cast shadows

A truck stop for fishermen

The University of Washington Drama drawing class wrapped up with a field trip to Fishermen’s Terminal, a moorage for both working and pleasure boats, with restaurants and services for fishermen and -women. We we accompanied by our intrepid and always-dapper model Amanda. Context brings so much life to life drawing, but is inexplicably left out of most figure classes. There is, for one, the light to contend with, changing the color, bouncing around, casting shadows, and reflecting off of water in this particular situation.

drawing

Here is everyone’s first go at tackling the complicated scenery, with its plethora of vertical masts and fenceposts.

panoweb

amandabymeleta

The scale of the boats in relation to the figure also presented interesting composition problems. Less expected was the element of text: Boats have names, and those names are writ large. Artists sometimes freeze up when confronted with text. They go into what used to be called left-brain mode and forget how to draw. Words have a way of obliterating the rest of the drawing. Something about “Ricky K “, however, was so juicy and tempting that most of the students (and I) wanted to tackle it. Those who included it really succeeded in keeping it in its place as a visual element. The drawings hold together, in spite of being so texty.

rickyK

My polka-dotted skirt appears twice in in this peripatetic panoramic photo of the last pose of the year.

pano

Make that second-last pose, since Amanda’s and my coordinated outfits also begged to be documented.

janeamandaweb

Advertisements

Reverse-Engineering the Masters

In the movies, painters tend to be seized by bouts of inspiration at unpredictable intervals, upon which seizure they spontaneously and spasmodically squish paint into a masterpiece. Mike Leigh’s recent film Mr. Turner was no exception. The spastic-inspiration trope is the default mode for films about more Jackson-Pollocky types, of course, but Leigh’s William J. W. Turner was seized by this affliction when he gazed at the sea or the English countryside, naturally. In reality, painting and drawing a landscape is rather difficult, and Hollywood cliches like these are misleading about the mechanics and intentionality of composition that are actually required to make a picture of anything, including abstraction.  It’s too easy to assume that good landscapes come about through some kind of direct channelling of the scenery, making it all the more frustrating when beautiful or interesting scene you see in real life does not make a beautiful or interesting painting on your page. Even landscapes have to be composed by the artist. Composition is the mechanics, or machinery, of a picture. It’s how it directs your eye from here to there, lets in linger in some places, and return to the subjects that the artist wanted to you focus on. In the class that I just wrapped up, Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition, a group of experienced painters exposed the picture-making machinery of the masters, teased out the separate elements of that machinery, and began to employ those strategies to their own ends.

We began the first few classes with gesture-drawing from art history. Recording what you see in the first minute of looking at a painting tells you a lot about where the artist has directed your eye.

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth's Christina's World in ink and pencil

A one-minute gesture drawing of Wyeth’s Christina’s World in ink and pencil

Gesture drawing of Giotto's Annunciation

Gesture drawing of Giotto’s Annunciation

Your eye tends to look at the largest form first. In order to better see the hierarchy of forms, we broke them down into two tones, grey and white, simplifying shapes, to get a better idea of the overall order and direction in which one views the painting.

Sandy's two-tone interpretation of Vermeer's sleeping maid

Sandy’s two-tone interpretation of Vermeer’s sleeping maid

Vermeer - Girl Asleep

We also made quick five-minute interpretations in black and grey paper cutouts of projected paintings. Here are four different student’s quick collages of Manet’s 1862 Portrait of Jeanne Duval

: manet

And the original…

whitedress

Four interpretations of Andrew Wyeth’s Master Bedroom

wyeth

And the original . . .

Master Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth proved to be particularly helpful to study for composition. His subjects were deceptively simple, and he mastered the art of editing and simplifying, while working in the style we erroneously call “realistic”, as if it involved copying from nature. Really, nature is a mess, and you have to tame it. (Just ask Mr. Turner.)

Wyeth’s Brown Swiss, which seems to the untrained eye to be a straightforward rendering of a farm house, is actually a feat of engineering.

