Regular posts about my painting practice present and past.

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| 08 December, 2013 09:28

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Warhol, or An Assistant

| 28 November, 2013 13:05

Warhol’s genius was to take as the subject of his paintings their process of production.

His paintings are more important for how they are made than for what they depict. It’s not because the image is of Jackie

 

 

or Marilyn,

 

or Elvis,

 

or Liz, or Campbell’s Soup that these paintings hold long-term interest and fetch millions at auction, it’s almost in spite of the fact.

What’s more important is how they are made, using mechanical reproduction techniques while commenting on the effects of mechanical reproduction.

Typically, Warhol, or an assistant (or a visitor to the factory) would choose an image, always one that had already been mechanically reproduced and was in the public domain, or to which Warhol had copyright (the Polaroid portraits).

Then the picture would be sent out to a production house to be made into a photo silkscreen. Warhol, or an assistant, would prime a canvas with acrylic paint and rough in the local color, then one of them would squeegee ink through the photo silkscreen stencil on to the canvas.

It is crucial to Warhol’s painting that the image is mechanically produced and mechanically reproducible. Sometimes one painting will contain multiple impressions from the same silkscreen.

By emphasizing that his images are mass-produced he places his paintings in relation to other, hand-made, one-of-a-kind paintings as pages of text printed with moveable type are to hand-written pages. Moveable type laid the foundation of the mass market. Warhol’s silk-screened images allude to the power of moveable type to create and inform the mass market.

His public domain heroes and villains are flattened by his painting process into brand logos to take their place beside Tony the Tiger, Colonel Sanders and Betty Boop.

And so Fame: how it is manufactured and sustained is the subject of Warhol’s art. The essential equivalence of Marilyn Monroe’s face and bottle of Coke is their great insight.

To Paint or Not to Paint Water, That is the Question.

| 13 June, 2012 08:46

Water Lillies, 1919, Claude Monet

Water is the best subject for exploring purely optical effects with paint.

 

Because it is always seen in natural light and it modifies and elucidates that light like nothing else, water is a subject closely associated with Impressionism. (Even atmospheric effects are caused by the water in the air.)

 

Yet water disappears as a subject after the post-impressionists.  After his Fauve period (which was really just his attempt to define the limits of the Impressionist program) Henri Matisse never memorably painted the optical effects of light on water.  Water as a prism for light effects was never a subject for Pablo Picasso either.

 

To paint water or not to paint water, that is the question.  The answer defines the boundary between optical painters like the Impressionists and analytic painters like the Cubists.  By accepting or rejecting the challenge of painting water, artists of these two schools declare separate esthetic priorities and different agendas for the means of painting.

 

In the form of a river, a pond, a lake or ocean, water presents unique challenges and opportunities for a painter because it is partially transparent, semi-reflective and constantly in motion.  It is the subject by which a quality of sunlight is apprehended in its purest, abstract form with minimum metaphorical content.

 

As such, the challenge of painting water has demanded almost the whole repertoire of Impressionist techniques. Indeed, you could say that Impressionism was developed as much to account for the light-scattering and diffusing properties of water as any other subject.

 

The Water Lilies, Monet’s last great thesis on the nature of painting, posits that abstract rhythmic color on a surface can be a valid visual signifier for a body of water.  The Water Lilies declare that the essence of painting is optical. (“. . .Only an eye, but what an eye!” said Cezanne of Monet. But even so--only an eye).

 

 Outdoor light is fugitive. It constantly changes color and direction. We see it only when it bounces off something else and strikes the eye. The subject that epitomizes or mimics that fugitive quality best is water. 

Night Fishing at Antibes, Pablo Picasso


It is questionable whether Picasso who typically painted indoors and at night ever saw water as anything more than an opportunity to cover the lower half of the composition with a rectangle of serene blue.

 

 At the Beach, Pablo Picasso


The beach and the sea for him are just a theatrical backdrop and are painted that way.

 

 Polynesia, Henri Matisse


Matisse reduced water to some luxe fashion pattern like you'd see on a Hermes scarf.

 

So in a generation a central preoccupation of an entire national school of painting is discarded, never to be seen again.  Why did the subject of water suddenly become obsolete? Is it because the School of Paris didn’t want to, didn’t need to, or simply because they couldn’t paint the optical effects of light on water with the painting vocabulary they had established?

The Naked and the Nude

| 24 May, 2012 10:58

The naked human body, the nude, is the central subject of western art. It is the form in which mythological figures and gods have been presented to us in art since the Renaissance.renaissance nudes luca cranach

The Three Graces, Lucas Cranach

The titles and settings of the paintings enabled art patrons to gaze at the image of an unclothed young woman and/or man on their walls and appear at the same time completely respectable; even high minded. Yet the titillation factor was always at least part of the appeal of the great masterpieces of the genre.

