A Drop of Poison
I heard an art critic quote painter Lucian Freud: “Every picture should have a drop of poison in it.” This sums up how I measure the success of my own paintings. I did a beach scene last summer, and when I thought I was finished—that is, I had painted what I saw—something was off. Or rather, nothing was off. It was picture perfect. Boring. It had no poison.
Lucian Freud’s paintings are dripping with poison. His broad, rich brushwork and draughtsmanship of the figure are gorgeous, but his “pitiless observation” (The 20th Century Art Book, p. 148. 1996) of his subjects creates discomfort and tension on many levels. Even his non-figurative works have it. I remember Two Japanese Wrestlers by a Sink hung in the office of the director of the Art Institute when I worked there. It’s a picture of a dirty sink—instant poison. But it is so beautifully rendered, I can’t help but like it on a painterly level.
My own work isn’t focused on emotion or message, so the only drips of poison in my paintings come from elements of design. Composition, strong light and shadow, color contrast, impulsive brushwork. I like Freud’s quote because he 1) verbalized what I think many people can’t put their finger on when they’re viewing art and 2) acknowledged that it doesn’t take much drama--your efforts don’t have to be overt--to make a picture interesting, just a drop.
Yesterday I finished a small pastel landscape. The reference photo is a view from a hilltop across a green Tuscan valley. It’s a typical stunning view of such a landscape. It is a great photo, and there was nothing I did with pastels to make the picture better or different. Edward Hopper had the same feeling about New Mexico. He was “miserable” there in the summer of 1925 because everything was too beautiful and from his standpoint unpaintable (Goodrich. Edward Hopper, p. 85. 1993).
I usually start from the other side—seeing something ordinary with interesting elements and trying to make it transmute it with paint into a wholly pleasing picture. But I’ve been trying landscapes lately, and some of them have just been too pretty. I know that is because my source photos right now are culled from vacation snapshots. And THAT is because it’s winter in Chicago. BUT! (Wait for my next post on how I motivated self to get out of car in below-zero temperatures.)
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I Heart Art
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