People wonder how to put colors together when choosing furnishings for their home. While you can find many books on the topic, I want to add some advice that’s very compact. Go out into the garden and gather some flowers that are in bloom together and plop them into a vase without a whole lot of fuss.
The colors that we find in nature look good together. The quantities, the varieties, the degrees of contrast as well as the degrees of commonality produce a lovely effect. Too often people succumb to rules to bolster a choice. Too often the rules lead to a sterile sameness. The commonplace notion is that colors should “coordinate.” But in nature we find plenty of contrast. Often the most beautiful spectacles in nature arise amid great contrast such as the colors of a landscape under an approaching storm.
Think of the dark cloud, the pale blue-green cerulean of a luminous sky, the rich dark green of shadow and the lush powerful verdant of a brightly lit lawn. Imagine the mirror reflections of a landscape seen from the water’s edge. Imitate the dapple of the shadows from a tree’s thick foliage. Let the bright tones of a bird’s wing alight in your mind, and you’re well on your way to finding the color scheme for your life, your rooms, your home.
Arrange a little still life with flowers and let it be a microcosmos for your color ideas. Imitate nature and you cannot go wrong.
[Top of the post: Bouquet of Flowers by Aletha Kuschan]
In the imagery of Classical antiquity, the Muses dance together. All the arts share a common foundation, and thus an artist in any discipline can learn a lot from the other arts. Painters can learn much from musicians. In this quote by Yehudi Menuhin, the distinction between effort that is exclusively technical and a highly structured artistic freedom is well delineated:
“If I felt I couldn’t accept Ysaye’s advice, nor his offer to teach me, the fault lay in my stars perhaps, or at any rate in the temperament I was born with. He might have added method to my working day (among much else besides, no doubt) and thereby shortened the long search for understanding I ultimately had to make, but learning an imposed method seemed not in my nature. In dealing with people I was, as I am, very trusting; in dealing with ideas, opinions, traditions, techniques, I never took anything ready-made, but reserved judgment until I had personally tested the matter. Music was something very alive to me, an essential means of expression, and I suspect that unending hours of work on dull material might well have blunted rather than polished my interpretation of it. Nor am I alone in this, I think. I have since seen how very rigid teaching of music, such as has been systematized in Russia can steam roller individual expressiveness into anonymous brillance, so that only the most irrepressible survive the course with personality and musicality intact. Of course I don’t wish to imply Ysaye would have ridden roughshod over my finer feelings; only that what he might have given, I was not able to take. If it was unorthodox, my development as a violinist was nevertheless valid. Mine was an inspired way, shown me by inspired teachers, not mastery of scales and arpeggios; it was recognition of greatness and response to it.”
–Yehudi Menuhin Unfinished Journey p. 66- 67 Alfred Knopf publisher, 1976
[Top of the post: Andrea Mantegna, detail, Mars and Venus or Parnassus, 1497, Paris, Musee du Louvre]
The precise quality that renders the sketch the highest expression of the idea is not the suppression of details, but their subordination to the great sweeping lines that come before everything else in making the impression. The greatest difficulty therefore, when it comes to tackling the picture, is this subordination of details which, nevertheless, make up the composition and are the very warp and weft of the picture itself. 23 April 1854 [trans. Lucy Norton]
Ce qui fait precisement de ce croquis l’expression par excellence de l’idee , c’est, non pas la suppression des details, mais leur complete subordination aux grand traits qui doivent saisir avant tout. La plus grande difficulte consiste donc a retrouner dans le tableau a cet effacement des details, lesquels pourtant sont la composition , la trame meme du tableau…..
Paris 23 avril, 1854
Now, I won’t make you guess who said this! It was Eugène Delacroix, the great 19th century French painter.
No ovals. No usual proportions. Just lines put into the places where it seems that they belong. No recipe. Just my drawing.
Try it. It’s fun.
Okay, I’ve been doing this a while. But I’ve made tons of mistakes.