Courbet nude

Origin of the World, Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet made that appeal overt when he painted the lower abdomen of a woman and called it “The Origin of the World.”  Artists since have not bothered much with the mythological trappings of what has always been our much more animalistic interest in the human form.pastel nude drawing

Brown pastel nude, Ross Skoggard

As figurative artists today we like to say “we paint what we see.” But of all the things we see, we choose to paint the things we want to see more of: the delicate play of light in a landscape, the satisfying balance of objects in a still life or the allure of a naked body.

pastel nude

Standing nude with pole, Ross Skoggard

The subtext of every picture of a nude figure is sex. And, as Freud says, sex is the motive force behind nearly all human activity. 

Thes are pastel drawings I made at open life drawing sessions around 2001.  Many of the poses were quite short: five or ten minutes. In that time only an immediate impression can be captured. There was no time to blend the colors so they tend to be exaggerated. Placement and composition are secondary concerns if they figure consciously in the drawings at all.pastel nude

Nude on a step ladder, Ross Skoggard

What grounds these images and makes them recognizable as human forms is our willingness, our desire to see a human form even in a hasty scribble of color.

The curve of a breast or buttock, the line of an arm or leg is all we need to orient ourselves in relation to the drawing and say that yes, this is a person. And even though they are not literal transcriptions of a particular individual we feel a kinship. We identify. We feel pathos.

pastel drawing

Male nude on one foot, Ross Skoggard

The pictoral means are anything but gentle and caressing, but the humanness of the figure shines through and is more affecting as a result.

Sketches for acrylic paintings, Paris, 1970

| 11 May, 2012 08:31

sketch for acrylic painting

I found a sketchbook from Paris done around 1970 with a series of goache sketches for large acrylic paintings on cotton duck.

goache abstract

I was committed to making pictures with minimal pictoral means at the time. I can't say how deliberate these color choices were. In the late seventies, just before I went back to or rediscovered figurative painting, I was painting with colors chosen at random.

But that was later.picture of nothing

These seem to be in the thrall of Morris Louis' veil paintings. His stripe paintings, too. Perhaps I was trying to find a space between the two.

 In that case the choice of colors would be very careful and deliberate. That's where the romance of the picture is located. The romantic ideal of an artist creating a world is compromised if color choices are left to chance.

The Greatest Photograph in the World

| 17 April, 2012 15:17

I did this on my phone last week.

on bloor st w looking south

It is of Varsity Stadium at the University of Toronto. I don't think it's really the greatest phtograph in the world.

But it is like the greatest photograph in the world in that it is a street view taken from the street.

That's a pretty strong hint. The greatest photograph in the world is Google maps street view. It is a photograph with no borders, no edge, no center. It enables us to conceive of the street as one entity that extends everywhere changing its name as it goes from city to city, country to country.

Google street view is not the street but a document of the street that illustrates the street as stage. What goes on in the street is theater; often boring, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic depending on when and where we step on to it. Walking on the street, everyone is as equal as they'll ever be. Some may have better shoes but they're all engaged in the eternal activity of putting one foot in from of the other and looking around while they do so.

Because it is the first portrait of the infinite street, google maps street view is the greatest photograph ever taken.

Bumper stickers from the Palio di Siena

| 27 March, 2012 10:26

 

 

I bought a set of bumper stickers in Siena, Italy about 20 years ago that represent the colors and some design elements of the banners of the 17 different contrade or city wards.

 

 Bianco listato di Nero Turchino e Rosso of the “crested porcupine” contrada

Twice a year since the 14th century a horse race is held in the Piazza del Campo. Only ten of 17 teams participate because there were too many accidents when all 17 raced. The bareback riders are often thrown.

 

Bianco e Arancio listati di Turchino of the “unicorn” contrada whose residents are goldsmiths by tradition

 

 

Bianco e Nero listati di Arancione, the “she-wolf” contrada, home to bakers.

 

The designs are simultaneously authentic mediaevil and modern/minimalist. They have the flat, programmatic presence of a Bridget Riley painting but they derive from battle banners: graphic signs to identify the bearer as friend or foe.

 

Rosa antico e verde con cornice gialla of the “dragon” contrada whose residents were bankers.

 

I’m intrigued with how they succeed as minimalist painting compositions conveying a sense of urgency with their repeated, high-contrast motifs. These pictures aren’t whispering, they’re shouting. Their formal attributes organized primarily to turn up the volume and emphasize their difference from one another.

 

Bianco listato di Rosso of the “giraffe” contrada where the painters lived.

