Monday, March 25, 2013

Open For Interpretation

I  remember having a conversation with a fellow painter recently -- or maybe it was awhile ago, whatever-- where I said that my goal is to paint scenes, not interpret them.  I've also mentioned the same thing here in Maine-ly Painting.  Since then I have received number-less requests to explain myself.  (Number-less because there actually hasn't been any...)  So I thought I'd nip this whole thing in the bud and clarify my personal painting philosophy about artist interpretation.

For the fun of it, let's say that a few of us painters are standing out in a beautiful tree lined field on a gorgeous June day;  The puffy white clouds are drifting lazily across a pure blue sky, the trees are lush and deep green with sunlight gently casting shadows on the wildflower filled meadow.  Ahhhhh.....  Beautiful, isn't it?  Feel the gentle breeze and warm sunshine?  What's that "Cheep! Cheep!" sound?  Oh, baby robins!  This must be preserved in paint!

Now, an Impressionist-leaning painter viewing this scene might be thinking mostly in terms of color and light, not necessarily form.  Their painting would be more about the variations and interplay of different colors as they sit side-by-side.  To them, details aren't the point, it's the over-all effect of the scene that is important.  Fair enough.

A more Representational type of painter might gaze upon this scene and feel all warm and fuzzy, and want to portray their feelings in the colors they use.  The overall shapes and form of the field and trees might still be quite recognizable in their painting, but the blues and greens might be replaced by warmer, softer tones, because those are the colors they equate with their emotion.  Again, nothing wrong with that.

Maybe someone whose a bit more abstract might be enthralled by the irregular shapes of the various components of the scene, while also feeling warm and fuzzy.  Their picture may not be recognizable as a meadow in Spring, but that's not even remotely what they were after, anyway.  Hey-- whatever floats your boat.

Three artists, three different interpretations, and more importantly-- none of them wrong.  A painter has to go with what moves them, after all.  But I would argue that anyone viewing those paintings are seeing what the artist wants you to feel, more than what they saw.  And let's face it; I know full well that most of contemporary art is predicated on that viewpoint.

For myself, when I look at this scene, I might feel all warm and fuzzy, (and it may come as a shock to those who know me, but I am capable of feeling warm and fuzzy!) and I could be just as excited by all the different colors and forms as well.  But here's the thing: I want the viewer of my painting to feel the same emotions I felt, too.  So I will try to portray this scene as accurately as I can.  My thinking is that if what I see makes me feel peace and tranquility, then maybe my accurately portraying it will make the viewer feel that way as well.

Then why don't you just take a picture?  I hear you say.  And I say, "where's the fun in that?"  (And if the truth be told, the closer I get to mimicking a photo, the worse my painting becomes).  Look, I have no intention of painting every twig, leaf, blade of grass or flower I see.  The game for me is to see how much I can include or leave out and still make the picture look like what I'm seeing.  Kind of like the TV show The Price Is Right-- closest without going over.  So yeah, I'll paint leaves and blades of grass-- but hopefully just enough to honestly convey what I see in front of me.  Then, maybe the viewer will say, "My-- what a beautiful scene!"  As opposed to, "My-- what a pretty painting!".

Maybe it's just a matter of semantics-- but that's open to interpretation.


Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Let There Be Light

Several years ago-- or maybe it was last month, whatever-- the Portland Museum of Art here in Portland, Maine (known as "The Big City") held a wonderful retrospective of Impressionist Art.  All the usual suspects were there; Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Cezanne.  To the museums credit, they also had some other greats: Metcalf, Twachtman, Weir, Hassam and Benson.  In short, it was a stunning display of art--- except-

(And there's always a "But" isn't there?)

The lighting was horrendous!

It was so dim, I kept thinking the movie was just about to start.  Some paintings were displayed in complete shadow, while one had a solitary spot light shining down on it from the ceiling about ten feet up.  The light on that piece lit the top of the typically large, ornate Victorian frame.  As a result, the frame's shadow obscured the top third of the painting.  The work was also done in heavy impasto, which in turn sent more shadows dripping down the paintings surface.

Look, I get that light is the enemy of paintings with their fragile and fugitive colors and that they must be carefully conserved so that future generations can see them for themselves in their own dimly lit museums.  But when I go to a museum to see paintings, I go to see an image rendered in paint, not an object on a wall.

That rant reminds me of a story about Thomas Eakins.  He was all upset because some colors and values he labored over on one of his paintings was lost because of the poor lighting where it was being displayed.  But that's just another one of the Two Million Things To Keep In Mind When Painting, isn't it?  Is the painting going to be seen in the same lighting as how we painted it?

Here in my studio, I don't have a North light.  I do have a bank of windows on the south side, though.  The light streaming in is usually warm, as opposed to the steady, cooler North light.  I try to offset that by having cool "daylight" bulbs shining down on my work space from the ceiling and a lamp clamped onto my easel. 

