My “More Sunshine?” painting may still be a work in progress, but here’s another I’ve been working on that I have decided is finished. Which isn’t to say there aren’t things I could do, and am tempted to do, but those ideas will be used in another painting.
This is inspired by one of the many streams that run into the sea around Skye. It doesn’t have a title yet (suggestions welcome in the comments section below!) but will be part of my solo exhibition at Skyeworks over Easter (the working title for the exhibition is “Flowing”; suggestions welcome too!). Scroll down for a detail photo, then a few taken of its progress.
Egon Schiele is an artist who comes with a warning label for those unfamiliar with his paintings, especially his life painting. Forget academic, chocolate-box treatment of the figure but think expressive and confrontational, raw and unidealised, then throw in an immorality scandal too. He created works that “focused on themes of sexuality and death, ugliness, masking, sickness and transformation”*, which? isn’t what many want from art today, nevermind 100 years ago.
What we don’t know is where Schiele would have gone as a mature artist; he died in 1918 flu epidemic aged 28. What we do know is he was a master of expressive line, which you can study in his landscapes if you don’t do figures (and in which case stop reading now).
I find his art compelling, his use of line mesmerizing, and his colours brooding. The harsh, unsympathetic looking, the angularity of limbs, the striking composition. But until the Courtauld Gallery‘s exhibition Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude I’d only seen reproductions.
The Courtauld’s exhibition features 38 Schiele’s? drawings and watercolours of male and female nudes. I feel visually enriched for having seen it.
“It brings together an outstanding selection of works that highlight Schiele?s technical virtuosity, highly original vision and uncompromising depiction of the naked figure …?? he pushed artistic conventions through his direct expression of human experience, fears and desires. The works are bound up with themes of self-expression, procreation, sexuality and eroticism. These were fertile concerns in the socially and psychologically charged atmosphere of pre-war Vienna.”**
The painting and drawings were mostly about A3 in size, on paper that’s a dark cream-brown. Whether it was this colour originally or has darkened with age I don’t know (note to self: remember to ask on an Ask a Curator day).
The most significant thing for me about seeing the paintings in real life was that I could see how he’d worked the layers. Think: initial drawing, watercolour and/or gouache over the drawing, then drawing again with charcoal or pencil to enhance or emphasise lines. Where a line was over paint, and where paint was over a line. How rich yet subtle the colours are and his complex wet-into-wet mixes. How sculptural and directional his brushwork could be in the white gouache, with mere flecks of other colours to guide the eye.? Energetic pencil/charcoal/black crayon lines over the top finding the form and edges. The initial light pencil sketching finding the position of the figure in a composition.
A real surprise was the precise pencil drawing underpinning the subsequent expressive mark making. The expressive result belies Schiele’s careful observation and drawing. The level of detail in the pencil layer of the eyes, for instance. The careful positioning of individual hairs.? In a”Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand” I noticed pencil lines underneath the gouache depicting the sartorius muscle, which I recognized thanks to Alan McGowan’s anatomy for artists workshops.
A few other things I learnt:
“Reclining Male Nude”, created in 1910, has Schiele’s initials in two places, which the gallery label said was “as if to suggest it could be viewed horizontally or vertically”.
Schiele’s drawings “were originally produced as independent works in their own right”, not as drawings to support paintings.
He rarely titled things, and when he did he “framed it within a rectangular cartouche … a carefully considered graphic component in its own right“.**
Quotes:? *page 51 **page 129 of exhibition catalogue: Egon Schiele The Radical Nude
**Courtauld press release
Here’s a video from the Courtauld in which Dr Barnaby Wright discusses the exhibition. It’s an exhibition I’m delighted I got to see. And yes, I did buy the catalogue and some postcards. No, I didn’t post any but am using them as bookmarks.
“Develop deliberate strategies so that you become sensitive to the visual sensations erupting amid the everyday. For example, cultivate an eye for the wonderful. Hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Give greater expression to the sense of play. Find ways to create a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.”
Look at the silvery track of where a snail wandered, not the destruction of the plant it chomped. Look at the way water in a puddle bounces as raindrops fall, rather than worrying about getting your shoes wet. Feel the movement of invisible air against your skin and watch how it ripples and runs through leaves, instead of complaining that it’s windy again.
Watch a rosebud develop and grow, bloom and fade, then leave it to become a rosehip instead of pruning. There’s a sequence of paintings in this waiting to be explored, if you pause to cultivate the eye to see it.
Three days into 2015 and there’s a sunset I felt compelled to photograph. A reminder of the rich purples in the clouds, and evidence for when someone says “clouds aren’t that colour”. No photo editing, merely point and shoot through the window, it being too cold to hold a camera steady without a tripod outside.
This painting has been in “pondering mode” for a few weeks now as I’ve contemplated where to take it, whether to go further into shadow with backlit trees (more true to the location in autumn) or “add more sunshine”.? I know, artistic license and all that, but the shadows of low autumnal sunshine is one of the beautiful things about this location; then again it was the single, bright yellow tree with its autumnal leaves which caught my eye that day.
