Pierre Bonnard & still life


I’m all landscape right now.  But when I get back to painting still life, this guy is going to be providing a lot of my motivation.  Look at that color.

I love Bonnard’s paintings!


where the ideas come from

Bonnard dining room
Pierre Bonnard “Dining room on the garden”


I was saying in the previous post that my current still life is in part an attempt to emulate Pierre Bonnard’s painting.  His way of placing objects, his uses of arbitrary colors — altered, enhanced colors — the ambiguities of his art are all things that I notice and wonder about.

My painting — even without a still life set up to look at — is still perhaps more grounded in actual appearances than his.  I’m not sure what I want from him.  Or what I want from myself.    I’m figuring it out.

large still life with flowers aug 20

Here’s how the painting looked yesterday in the studio.

Drawing in the Museum


Bonnard’s bright colors, his impulsive and sensitive rendering of paint into landscape forms are qualities that I’ve adored about his art for many years.  Some of his paintings  are on exhibit again at the National Gallery of Art after a long time spent in cruel storage. On the walls again, they light up the room where they can bring us much delight. I’ve intended to make some drawings after various favorite National Gallery paintings, and yesterday I got a chance to begin doing so; I started with this little crayon drawing, above,  after Bonnard’s “Stairs to the Artist’s Garden” reproduced below.


Making my drawing in front of Bonnard’s painting, I felt like I was in conversation with the old artist.  Copying also lets one see the image more keenly and experience it with more depth and immediacy.  Vicariously I stood with Bonnard in his garden.  I wanted to stay there longer, but sketching some of the large elements of the scene was a fun beginning.

My drawing measures 8.5 x 6.75 inches.  Bonnard’s painting measures 23 5/8 x 28 3/4 inches.  He painted his picture about 1942. I made my drawing about 4pm yesterday afternoon!

A sketchy sensibility can be very close to Bonnard in spirit.  In a gouache drawing of the artist’s own, the forms are put down through many delicate veils of color as illustrated here in a drawing “La Route, Paysage au Cannet” auctioned at Sotheby’s:


Lacking a brush and working with different materials, I made mine initially in the fashion of a graphic drawing and only afterwards used rubbing, smearing (and a bit of spit) to dissolve marks into tints. But I think I was able to manage some faithfulness to Bonnard’s general method-in-the-madness of big raw shapes.

To learn more about the Bonnard drawing, here’s a link to the Sotheby site:




some red, violet and green inside the edges


If you study Bonnard a lot, inevitably you will begin to notice the edges.  Perhaps someday you even live in the edges (I don’t know yet about that).  While many artists advise students to choose a “center of interest” old Bonnard taught his fans to seek the periphery and now I include things in the picture that can never be identified.  For instance, there’s a black vase to the right of the blue compotier.  I’ve drawn the black vase before (as below).  It’s covered with the most beautiful designs.  Sitting next to the compotier, its surface wasn’t even black but instead reflects the red of the background cloth and also reflects — in a marvelous way — a convex image of the seashell sitting next to it.

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All that fell outside the range of my picture, but I was so aware of it.  (I suppose I’ll have to do another picture sometime of these other things.) But at the right-hand edge of the new picture at the top, there’s a dark curvilinear shape touching the compotier and it depicts the edge of that black vase.  So that really makes no sense, does it?  But Old Man Bonnard told me not to fret about what makes sense.  He said this is a nice trail to follow, but you have to travel a long ways down its route before you come to the really neat stuff.

I’m taking him at his word.

And once you discover the edges, you’ll have a whole new appreciation for the stuff inside the edges too, he said …

Above: pastel on UArt 500 grit paper glued to board, 18 x 24 inches; below: watercolor

Seeing this

bonnard fish

Someone on my twitter feed posted a marvelous painting by Pierre Bonnard.  Perusing a link further, I found this wonderful “Fish on a Dish,” above (Poisson dans un plat).  The title is catchy in English.

As soon as I saw it, it makes me want to paint.  I have a fish that I like to draw, one that I found years ago at random around the time that we first got an internet connection.  It was an image I found while looking for a fish cam, and from a pixelated photo I discovered, I have drawn many forms of that fish, one of which appears below (a detail of an acrylic painting). Many of them depart dramatically from their random photographic source.

fish detail 1 pixel

Now I am wanting to do something in pastel — something — I’m not sure what.  A picture with blues, something with squares — maybe the fish, maybe some koi.  I don’t know.

