Friday, August 22, 2014

Figurative Friday 4

The beach is one of my favorite places to sketch people. It's very nearly like life drawing but with a much larger variety of models. Here are a few pages of sketches from our trip to Sarasota earlier this month.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Richard Estes, Evolutions in Taste, and Stealing

"I think the popular concept of an artist is a person who has this great passion and enthusiasm and super emotion. He just throws himself into this great masterpiece and collapses from exhaustion when it's finished. It's really not that way at all. Usually it's a pretty calculated, sustained and slow process by which you develop something. The effect can be one of spontaneity but that's part of the artistry... I think the real test is to plan something and be able to carry it out to the very end. Not that you're always enthusiastic; it's just that you have to get this thing out. It's not done with one's emotions; it's done with the head."
- Richard Estes

One of the wonderful things about the art path is constantly seeing new things as you grow. It's  impossible to become stagnant and bored if you are paying attention and keeping an open mind. For instance: I used to hate the impressionists. I found their drawing lazy and their paintings lacked drama for me.  (Ironically, some of the same things  their contemporaries said about them) Then I started studying color theory and, most importantly, went to the Met to look at the art in person.

Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight),
Claude Monet  1894
When I saw Monet's "Cathedral" it was like a light switched in on in my brain. The complexity of color that built up forms. The luminosity of the shadows. The soft edges and thick brushstrokes that made everything vibrate with life. It was beautiful. And more importantly-  I could use this! 

This experience taught me some very important lessons. First: always be ready to observe and change your mind based on what you see. Second: Always be ready to look again, just in case you've changed. Third: Firsthand experience changes everything. Look in person and Fourth: always look with the eyes of a thief. 

Those last two, especially. A good artist should always be incorporating ideas from their observations. (of course the keyword is "incorporating". I'm not talking about blatant copying)  But one of the biggest drawbacks to being an artist is there is so much art out there and just one of us. Most of our observation comes with some sort of barrier diluting the experience. Even looking at this very nice reproduction from the Met's own website,  it doesn't come close to standing three feet away and letting all the colors vibrate in front of me.  If I had never had the chance to see the art in person, i might still think the impressionists were just lazy draftsmen. (ok, probably not...)

So this brings me to the present. A few weeks ago Scott and I visited Portland, ME so of course  went to the Portland Museum of Art.  Their big draw at the time was a huge Richard Estes retrospective. We very nearly ended up not going, both having some prejudices against photorealism. (All technique and no substance) but when peeking in at the huge canvases with their dense compositions, my curiosity was peaked and so we paid the extra $ to check it out.

The Candy Store - 1969 - 47 3/4 × 68 3/4 in

The above piece was the first one I saw and, as you might have guessed, this photo doesn't begin to do it justice. Nearly 3 feet long, there is a complexity of technique and composition that you would never guess at from a reproduction. Looking closely, you can see Richard Estes is a master of value, color and efficiency of stroke. Much like Leyendecker or Sargent knew to put just the right shaped stroke in just the right place, there wasn't a corner of these paintings that was thrown away, overpainted or thoughtless. Estes' forte is in reflective surfaces and the distortion/dissection/repetition of space they reveal.  And as the show progressed, I saw this mastery revealed more and more.

Paris Street Scene - 1972

Central Savings - 1975

Even in reproduction, you can see how Estes layers textures and reflections over and over almost to the point of abstraction. These aren't simply copies of photographs, these are a very distinctive point of view that could only be achieved by this technique of art.  He uses his eye and the tool of the camera to capture moments and ideas but then turns them into something larger. These are recognizable everyday scenes that we may have got lost in ourselves, maybe even taken photographs of,  trying to capture the effect, but they become lost in translation somewhere.

The L Train  - 2009
He uses reflections to distort space and extend the scope of the composition beyond what can be observed with the limiting tools of cameras or eyes, stretching visual reality almost in a 4 dimensional way. It didn't take much to start making connections with another art movement that had some similar properties:

Woman Playing Mandolin
Picasso 1910

 Violin and Pitcher
Georges Braque 1910
"In Du Cubisme [...Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger] attempted to explain some of the conceptions underlying the movement. They discussed in clear and rational terms the idea of the new "conceptual" as opposed to the old "visual reality", and how the transformation of natural object into the plastic realm of the painting was affected. " (Herschel Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, pg.197)

Murano Glass - 1976
  From the curator. "[Murano Glass] Improbably merges what is beside, behind and beyond the viewer.""

Now this show wasn't all revelations. Richard Estes' skills are in textures, reflections and compositions. His figures, while clearly competent, often reinforced my previous prejudices against photorealism. When he tried to handle them in a more traditional portrait sense, his figures were stiff and lifeless and drained the magic from his work. There was probably a good reason he removed them from most of his early compositions or relegated them to subtle reflections.

