Thursday, January 29, 2009

Velasquez: Daring the Impossible

Diego Velazquez
Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1650
Doria Pamphilj Gallery

Every great painting is a failure; and it is its failure that makes it great. More to the point, it is the artist’s recognition of the impossibility of success that separates a great painting from a facile, easily read one. This is a theme that merits exploring, and I’ll start with the magnificent Velasquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. Nowhere is the internal contradiction between success and failure more obvious than in portraits. We see portraits again and again that succeed in portraying their subject, but somehow fall short - even though possibly done with impressive technical skill - in truly engaging the viewer. The viewer is left wondering what is missing. It’s often said that the spark of life is missing, but I think it is more than that. I think what sets a great portrait apart is that in it we see the artist’s recognition that the task is impossible, that it is simply not possible to completely depict, and thus define, a human being, no matter what the means or medium.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Breughel: Hunters in the Snow

This painting has been endlessly praised and dissected, but that’s no reason why it can’t be investigated anew by those of us who never tire of it. In fact the sheer pleasure of standing in front of it is reason enough to make a trip to Vienna. Surely this is one of the great compositions. Our eye is naturally caught by the line of the returning hunting party, dark and bulky, in the foreground, which follows the strong diagonal of the march of trees. The sight line of this diagonal skims the edges of the pond where tiny skaters lead, one imagines, another sort of existence from that of the exhausted men and hounds, and curves up dizzyingly to the very highest peak. The trees themselves form a kind screen (seeming to anticipate the effect of Japanese printmakers on the impressionists). Flat and schematic, they provide the strong verticals which anchor the composition and balance the effect of the profusion of muted detail in the distance. A further diagonal cuts into the slope, anchored by the fire over which a pig is being cooked, and a third curves placidly around the hillside houses and crosses the picture plane between the two ponds. The genius necessary to the organization of this vast amount of information, information that informs our sense of this world and makes possible our ability to enter it emotionally, takes my breath away.

Supporting this very complex composition is a color scheme which couldn’t be simpler: I would think a palette of Prussian blue, black, white, and several earths. With this palette Breughel blankets his world in the piercing cold of deep winter. The only relief from the snow and the snow-laden sky, and the only hint of warmth anywhere in this world, is the wind fanned fire from the pig roasting, a wonderful hot raw sienna. All else is icebound.

The result of all this mastery is our experience of the duality of winter, the exhaustion, the elation, the impenetrable cold, and the fierce and uncompromising beauty. I love it. Is it why I paint? It’s certainly why I look, over and over.

Joan Terrell Smith

Monday, January 26, 2009

Vuillard - On Ideas and Faith

VuillardThe Striped Blouse (1895)National Gallery of Art

“...there is an idea in me in which I have faith… (and) the important thing is that I have faith enough to produce.” Edouard Vuillard

I find it interesting that Vuillard didn’t think the idea was what was important, but rather having enough faith in it to follow through is what matters.

I suppose that ideas and inspiration do flicker in and out of our consciousness but it is only when we act on them that they take on substance. That makes sense. It's even obvious. However, many of my painting ideas seem impossible to paint... and sometimes I get so overwhelmed that I give up before I even begin.

By concentrating on my faith in my idea, I have a whole new place to stand when facing that big blank canvas. If I focus on the ‘inspiration’ of the painting rather than worry about its technical execution, then I can allow the ‘how-to-paint’ to fall in place as the idea unfolds.

It's like heading out the door on a journey. Rather than needing to envision each twist and turn of the highway beforehand, it’s enough just to know where I want to go… and to start walking.

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter on Painting

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Klimt - Go With The Glow

KlimtAtterseeLeopold Museum

I truly can loose myself in this painting. Klimt came to landscape painting late in his working life, and, although he is most widely known for his nudes, I find his landscape work mesmerizing.

He’s captured ‘forever’ in this piece by just plying blue against green against violet… so much said with so little, but said so well.

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Kokoschka: On Making Ugly Art

KokoschkaPrometheus Triptych (left hand panel) - Courtauld Institute of Art

One thing’s for sure – when you walk into a room with a painting by Oskar Kokoschka in it, you may love it or hate it but you definitely can’t ignore it!

