Thursday, 16 February 2017

Copying Utrillo

Maurice Utrillo, Place du Tertre, oil on cardboard. Tate Britain, C1910–11
Peter Hart, copy after Utrillo’s Place du Tertre. Oil on Canvas

The word ‘copying’, as used in the title, does not best describe my undertaking. A copy suggests a facsimile, something so like the original that it might be passed off as a forgery. And such a process – unless aimed at learning something quite specific – would I think be both pointless and tedious. So what have I been doing with ‘my Utrillo’? I think primarily I have been trying to make something new (or different), while not departing radically from the original (reproduction). So that, after following the graphic aspect of Utrillo’s painting with as much veracity as I could, I then decided to make some considerable changes to the colours. I say ‘decided’, but it would be much truer to say that the colour changes simply came about during the process of painting. I did follow Utrillo in using emerald green for the patisserie frontage, but in the buildings to the right of that I’ve introduced some quite radical changes – especially in the rectangle of bright red and the triangle of blues beneath the roof. This central area then set the tone for the whole picture, the brightness of which makes Utrillo’s painting look comparatively monochromatic. But again, it was not my intention to bring about such a result, and it is one of those mysteries of painting that its final form can never be foreseen or preconceived. (In this, it’s like writing a letter: you cannot know exactly what you are going to say until you are actually writing it.)
Tonal Sketching in
Making this copy after Utrillo’s Place du Tertre has actually changed the way I see it. I have known the picture in reproduction for decades, and it is the colours that have always attracted me: the emerald greens, the earth browns, the yellow ochres, and the pale pinks – these and the configurations of the building’s frontages. But now I seem to have made something more solid than this, and I cannot quite recover my original vision of the painting. I have no regrets about this. The process has been one of enrichment; and if one work inspires another, that can only be for the good (and I make no pretentions in saying this).

A note on technique

‘Technique’ is another of those tricky words. Some artists develop a ‘technique’ and then apply it to everything they do: a deadening process. Because in truth there is no invariable way of doing anything in painting. No one brush stroke should inevitably be followed by another exactly the same. Difference is the nature of the visual world, and ‘sameness’ is the death of painting.

In this painting I did use something I’ve never used before – which is a painting knife. This is not a palate knife – the primary use of which is to mix colours on the palate – but what might be defined as a very small and very delicate trowel, unlike the brush it cannot be used for drawing, but is excellent for providing variety of colour and texture to flat surfaces. Provided that is that it is not resorted to across the picture plane: so becoming a lazy ‘device’, ruinous to the painting as becoming immediately obvious to the eye.

As a painter I am left–handed, but I realised without thinking that I was using the painting knife with my right hand: the hand that I use for all tools, and have in the past used for plaster skimming. In the detail shown below, the use of the painting knife can be seen particularly in the windows of the patisserie and the restaurant, and on the wall to the right.
Detail. The photograph is over–yellowed due to the electric light

Friday, 1 January 2016

Art, photography, & their two–way influences

Note: This is an extended version of a blog originally posted on another blog site
There is nothing particularly special about this photograph – taken in Clères, Normandy. True the variety of bottle shapes holds some interest; the work–a–day wooden chairs add a slightly mysterious presence; and the oil cloth and the wallpaper provide good contrasting patterns.  It is also true that the pattern of darks – the bottles, coffee cups, wallet, and chair surrounds – is not without a certain dynamism. Of less success is the clutter created by the cruet, the napkins, and the scattered cutlery. Equally unfortunate is what Bonnard described as the ‘useless lights and shades’ recorded by the camera lens.  Not even so precise a painter as Ingres would concern himself with these. The photographer is selective, but cannot – like the painter – control the tone of every centimetre of the work. Strictly, the photograph cannot be called a ‘work’ (but this does not mean that there is no such thing as the art of photography).
Still Life with Apples and a Milk Jug, c 1880
I chose this particular still life of Cezanne’s to compare with the photograph because of the wallpaper: a motif of which the artist made much use. However, of greater interest is the careful arrangement of the various components of the painting, and we may be immediately struck by the subtle positioning of the knife and the bread roll. Both are angled towards the milk jug, and in turn echo the curve of the white cloth. In a sense, everything in the composition crowds towards the jug, and is halted by it, so that the eye is prevented from leaving ‘picture left’, as might be said. It is in fact quite remarkable how bare the table top is to the right. I doubt that many painters would have the courage to leave it so. But then the front of the table – with its subtle angle and textures seems to provide just the right foil (and if you put your hand over that unobtrusive feature you will see that the picture becomes decidedly flat and dull). Even so small a detail as the slim curve of the milk jug handle cannot be excluded without serious diminution to the painting.                  
There is no question then, of a photograph quite equalling the subtlety of any painting or drawing which is truly explorative, devoid of all mannerisms, and highly selective (as it must be if the essence of the motif is not to be obliterated or deadened by a thousand irrelevant details).* Art is a product of the imagination, stimulated by the embodiment of things in the world, but not enslaved by them. This is why, if you go to Paris in search of Utrillos you will not find them. This is not because the (best) of Utrillo’s street scenes are not redolent of the city he knew, but because you cannot see them through his eyes – except on those rare occasions when what you see immediately coalesces with the vision of Utrillo which you have – to whatever degree – made your own.
Henri Cartier–Bresson

