As with most motifs I draw, I redrew the cat several times. I used a photo (not having an actual cat anymore) and made several very different drawings from the same source photo.
So, I guess we’d have to call them “mistakes” given that they do not accurately reproduce the photo. But I love my “mistakes” — they turn one cat into several, each with a different mood.
Cherish your mistakes, artists, and be sure to make as many of them as you can! Il faut refaire la même chose dix fois cents fois. [You must redo the same thing ten times a hundred times.] Mr. Degas said it! And we must do it!
The mythology of various artists, it is an aspect of how their work is interpreted. It’s important to recognize, even to experience, the myth if one is to understand certain things about the artists, about the impact their work has made. Artists like Matisse and Picasso devised their own myths, had well-styled public faces while they were living. They recognized the importance – Degas also, in his being “illustrious and unknown” – to preserve the mystery of art.
[Above, my copy after a Degas drawing of a dancer.]
Myopia, nearsightedness, is a visual defect in which distant objects appear blurred because their images are focused in front of the retina rather than on it. A more serious defect than myopia, however, would be small-mindedness.
I voluntarily got entangled briefly in a discussion on the merits of British artist Howard Hodgkin, in which I found myself somewhat reluctantly coming to Mr. Hodgkin’s defense. Some readers know I can be curmudgeonly where “modern art” is concerned, and though I like Mr. Hodgkin’s paintings, I did wonder if it was worth the bother to defend him, after I had been so cruel to harmless Ellworth Kelly. And given that people simply like what they like, the defense seemed like it would be (and was) an exercise in futility.
Nevertheless, the buzz about Hodgkin prompted me to revisit a book that contains some of the artist’s own words about his art, and I always find his erudition totally charming and insightful. So, armed with that, I was prompted to think some more about Degas, Hodgkin’s hero and mine. Of Degas, Hodgkin writes, “His technique is amazingly inventive, but surely without conscious virtuosity; it was a search for a language of maximum directness and simplicity….” He says further, “There is a tradition equating marks in nature and marks made by an artist which goes back to Leonardo and his blotchy wall, to Hercules Seghers, Turner, etc. But there is something of a painter’s philosopher’s stone about the mark which is itself a final pictorial statement, and something representational in itself, and also emotionally expressive. Degas looked for different ways of making these marks all his life and kept finding new solutions.”
I decided I’d try looking at Degas through Hodgkin’s painting (in my way). Got the books out and set up to copy. On a whim, I took off my glasses — thinking of the eye problems attributed to Degas in his later years.
You see, my glasses are laying there to the left. And I’ve got Degas’s Dancers (Toledo Museum) and my notebook, and the Howard Hodgkin book open to two of his paintings, and Jennifer Bartlett snuck in as well at the top with pages from In the Garden. The remote control is nearby so I can listen to Maria Rita.
Emboldened by Hodgkin’s abstraction and my own myopia, I just had at it for an hour or so. To treat (a few) of the details of the faces in the Degas, I had to press my nose right up to the image.
And it was more of these quick days of pretending that oil pastel is paint.
I don’t wish to be too hard on narrow minded folks, though, for then I must reprimand myself, and furthermore I think sometimes we need our prejudices when they serve a purpose. And artists especially sometimes dearly need their prejudice, what with the world being such an awfully, achingly big place ….
A somewhat lesser know fact about how artists made pictures in the old days is that a lot of the old guys (more reverently known as the Old Masters) did, from time to time, come across works by other artists that they altered in some fashion to suit their fancy. For example Rembrandt made radical subtractions and additions to an etching plate by Hercules Seghers to transform a Tobias and the Angel into a Flight into Egypt. He wasn’t alone, and you shouldn’t blame Rembrandt. Anyway, he did a nice job in making the transformation. But back in those days, if you didn’t want anybody messing with your picture, you sure were well advised to hide it in a vault.
Today in our era of reproductions galore, you can alter works by past masters without feeling the slightest bit guilty, and some artists have made whole careers out of the fabric of another man’s cloth. Me, I’m just using one of my favorite draughtsmen to have some fun. I bought two copies of the ridiculously cheap edition of Degas’s Halevy notebook by Dover Booksand used the extra copy as my coloring book. It makes me feel like a kid again! (And that’s worth something all by itself!) And it’s a great additional way to study the old guy.
The top image is dressed up using gouache, the lower two using colored pencils.
in pastel” and through some combination of key words found me. This I learned from my stats. Don’t know what post came up under this combination, or if the visitor found anything that resembled what he or she was looking for, but I am intrigued by the question. It’s the kind of question one often hears addressed in artists’ manuals and in those few magazine publications devoted to technical aspects of art.