I leafed through my Kokoschka book today in my studio. It isn’t one that I look at often, but I can rely on his work to ‘shake things up’ for me visually. He never fails in this regard.

Today, the question he kept asking me is “do you dare to paint ugly?”

I don’t mean that his work is ugly, but it definitely is unsettling and there is a brutality about it.

So, I buckled down to explore ugliness in painting. I found it quite challenging! In fact, my mind couldn’t even get a handle on what is ugly – what colors, what shapes, what brushstrokes would I use?

Nothing worked – as I used each one, I fell in love with it and it was transformed and no longer ugly … however, it always remained different and jarring.

Now that got me to thinking … if ugly = different, then does beauty = sameness?

And what is sameness?

Boring!! Yes! Now this I understand!! This is something I can paint!

But, Kokoschka took me aside and said “No! It’s been done before”.

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting

Monet: What do we admire in paintings?

Meadow at Giverny

Claude Monet,
French, 1840–1926

92.1 x 81.6 cm
(36 1/4 x 32 1/8 in.)

Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, MA, USA

We admire paintings for many reasons, I think. We can love a painting for what it depicts: think of all the people who have portraits of their pets. We can love a painting because it transports us to somewhere else, to another small world encompassed in its borders. We can love a painting, or at least admire it, for the technical skill it shows - we are impressed by people who are skillful at their craft, even if we don't happen to love their particular craft ourselves. (I remember being inordinately impressed as a child at the manual dexterity of the woman who did gift wrapping in the famous Filene's Basement. )

This painting works for me in many ways. First, the subject is personally appealing, since I absolutely love views across fields. As for a painting taking us in to another world, that is exactly what this painting does for me. It's not a precise, detailed depiction of place that creates the magic, otherwise every photograph would have the same power, and we all know how photos taken on vacation inexplicably become barely interesting little pastiches of color once we are back home. It is the artist who allows us to make this journey and I feel as if I see this scene through Monet's eyes. But more importantly, I sense that he loved seeing this view. I find, myself, that I almost always fall in love with whatever I paint. In this painting, Monet is able to convey that love of the subject, this fascination with what he sees before him - his impression of what he sees. Yes, the label Impressionism, even though originally given in scorn by a critic, aptly describes this painting style. Monet was a genius at this, he is able to open these worlds to us. How does he do it? Ah, that other component that we humans tend to admire - skill.

Ellie Clemens

Friday, January 16, 2009

Wyeth: Goodbye, Andrew

Goodbye, Andrew. You gave American painters something beyond measure - permission to go beyond being cool and cynical, permission to paint what we love. Thank you.

Wyeth: Wonderful Wyeth

Wyeth – Wind From The Sea – private collection

Andrew Wyeth passed away yesterday but the vitality of his work remains with us.

What I so admire about his work is the majesty he brings to everyday life. He found drama in a blowing curtain, and managed to conjure up the very breeze itself and the feel of the air as it sweeps in from the sea. Can’t you smell the salt air and hear a seagull in the distance? That is Wyeth’s magic. But, it’s not what he painted that holds us spellbound, it’s how he painted it.

His care and technical mastery are so flawless as to be transparent, never intruding or interrupting. He pares everything down to the essentials – subject matter, color, brushstrokes. He is a magician conjuring up a world for us as if by slight of hand, allowing nothing to distract us from the tale he wants to tell.

He begins "Once upon a time, a curtain was blowing" … but the rest is up to us…and the story isn’t over yet. Andrew Wyeth 1917 - 2009

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Pissarro: Chestnut Trees at Louveciennes

One of Pissarro’s most “primitive” works, there is something of a child’s naive depiction of the human figure in the mother and child who stand soberly facing us, so thoroughly bundled against the cold as to render normal movement impossible. The glowing orange-red of the side of the house which is turned away from the illumination of sunset and which in reality should be affected by the shadowy snow, blued by the withdrawal of light, suggests that the purpose of the artist overrode the requirements of realism. If we must suspend disbelief to get to the kernel of it, so be it.