Most books that teach drawing have demonstrations that look something like the sketch above (taken from this source). They begin with an oval-ish shape, horizontal and vertical axes, short smudge lines placed in strategic positions to represent nose, eyes and mouth, and so on.
They begin with the idea of a whole face, a regular or typical face, a norm. They specify very simple directions that promise to be easy enough for anybody to learn.
They are okay, as far as they go. I wonder when I see them: are people really this afraid of making mistakes? It’s just a drawing.
If you want to draw, but are afraid to draw, try rules like these to get past your qualms and your reluctance. But that said, the recipe for faces is a very inadequate approach to drawing. Really, to be truthful, it’s an awful approach. It is completely reliant upon very limited, conventional ideas of what a face should look like. It holds no hope for anyone who wants to explore his or her own sensations of seeing.
If you want to draw, your first challenge is just picking up a pencil and beginning. But if you are brave from the beginning, you will reap benefits later on. Forget ovals and proportions. Imagine instead that the object of your attention has lines wrapped around it. Imagine placing your pencil upon one of those lines and copying it upon a sheet of paper. Do not even care (in the beginning) overly much whether your lines match these lines in nature. Just try (very hard) for the nearest match you can get.
If your lines cannot match at first the spectacle of what you see, at least have them be your lines. What you saw, what you felt, not the recipe for conventionally considered faces.
Draw, place colors, think about apples, look at the unexpected lines and structural arrangements that arise from the blunt facts of material nature sitting there on your table. Consider that you can get the idea of their forms with a most concise kind of line or you can probe down to what you imagine to be the molecules with a very loving, lingering observation of the fine nuances of color and tone.
Have no thought about “style” at all. Forget that such a notion was ever uttered. Think only about the reality before you and your earnest efforts to grasp it. Absolutely no originality is necessary. Indeed, just the opposite frame of mind would be most helpful at this juncture. Simply paint as though you were Nature’s walking, talking Xerox machine. Your own nature is as deeply a factor as that of your apple’s nature and it will express itself if only you do not interfere. Let yourself simply exist with as much materiality and spiritual durability as this apple and have Nature be the author who addresses us through the alternating gestures of your fumbling or your certainty.
And, as Van Gogh once said so grandly, if you hear a voice that says you are not an artist, “paint my Boy” (or Girl) “and that voice will be silenced.”
[illustration: author’s photograph of apples in a compotier]
Somewhere out there is a young artist who I hope will eventually find these words. All the writing I do is directed to this person, who quite possibly hasn’t even been born yet — or who perhaps celebrates a first birthday even as I write. This artist is not like most artists because he (or she) is “destined” to become a great artist. And I am keenly desirous of writing to this young person, not because I have anything essential to tell him since a great artist comes already fully equiped, straight from the factory (who is Mother Nature, after all) with all the innate essentials for greatness intact. What the young great-artist-to-be really needs most of all is encouragement.
Many are the people who would divert you from your path because — well, there are several reasons. One, they do not believe greatness is actually possible — or not anymore — and so you shouldn’t make the attempt, you should instead go with the flow and master all that is hip and happening now. Second, are the people who believe in greatness, they just don’t think you’ve got it. Why? Well, because they know you. The “great” artist cannot be anyone that we know personally since “great” people are always afar off, somewhere else. They are exotic. They live in Paris (19th century) or New York (20th century) or in some other “important” place. They could never live in Delft (Vermeer) or Provence (Cezanne) or in Maine (Winslow Homer). And if you think you’re great, then you’re just conceited. Shame on you. Hipness hubris — since hipness and greatness are joined by an equal sign these days.
[The drawing of asparagus was made by my young, great artist at age 9.]
There’s no better way to understand an artist than to walk a mile in his shoes. This is one of many studies I’ve made of Paul Cezanne’s Vase de Fleurs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
A close up of the Huysum painting is a marvel of colors, textures, and bravado painting.
Should the roaches show up for my still life, I’ve got something placed there to scare them away!