But seeing Bonnard’s picture makes me want to paint.  I don’t know how it affects you.  But for me, it’s as though he put both the sky and the sea on his kitchen table and then this fish in a dish.

the window at twilight

I’m not sure where the idea came from.

101_8736 (3).jpgIt seemed just to have arrived. Maybe I was thinking about this picture more than I knew because there’s something about it that I like, that keeps pulling me back.

I decided to put the two drawings together.  That was the idea. Put the window with the twilight effect behind the flowers on the table. The decision definitely connects the picture further to Bonnard, and that’s what I want.

I couldn’t find the drawing of the window. I had it just the other day. It sat on top of the pile, but I rearranged things and now the pile is gone, and  I don’t know where it is. But I have been able to make a first sketch of the idea by retrieving the copy I posted on this blog.

I arranged them on the computer screen so I could see them both simultaneously rather like the way they’re displayed here.

Formerly the two things had nothing to do with each other. Now they feel intentionally connected. What luck that I even made the drawing of the window. It had been a whimsical gesture at the time. I had been working in the studio all afternoon. As I was finishing up, I noticed how the light inside the room contrasted with the cool evening light outside as twilight descended. It’s an effect that I always love to see.

I hesitated to draw the scene since it would dissolve so quickly.  I only made the drawing on a kind of dare to myself. What was there to lose? Isn’t that why you learn to draw? To tackle the dissolving, transitory motif, to see how much you can grab before it’s gone? Why not sometimes just swat at scenes, see what you get. So I picked up the nearest sheet and the most ready box of pastels and began drawing very fast. I didn’t even know how much of what I was looking at was “the motif.” There’s just me looking up, seeing colors and finding that I want to stop everything I’m doing to look at them.

After seeing that the window could be joined to the table top motif,  I began to see various ways I could figure out the rest of the painting, too. One idea seems to flow from the others. Why not take the scene apart thing by thing?


The bowl of apples, for instance — should it hold apples? If so, why three? Should they be arranged this way or some other way?  Why not begin some studies and figure it out? I can go through the whole picture this way, making inquiries of each thing.

The drawing of the compotier that I love also makes me believe it would be good to put different arrangements of fruit in the bowl. This drawing, below —


Meanwhile, why is the owl there? He has always struck me as being the feature that makes the picture look a bit clunky, but maybe he’s there for a reason? Making more drawings can help me sort out the questions. Can he be a more serious owl?

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I’m starting to feel pulled into this project again. That’s a good thing.

UPDATE:  Here’s another thought for this painting, a shell motif in the curtain.


Related posts here and here.  Also here.

UPDATE:  Just realizing now how different the relationship of the flowers to the window is in the new idea.  The scale is utterly different.  I like this relationship better than the one I began with — so use it going forward.  Let the composition at the top be the guide.

UPDATE:  Information on owls in art:  https://eclecticlight.co/2016/06/23/owls-and-the-reading-of-boschs-paintings-1/

the mind’s flowers

While I’m painting one thing, I think ahead to other subjects. Thus while painting koi, I am often planning flowers. We visited the National Gallery yesterday where I encountered the newly cleaned Vase of Flowers by Jan Huysum in the Dutch galleries.  In the American galleries we came upon Severin Roesen’s flowers. The latter is obviously indebted to the traditions of the former, and my pictures will lean fondly toward both while being very different from either of them.

The Huysum is a miracle of detail.  Here and there ants wander among the petals. Everywhere you gaze, you find descriptions of things. Dew on leaves, veins, moss in the bird’s nest, striations in the colors of the flower petals.  I look on those things with wonder and delight. But in my flowers I tend toward surfaces more messy and modern.  I recently got four books on Bonnard, and I look at his blurs and confusing forms with a kind of longing that I find hard to explain. I am drawn to his modern sensibility.

Bonnard’s way can seem easier, but it’s not. All these masters pose challenges, and happily when I paint my own pictures, I’ll be focused once again on the idea in my head and the flowers on my own table. Thus one can enjoy the pleasures of emulation while escaping its psychological peril.

I seek an in-between place, between realism and chaos, some way station between the splendor of enumerated things that you find in Dutch paintings (and among its ardent admirers like Roesen) and the perceptual chaos of vision sifted through memory that characterizes Bonnard.

bonnard interior-with-flowers-1919_jpg!Blog

But all that lies ahead among the spring thoughts because for now I’m only dreaming and planning like the gardener with his seed catalogs. It’s winter. And I have kois to finish.


