A glance at the work of different artists is sufficient to see that there are many different ways to apply paint to a canvas. In my own experience, I’ve found this differs even with different supports – methods that have one effect on smooth cartridge either don’t work at all on prepared Duck Cotton or work to produce a very different effect.
The course materials suggest looking at Monet, Pissaro, Cezanne, van Gogh, and the Expressionist painters along with some 20th century pastel paintings.
Claude Monet (1840-1926) is interesting for two reasons, the first and most obvious being his very well known impressionistic style. But the second will resonate with many older artists in that he had failing sight. These two examples may be illustrative:
This one of his first wife was painted in 1871 and is clearly detailed with blending and smooth transitions between value areas.
The later painting below is much less resolved; the paint seeming to have been pushed onto the canvas with the blunt end of a brush, and parts of the detail made in small spidery lines. A 2007 article in the Stanford News discusses the struggles many artists had with their sight and says this about Monet:
Monet complained of cataracts interfering with his ability to see colors for 10 years before he finally underwent surgery to have them removed.
Tracie White in discussion with ophthalmologist Michael Marmor in Stanford News 2007.
Nympeus bleu – Claude Monet 1916. Bridgeman Education.
Eyesight or not, the earlier work applies paint in a way designed to reflect a naturalistic image; one that might be a photographic record or a particular scene; while the second, and much of Monet’s later work seems more about creating a painted environment cleverly constructed to allow the brains of viewers to conjure the sense of the scene from a distance. Close viewing prioritises fragments in the brain’s leading edge – the eye – while distance capitalises on the neurology underpinning the Gestalt notion that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’. Impressionism and Pointilism seem to me to be prime players in this viewer involvement process.
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) seemed also to go through a change as he grew older. Earlier works having more of a naturalistic appearance and later ones more impressionistic. The zeitgeist was evidently a strong influencer. In this 1872 painting, Spring in Pontoise, while those quite strong brush strokes (I’m looking primarily at the sky here) are relatively unblended, I imagine they would still be identifiable as clouds at quite close inspection.
This one though, from 1890 (Pasture, Sunset, Eragny), has a much less defined structure to it and seems designed to be seen from a distance to be appreciated as a whole image. The sky reminds me of some fabric sold by Habitat in the 1970s or thereabouts, supposedly based on Seurat.
Cezanne (1839-1906) on the other hand, put clear lines around many of the elements in his paintings; bright, bold brush strokes making clear demarkations so that there could be no fading in or out of surrounding features. Even his early work was less emphatic in this regard though and I wondered about his eyesight – was this a significant factor in his differing styles? A 2007 article in Review of Optometry suggests it might be, arguing that his close vision was better than his distance vision and suggesting that this is why his landscapes tend to be less resolved than his still life examples. Here, the trees in the middle ground and the hills further back are made in colour blocks and sweeps while the rocks have those deep outlines to them. Below, the fruit is very clearly defined with attention to light and shade, colour changes and tonal shifts in each element. Tight, precise strokes that would bear close scrutiny and not lose the identities of their source.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). It’s hard to discuss van Gogh without reference to his wild skies made of swirls and lines that look as though they could stand up from the canvas in 3D troughs and peaks; but one of the images I like best is a beautiful portrait of a man in uniform sitting in a chair, possibly in a cafe. He is a post man and van Gogh has treated him with all the reverence he might have given to a king with his attention to detail and his eye for what might be important to him. The image below is not the one in my mind but it’s quite possible I’ve constructed something different after seeing the film, Loving Vincent (2017).
Paula Rego (b 1935) is my example of choice for 20th century pastel painters. I was introduced to her by my Drawing tutor who seemed to know instinctively that I would be taken by her robust dancers and other no-nonsense women. There is nothing Degas about this lot! It surprised me that these were made in pastels; that the marks are painterly and the structures and elements so clear and so blended. The sheen on the black dress, the light falling on skin, the whispering tulle in the skirts.
Much of Rego’s work is disturbing, in that sense she has a great deal in common with Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) although Kahlo seems to me to be defiant in her work while Rego appears to be forever working through past traumas with anger but not much resolution in hers.
This selection appears to me to be a timeline of public tolerance – what will an audience accept as art, what will galleries hang on their walls, what about the salons and exhibitions where so many past (and present, internet notwithstanding) artists made their names? I wonder how much this cramped the styles and progression of some but kick-started rebellious others. Did ageing play into this movement away from the naturalistic to the impressionistic and expressionistic? How famous or connected did you have to be for something to be ‘good’ where otherwise it might have been rejected as nonsense? And how much of this is in play now? Money, reputation, the market, the agents and buyers, the ability of the artist to perform in accordance with expectations, why there are so few women, and where all the non-white, non-western art has its place in the canon of artistic achievement. Big questions.
White, T. 2007. Eye diseases changed great painters’ vision of their work later in their lives. Stanford Report. [online] Available at https://news.stanford.edu/news/2007/april11/med-optart-041107.html Accessed 17 June 2020.
Gestalt Psychology. Undated episode from Major Schools of Thought in Psychology. Highbrow. [online] Available at https://gohighbrow.com/gestalt-psychology/#:~:text=Essentially%2C%20Gestalt%20psychology%20argues%20that,thing%20has%20been%20put%20together. Accessed 22 June 2020.
Seurat Trellis Vintage fabric. [online] Available at https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/531143349802056494/ Accessed 22 June 2020.
Loving Vincent. 2017. Film by the Polish Film Institute. [see wikipedia online description here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loving_Vincent. Accessed 22 June 2020]
Time taken: 12 hours.