the way Delacroix does it

RMN165462DE

As I was painting my flowers, I have been looking at flowers by artists I love.  Seeing Delacroix’s famous watercolor again (above), I notice that he has invented large elements of his bouquet.  The leaves are all very neat and occur in spaces between blooms and are regular in ways that reveal the type of leaf and have none of the random, chaotic crush of leaf and petal that you find in an actual bouquet.  He had made numerous studies of single flowers in his notebooks, studying “their architecture,” and it informs how he portrays them.  He gets the type and isn’t much interested in individual variation from type.

van gogh flowers -copyright-kroller-muller-museum
Still life with Meadow Flowers and Roses, copyright Kröller-Müller Museum

Van Gogh does something similar but his flowers are more generic still.  I think it’s clear that he was looking at the set up one sees in the picture, but he too has made additions and has regularized the flowers.  On the whole, though, Van Gogh in his portrayal of flowers over his career does give one the impression that he wanted to portray at least some of the individual differences of one flower verses another.  The sheer number of flowers above requires that he generalize in this particular painting.

I ask myself about these things because deep down in my heart of hearts I want to portray individuals, flower by flower.  And I find that I cannot do it.  Or, at least doing it requires a commitment that I’m unwilling to make, given that flowers are very individual.

bouquet study may 18

I try and it gets me in a bit of trouble sometimes because the real flowers change while you’re painting them.  Well, I suppose it doesn’t get me into any trouble that’s obvious to the spectator since they don’t know that the little daisy I painted half open, opened up full a day or so later.  What difference does it make?  But when I am looking at the bouquet I somehow feel that I must fastidiously record it.  It’s called doing due flower diligence.

Probably the most diligent artist EVER was Jan van Huysum.

huysum bouquet

Huysum’s realism is very deceptive though (marvelous, astounding but deceptive).  His bouquet never existed.  Huysum created a virtual bouquet by painting flowers one by one that he assembles in his preconceived mental bouquet.  So he can take his time and he can put individual blossoms wherever he wishes.

I’m not likely to ever be that diligent.  I’ll hang out somewhere between Delacroix and Van Gogh.

 

Some interesting links below.  The Huysum site comes with an amazing zoom.  Zoom in to see the awe inspiring details.

https://www.artsy.net/artwork/jan-van-huysum-flowers-in-an-urn

And more information about the Van Gogh is available here:

https://krollermuller.nl/en/vincent-van-gogh-still-life-with-meadow-flowers-and-roses

 

 

Advertisement

Rummaging through words & through corners of thought

drawing detailVan Gogh was such a wonderful writer as well as being a great artist.  If you rummage through his letters even at random, you always find something remarkable.  So it is that I  find this passage today:

The poor soil of Drenthe is the same, only the black earth is even blacker — like soot — not a lilac black like the furrows, and melancholically overgrown with eternally rotting heather and peat. I see that everywhere — the chance effects on that infinite background: in the peat bogs the sod huts, in the fertile areas, really primitive hulks of farmhouses and sheepfolds with low, very low walls, and huge mossy roofs. Oaks around them. When one travels for hours and hours through the region, one feels as if there’s actually nothing but that infinite earth, that mould of wheat or heather, that infinite sky. Horses, people seem as small as fleas then. One feels nothing any more, however big it may be in itself, one only knows that there is land and sky.

[source:  http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let402/letter.html%5D

 

For Van Gogh on that day it was his being in an enormous prospect outdoors, among infinite seeming fields.  For me it is the confined corner of my studio where I find another sort of infinity — for everywhere I look I see some small thing that opens large with details and beauty.  And everywhere I look the things seem imbued with ideas.  Nature has filled the room with thoughts and the things are poems.

My pal Van Gogh

As the old masters go, Vincent Van Gogh is actually one of the younger old masters.  Some of the old dead guys have been living in the great hereafter much longer than him.  He’s just a new kid on the block.  And yet he has ties do the whole tradition in his painting.  He’s also the Patron Saint of Self Taught Artists, so he’s a good go-to guy for learning in the visual arts.

I learn from the old guys by copying their pictures, and since I’ve been thinking about flower painting a lot lately.  I decided I could benefit by a “refresher course.”

The Van Gogh painting that I copy above using the Blue Ball Point Pen was among those pictures Van Gogh made when he was in Paris in 1886.

night and day

Last night I was drawing my small deep blue copy of the dark and moody Van Gogh still life of potatoes (above).  And that is a great night meditation, let me tell you, those deep shadows and the humble potatoes, the basket-like-a-bird’s-nest.  And then this morning the sun rises and I have new yellow still life objects just discovered at the second-hand store!

Day and night wonders.