Bonnard in the land of dreams

Bonnard drawingThere’s no accounting for the heart and its vagaries.  I feel sometimes almost as though I should apologize for loving Bonnard.  I’m not sure why I feel this way since he is truly a great artist.  But so many of his paintings seem naïve, or overly simple, or mussy.  Perhaps I’m afraid to emulate his ways since they could lead one so far from the incisive mark into a realm of dreams.

Well, be that as it may.  I love the guy and there’s no help for it.  So I am taking everything about him more seriously beginning with his drawings, those strange, intensely private, small scribbles — some of which are hardly bigger than a largish postage stamp.

What I love about Pierre Bonnard’s painting is his attention to beautiful oddities — making whole pictures — complex pictures from perceptions, memories.

I’m asking myself about the directness of thought and feeling that he gets from the small gestures. When so much of the spectacle before our eyes eludes us anyway, why not grab for the ephemeral by crude and quick means. Pull as much of reality as you can get into a tense, small line and hope for the best. A Bonnard drawing is a hope and a prayer — and a quick ploy to nudge Mother Nature into yielding over some of the richness of her material splendor.



More about yesterday’s haul

study detail

Yesterday Eva asked me if I’d be posting pictures of the paintings I was making from my thrift store haul.  I have various things in the works and none quite finished, but I thought I’d put a few things up just to demonstrate that my haul gets some good, hard scrutiny.  Though the stone birds are pieces that I already owned,  they’re part of a set up of haul objects, indeed they’re the stars of the show, so I made a separate study of them.


The whole set up looks like this:

set up

I can’t include the painting here — it’s still too not finished.  However the study is painted on a 9 x 12 inch sheet of Arches oil paper and it looks like this:

two birds study

The famous amber bottle of my previous post and the other objects are off to the sides of the birds and though they have nice supporting roles in the painting, are not visible in this rehearsal.

Meanwhile in another corner of the room I have another set up featuring a part of the haul that I neglected to mention (it was quite a haul).  I got a little greenish blue bowl with a raised, beaded floral pattern seen here filled with fake fruits.

new bowl

I have been doing several pictures of this set up with which I decided I would emulate one of my heroes, Pierre Bonnard.  I have succeeded certainly in one respect in that I managed to produce paintings that are nearly impossible to photograph faithfully.  So I despair of your ever knowing what the actual colors in these pictures are — they look pretty awful on my monitor — don’t know about yours.  Maybe they look grand to someone somewhere!  But the actual paintings, while confusing in some respects (again I’ll say I’m definitely “getting” some of the qualities of ol’ Bonnard), do not have the weird colors represented here.  Instead they possess other, quite different weird color relationships.

Sigh.  So here’s a detail of the one:

bowl still life detail

and here’s a detail of the other.

bowl still life detail other one

In even these rather inaccurate representations of the paintings, it might be apparent that I’m having some fun trying to depict the bowl’s pattern through little dabs of paint.

The still life objects all have such marvelous potential.  I’m just getting acquainted, and yet that will not deter me from visiting the thrift store again (maybe soon) to get even more stuff!  One person’s junk really is another’s treasure.  Sometimes it really is.

value of sunlight

detail other

Fans of the great 20th century painter Pierre Bonnard know that in his pocket diaries he kept cryptic notes about the weather:  beau, nuageux frais, pluie, beau nuageux, beau brumeux [fair, cloudy cool, rain, fair cloudy, fair foggy].  Besides having concise meteorological value as one man’s document of late 20th century weather in various regions of France, they suddenly have come to have personal meaning for me.

Bonnard diary

It’s as though the clouds have parted and I suddenly see their meaning.

Or, it’s like the clouds suddenly parted — the day before yesterday — and I suddenly saw my drawing.  (The clouds have since closed the curtain again.)  I have been working indoors, often late at night, for such a long succession of days and haven’t seen the full daylight colors of the pigments in so long that I had half forgotten what they were.  So, the other day when the clouds parted and direct sunlight fell upon my drawing for a few hours, I was astonished and delighted beyond measure.  And I can’t tell you how marvelous it was to be able to see the rich colors of my crayons after having worked in dim light for days on end.

Now, I realize perhaps some of the reason why Bonnard recorded the weather … for the weather outside the studio determines the light that will come into the studio windows!  And you know that an artist like Bonnard, who more than most people had such a fine appreciation for a window, would know that.