 

I bought them because I used to be a minimalist painter and I learned how difficult it is to compose an image that is free of  literary or illusionistic content.

 

Giallo e Verdi listati di azzurro or the “caterpillar” contrada home of the silk trade workers.

 

And I feel these compositions do that while at the same time relying on a highly specific iconography. I just love them. They are emotional and flamboyant yet completely abstract.

 

The Kingston Prize, 2011

| 13 January, 2012 13:26

 

The KP is the richest open-competition prize in Canada. I
entered it this year for the first time, thinking how handy a spare $25,000 would
be.  My triple self-portrait in the hinged bathroom mirror didn’t win.

Today I went to see an exhibition of the 30 finalists at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The gallery is suitably subdued lighting-wise to protect the
works on paper. The first thing you see is a free-standing sign with the image
of a camera and a diagonal red line through it. This, of course, means no
photography allowed in the gallery, which is ironic because the exhibition could not exist without photography. 

The exhibition is dedicated to the proposition that portraiture should concern itself first and foremost with getting a photographic likeness, often by the expedience of actually copying a photographic print.

2011 Gallery
of Finalists

I was primed not to like it-- full disclosure-- but in front
of the 30 portraits from across Canada I had a physical reaction that forced me
to leave the gallery while my companion still wandered around looking for the
first prize portrait

I felt I couldn`t breathe. 

Each picture was a copy of a photograph, an endorsement of the superiority of the machine-made over the hand made image.

 

The Ears have It

| 21 November, 2011 13:48

Giovanni Morelli is the 19th c. Italian art critic who refined connoisseurship by pointing out that experts could more readily identify an artist's technical characteristics in the unimportant parts of a painting. The ears in a portrait for instance. Because they are secondary to a picture's total effect, they are more likely to betray an artist's idiosynchratic touches.

 

 

pencil drawing study of ears

This is my drawing of ears today. The model had fantastic ears and no hair so I decided to focus on them.

Morelli's insight was profound. The ear is one of the most complex shapes on the human body, yet in itself it is in no way indiciative of an individual. So there is no reason for a master to lavsih time on this elaborate but meaningless configuration.

So in general every painter who paints the ears fails to represent them with the same concentration he or she applies to the eyes or mouth. They become a kind of shorthand scrawl.  And legally, a scrawl is as good as a signature.

Warm light, cool light

| 16 November, 2011 10:50

Often, especially in the winter, the only painting I do is at the life sessions at a club in Toronto. These are two paintings done almost a year apart that step back a bit and take in the group and the room as well as the model.

This was done last January.

from a life drawing session at the Heliconian Club, Toronto

 

This was last Monday.

life drawing toronto

It was the same model by chance. What I am pleased with is the different kinds and colors of light in each painting. There’s the cool bluish light from the windows and the warm incandescent spotlight on the model with a bit of a mixture of the two on the artists in the background.

That makes the ambiance of the room feel the same on both days and achieves one of the most important things I try to do in all my paintings which is capture a quality of light.

Light, of course, can’t be seen and only reveals it’s particular temperature and intensity when it is reflected off an object. Having two light temperatures is quite common in contemporary interior spaces where windows are letting in daylight and bulbs supplementing the light in the room. The contrast is perhaps more noticeable in a large space and especially in a situation like a life drawing session where spotlights are trained on a model.

 The paintings invoke issues of spectacle and spectator with the quality of the light and stillness of the model contrasting with the activity of the artists. The second painting is almost divided exactly in half by the vertical of the wall of the alcove. The artists on both sides lean in toward the model, an attitude echoed by the beams in the ceiling.  The light illuminating the paintings on the walls is the same type as the light on the model making an association between the finished paintings on the walls and the subject in the center of the room. The artists share a “light theme” with the window light and that relates their activity and quality of concentration to the natural light of the outside world.

Pablo and Henri: Best Frenemies

| 22 October, 2011 18:16

demiselles d'avignon,women,picasso,prostitutes,cubism

Henri Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre from 1905 hung in the salon of Leo and Gertrude Stein’s in Paris where Pablo Picasso was a frequent visitor.

What must the ambitious Andalusian have felt hearing Leo Stein extol Matisse’s work as “the most important painting of our time”?

Apparently it aroused his feelings of competition. 

His great masterpiece: Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907 was his response.

In it he contravenes every aspect of Matisse’s painting including the title, locale, colour scheme, rendering style, format and seems to say instead: “Le bonheur de vivre? C’est ca!