The mother and child are rendered almost iconic by the Gothic arch effect of the meeting branches of the chestnuts at center and left, which also enclose the halo of the sunset. But it’s the simple primary palette Pissarro has chosen that packs such an emotional punch and allows us to inhabit these anonymous little swaddled figures, for all their naiveté of execution. The extreme cold of the blue snow—with more, the sky suggests, to come--- is set against the patch of warm yellow of that last light of the day and the psychological warmth offered by the glowing red house: this is Proust’s madeleine in painterly form, luscious and evocative, yet in its simplicity never cloying. Loss and comfort after loss, coldness and warmth, both physical and psychological, quite amazingly all there.

(Posted by Joan Terrell Smith)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Caillebotte: Compositional Merry-Go-Round

Caillebotte - Les Raboteurs des Parquet - Musee D'Orsay

This is such a simple and straight forward presentation of life – you can almost smell the varnish remover and the sweat of these guys working!

Although this painting looks like it could be found in a gallery today, it was actually done in 1875. Caillebotte was a member of the French impressionists. In fact, he funded some of their exhibitions and his purchasing of their work kept many of them afloat financially in the early days.

What I so love about his work is his daring compositions. This painting is a good example of his subtle mastery. The figure on the right directs his gaze (and therefore ours) to the center figure which is linked to the farthest left figure by a pile of shavings on the floor. Above him there is an amazing vertical stripe of turquoise blue and the bright window full of sunshine streaming into the room which leads us down to the strips of scraped floor, or we move on across to the blue wall which leads to some rubble and further on to the wine bottle - but eventually, no matter where you look, you end up with the figures again … and around and around we go.

Upcoming Exhibition
Caillebotte: From Paris to the Sea - March 27 - July 25 - Brookly Museum

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sargent: Glowing Greys

John Singer Sargent,
An Artist in His Studio,
Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

I could never go to the MFA in Boston without stopping to see this painting, even if only briefly. There is such a sense of place in this painting that I feel as if you can see the very air. How does Sargent do it? I think he does it by being true to the consistency of the light. The viewer 's eye is convinced that everything in the painting is lit by the same light - not an easy thing to do.

The light in the painting is reminiscent of the light in Impressionist paintings, but without the broken color. Sargent manages to produce that same Impressionist-style luminosity while still using values to model the forms in the painting, something that was little done in pure Impressionism. Look at those colors! And then note that this painting, stunning in its luminosity, is almost completely grey! Warm greys, cool greys, dark greys, pale greys. Even those glowing whites in the drape or sheet on the bed are mostly grey, with a few white highlights. On the left side of the painting, the light source side, the greys are darker and warmer, first because of the local color of the man's clothes being darker, but secondly (or firstly in another important sense) because this helps make the color in the painting work. The colors in light are warm, the shadows cooler, but still retaining some warmth. On the right side of the painting, the objects farther from the light source have very cool shadows, with barely warm lights and highlights. It's fascinating, too, that the objects in the painting closest to the light source are the darkest elements, while the brightest, most luminous are the objects farthest from the light source. Small subtleties show up too as you look at this painting: note the thin patch of pale blue on the seat of the artist's chair. I'm sure that Sargent put that there simply because his eye told him the painting needed it. It's gorgeous!

So what does this say about what I love in a painting? The painting's ability to draw me in, to make me feel as if I am in this place, and the artist's skill in making that happen. Even in this unimportant scene as subject, I can tell that Sargent fell in love with painting it, and he allows me to share that feeling.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Carriera: Examining The Unexplainable

Rosalba Carriera - Self-Portrait - Gallerie dell'Accademia

Ok, ok, so maybe I can’t completely explain why this painting blows me away – here goes anyway!

I first met this painting at the tender age of 17 or so. It was reproduced in the first art book I ever possessed. The artist is Rosalba Carriera and she lived from 1675 to 1757.

First of all, I was amazed that it was painted so long ago. Second of all, I was surprised that it was done by a woman and last of all, I couldn’t believe it was done in pastel.

Three misconceptions about art blown away by one painting!