Crayon Burn

All in a rush about work!  The morning begins with drawing and the evening ends with drawing.  I have to make several paintings this week and next, and the only way I can do it is to draw.  First I draw, and I can develop ideas without having to think very much.  And at the moment I do not wish to think!  I haven’t the time!

Some of the drawings I made today might reflect a bit of intellection.  But mostly, it was see, point, shoot.  Still — even just looking can become wearying even when it makes one feel delightful and buoyant!  Though I am tired, I have to keep running!  So, I made these drawings to be quicker than quick, drawings which I can attest are completely devoid of any thoughts at all!

Van Gogh says something that describes my day and its speed, though he was less lifted by it:

I’m also utterly incapable of judging my own work. I can’t see whether the studies are good or bad. I have seven studies of wheatfields,5 unfortunately all of them nothing but landscapes, much against my will. Old gold yellow landscapes — done quick quick quick and in a hurry, like the reaper who is silent under the blazing sun, concentrating on getting the job done.  [To Emile Bernard. Arles, Wednesday, 27 June 1888]

He felt, for the reasons of his time and circumstances, that he must judge his work and not being able to do so was wearying.  For me, however, modern girl that I am, not judging is part of my whole goal for these drawings.  Merely to draw, to draw a lot, to draw quickly, to get down many things, to pass through many images, to keep my fingers moving, moving, moving.

Quick, quick, quick!

Learning to learn

Reader comments help me greatly to clarify my ideas, and I thank everyone who leaves comments here.  In my previous post about the education of a hypothetical “great artist,” I argue that the most authentic form of art comes from the self.  Moreover, I argued that for this reason, the greatest artists — regardless how much education they had — were, in very important ways, “autodidacts.”

Perhaps I made it sound like an aspiring great artist should avoid schools, books, conversation and study.  So, I want to clarify the idea by saying that, quite the contrary, I’m aware that great artists typically had very thorough and deep educations.  Sometimes they had, like Rubens, a rich formal education.  Rubens’s education in rhetoric, history, language as well as his “internship” with the Carracci brothers in Italy made him a thousand-fold more savvy than the typical, much touted “New York” artist of today.  Monet, to cite a different kind of career, was certainly well acquainted the great paintings of the Louvre and with the main tenets of academic art of his era and had innumerable painter friends of all sorts.

Van Gogh who I had used as a role model of the perfect sort of autodidact did literally isolate himself and set to work learning to draw through sheer hard work and struggle.  But even Van Gogh had a direct “teacher” in the form of a drawing manual, one that was popular in his day by Charles Bargue.  But what distinquishes Van Gogh’s studies from the norm is the keen force of his personality. 

Van Gogh was well acquainted with art prior to his decision to become an artist.  He had worked as an art dealer, following in that a family tradition.  He had been a passionate visitor of museums.  He was deeply influenced by a wide number of artists and traditions.  While it is most unlikely that Van Gogh could have known the particular drawing at the top of this post, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom of 17th century Haarlem, Van Gogh was nonetheless probably deeply influenced by the tradition of which Vroom was part.  And for a modern viewer, well acquainted with the masterful graphic vocabulary that Van Gogh uses in his late drawings — all the dots and dashes and wonderfully expressive penlines of every sort — seeing this drawing by Vroom is a little like finding Van Gogh’s 17th century twin.

There are as many paths to art as there are travelers, but upon each path the person taking the journey has to find a spiritual compass within his or her own life.  Yes, an artist should study assiduously!  Certainly, a serious artist is very eager to learn and to see.  But the finding is certified not by outside authorities, but by the quiet, sure judgement of the self.

The Vroom drawing above belongs to the Albertina Museum which is in the process of putting images of its entire collection on line.  Its addition makes another wonderful resource of ideas for today’s artists.

[Top of the post:  Trees behind a Wooden Fence, by Cornelis Hendricksz Vroom  (1591/92 – 1661),  pen and brown ink, brown wash, 28.7 x 30.2 cm, Albertina Museum]

When it’s good to be your own teacher

The presumption is that if you want to learn to draw, you take classes.  And it would be hard to argue that taking classes would be a bad idea.  But a real artist, whether he takes classes or not, is in a certain definite way an autodidact.  The kind of study that leads to great art, or “serious” art, or whatever we want to call it, means being able to teach yourself.  The alternative to teaching yourself would be to have someone else telling you what makes something great or important.  And if you need to be told, how could you possibly create anything great or important yourself?

An innovative artist, or one who does something with exemplary ability, or one who sees things deeply has to learn to find the meanings of things within himself.  Why?  Because the alternative is an artist who needs someone holding his hand, leading him along, guiding the way — and who could this guardian be?  At what juncture would this dependency end?  Great art, the best art, the most thoroughly explorative art has to be something individual.  It’s a syllogism, really.  Insight abides in a logic that we can feel — that we get through a hunch.  Great art has to be innate.  It will arise from earlier traditions.  But it distinquishes itself by a living element that differs from the tradition.  And that something comes from the artist.

