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July 2013

A Not-So-Traditional Conceptual Realist

So this post is just for fun and to show you some of my process - both painting and conceptual.  I privately think of my style as conceptual realism, although it bears no connection to what is known as Conceptual Realism in the mind of the general public.  That's okay, it's merely a way to describe what and why I paint, and to evaluate the results.


The set-up:  Almost the view from my easel.  The print of a Paul Cornoyer painting works to create an interesting pattern that repeats the lines of the copper pot and the carpet.  I was interested in creating a sense of calm with added exotic/antiquity elements to describe a sense of a by-gone era.  I also wanted the compositional eye movement to build in an oval/spiral pattern using the light falling on the figurine, the drape, the top of the pot into the background lights on the print. The primary movement is a downward calming angle from the upper left to lower right, which counters the rising energy in the implied angle from the cat's head to the top of the pot.  So lets see if I can do this.


IMG_0382After a period of time drawing in my sketchbook, I felt like starting to place the initial forms.  I am using a warm toned canvas and starting to place the dark shapes using a wash of raw umber - I often go to raw umber for a darker neutral but I am now making an effort not to take this short cut because the umber will dry as very dark and colorless.  For the next stages I mixed up a dark using several of the paints that went into the rest of the painting.  This stage was to evaluate the placements and as you can see the wash is of the consistency of watercolor.

At this point I am starting to define the darker areas to see how this pattern will ultimately connect throughout the painting and support my idea of the descending and ascending diagonals, balanced by the verticals.




IMG_0385Since the figurine is the focal point and probably the most critical shape in terms of accurate drawing, I wanted to get it in first, painting very thinly and establishing the lightest light available to me in this painting.  All the other lights need to be balanced against this form - not as light, or as much contrast, but with the intent of supporting the conceptual ideas relating to the mood and movement.

I originally had the jaguar sitting on a broken tile I picked up in Italy, but discarded it as the painting progressed. 


IMG_0386At this point I have established the shapes and some of the major and/or implied lines and repeating elements such as the tree branch repeating the curve of the spout on the pot, which repeats the curve of the handle.  The angle of the cat's back is repeated in the drape to the right and the street angle on the left. 

The real problem solving that went on with the painting actually begins at this point.  The primary issue was the color harmony and values that I was seeing in my set-up, and how to translate that using pigments.  Since I was interested in the visual contrast of the warmth of the copper against all the cool grays in the print,the carpet, and the vivid contrast of warm and cool in the cat, I decided to find the pot colors first.  Of course this was also the easiest - but the first color choice is always the easiest, while getting everything else to work well is the hard part. 

After this point, I was concentrating so hard on solving these visual problems that I neglected to take more photos.  My colors were selected as warm and cool versions, keeping with a red-orange base and it's compliment of a dark greenish blue. 

IMG_0397 sm blog copy

Paul Cornoyer Print with Pot and Figurine, 24 x 20, oil on canvas

This painting was created using both transparents and opaques: transparent earth red, yellow ochre burnt, oxide yellow, yellow ochre light, burnt carmine, hansa yellow medium, brown oxide, Vay Dyke brown, cobalt blue, modigliani ochre, raw sienna, prussian blue, raw umber, titaniam white, and Gamblin's solvent free gel. 

Telling a Story or Singing a Song?

George Inness was compulsive when it came to achieving perfection, to the point where he regularly destroyed more paintings by doing “some little repainting” than he completed successfully.  At one point his insistence to fix some small thing that disturbed him was so great that his collectors would routinely hide their Inness canvases whenever he came to visit, or risk having Inness take the painting from the wall and back to his studio, where he would “fix” it to the point of being unrecognizable.[i]

Not all artists are dissatisfied with the result of their efforts to the degree that Inness was, but the sense of dissatisfaction is a familiar one.  It is easy to feel inspired, easy to paint, but hard to accept the results.  We evolved most recently from the Expressionist/Impressionist branches of the family tree: both 'isms" involve emotion in paint – when told to paint something that reflects anger, you can do it, can’t you?  I want to believe that when I am in the flow, magic happens.  You want to believe it. But we know this isn’t completely true.  Something is missing, the thing we can’t describe, the thing that leaves us feeling vaguely dissatisfied with the result of our efforts.

I believe our sense of dissatisfaction is really an argument.  An argument between the right brain, inspired and passionate, saying “isn’t this beautiful?” - and the left brain, logical and linear, that keeps saying, “yeah, but it doesn't look to me like it felt to you when you painted it.”

And the solution  – at least for me – has to come from historical foundations of painting.  Even the most bravura artists of our times have a solid grounding in traditional training. 

If you study Sargent’s paintings, you may notice a structure based on the Fibonacci numbers or some other version of dynamic symmetry.   

Sergei Bongart, the well-loved Russian Impressionist, was a student of Michail Yarovoy at a very early age, an artist who himself was a student of Ilya Repin, the great Russian realist.[ii]

Joaquin Sorolla impressed the public with the speed and intuition of his brushwork, his dazzling colors, and his ability to take in a subject with a single glance.  His critics were impressed by his complete command of technique. His close friends reported that “The execution of each work was preceded by a period of preparation in which, by making numerous studies of design and color, both of details and of the whole composition, he was at pains to familiarize himself with the subject.” [iii]

I believe that many ideas at the heart of Modern painting do artists a disservice.  The Modernists of the last half century applauded spontaneity.  They encouraged personal expression and an intuitive response to the painting.  But they also had solid foundations in traditional ideas and their work was in response to those ideas. 

Yet Art education today often emphasizes personal expression over the necessity of acquiring a deep understanding of composition, values, edges, form, line, pattern, drawing – the elements of painting.

How often, before you begin a painting, do you ask yourself, am I telling a story, or singing a song? 

If you are singing a song, all you need is an emotional melody, a pleasing sound, because all information is transmitted through our sense of hearing.  We can sing along with the music, cringe at the occasional missed note, but understand the emotional message without effort because our sense of hearing is adapted to obtaining information from the nuance of sound alone.

But if you are telling a story – and you are with a painting – you are dealing with the visual sense, which is highly connected to the mind - and the mind expects more clues in the visual information you are providing.  It wants a sense of rhythm, of pattern, shape and form, of pleasing paint application and solid value differences.  It wants to be visually delighted, emotionally involved, and to discover what it is that the artist wishes to share.  And to do this, to communicate the visual story you want to tell, you need to be the most proficient in the language of painting as you can be. 

More than once I have tried to convince myself that this is not true.  That I could skip this whole foundation part. But I'm tired of balancing awkwardly on one leg and feeling dissatisfied.  

[i] George Inness: Artist, Writer, Philosopher, edited by Adrienne Baxter Bell, page 28-29

[ii] Sergi Bongart, Mary N. Balcomb, page 23

[iii] The Painter Joaquin Sorolla, edited by Edmund Peel, page 79