One of the final levels of sophistication in painting is the character of the marks you make on your canvas. Growing artists often overlook this attribute in painting, choosing to blend everything instead. Over-blending is a contrived approach to painting surfaces and removes the power and character of the painting process that marks bring to the work.
I suppose this over-blending tendency comes from seeing the paintings of the Renaissance masters, who’s surfaces appear blended. Those surfaces were the result of the painting mediums and required application techniques available at the time. Most artists of the fifteenth century were painting with egg tempera, a very transparent painting medium. The application required elaborate underpainting and glazing techniques, where a complete, dark, monochromic underpainting base was created, before layer after layer of semi-transparent egg tempera color was glazed, painstakingly, over the top. The slow building up of these many semi-transparent levels gave the edges in the final surfaces of the painting a very smooth and blended appearance.
If you examine the paintings of later oil painting masters, you’ll find the character of THEIR surfaces to be more active. Take a close look at a painting by John Singer Sargent, for example. In your memory you see his surfaces as smooth and blended, but through a more precise examination you’ll realize they’re made up of precisely placed individual marks. Areas of less focus, like her lace blouse and jacket are painted with even more energetic strokes.
Other painting giants were even more expressive. Each with a character to their marks that were all their own.
While most subjects present both hard and soft edges, you don’t have to blend an edge to make it appear soft. A more interesting approach is to retain your marks and simply apply a series of close values to turn an edge, like Vincent did on the leading edge of his face and the back of his head in the above, “Self Portrait.”
One of the best ways I know of for breaking the habit of blending everything is to do what you should be doing anyway and work the entire painting at the same time, working from rough to tight. When you’ve adjusted everything else to your satisfaction, then and only then ask yourself if any of the edges need to be blended. I think you’ll find that they do not!
Vincent van Gogh’s work spoke to me at a young age (6 or 7) and I’ve continued the conversation with this very special Dutch artist my entire life. I first discovered his work in a Child Craft encyclopedia, one of the volumes in the full set my parents had purchased to support the new family they’d begun. It was the first of many books in which I’d learn about his tortured life and magnificent product over the years. With each tome new pieces were added to the complicated picture puzzle of his life.
Vincent never showed any special affinity, interest or talent as an artist before he decided he wanted to be one at age 28. 9 years later, at age 37, he was dead. Over just 9 years he’d taught himself, first to draw (2 years), then to paint, producing 2,100 works of art and establishing himself as one of the most influential artists in Western Art. Not so much a little known fact as a phenomenon often overlooked.
While it appeared the older Vincent was taking great advantage of his younger brother Theo, in actuality it was a business arrangement. While Theo was supplying the funds that enabled Vincent to paint, all the paintings belonged to Theo and Vincent shipped them off to his brother, as soon as they were dry enough to travel.
Vincent was a kind, compassionate individual, in the extreme. In his earlier attempted vocation, as a missionary in Belgium, he ruined his own health, first giving away all his food and most of his clothing to the poor miners there and then sleeping on a bed of straw on the floor, after he’d torn all his bedding into bandages for the treatment of those injured in the mines. Uncomfortably with his sacrifices, the church asked his family to bring him home.
Later, when he was painting in Arles and would pick up funds wired to him from Theo, he’d often arrive home from the post with just pennies in his pockets, having given the bulk of his newly received funds to the poor and homeless he met on the street.
Van Gogh was heavily influenced by Japan’s reopening of trade with the West after 200 years of isolationism. There was such an insurgence of Japanese objects in Europe, that Japanese prints were found, wrapped around ceramic objects, used as packing. Van Gogh’s work began to include outlines, an element missing from Western painting for centuries, but a primary element in Japanese prints. His areas of color were greatly flattened. And something I’d never noticed, prior to recently reading a van Gogh biography translated from Dutch, Vincent eliminated shadows from his paintings. Shadows do not exist in Japanese prints.
Even his migration to the south of France, his attempt to begin an artist’s colony there, was, in his words in a letter to his brother Theo, the seeds of a “new Japan,” as he understood it. His “Bedroom at Arles” a depiction of his new monastic Japanese dwelling place.