The drawing above was made by a great artist.  I once stood in front of it with a friend who’s an art historian who asked aloud how sure we can be that Van Gogh actually made this drawing.  It’s “very crude” — as indeed, it is.  For this particular drawing, much of the evidence rests with the provenance which is quite strong.  I should add that my art historian friend’s expertise lay in other areas, not in 19th century European drawing.

However, her point was an excellent one.  We now regard Vincent Van Gogh as having been one of the greatest artists of the latter 19th century.  What are we to make of a “weak” drawing by a great master?  How do we find the roots of greatness in an image such as this one?  When did Van Gogh change from an awkward draughtsman working in a period style to a great master who creates a radically idiosyncratic, individual style?  And what do the transitions from one to the other mean?

[Top of the post:  The Zandmennik House, by Vincent Van Gogh, c. 1879/1880
charcoal over graphite on wove paper, overall: 22.8 x 29.4 cm (9 x 11 9/16 in.)
The Armand Hammer Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.]

Shoes that make the man

Around the same period when I was painting a bird’s nest over a reclining figure, I painted these shoes over something that was pale green.  The earlier color shows beneath the salmon colored cloth.

I was studying Van Gogh, and I painted not only bird’s nests after his example, but also shoes.  Again, I felt qualms about emulating another artist so closely.  Yet these shoes are also so plainly products of my imagination and not Van Gogh’s.  So sometimes, you see, you must simply trust yourself.

I read this Hemingway quote today about emulation: 

“Y.C.: Listen.  There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it.  What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.  The only way he can tell how he is going is to compete with dead men ….

Mice:  But reading all the good writers might discourage you.

Y.C.: Then you ought to be discouraged.”

[Originally from By Line: Ernest Hemingway, pp. 217-218.  Taken here from Ernest Heimingway on Writing, Larry W. Phillips, ed., Scribner’s; NY, 1984: p. 93]

When I painted these shoes, I remember I understood them as being a portrait of the shoe’s owner as well as a kind of self-portrait.  I was also very interested in painting the space between one edge of the shoe’s opening and the other.  The empty air seemed to me as much a subject as anything else in this picture, and I was fascinated by it.  I wanted to make it seem very much that the air was inside the picture, and that this should not just be a question of appearances.  And the ways that the shoe laces fell, the beauty of the lines they described — something that is charged with meaning by gravity and chance — these were also qualities I studied in it.

It turned out to be a very pensive moment.  Van Gogh was a hero to me, someone whose works gave me reason to believe that art was worth striving after, even against odds.  Hemingway’s idea of “beating” the old dead guys is a peculiarly male approach to an idea, but essentially I agree with him.  If knowing the great works that preceed you discourages you, then you should be discouraged — for those things are your teachers. 

This might seem odd commentary coming from me, to those who’ve read this blog before.  I try to encourage, but these are not contradictory gestures.  Even Hemingway doesn’t tell the “discouraged” writer to give up.  Such discouragement in one who wants the prize has to be overcome.  What Hemingway is really counseling is courage. 

I had all sorts of qualms when I painted this, but I painted it anyway.  And that was my courage.

[Top of the post:  A pair of shoes, by Aletha Kuschan, oil on canvas, c. 1988]

What if

      A thoughtful reader has challenged me to offer a more particular definition of what I consider “junk.”  And in time I will try to do so, because having raised the issue myself, I ought to be willing to face it squarely.  But until such time, I would refer readers to the previous post where I criticize the work of Ellsworth Kelly, who I put forth as representative of the artist-as-charlatan.  I do so boldly from the sense that Mr. Kelly himself is unlikely to stumble upon my remarks and is therefore in little danger of having his feelings hurt.  Or, even if he were to read them — “famous” as he has become, he cannot expect everyone to gush about what he does.  Obviously he has critics, as assuredly he’s aware.  If one cannot take the heat (as we all know), one has the admonition to stay out of the kitchen.  Right?

Now then, to more pressing concerns:  self-confidence.  What about the artist who fears that his own works are junk?  What about the over-fastitious individual who cannot accept the merits of what he does, who is overly critical, who is perhaps crippled by a sense of failure?  Sometimes highly talented people — just the sort who we’d expect to be “great” artists, are of this type.  So what about them?

Van Gogh had perhaps the best answer when he said, “if you hear a voice telling you you cannot paint, then paint My Boy, and that voice will be silenced.”  Van Gogh heard that voice.  He fought that voice, which sounded in his own head.  The paintings he left — in their great beauty and brightness — are the answers he gives us. 

The cure for a lack of confidence is work.  Just do it.