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When I began this little acrylic painting on panel (14 x 11 inches) it looked quite different.  I liked it but I knew I didn’t like it enough.  So I decided to rework it.  The still life table had changed totally so that meant incorporating it into the new still life stuff — hence parts of it had to be completely repainted. Had no idea how that would go, but I’ve been experimenting with acrylic, so I figured there’s no better way to find out than to just do it. Here’s how it looked before:

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Since I switched to using acrylic paint, I have had Matisse in the back of my mind.  For a long, long time I have wanted to experiment with the “fauvist” ideas that Matisse pursued in his very early career. There were certain still lifes that I have always really loved — especially certain dark and rather chaotic ones — that seem to hold such fertile material in them.  Matisse chose to take his art in a different direction, but I have wondered what his painting might have been like had he followed the murky fauvisme instead.  And it seemed to me as though he left that trail there for others to explore ….

These are just two examples, but both reveal the dramatic lighting, murky passages and rough manner that Matisse explored.

So I have some projects planned that will pursue darker tonality, rougher and broader kinds of drawing and exaggerated color, but even in a small work like this painting of the little black pitcher, I have been trying to get at a more instinctive handling.  I find that some sources of interest for me are all the myriad color changes to be observed on a small scale between objects, as in passages around the perimeter of the orange, or between the orange and the lemon, or in between anything and anything.  Such observations in realist painting aim to get at the true appearances — and oddly enough I am striving for a true effect also.  And yet my picture doesn’t become realist.  It’s an odd paradox that Matisse explained as a parallelism — that you are aware of always wanting to get at some truth of perception but it is nonetheless an image that is “parallel to nature.”

The details are really important and for me they’re where the real action is.

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I don’t know how much I’ll work on the painting, and I like all these passages, but they can be further developed as readily as the whole painting itself was open to reworking.

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Each section of a painting can become like an independent composition.  And as your attention focuses on different parts, it’s like these “independent compositions,” can merge and shift constantly.

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I am also developing more latitude for abstraction or accident in the paintings.  Some things happen that turn out to be interesting that were never planned.  I have always been aware of such passages as I paint, but I never completely let myself just leave them or let myself develop them ….

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A passage like the one above which depicts a bit of drapery can become a great place for observing small color differences.  I just painted this green part broadly to cover up what was there from the earlier version, but it’s definitely a passage to exploit going forward.

I am keeping the process fun because I have a tendency to freeze up at various junctures along the way. So in contrast to past habit, I am telling myself that I have permission to pile on as much paint as I please.  Also I know that I’ll never learn what this medium is like if I don’t try out lots of different approaches.  Painting lots of layers over others is just “one of the approaches.”

I like acrylic because its fast drying time makes experiment easy.  You can paint pretty much as fast as you can think.  It can wear you out.  You can paint as if you were digging ditches so it can be “hard work” if that appeals.  Or it can be very whimsical and free.  Certainly you can allow yourself great freedom regarding drawing since you can always immediately paint over anything that you perceive to be “a mistake.”



enigma of the picture

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Okay, maybe I can understand a little bit how extra dimensions can be hidden by folds in the universe. Matisse taught me the principle, but I must say I kind of stumbled into the practical understanding of it.

I was just drawing the still life table.  And as you can see the paper bowl is there — that’s the one I made of paper mache.  I composed it using scraps of paper that had little drawings on them from the period when my daughter was always scribbing.  Behind it is the black cloth decorated with exotic flowers.  (I think of them as “night flowers.”) In front, but next (if we’re moving from left to right) is the dark blue bottle of facets.  God, I love that bottle.  Found it in a thrift store, of course.

Next is the crow figurine.  Well, that’s appropriate — night flowers, night bird, dark bottle.  Then — everything changes here — you see, I had two still lifes set up side by side on the same table.  The other still life is visible next.  It’s much lighter (obviously).  So there’s this field of sky blue created by a drape and upon that sits the big white ginger jar.  Vase?  Ginger jar?  (Do you put ginger in the ginger jar because this one’s kind of big ….)  Whatever.

So I was drawing.  Evidently I was drawing from left to right.  Then I ran out of still life.  I couldn’t see what was next because my own drawing board was in the way.

So, like Matisse taught me, I just drew the drawing board — and thus redrew the left-hand side of the picture — only bigger (because it was closer).

Now I don’t know — strictly speaking — if the stuff inside the folds ought to be represented as it is in physics.  But my representation of the still life table dragged me into the picture (so to speak) because I had to draw my drawing board  — the way that Matisse drew his own foot when it happened to be inside the field of vision he was portraying — but you know that picture, don’t you?  You knew that was what I was talking about.

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Il y a des fleurs partout pour qui veut bien les voir.  — Henri Matisse

(There are flowers everywhere for whoever really wants to see them.)

Some of the flowers that are everywhere are actual flowers.  The still life flowers came from the grocery store.  Some flowers are artifacts, like the ones painted onto the vase. Some of the beautiful things that fill one’s twenty-four hours are flower-like, or metaphorical flowers, as being things that bloom and fade but which are replaced by new, similar bits of loveliness — ideas, memories, moments of insight in the process of blooming and fading — all part of a beauty-wending path of being and unbeing.  But even when the flowers fall, the real flowers, they are still lovely.

