I like painting the figure because of the compositional elements it allows, but when I include a face I can't help but focus on the likeness instead of the elements that compose it. I've reworked the face a bit today to soften it and give it the same brushwork as the rest of the body. Maybe a bit more work to do.
I chose this image because of the interesting shape created by the bikini top. It's a pure, flat black applied with even strokes, and I like the contrast with the the molded body and the tonal differences of all that skin. Her whole front is in shadow, and this was a challenge to make her appear rounded. The black bikini reminded me of the hat ribbon in Manet's portrait of Jeanne de Marsy. If you can isolate it as it's own shape, it's weird looking, but it works as a heavy contrast to the light palette and floral designs of the dress and background. Similarly, in Woman at Her Toilette, Berthe Morisot painted a choker as a slash of black across the softly colored canvas. It's one of those wonderful "moments" I admire that gives so much interest to a picture.
Two more sketches of Woman, and I realize that part of her magic is how she maintains her gracefulness from every possible angle, from her fingertips to her toes. I took a dozen photos of her, and as I looked for one to sketch, I knew I'd have to do a few. And kudos to the AIC for placing her under a skylight. Shazam!
I have wanted to paint with gouache since I first noticed it at an exhibition in college. Silty, fluid, creamy, it seemed like a good way to enhance my drawings. I start all of my paintings with exact charcoal drawings, and there's always a little part of me that doesn't want to paint over them. With gouache I hoped I could maintain the draughtsmanship of my work. Today I did my first gouache painting. It's gallery 271 at the Art Institute with my favorite sculpture, Woman (Elevation) (1927) by Gaston Lachaise, front and center. I have only five colors, and I was nervous about mixing others, and I didn't end up making many. The drawing is driven by the silhouette of Woman. I love silhouettes because of the stark contrast of dark and light as well as the focus on line. I tried adding the chevron floor pattern to see if I could and also because I couldn't get shading right. The pattern is a diversion, and it's the wrong direction. Oops.
When I started painting again, I found myself wanting to find the right vocabulary and references to help myself form more concrete thoughts about my style. I read all my old art catalogs. I read them over and over at night while watching baseball on the couch. Titles included: Great Masters of French Impressionism (a c. 1970 book from the National Gallery), and exhibition catalogs of Mary Cassatt, Wayne Thiebaud, Wolf Kahn, and David Hockney. I wrote in them with pen.
In doing, I found so many wonderful quotes and critical insight that gave me consolation that I wasn’t seeking: that so many artists think the same things I do. The insecurities, the inspirations, the roadblocks. I was delighted to read Renoir say after he had painted with the Impressionists, “I found that I didn’t know how to paint or draw. I was at an impasse.” Been there, bro. I found that I aligned more with Impressionists than I thought, and I think we all do, because the big thing that ties all of us together who have followed them is their sincerity. They painted real, contemporary life rather than history, allegory, mythology. While their work wasn’t full of message or narrative, it was a genuine depiction of humanity. Living, loving, hanging out. Manet said, "Sincerity gives to painting a character of protest, while in fact the artist simply wants to render his idea. He wants only to be himself." Yes, Impressionists painted the prettiness of modern life, but can you believe that was part of the scandal? I love this from Renoir, “I’m well aware that it’s difficult to acknowledge that painting can be both great and yet full of fun. . . Those who laugh aren’t taken seriously.” I wrote Ha ha! in the margins next to that one.
This painting is my first larger figure painting in the vein of what I used to do. It’s from a snapshot of my friend at her wedding. When I looked at the picture later it reminded me of one of my all-time favorite paintings, Betty, by Gerhard Richter. She came to the Art Institute when I worked there, and everyone in my office was smitten. I ran into her again when visiting the St. Louis Art Museum (I didn’t even know she in their collection).
The technical challenges for me with this painting were rendering textiles and beading, plus what to do with the background. I repainted the dress beading twice, and by then I knew how I needed to approach the pearl barrette--simpler.
The background was much more difficult to decide. At first I wanted it all black to create heavy contrast with the white dress and pale skin, but as I began that I spontaneously sketched in two figures facing the bride. They stayed there for a long time while I continued to work on the bride. Something about the figures wasn’t right, wasn’t giving me the dramatic effect I wanted. But I wanted them to work so badly because 1) They created a bit of narrative, which I never intend to include in my work, and 2) their sketchy rendering was a greater element of abstraction that I don’t do either. After much consultation with family, friends, and self, I went back to my original vision and am very happy with it.
The process of painting was extremely fulfilling with this painting, too. It took me a long time—about two months—because I tried different techniques and took a lot of time to look and think. Finally, I put down the brushes and said, “all done,” which was a problem for me in the past.
Later is what?
After settling into various desk jobs, I always said I'd get back to painting later in life, and later is now. Again means that I tried once before. I decided to write about my painting endeavor, too, as a learning tool, an accountability tool, and to stay sharp in case I have to go back to a desk job. Again.
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