1. ‘Old art’ could be interesting (remember that I was still a teenager).
2. Women artists did exist (and therefore maybe I could be one too).
3. This wasn’t done in oils? – How could that be?

You know what? I’m still amazed by her work! Don’t you want to invite this person over for a cuppa tea and ask her about her life, her times, her painting? I do!

That is Rosalba’s magic (we’re on a first name basis by now). Yes, some of her portraits are rather fluffed up and powdered by today’s standards, but they glow with humanity – they are real and they reach us across almost 300 years to entice us and tease us … and enlighten us. Thanks, Rosalba.

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting

Matisse: What is art?

Matisse - Vase of Sunflowers - The Hermitage Museum

What is art? Now there’s a question worth chewing on! Personally, I think that art is what happens when a painting etc reaches beyond its frame to live in your memory. If you don’t remember it – it ain’t art! No matter who created it. Art invites the viewer to join with it in creating their own punch line for the story. In other words, not all paintings are art, they may simply be paintings...and the viewer gets to decide which is which.

I choose this particular painting today because I keep revisiting it in my mind’s eye. It’s certainly not one of Matisse’s most famous paintings – so what is it that is entrancing, mysterious, and enticing to me? In searching for the answer to this question I seek to clarify ‘what is art’. As an artist, it seems like an important question to grapple with. After all, I wouldn’t go to a dentist who didn’t understand teeth, and, perhaps most important of all, be able to talk with me about them!

So, what gives this painting its power? For starters, I love the perfectly balanced transitions within the piece – from top to bottom and side to side. Matisse has modulated the background from light to dark, his brushwork moves from active to passive, his colors move from warm to cool. It seems to be filled with color but is very restrained in the range of hues he’s selected – it has a wonderful light-filled glow and that always captivates me.

I see this painting as a precursor for his later works where the environment is of equal importance with the ‘subject’. There is just a small a hint of the patterning that will be such a strong element in his later work. His brushwork has suffused the room surrounding those flowers with ‘personality’ and is as lovingly painted and as alive as are the flowers themselves! It is more than a portrait of sunflowers, it is a portrait of a moment – and that moment is something that I can share with Matisse. It is ‘ours’ – no longer only his, not only mine…and that combination is what makes it art.

Gail Sauter - Journal: A Painter On Painting

Homer: Artists Sketching in the White Mountains

Ellie Clemens: The first thing that draws me to this painting is the use of such muted colors. I love the brownish greens of the grass, the dull blues of the sky, the mood evoked by these colors. Then I put on my painterly hat and analyze what makes this work for me: First, the fact that most of the values are mid range with the bright spots of light in the umbrellas and the distant clouds. I am also fascinated that the central umbrella is just that - almost exactly in the center. I love the fact that the man in the foreground is the dullest, darkest spot in the painting. What audacity! I love the way the eye travels through the painting too - following those lights from the left hand side as they cross the canvas but fall short of completing the trip, leaving the eye to drop down to the figures under the far umbrella, and then to that log, thence to the backpack (which you hardly notice at first). In a way, the central figure is the least important of the figures in the painting; it's a hub around which the others turn, a quiet dark center, making the use of his central position and dark value even more fascinating.

So what does this say about what I value in art? The art of it all. The ability to take the viewer on a trip through a particular, closely defined world, a world that, even when it is a representation of a real world, becomes an imaginary world. I admire the skill of the artist in using color and tone, his ablilty to make a composition draw the viewer into the painting.

Why do we paint?

Ellie Clemens: We paint pictures. We make paintings. Why? For myself, it is because at an early age, I opened a book of great paintings and immediately fell deeply in love. I feel in love with the tiny, contained worlds I saw in each of those paintings. As I grew older and more analytical, I came to appreciate how the surface qualities of these paintings were able to create those little worlds I loved. To take liquid colors and create a universe; what could be more magical?

The premise here is that the eyes are important. We are doing visual art, not conceptual art. I want this blog to be an affirmation of the value, the magic, the majesty of that all important visual component of paintings.

So, here's the plan: There are several artists who will be the contributors to this blog. We will take turns choosing a painting and explaining just what it is that drew us to that painting, what made the world in that painting be one that we decided to enter.