Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 3

The quotable Birge.

Grand Central And The Biltmore In Hazy Twilight

I have taken notes from some of the passages from Landscape Painting that reveal how Mr. Harrison went about his painting, and his thoughts on art-making in general.

I find the below to be some of the most revealing.
(These are all from chapters 3 & 4)

On technique in the service of individualism:

"... one of the chief delights of the art of painting lies in the fact that each artist does, and of necessity must, invent his own technique; for his personal technique is an inalienable part of the personal vision which makes his art his own."

I take this to mean in practice that one should learn and try many techniques from the masters of the past and your teachers of the present. Some technique, or combination of techniques, is the way forward for you on your path to an individual creative style. The only way to find out which is to work and experiment. A lot.

On vibration:

"The whole picture in all its exact values can and should be built up in this preliminary covering of the canvas, for the value of the overtone must in every case exactly match the value of the undertone."

"While we wish to secure broken color, we must avoid broken values, for they utterly destroy atmosphere."

" The undertone must be warmer than the overtone, and second it must never be brown;  and this for the excellent reason that out-of-door nature abhors brown, and never uses it."

So... broken color was Birge's thing.
There's more than one way to go about that. Birge's way was to lay down a warm underpainting of shapes and values, and then work on top of that with a cool color, not completely obscuring the undertone.
He was after vibration through contrast of hue, not value.

His whole negative reaction to brown may stem from an over-use of it in the generations preceding him. Earlier artists - and many, if not most of them did not paint outside much - tended to lay down a brown underpainting and/or have brown shadows in their landscape paintings. Shadows outside tend to be cooler, blue or blue-grey, often reflecting some of the blue of the sky. And tree trunks and branches are more often grey, or grey-green than the commonly thought of brown. I myself would never say that there is zero brown out in nature, but there is not as much as people often think.


On Refraction:

(I take Mr. Harrison to mean "edges" when he says "refraction.")

"no picture in its extreme corners should be painted with quite the same vigor of technique or strength of color or of value as in its natural focal centre."

A pretty obvious concept, but a good one to keep in mind when painting or drawing.
One can become obsessed with rendering detail and over-refining over the whole of an image, but end up doing so at the expense of clarity and focus.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 2

Soaring Clouds

Back to Birge

Lovell Birge Harrison

(I notice many sites have his first name as Lowell. It is actually Lovell, but many have mistakenly assumed the more common Lowell.)

His elder brother Alexander was also a very accomplished painter.

The Wave
Alexander Harrison

They exhibited together at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1913.
The catalog from that show can be seen/downloaded here:
What a show that would have been to see...

Hidden Moon

At one point in Landscape Painting Birge outlines the 4 distinct ways (as he saw it in 1909) to make an oil painting.

They are:

1. The classical approach of making a monochromatic underpainting and then glazing color on top, as Renaissance painters did.

2. Laying unbroken color in "smooth flat masses" as a house painter does

3. Painting dabs of differing colors like an Impressionist. The "spot and dash method," as Birge calls it.

4. Doing what Birge himself advocates (and presumably other Tonalists did?) and painting cool colors on top of a still-wet warm underpainting. "Care being taken not to mix or blend the two coats and not to cover up completely the undertone, rather letting it show through brokenly all over the canvas...." The visual interaction of the cool and warm giving the painting "vibration."
I plan to try this method. It seems to me that it might be tricky to do as he says and not inadvertently mix or blend the warm and cool.

I think this detail are from Fifth Avenue at Twilight shows the kind of vibration he went after in his work. The turquoise and violet in the distant building contrast and vibrate with their differing hues, but their values are very similar:

Fifth Avenue at Twilight (detail)

More to come....

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 1

Sometimes it can really pay to go back and reread something.

In my case, Birge Harrison's 1910 book Landscape Painting.

Fifth Avenue at Twilight, ca. 1910
Detroit Institute of Arts
One of his most (rightly) famous works and they do not have it on display!

I got it a while back and read it. Liked it, but wasn't particularly bowled over. A recent Facebook mention of it got me to start rereading it, and I'm very glad I did.

Having made a certain number of paintings, and logged many more miles of brushwork in the interim, his concepts now really resonate with me.

Oh, and his work? Amazingly beautiful. Gorgeous. Rich with atmosphere. I long to see one of his paintings in person.

Sunburst at Sea

I made this post a "part 1" as I have not read through the whole thing again and yet feel I have enough for a worthwhile post. There will be a part 2 and maybe more...

Here are some of his points that really clicked with me:

on Art:
"...this is the test of the highest form of art - that it should stimulate the imagination and suggest more than it expresses."

on Values:
"the best we can do is to translate the infinite value scale of nature into our sadly finite scale of pigments, and endeavor' by most careful balance, to adjust our means to our ends."

"...the most important thing to consider is the value-key of our picture. Assuming the whole scale of values from the deepest black to the purest white to be represented by the number 100, the question arises as to what proportion of this number we shall use in the particular work which we are proposing to execute.. In this matter the golden rule is reserve. We lose rather than gain in power by forcing the note, and a picture in which the whole scale from black to white should be employed would be absolutely without atmosphere, and without charm."

Sunrise from Quebec
sold at auction in 2016 for $26,000

For me, his paintings really seem to make color (and value) count by his using less of it.

You can purchase a reprint of Harrison's book combined with A. Durand's in one volume for $15
buy from Amazon