In the corner I have another easel with two spots with more daylight bulbs.  I place the painting on that one so I can stand far enough back to get a good look at my picture.  (It's the photo at the top of the page). I will take pictures there, but I prefer using real sunshine whenever I possibly can.

But wait!  There's more!

Every day I lug my painting up to the house and set it in the living room.  The lamps there are a warm, yellow light because I still have incandescent bulbs.  (Sshhhh.. don't tell anyone!)  I will also drag it into the kitchen, dining room-- even the bathroom.  All have different types of light.  I think it's important to see pictures in as many different light settings as I can.  I figure somebody, somewhere is going to use the same light I'm viewing the piece in.  You might be surprised to see the difference warm and cool light can have on a painting:  

The above was taken in warm light.  All the warm pinks and yellows and such are amplified one thousand fold, making them blisteringly hot.  Below, here's the picture in cool light:

I'm not even going to get into whether your monitor leans to the blue or red spectrum, so Lord knows what you're seeing here.  But this is how I'm going to present this painting until I get outside and take a photo in the sun.  Anyway, I call it "Off Season", it's oil on panel 24X20.  It's highly doubtful, but gee, wouldn't it be great if someday this piece is in a museum?--

Maybe they'll have the lights on!



Friday, March 8, 2013

Inch By Inch

Last week-- or maybe it was five or six years ago, whatever-- when I was dropping off a painting for a local juried art show, I saw a picture that stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was beautifully conceived and excellently done.  I found out later that it was done by a well-known professional artist who has been featured in a couple of art books I own.  (Her name is Loretta Krupinski, if you want to google her.)

But this isn't about Ms Krupinski, but what made her piece stand out to me;  What I noticed was that every square inch of that painting was carefully thought out and given the same amount of effort as every other square inch.  Not detail, mind you, but execution.  Nothing was haphazard or an after-thought.  You could plainly see the care with which she painted the piece. 

And then I looked at mine... 

You know, when one goes into an upscale art gallery or museum, we see fine works of art, but nothing makes a painting truly stand out as good as when it's hanging next to bad art.

(Side note:  No such thing as "bad art", you say?  We can have bad chefs, bad cops, bad teachers, even bad doctors, but we can't have bad art?


And before you think I'm smugly above the fray, -- I've perpetrated some horrendous art on the world myself.)

Anyway, I resolved then and there to give my future works the same amount of care and thought as she did hers.  What the hell, if it works for her...  But you know, I've also come to notice that trait in other fine (in my opinion) artists and their paintings.

Let's look at one of my favorite artists, Tom Lovell:

Tom was a student of the Haddon Sundblom school of painting; bold, decisive and colorful brush strokes.  Seemingly done in a swish, swish-- there's a painting!  manner.  You can see it in this picture-- thin here, impasto there.  Not niggled and over worked.  This painting is about 25 or so inches long and about 15 inches high.  Not large at all.  Now, check out the guy on the right.  Look closer at his left hand and the pencil he's holding:


Who says detail has to be tight?  Tom didn't take some yellow and swish it on and call it a pencil.  He lavished just as much thought and effort on this maybe two-square inch of canvas as he did on the nurse and soldier.  That's why his work is in books to be studied, I guess.  

Another of my favorites, and a guy I don't mention much but will in the future is Maxfield Parrish.  I think Parrish was probably the most creative artist of the Twentieth Century.  He combined fantasy and realism in a way that wasn't done before, and really hasn't been done since.  If 1900 to 1950 were the "Golden Age" of illustration, Max was a Sun God.  He retired from illustration work and painted landscapes for 30 years.  His subjects were mostly inspired by the New Hampshire country side where he lived.  Here's one I particularly love:

He used a glazing technique that was straight out of the Renaissance.  But what looks super-tight and detailed at first glance can be a bit misleading.  Look at these rocks--

Geez, it looks like an abstract painting!  (Note to self: try to make every picture a series of abstract vignettes that when put together look realistic).

OK, one more, while I'm on a roll.  I have no idea who did this 19th Century painting, but I really like the sensation of a perfect Mediterranean day it evokes.  Classical paintings of ancient Roman and Greek times from that era were done in the studio, and no matter how much blue the artist put in the sky, it always looked like a gloomy day.  This one shows sunlight and color beautifully- just don't ask me what the hell the people are doing...

I don't know the dimensions of this piece, but I'm sure it's huge.  But still, look at how this artist thought out every element.  Again, while this is no swish-swish technique, it doesn't mean it's stiff.  The upper right hand corner could be a Monet street scene:

By the way, the little detail at the top of this blog showing a porch rail post and rocks are from my latest, but it's not quite ready to be unveiled:

I have a few inches left before it's done.