Contrary to common belief, Vincent’s work was gaining notoriety during his lifetime and he was offered multiple shows in Paris. Unfortunately, he inflicted a great dilemma upon himself. On one hand he was desperate for financial success, to remove himself as financial burden from Theo, but afraid that the same success would ruin him as a painter. Afraid that popular paintings would dissuade him from experimentation and encourage him to repaint the same paintings over and over again.
The purpose of this second installment in my discussion of Picasso is to explain WHAT it is about his work that makes it so important and , yes, why it IS art, in fact, likely the most important contribution to art in the 20th Century.
In my last post, Picasso Haters!, I mapped out the representational art environment/history that led up to Picasso’s appearance on stage. You can catch up by visiting that post HERE.
So, one last huge development that changed Western painting, before Picasso makes his appearance. Japan ended it isolationist policy in the middle of the 19th Century and began exporting to the outside world. Japanese Prints were so plentiful in Europe, that you could even find them wrapped around exported pottery, to protect the objects from breakage. Contemporary artists at the time, among them,
VanGogh, Gauguin, Degas and Lautrec saw this stunning artwork for the first time, with its strong use of outline, flat color and its lack of shadows. The effect caused a seachange and Post Impressionism was born.
This is the world Pablo Picasso entered in 1900, when he arrived in Paris. His first efforts were highly influenced by the work of the Post Impressionists, but he still managed to contribute something brand new here: monochromatic painting. Before Picasso’s Blue and Rose Periods no artist had thought to limit their palettes to a single hue.
But an even bigger invention was presented around 1910. Inspired by the later works of Paul Cézanne, Picasso and Georges Braque blew apart painting and reassembled it. Frustrated by the fact that, unlike sculpture, painting had been limited to describing subject matter from a single point of view, Braque and Picasso sought a more honest way to represent a 3 dimensional world on a 2 dimensional surface. The result was the multiple view point perspective approach, Cubism (Analytical Cubism) to be more precise.
To better understand Picasso, it’s important that
you understand how Fine Art changed direction here. With cubism, fine art was no longer just about a beautiful esthetic, as it had been up to this point in history. Cubism raised concept to the top of the list, above beauty. So now we have art divided into 3 general categories: commercial art (illustration), gallery art (a search for a beautiful esthetic) and museum or fine art (intellectual pursuits). Picasso was the king of conceptual art and would remain so his entire life.
Others before him, had already separated painting from its marriage to the realistic representational image, Picasso realized he was now presented with the ball and given the opportunity to run with it as far as he could.
He broke painting into 6 graphic means, means for arriving at an end: line, form, value, color, texture and pattern. This enabled him to think of them as independent entities, to be used all alone, if desired, as well as used together in combination. This led to uncovering various systems of abstraction (ways to abstract): reductive abstraction, geometric abstraction, organic abstraction and the use of multiple viewpoint perspective in abstraction.
Through his exploration, in addition to cubism and monochromatic painting, he invented collage, assemblage and found object construction. Before he was done, he’d produced 200,000 pieces of art and covered every form of abstraction that could be created from subject matter. Since Picasso, any time an artist, abstracting from subject matter, believes they’re on a new course,
they round a corner and run right, smack into Picasso. In fear of taking on Picasso, after world World War II, painters in New York avoided subject matter altogether and Abstract Expressionism was the result. Even here you could make the argument that Abstract Expressionism was heavily influenced by some of Picasso’s brushwork.
Many believe Picasso did what he did, because he lacked traditional skills. They’d be wrong. Picasso could draw and paint like an angel and did consistently, alongside his abstractions, throughout his career.
So when you stand before a Picasso, realize what you’re looking at is an intellectual pursuit, that values concept over pleasing esthetic, created by a genius who invented many of the forms of art in use today, that this artist almost single handedly brought us Modern Art, taking art from the Post Impressionist to the Abstract Expressionists. It’s not important that it be pretty, just that it’s brilliant!