enigma of the picture

raven 050514

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.


more flowers


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.

matisse copy whole

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.

On simplicity

The first stage of the painting is like Matisse.  Surely (it seems obvious) Matisse must simply have discovered that the ebauche has so much punch on its own, when the first large forms of an image are rendered solid from the dreamy vapors of imagination.  Edges are crisp, shapes as simple as elementary school cut-outs, the colors like color names.  One’s green is green, and a sky is blue.

So often people wonder at how they should talk about art as though it comes prepared with prescribed rules.  Something in our notion of “culture” makes  one reluctant to shout one’s delight in that bold way children do.  “Kids are born curious.  They’re always exploring.  We spend the first year of their lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down,” said scientist Neil de Grasse Tyson.

A lot of people become fairly mute in front of a painting for fear of misinterpreting it somehow.  Now, I’ll admit, it’s not really such a bad thing to let an image function purely as a feast for the eyes.  But everyone wants to express themselves sooner or later in words, and it’s okay to let your own thoughts take to the air without worrying whether or not one has found the authoritative key.

Well, I decided to continue beyond the ebauche and wander into that territory of making the painting more specific.  I pad into the landscape with footsteps that are still mushy and soft.  Still not much specificity as yet at this stage.  But the colors divide themselves into more variegated sections.  From one simple form several interior passages unfold.  My manner of painting resembles to me a garden that blooms first spindly and tentative and later leafs out and grows dense.

And thoughts grow dense.  The landscape of the painting what mental forms is it meant to describe?  What refuge is available in the wilderness of paint, in the solitary travel through one’s own quiet picture garden?

The purpose of the painting?  Shh — that would be culture talking.  Just be delight.  Even to talk pure nonsense.  Just look and delight.