 

Some dichotomies expressed in the two paintings:

Country – city

Colour – monochrome

Curvilinear – angular

Day – night

Natural light – artificial light

Virgin – whore

Horizontal – vertical

Landscape – portrait

 

In every formal and philosophical aspect, Picasso takes Matisse’s work and turns it on its head. In many respects Matisse’s work is the thesis of which Picasso’s Demoiselles, the greatest painting of the 20th century, is the antithesis.

Henri Matisse, cineaste; Temporality in Le bonheur de vivre

| 30 September, 2011 13:01

the painting is like a movie

The title of Henri Matisse’s two and a half meter-wide masterpiece Le bonheur de vivre from 1905 is most often translated as The Joy of Life. I think for reasons intrinsic in the iconography of the painting it more accurately depicts The Joy of Living.

 

The word “living” stresses the temporality or experience of life through time. The word “life” denotes a static condition. 

 

Matisse’s composition shows an anomaly that that has puzzled commentators for decades.  The figures, which were carefully developed through numerous studies, do not appear to inhabit one coherent space.  Some of the nude figures (they are nearly all female) are either too large or too small for the space they purport to occupy in the picture’s fairly unambiguous landscape space.

 

I don’t know what Matisse intended to do with that pictorial conceit, but the effect is to dissociate the figure groups from each other.  The harder we try to comprehend the composition as a whole; as a single gestalt, as a moment in time, the more elusive the figures appear.

 

It is only possible to engage individual figure groups by ignoring the figure groups next to it.

 

The figure groupings in Henri Matisse’s’ Le Bonheur de Vivre can only be apprehended in sequence. In this way they represent the evanescence of experience. After you experience through the painting the joy of dance, say, you have to put it aside and come to something new.  That evanescent quality is at the heart of the joy of living Matisse seems to say. And I believe that’s what gives such poignancy to this painting, the one Leo Stein called “the most important painting done in our time.”

What Goes Around; Sphericality in Cezanne Still Lifes

| 02 September, 2011 14:43

There is one simple reason a manual worker likes to have light over the shoulder opposite his working hand. It eliminates the hand’s shadow on the work.

 

 What it also does is light the artist’s subject from the same side.  Right-handed painters then typically paint scenes lit from the left. Left handed painters sccenes lit from the right.

 

In nearly all of Cezanne’s oil paintings where a light source can be detected it comes from the left.

 cezanne still life

 

In this still life, all the round objects (all the fruit) are carefully modeled to show the effect of light striking from the left. There are even a few passages of reflected light in the shadow of an adjacent piece of fruit. 

 

Cezanne carefully records local color when he paints the fruit.  Other elements, especially those that are not spherical, tend to be more monochrome.

 

alt

 

The square or flat elements are often rendered in reverse perspective. By denying his diagonals a vanishing point, or even a horizon on which to converge, Cezanne places his fruit in a dynamic environment in which they constantly threaten to roll off the table.  All the vertical and horizontal planes of the paintings, including the ones that define the mouths of a bowl or jar, are tipped forward and to the left. 

 

The effect is somehow to reinforce the illusion of the fruit’s spherical shape. This is done by exploiting the fact that the left and right side of the pieces of fruit show diffrerent levels of contrast with the background.

 

Each individual piece of fruit appears to be rotating counter clockwise around a vertical axis.  The modeling brings the left, more contrasty side of each piece of fruit forward while the right side recedes.

 

alt

 

Next, the whole armature of vertical and horizontal lines and planes in which the fruit are situated in the paintings is skewed. The verticals are not parallel to the edge of the painting. Typically, they lean to the left. The horizontals may appear to square up better with the painting’s edge, but often Cezanne does not allow a horizontal line to meet behind an object. The left part of the horizontal will be lower that the right part which pitches the entire composition to the left.

 

The viewer is in a sense "moving" to the left of the scene by this device and indeed begins to see “around”  the individual pieces of fruit. This reinforces the feeling of roundness.

alt

 

The sphere is one of the “sacred” shapes of which Cezanne said all painting are made.

 

In his still lifes Cezanne uses all the means at a painter’s command to give the sphere palpability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog

| 04 July, 2011 09:15

 (More)

Painting is Like Boxing

| 07 June, 2011 12:17

I think Georges Braque said that. Maybe he did.

I realized yesterday when I was painting this picture how true that can be sometimes. I didn't have a red except alizaron crimson, no brown except yellow ochre. I didn't like my brush. The surface was oil primed and too slick.(whine, whine) I felt I was in a fight the whole time and losing.

Couldn't get the legs to behave, she was getting tired and her right knee started to droop. The sun came in lower and lower through the west-facing window changing all the colors every 20 minutes. I felt I had met my match.

Then time was up. I look at it now and maybe it wasn't such a smack down after all. Judges will decide.

heliconian reclining nude