatever - have to be factored in. In those cases, creating art can go on, even if only in your head, for a while. Allow yourself to follow different work rhythms at those times, for ultimately, you will get back to inspiration and art-making, perhaps with added depth and ideas.
These were two drawings I created in the studio, long after I had returned from an art residency in South Italy. The seeds were sown there, the inspiration came later when I was looking back at drawing books and notes I had made there.
Inspiration comes in such magically mysterious ways, often by different routes, but every artist becomes attuned to his or her paths to art-making. Trusting one's inner voice, believing in oneself and keeping one's antennae up high are all ingredients in these mysteries.