I raise the topic now because I try to be helpful, but also because it is so opposite the way that I think about art. I don’t know if I have ever wondered how one would achieve a quality of light in any medium, and so it prompts me to wonder how I would answer the person’s question were I asked — as well as to wonder what kinds of things I do try to achieve in my pictures.
What I’ve sought since the beginning of my artist’s life was a way of understanding those works of art that I loved. My desires began with individual pictures that I found compelling, and afterwards I found myself asking “how did the artist do that?” Art always led the way for me, it led me into life, I think, rather than the other way around. Or perhaps it disciplined life for me.
I had always found things in life that were beautiful and moving. But in art, I found life represented a certain way, and afterwards I wondered “what living circumstance would recreate the painting?” So different artists — and they were quite varied — affected me and made me visually curious and provoked me into looking for the life situation that they had depicted. So in effect they taught me to see life. Different artists teach you to see different corners of existence. And afterwards the things themselves almost resemble styles. A sunset might be Turner, Delacroix or Corot. Rural scenes might be Winslow Homer or Andrew Wyeth (quite a stretch there). A suburban scene with its sidewalks and green lawns might contain all the linear sinuousity of Diebenkorn.
In none of these things would I be looking for one facet separated out — something like “light” — but rather one finds a holistic sensibility, a way of organizing the world that resembles the ideas of one artist or period. Naming artists George Bellows, Joan Mitchell, Durer, Titian, Rembrandt, Ingres, Giotto, Edward Hopper, and so on, is to evoke not techniques but personalities.
Thus any technical question could be answered so many different ways. I don’t ask “how does one deal with light,” but “what features does Delacroix notice in a landscape and what means does he use to achieve them?” Even to ask the question of one artist nets slightly different answers depending upon the medium. Delacroix was very sensitive to the exigencies of pencil or watercolor or pastel or oil and employs each in quite precise ways to take advantage of the medium’s strengths.
The landscapes above provide examples. The landscape above is filled with wonderful light effects, and the ways of analyzing it are multifold. But one thing that leaps out at me, looking at it now, is the way he places alternating horizontal bands of light and dark throughout the entire picture, that extend through tonal and chromatic changes in the sky and which continue into the land below. It’s a device that one finds in 17th century Dutch landscape, something that well-versed Delacroix was quite aware of — yet he does not follow this idea in any programmatic way. Indeed, one feels quite sure that the effects we see in the picture mirror something that he saw in an actual landscape.
“La vérité est dans une nuance,” he said. (“Truth is in a nuance.”) To quote it, one has to reemploy the French word. The very notion of fine distinctions, it would appear, comes to us on the wings of a French idea. Certainly it was pivotal to Delacroix’s way of looking at things. And one sees it exemplified in the pictures above. The landscape he drew has a thousand connections to works by other artists, to ideas about drawing, evocation, arrangement, tonality, space, that one finds in innumerable places from the aforementioned Dutch landscape painters to Claude Lorraine or even Turner. Yet the scene has a distinctly Delacroix flavor. And that impress of his personality is undoubtedly the “nuance.”
Still I have not answered, have I, the question asked by my unknown visitor. The answer to the question of how to achieve light in pastel is to take a motif in which the fall of light is a principal element and to use pastel to try to depict it. Observe the subject, translate it through one’s tools at hand. Pastel itself poses an interesting problem since, of course, pastel colors do not blend as readily as paints. They are at least a tone lighter from the outset because of the missing layer of oil medium, and thus much chromatic exaggeration and tonal suggestion is necessary to create an appearance of a full spectrum. But you work with the pastel rather than against it, literally translating your subject into the “language of pastel,” which might mean into lines or hatchings or rubbed tones and approximate color relationships.
And afterwards over coffee, you look at your pastel and compare it with something done by a master in that medium. And who might that be? The comparison with Degas will yeild very different results than the comparison with Chardin, Millet, Twatchman — or with Edvard Munch or Picasso or with contemporary artist Jennifer Bartlett. All such different answers to the “how” question arise from different aims and different personalities.
So, there’s not an easy answer. I think the one who asks the question has to ask further: what am I trying to achieve? What light do I seek? And why?
And meanwhile the answer is not an answer in the ordinary sense. It will not be simply one thing — one hopes. It will be many things, various discoveries that one makes in the acts of looking.