Yet is there vision in photography also – as evidenced by André Kertész, Donald McCullin, Diane Arbus, Cartier–Bresson, and every other photographer of genius who may come into your mind. Further, the cultural impact of photography over the last century and a half has been both profound and incalculable. Artists – though often without admitting it – made wholesale use of the effects of photography: the accidental cutting off of figures (Manet); photos of streets taken from the upper floors of buildings (Pissarro); Muybridge’s photos of the actual movement of the legs of galloping horses (Degas); and the direct use of photos (Sickert).
It is I think pointless arguing over the merits of painting over photography. They have different functions, and the best of each can enrich our lives.
* Comparing drawing with photography, immediately demonstrates that the camera can neither paint nor draw. That is the fundamental difference.
Photos of the trenches of the First World War can have a visceral impact which painting somehow fails to equal. But the contrast between the photograph below and Paul Nash’s painting We are Making a New World, 1918, is particularly interesting. 
Paul Nash, We are Making a New World, 1918

Monday, 14 December 2015

Drawing, graphic style, and colour: Caspar David Friedrich

It is ... always difficult to sort out a distinctive colour language at whatever stage of life or skill a man [an artist] stands, but when such a language does appear it is not an early phenomenon of an the owner’s work. He has always already perfected a graphic or formal frame for the later effulgence.  Oliver Jelly, An Essay on Eyesight. Hodder, 1963

When I first read the above passage, I had a tacit feeling that Oliver Jelly’s observation was sound, but I puzzled over the connection between well–grounded draughtsmanship and the development of a colour language. Yet I need not have worried. Cezanne sums it up perfectly:
Drawing and colour are not separate at all; in so far as you paint, you draw. The more the colour harmonizes, the more exact the drawing becomes.
And here is David Sweetman, writing in the Sunday Independent:
Those who best profited from the experience [of the major retrospective of Van Gogh’s work – 1901], notably Picasso and Matisse, truly understood Van Gogh’s achievement in restraining expressive colour with strong graphic  underpinning – he drew before he painted and continued to do so with colour, which is what holds together all those electric complementaries and explains why his works are still strong when reproduced in black and white. [Italics added]
Oliver Jelly’s use of the term ‘colour language’ may suggest a psychological dimension to the artist’s ‘colour predilections’; and there can be no doubt whatsoever that the artist’s choice of colours will relate to their fundamental temperament, which will run like a leitmotif through their works (even if barely discernible in some). The melancholy blues, greens, and yellows of Caspar David Friedrich are a paradigmatic example. Painters do not, and could not, choose their colour language. Certain painters, if given the palate of a Van Gogh or a Gauguin, would still find themselves muting the brighter reds and yellows, and producing a harmony on an altogether lower key. Neither do painters choose their graphic styles. Painter and style are inseparable, and style is never an adjunct, but a carrier of the painter’s meaning.

Caspar David Friedrich, On a Sailing Boat c. 1818
In the instance of Friedrich we are lucky in having an early painting – On a Sailing Boat c. 1818 – in which the attention given to drawing equals – if it does not surpass – the attention given to painting. It is immediately apparent from this painting that Friedrich is a fine draughtsman, and has therefore developed that strong graphic underpinning which both Jelly and Sweetman mark out as the necessary prerequisite of the development of a colour language.

Caspar David Friedrich, The Large Enclosure near Dresden c. 1832
Robert Rosenblum, in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, writes: “[The] tragic mood of terrible loneliness and an almost menacing power was first explored by Friedrich in such a picture as The Large Enclosure near Dresden, where so much of the earth seems to expand with so infinite an extension that it actually produces a curvature ... [and, through emotional intensity, substitutes] perspectival accuracy for emotional authenticity.” The Northern Romantic Tradition encompasses such painters as Edvard Munch, Emile Nolde, and Franz Mark. And the word which perhaps best describes the underlying ‘malaise’ of this movement is angst. It can be found in playwrights such as Ibsen and Chekov; among philosophers it is found in Kierkegaard (and the mystic, Swedenborg); and in music you may hear and feel it in Sibelius. Angst differs from anxiety, in that that which causes this emotion cannot be courageously faced. If you feel angst in any situation, then the more you expose yourself to it the worse you will feel. I doubt there could now be anything like a northern Romantic tradition: the mystery that inspired it may still catch us unawares – and is ever in the background, as the irreducible enigma of the universe – but the knowledge and universal connection we now have has probably made it harder to sustain (though elements of it hover in the background of Nordic Noir.   