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957  Image: Artstor

Wyeth, Brown Swiss, tempera, 1957
Image: Artstor

A photograph of the same spot reveals that the composition didn’t just present itself. The placement of the house just a wee bit from the left edge makes your eye run over there, too, but then jump down to the reflection before you fall off, then hang a right, sending you back into the painting.. The stream as a big, light, horizontal bar across the lower third was a deliberate choice: water can be dark or light depending on when and where you look at it. The reflection of the house didn’t just happen, either: The artist chose it as an element, its presence and shape dependent on where he stood and the time of day he decided to grab it from. The long shadow on the side of the hill under the house is essential, as is eliminating the sky: the long horizontal shapes are ordered by size, and alternate dark/light. Everything in the picture serves the composition. We can’t say the same for the actual site, which is a lot busier. Granted, the evergreen tree apparently wasn’t big enough to block the house when he painted the picture, but if it did I’m sure he would have found a way to make it work.

wyethphoto

Here is a sketch in which he worked out the composition. It’s possible he started with a more literal drawing and just kept blocking out what he didn’t need with ink until the shapes looked right.

wyethsketch

We tried to get inside long-dead artists’ heads and learn their tricks by reverse-engineering a composition. This is one student’s analysis, of shape, value, and directional lines, of The Judgment of Paris by Cranach the Elder:

judgmentparis

Lucas Cranach the Elder - Judgment of Paris

Students took their own subject-matter, in the form of personal or magazine photographs, and inserted them into the structure of the masterwork. Here a Vermeer becomes the armature for a reinterpretation of one student’s old family snapshot.

vermeergreysandygirls

Treasured snapshots are as difficult to work with as nature. You’re usually too close to the subject matter to know why you like it: Is it the figures, the furniture, the faded colors, or just its emotional associations? It’s nearly impossible to know what is worth keeping and what should be discarded in order to get to an interesting, successful painting. Sometimes the accidental nature of the composition, its very awkwardness, is the best part. This exercise was a way to get a bit of objectivity, and license to move reality around to suit the artist’s purpose.

A continuation of Making Your Own Work: Subject and Composition will begin in late April.

Six views of Richard Serra’s Wake

We wrapped up Drawing on Location yesterday at the Olympic Sculpture Park. Drawing a piece of art, whether it’s an old Dutch master in a stuffy museum or a giant abstract rusted metal situation in a sunny waterfront park, sometimes feels like the only way to experience it fully. In the latter case, you also have to deal with its entire environment, including those pesky trees. In looking at four different artists’ sketches of the same work, you can get a glimpse of their widely different interpretations of it.

Staci’s Wake manages to be both perky and ominous:

serra5

Lorri’s evokes some pastel futuristic utopia where people picnic on the grass in front of their wavy soviet apartment blocks:

serra2

Skye’s feel a little anthropomorphic sidling up to the trees in their urban canyon:

serra3

Kathy’s are possibly my favorite, marching in a line, their scale & relationship to the environment completely ambiguous:

serra1

And mine, I’ll leave to the viewer to decide…

serra4

Here is the whole class huddling against the wind amongst a smattering of local icons:

sculpturepark1

 

Colored shadows

Today in Color Boot Camp class we took a look at the colors of shadows, how the colors of cast shadows are influenced the color of the object casting the shadow, and more dramatically, the light source. Here is a mandarin orange on a pink paper napkin sitting on the table, with light coming from the windows (south windows, but this is Seattle in the winter so the light is pretty much cool from all directions):

daylightorange

The same orange on the same napkin held against the wall, with halogen lights coming from above:

halogenorange

I grabbed the pinks of the napkin from the photos and placed them side by side. The top pair are the cool light area and warm shadow of the napkin in daylight (warm light from other light sources in the room is hitting the shadow –and it’s hitting the  dark side of the orange, too making it glow red)

The second pair are the warm light pink and cool bluish shadow of the napkin under halogen light.

fourpinks

Maybe just painters find this stuff fascinating (and useful) now, but in the eighteenth century, when people presumably wasted far less time on cat videos, Abbe Millot, a former Jesuit and the grand vicar of Lyon, in a personal letter to a friend (remember those?), wrote a lengthy, extremely well-observed, highly detailed description of the shadows in his room cast by two different windows at various times of day.  Some details sound right out of a Thiebaud painting: “a strongly coloured sort of penumbra…a double blue border on one side, and a green or red or yellow one on the other.”

This is quoted in Shadows and Enlightenment, a book about the eighteenth-century preoccupation with shadow (Millot apparently wasn’t alone in his obsession), by the late great Michael Baxandall.