Only certainties are that the painting is not where I want it to be (yet) and that I’m inhibited by how much I like parts of it, such as the yellow tree, the river stones at the bottom. What I suspect I’m going to do:
Deepen the darks, using perylene green and Prussian blue
Add some white-rippled water in the stream, on the left-hand edges of the rocks in the water and at the edge of the bank
Glaze over the sky to make it feel less disjointed, wiping off the paint where it goes over the tree trunks
Add “sunshine” to the trunks, river bank and stones, as if sunshine is coming from the top right
But perhaps I’ll contemplate it a little more first, and rather continue on some of my other works-in-progress.
One of the myriad of ways we can advance artistically is to increase our awareness of the colours in the world around us, to pick out individual aspects and, more importantly, to have a way of remembering them. The task is a little bit like that faced by wine tasters who have to be able to identify or critique a particular wine from the little indications they encounter in taste. They develop a special vocabulary that matches up particular flavours to names they not only can recall, but can use when talking to others.
The first step to gaining a vocabulary of colours is to get hold of as many Colour Charts as possible. Preferably those hand painted with the manufacturer’s actual colours rather than something printed, or worse, viewed on your computer (when last did you calibrate your screen, if ever?). Look at them regularly, and pay particular attention to where companies have used the same name for slightly different colours. The pigment information will enable you to compare like with like. You’ll need to decide for yourself which particular colour you are going to associate with what name.
The next step is to use these colour names when you are looking at the world. Look at a bush and decide which colour greens. Look at the sea and the sky, and decide the particular colour blue, or grey, or green, you are seeing. The aim is to get to the stage where looking generates the names of specific paint colours in your mine e.g. “cerulean blue with a dark Prussian blue band on the horizon” rather than simply “blue sea”. (You can treat it like a game, and carry a suitable colour chart with you to check your accuracy. Holding your forefingers and thumbs together to create a tiny viewfinder will help you identify a colour in a small area.)
Finally, when you out sketching, rather than rely on colour matching with your watercolours, make a note of the particular colour you are seeing. Record how the changing light of the day causes the colours to vary; you can use this information to correct the time effects of plein air painting, or incorporate it into your choice of analogous colours when painting in with limited palette.
As you progress, you’ll find that you can differentiate between more and more shades of colour, developing a Nuanced Eye.
Know the name of the colour. Your name for that colour.
“Nature excites the imagination to representation. But one must add to this spirit of the landscape in order to help its pictorial quality. Your composition should indicate the more or less entire character of these trees, even though the exact number you have chosen would not accurately express the landscape.”
— Henri Matisse
Quoted in Sarah Stein’s Notes, 1908, in Matisse on Art by Jack D. Flam, page 45
Attempt to convey what interests you in that particular landscape, leave out what you haven’t paid attention to and emphasise what you respond to in it. Share the scene as seen through your eyes, your experience of it, not merely what it looks like. The latter has technical skill and information; the former has technical skill and poetry.
[The paintings] “deliberately invite viewers to slow their pace and to look closely …meaning is assembled from an unstable but fertile mixture of chance and memory” — Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, Head of The Courtauld Gallery
“Johns seems open to unexpected encounter, and in turn his art often provokes us to unexpected ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. …? Johns has always tried not to have intentions that act as a driving force of his art. Instead he simply begins and carries on working until something happens.” — Barnaby Wright, curator
Jasper Johns’ Regrets series developed from a chance encounter he had with a reproduction in a Christie’s auction catalogue of a photo of a young Lucian Freud sitting on a bed in the Francis Bacon’s studio. I chanced upon the exhibition when at the Courtauld Gallery in London to see the Egon Schiele exhibition (more on that later this week). Like most people, I initially merely glanced at the Regrets paintings as I walked through the room where they were, intent on getting to Schiele, but am glad I did come back for a closer, slower look.
There are layers of meaning and symbolism that can be unpacked, on “themes of creativity, memory, reflection and mortality”, which the Courtauld catalogue (and I presume the MoMA catalogue) explains. About how in his process of exploring and transforming the photo in numerous experiments using oil, watercolour, pencil and ink he mirrored and doubled the original image, and in doing so, the form of a skull emerged in the centre of his new composition. This ?apparition? creates a reminder of death or memento mori at the heart of the works.
But I only found that out afterwards when I read the catalogue. What fascinated me was how the photo guided my interpretation of abstract paintings which, without this reference or anchor in reality, I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time look at. My favourite was an ink painting on plastic paper, and impact of this on the mark making which has ‘dissolved’ lines, spread shapes with soft edges. It was mesmerizing, my eyes moving from one shape to another, feeling the hand of the artist and the happy accident of the paper, getting lost in the pattern while simultaneously overlaying the photo in my mind, engaging imagination and intellect in that special way that painting does. (The press image sheet is the only online reference I can find with the images; my favourite is the one top right. Hopefully it’ll stay available for a bit.)