But I have strayed from the subject of Friedrich's colour language, and have to wonder if there ever was a yellow sky painted with such intensity, and to such evocative effect, as Friedrich's Neubrandenburg. Blue is almost entirely absent from this painting – except perhaps vestigially in the foreground shrubs and the coats of the two men. The green is subdued, and yet it is still Friedrich's. Compositionally, the painting is a masterpiece. The two men – typically with their backs to us, so that we are looking at them looking at the landscape: our gaze observing their gaze – form a perfect balance to the shrubbery on the left, as also an echo of the church steeple. The painting is suffused with atmosphere and rich colour – even though near monochromatic in comparison with a Matisse or a Bonnard. There is I think something entirely satisfying about it.

Caspar David Friedrich, Neubrandenburg. c. 1817

I had intended to write more about Friedrich, but have discovered that there is a richness and variety to his work that cannot be done justice to this most distinctive of painters in the space of a blog. So I am going to illustrate first a painting in which a yellow sky occupies almost the entire canvas, and then very briefly discuss a few more paintings illustrative of the solitary nature of our species – for all that we are gregarious and fun–loving. 

Caspar David Friedrich, Moonlight with Clouds. Oil on cardboard, 1824

Rosenblum, in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, carries his argument across to America, and considers the paintings of Edward Hopper – where the urban scene often takes on an unsettling atmosphere: solitary people, and angst among the buildings (as might be expressed). Rosenblum concludes with Rothko, whose darker abstract expressionist works form a kind of antithesis to Friedrich's Moonlight with Clouds, and an echo to his Monk by the Sea.

Edward Hopper, Railroad Sunset 1952

Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea. c. 1809
Rothko, Untitled

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Drawing a line

All good drawing – with the exception of that done from memory – should be explorative. In other words, an exercise in close looking. Watch a serious artist drawing, and you will see that the time devoted to looking will in all probability be greater than that devoted to drawing. Further – given the difficulty of accurately holding in your mind what you have observed – one minute is too long to spend on the drawing. Watch students making drawings of art works in galleries, and you will see that many of them spend far more time ‘drawing’ that they do looking at their subject. I have seen a student spend four to five minutes drawing without so much as a glance at the painting she was supposed to be learning from. What was she doing? In all probability she was trying to make her drawing look good or nice according to some preconceived notion of what it is that constitutes a good drawing. Manifestly she was wasting her time, and learning nothing.
None of the above is to say that drawing is not selective. It has to be: otherwise it will be deadened by minutiae; choked by detail. The salient features are what matter, and in some drawings nothing is included except lines, which in the hands of a fine draughtsman will indicate form without the use of shading (our minds being well equipped to supply what is excluded). The Rembrandt drawing illustrated below is one of the finest examples of the expressiveness of line, as well as being a drawing of exquisite delight.
Rembrandt. Two Women Teaching a Child to Walk.
Red chalk. C. 1640 
Some time ago, thinking how essential it is to pay the closest attention to the subject of a drawing, I tried an experiment in looking and drawing simultaneously. A near impossibility, as I supposed, and yet it turned out to be not quite that. It was possible because, although I did not stop my hand from moving, I looked rapidly between the subject and the drawing, and I can remember how the two tended to meld as I worked. However, if this gives rise to the thought that the result was somehow a facsimile or copy of what was in front of me, then nothing could be further from the truth (as is evident from the drawing in question, Dead plane leaves, illustrated below). What the eyes see, and the imaginative mind comprehends, is transformed by hand, wrist, and arm into something that is different from the subject of the drawing, while retaining its integral form. (I hope that that does not sound pretentious, but I cannot find a better way of describing the process whereby a thing in the world becomes a drawing on paper.)
Dead Plane Leaves, Conte crayon and pen and ink 
There is then the question of ‘movement’ in a drawing, which – even when related to  physical movement in the world – remains inherently static as a graphic representation (or interpretation) on the flat surface of paper. Dead Plane Leaves has movement, even though it was drawn indoors, and completely undisturbed by wind or draught. So it is that the movement is integral to the lines; and the carefulness with which they were drawn seems only to have enhanced their liveliness. This seems paradoxical; but only if we persist in believing that the achievement of movement in a drawing can only come about as a result of free and fast drawing. (It can if you are a Picasso, but such are in short supply!)
This brings me to Ruskin, and a passage from The Cestus of Aglaia. He writes:
All freedom is error. Every line you lay down is either right or wrong ... If right, it most assuredly is not a ‘free’ line, but an intensely continent, restrained, and considered line; and the action of the hand in laying it is just as ‘free’ as the hand of a first–rate surgeon in a critical incision. [Chapter IV, §72]
This is of course highly prescriptive and persuasive, and we might wonder if any artist not possessed of the genius of a Raphael could ever lay down a ‘right’ line. Yet if Ruskin sets the bar too high, it remains true that any artist who sets out to make their drawing look ‘good’ rather than truly explorative, then they are not drawing. “Take the commonest, closest, most familiar thing, and strive to draw it verily as you see it. Be sure of this last fact, for otherwise you will find yourself continually drawing not what you see, but what you know.” It happens from time to time that an artist develops a ‘technique’ or a ‘way of doing things’ that charms and fools a great many people. Yet, look at such works with a critical eye and they will fall apart in front of you: just like a spent firework falling out of the sky!