Pastel. 20 x 15 inches. Available.

a flowered hat can remove all doubt

matisse copy detail

When in doubt, choose flowers.

Indeed, when in doubt, copy something by an old (or new) master.  Include flowers.  Use oil pastels (they are the best EVER for simplicity and flexibility).  And when most in doubt, you can hardly go wrong by consulting Monsieur Henri Matisse.

Here, my small quick copy of “Femme au chapeau fleuri,” 1919.

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On being and change

Walter Pach in his 1938 book Queer thing, Painting remembers the famous artists he met as a young man traveling in Europe.  One of those artists was Henri Matisse.  He has an insightful vignette of Matisse:

Matisse’s fundamental belief is that there is no such thing as essential change.  Appearances change, men learn certain things (we were speaking of the early work of Cezanne as compared with his late painting), but the man is the same, and it is the man that counts.  He showed me his first picture, a thing he did in the small town he came from, and at a time when he had never met an artist.  A book had given him certain rules for composing still-life objects into a design, had told him what colors to buy, and the effects of their combination.  His result was an “old fashioned” imitation of a bit of nature.  The canvas remained at his home until after his father’s death, when it came to him with other household effects.

“Shall I tell you what I thought when I got that picture again, after thirty years without seeing it?  Well, I felt a discouragement such as I have rarely known.  It seemed as if I had not made one step of progress.  Every quality I have ever obtained is in that canvas, at least in embryo.  And when people speak of certain arts as primitive, they simply show their insensitiveness to the grand expression in such work; if they saw that, they would realize that the form and color were perfect in their relationship to the idea of the race….”

My drawing above, made with memories of Matisse, this drawing of my daughter when she was little, is so like other things I made in the deeper past, like things I made at my beginning.  I have felt Matisse’s sadness too, when I realized that things I make now are so much like the way I began.  Somehow I thought that learning would be utterly transformative.  But to believe that your early works will not resemble your later work is like believing that your old face will not resemble your youth.

It is as though you looked at your face in a mirror and expected it, somehow, to be someone else’s face.

A little mystery of art

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.]

The Space of the Picture

I had been visiting the museum, looking at old masters with the memory of my own art still in my head.  I had been wondering how I could put dimension into the painting I was working on.  And before I left the museum, I stopped to look once more at Cezanne’s Vase de Fleurs

Until then I had somewhat ruefully accepted that my painting perhaps was simply going to be flat – like Matisse (I thought to myself brightly).  But unable to surrender this desire for space – while also looking at the Cezanne – I got an inkling how one might create space from the ground up – doing it through the parts.

His bunch of flowers has such a strong feeling of dimensionality within it.  You sense the in-between-ness of the flowers, feel as though you could move around and between them, sense the air separating and surrounding them. 

You might only need as little as an “inch” of dimension after all.  The picture itself is just an illusion, so an inch might be all you need.  Just enough to break the surface.  Just enough to establish some plausibility – that this is not just a colored surface, but a world that lies beyond the picture plane.

Let the Things Do the Talking

“To copy the objects in a still life is nothing.  One must render the emotion they awaken in one.  The emotion is the ensemble, the interrelation of objects, the specific character of every object modified by its relations to the others – all interlaced like a cord or a serpent,” said Matisse. 

He had some very nice things, too.  I’ve seen pictures of them.  The tables are spread out with vases of flowers, with houseplants, figurines, objets d’art, and every manner of cup or vase.  Big tables arranged in various corners of big airy rooms and the reflections from the ceramic surfaces gleam.  You could mentally wander through objects like that like a knight in a medieval forest.  And it really is more than just bric a brac.  It is a kind of civilization in miniature.  Matisse put the history of French life and culture on a tabletop.

Ways that the fish can confuse you

George Braque said, “Everything is subject to metamorphosis; everything changes according to circumstance.  So when you ask me whether a particular form in one of my paintings depicts a woman’s head, a fish, a vase, a bird or all four at once, I can’t give you a categorical answer for this ‘metamorphic’ confusion is fundamental to what I am out to express.”

Matisse was more forthcoming.  “Matisse often told me that the best thing the old masters have, their raison d’etre, is beyond them, that they are not able to teach it and that they waste their time by trying.  But they are able to teach, without meaning to, by informal conversations about their work and their life,” reported Henry de Montherlant

Of course, you didn’t ask him if it was a fish or maybe a woman’s head….

Picasso had some Ingrist inclinations.  What if he had followed that impulse rather than choose an avant garde aesthetic?  What if he had built an art on Benedetta Casals, following his own instinct for realism even when realism was waning as a recognized style?

A great artist creates styles as easily as others follow a tide.

What I learned from Henri Matisse

What I learned from Henri Matisse:  “Look at Nature.  Make stuff up.”

It’s not easy drawing from life.  Clouds float away.  The light changes.  Stuff happens.  If you attempt to depict everything “exactly” the way you find it you’ll go bonkers.  So you look at Nature and make stuff up.

That’s what I did in this one, though I cheated a little, was looking out a window.