Sunday, April 17, 2016

Chicago lessons

Last week I went to the Art Institute of Chicago with my wife and artist Jessica Kirby and boy did I learn a lot about good paintings. To wit: great painters give themselves the advantage...that's why their work looks masterfully effortless...we acolytes sometimes hamstring ourselves. Particularly in choice of subject matter. 
Not everything is paintable...EVERY good painting I saw that day had one thing in common: the subject had paintable information. 
What does that mean? Well, the chosen subject could be translated into brush marks because:
1. It had distinct shapes. OR, it joined with other things of similar value to make a distinct conglomerate shape.
2. It had a focal point that looked specific because it was painted large enough to be done without wearing a jeweler's loupe and using laparoscopic surgical tools. Hence it could be done with ease and energy.
3. The "background" was generalized...but because the artist did 1and 2 above, you often thought it was detailed even though it might just be a schmear of lovely color..
Check these examples:
Look at these abstract light shapes on a dark ground. There were other paintings in the same room - good ones - I just can't remember them.
Or this other Sargent..which I think is one of the most perfect pictures in the history of painting...the woman, her husband, the fountain and her painting equipment amalgamate into one big light shape on a dark to medium value field (lest you think this is mere travelogue read Jessica Kirby's blog at right or read up on Sargent's travels. This is a painting about the act of painting and painters personalities. It's as artsy as artsy gets).

At the size it appears on this blog it looks nearly photographic. Yet every  stroke in this gem is simple...anyone could make them...they're just the right color in the right place.

Homer does likewise with a big dark shape in a medium field - with select light accents. 50 years later Robert Motherwell and others did the same thing...they just kept their marks from looking like anything familiar. With Sargent and Homer I can have the cake and eat it too, so to speak.

So what are these geniuses doing that eludes me? Here's an example of the kind of thing I used to attempt (it was shot from the window on the train ride home). It was a beautiful evening, but let me list the problems with this as a paintable image.

1. The "particular" stuff - or focal point - is at the back. The foreground is all non specific stuff.
2. The focal point is small in area and the surrounding area is large. If I "zoom in" it's ambiguous spatially...especially if I render the atmospheric perspective which is part of it's charm.
3. The value range is close. Only the sky contrasts and it sits over everything. The shapes don't cut into each other. There was a gloriously boring triptych of the French landscape (also seen from a train) by Ellsworth Kelly in the modern wing.

The moral of the story? Pick paintable stuff...good shapes, discernible contrasts and do it big enough that it's easy to render. Painting shouldn't feel like defusing a bomb.


  1. I think the issue with the photo you took would be to try and paint it as is. If you were there in front of the subject and not on a moving train you could make it work. It's like the subject Gin and I were trying to tackle last Friday. It was a great subject, we were just pointed at it from the wrong direction. After we moved and looked at it from another angle it really came to life. There is a bit of a hierarchy when it comes to composition and I think that design reigns supreme. A well designed composition doesn't even need pretty colours to bring it to life. Now if you're Ellsworth Kelly you work opposite. All colour and no composition makes Jack a dull boy.

  2. "Gloriously boring." What an apt description.