Water Taxi - 1999
The moment you add figures as a prominent composition element- that is where your eye will get drawn over and over again.  I love figures- but they do nothing for me here.  I can't get away from them to enjoy the rest of the painting.

Vinalhaven,  Maine - 1997
In contrast: Without figures to distract me, I can get lost in the rhythm and negative space in this painting. (And the efficient little scribbles he uses for the churning water. I can steal that!)

It wasn't until  he began merging his figures with the environment,  repeating them and distorting them, that they made sense in the context of his storytelling.

Checkout 2012

43rd and Broadway - 2005
  His  few nature scenes also didn't work for me unless there was some introduction of reflection or dramatic composition element. The lack of atmospheric perspective, absence of bold composition and light choices make them much less interesting than his urban landscapes.

So clearly this show was an unexpected gem. It got me looking and thinking.  I really tried to analyze what I was responding to in the work and what I could use. It wasn't just the efficiency of his brushwork or his insane layers of reflection (those are skills that will only come in time). It was also his compositional sensibility. The wide angles and extreme foreground to background relationships between elements to exaggerate and connect distances. The negative space broken up by a sweeping structure or reflection. A subtle hint of texture over the surface to remind the viewer of a barrier.

View of Manhattan from Staten Island - 2008
Look closely at the window. The distant skyline is represented in perfect crispness but for a few subtle strokes of grime on the window reminding the viewer of the separation... Totally stealing that.

Sadly, this show did reinforce one of the biggest drawbacks to photorealist art.  When you see a reproduction, it's very easy to dismiss the work because it just looks like a photo. No big deal.  Even looking at the (beautifully done) book after the show, I had no desire to get it because nearly everything I loved about the paintings were lost in the reproductions. This was art that had to be stood in front of, at eye level, so you could feel yourself being transported into the scene and lost in the detail.

This is also not to say I love all photoreal art now. There is still a lot of bad photoreal art out there that doesn't utilize the tools successfully to share a distinct point of view. (it's especially tricky with figures) What I did take away from this show is that technique must be crafted to suit the subject and story you want to tell. Richard Estes' compositions are often created to put the viewer in right into the environment and drawing them in with sweeping compositional elements to create an intimate, first-person perspective. Unlike the camera or the naked eye, everything is rendered crisp with little to no atmospheric perspective. Everything in the environment is of importance and worth observation. After leaving- I found myself seeing his compositions all around me. I was looking more closely at the world, seeing it in a new way.

I can use that.

Sarasota, Summer 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014

Figurative Friday 3 - Robin Williams

It's a strange thing grieving for celebrities. You think of their families, their friends and wonder what right do I have? Who are we to claim any ownership over the loss of someone we've never met?  And as an artist, what authority do I have to communicate that loss in my language? 

But in our culture of entertainment, there are certain people like Robin Williams who do become family. We grow up with their presence as a constant in our lives. Through the television, film screen and stage, they reach out and help shape us into the people we become. For me and many of my generation, Robin was so much. He was our Genie, our Peter Pan, our doctor, our father figure.  He taught us to laugh at ourselves through alien eyes,  to see homosexual relationships in a very human way, to embrace the weirdness of life and never stop laughing at it. In the way only someone who would make you laugh until you cried could, he taught us that inner darkness was not a thing to hide or ignore.

I am really going to miss all the things that he could have taught and the laughter he would have created.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Figurative Friday 2!

A couple more random figures from the sketchbook. Tilda Swinton inspired study (because Tilda Swinton) and a figure doodle from the imagination that's some sort of cross between the Chiquita banana lady and a jewelry hoarder. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Intelligent Design

'"Intelligent Design"
oil on cradle board
6 x 6
"When our creations finally became self-aware, few could have predicted how fast the world would change. Unhindered by human limitations, they began to modify themselves and progressed swiftly. The creations developed communities and soon became active in culture: engaging in the workforce, the sciences, gaining political representation. It was not long before they even began experimenting with religion.  We could not comprehend their sacred geometries and our creations soon evolved far past what our limited biology could ever hope to attain.  They curated a culture where every aspect of existence: science, art, spirituality, even fashion was interconnected. We were apes compared to their beauty. So when at last the offer came for us to join them, the human race rushed into extinction with open arms and rejoiced. "

Friday, August 1, 2014

Figurative Friday!

So in honor of Friday I decided to scan a few random figure sketches from the week to share. These are a mix of figures from reference and figures from my head. Fun tip: do an image search for "parkour" and find lots of cool dynamic action shots to sketch.