Monday, September 17, 2018

Birge Harrison, part 4

Birge Harrison, part 4

A Puff of Steam

Concluding my methodical re-reading (and note-taking) of Mr. Harrison's book Landscape Painting (1909). What follows are my notes from each chapter (I skipped some that didn't really resonate with me).

All this is me attempting to distill the most important points from this insightful collection of lectures he gave.

Chapter 5 "Values"

"... the most important thing to consider is the value-key of our picture."

This is pretty critical. As important as determining the color scheme of a picture, as value has ascendancy over color. I am going to attempt to take this to heart myself in future. (I do make value sketches at the very least before starting any significant painting.) I think Mr. Harrison's point is to ask yourself when making a picture: what part of the value scale best suits your intent? Use as little as is needed (see next quote).

"An outdoor picture motive is complicated indeed if it cannot be divided into four or five dominant values."

Chapter 6 "Drawing"

He somewhat surprisingly suggests NOT drawing from the landscape as much as from the human figure to gain precision:

"The articulation of a limb upon the trunk of an oak. for instance, might start a foot higher up or a foot lower down and still be in character, but the articulation of a knee joint, an elbow, or a shoulder of the human figure must be true to the inch."

He is correct that drawing the human figure is more exacting, but I would not forgo drawing from nature. Get a feel for the landscape and its components and character. Especially for when the time comes that you need to invent something in a landscape picture. That drawing experience and your familiarization with natural elements will pay off.

One of his final remarks suggests that "drawing by mass" translates to painting more directly than linear drawing. I can't disagree with that. One of the transitions I had to make from years of drawing to painting, was to think and work more in terms of masses of color and value, instead of linearly.

Chapter 7 "Composition"

"In my own opinion, about all of the rules of composition which are of any practical value to a painter, are negative rather than positive, and can best be expressed in a series of don'ts."

I find composition a tricker aspect of art to explain and teach than others, and it always seems to make more sense to show students what to avoid than what to specifically employ in their work. And there are often exceptions.

"Don't try to say two things on one canvas."
He names some other rules to follow this, but calls this the one rule that cannot be broken, while occasionally the others can be broken.

"... don't confuse your audience with irrelevancies."

I would personally say that a canvas CAN have more than one area of interest, but that one in particular HAS to predominate.

Chapter 8 "Quality"

He discusses surface quality of paintings in this chapter. His overriding point here is that surface quality, whether smooth or rough has to suit the painting and subject/mood as a whole, and not be inappropriate or distracting.

Madison Square

Chapter 10 "On Framing Pictures"

Birge was a fan of gold or metal leaf on frames.

He believed in the formula of:
Simple picture, intricate frame.
Intricate picture, simple frame.

Chapter 15 "The Importance of Fearlessness in Painting"

"Always dare to the limit of your knowledge and just a bit beyond. You must show conviction yourself, if you would convince others."

Chapter 16 "The Subconscious Servant"

"A picture painted direct from nature must necessarily be hasty, ill-considered, somewhat raw, and lacking in the synthetic and personal quality which is the distinguishing mark of all great art - unless the work is really done from memory while the painter is standing before nature - which might be the case if he had had time and opportunity to ripen his vision."

"... true synthetic beauty is not within the reach of the mere copyist."

This is a fascinating chapter and one that I am not completely sure I understand. He talks about the use of memory in painting. One must see through the mind and not just the eye. Painting from nature feeds the "subconscious servant" and stores up information that helps down the line with one's work. So that as an artist matures he or she is not just copying nature but taking in what is there and using and rearranging it to make an effective picture.

Chapter 19 "What is a Good Picture?"

"Art is natural beauty interpreted through human temperament."

"The highest form of sincerity is truth to the artist's own personal vision of beauty."

Chapter 20 "The True Impressionism"

"... technique is not the difficult thing in art ... but it requires many a long and weary year to learn to see."

"... students learn much more from each other than they do from their masters."

I have been in classes for which this was true, and many where it was not. I suppose it depends on the quality of instructor, and mix of students you wind up with.

Chapter 21 "The Future of American Art"

Birge wraps up with an optimistic outlook for American art going forward. As in, this is OUR time now! He also muses about the possibilities of modern structures like steel mills and skyscrapers as subject matter for paintings.

Summing up:
This is a fantastic book, especially if you love American Landscape painting and Tonalist painters like Inness, etc. Birge's words really resonate with me and this book has a permanent place in my recommended reading list. I now want to get a hardbound earlier printing for my library. I wish someone would reprint this with color reproductions, but I also with that about John Carlson's book...
I plan to re-read Carlson's landscape painting book as carefully as I did this. Also upcoming is Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Painting.

Inn at Cos Cob

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Master Copy

A copy of Arthur Hoeber's Golden Twilight

A month or so ago, I wrapped up teaching a painting class titled Landscape Painting in the Studio at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago. One of the final tasks I set before my students was to execute a master copy. I don't know if doing this sort of thing is somewhat out of date, but I have done a number over the years, and they have done me a lot of good. The effort of very carefully observing the original and then exercising your own technical abilities to render the same effects is a wonderful challenge with real rewards.

My copy after Arthur Hoeber's Golden Twilight

You get deep into aspects of painting such as:

Palette / Colors
You may go as far as researching what colors the artist used and replicating his or her palette, but I think assessing what colors you have that can mix the desired resultant hues is fine. You may find yourself getting only so far with 4 colors and realizing you need a 5th (as I did), but that's part of the learning. (I list my pallet below)

Overall value structure is key. You can mix the right color, but it's essential to put the right value and value relationships down. More important, even.

I think looking at good work and allowing yourself to be influenced by it can help an artist absorb good compositional structures. What then could be better than making a copy of a work with strong composition?

Brushwork / Edges
How do you think the artist applied paint? How do areas of differing color and/or value transition to each other? All that good stuff.

I planned to do a copy along with my students, and brought along one of my favorite and most personally inspiring art books: David Cleveland's A History of American Tonalism.

I thumbed through and somewhat randomly chose a painting by Arthur Hoeber (1854-1915) titled Golden Twilight. I just liked it, that's all. It's moody, with a kind of contre-jour effect of the light of the recently-set sun facing the viewer and giving the shadowy trees a warm halo. He wasn't an artist I was at all familiar with prior to choosing this image. I thought it best to work from the image in the book, as I figured it would be reasonably well color-corrected and it can be nice to get one's eyes off a lit screen. Also, a printed image in a book works in a reflective light model as does paint on a canvas (as opposed to transmissive light from a digital device's screen). It can help for comparisons to keep things within one realm.

My Palette
After looking the painting over, I figured I could mix the necessary colors with Yellow Ochre, Terra Rosa, Cobalt Blue, and Burnt Umber. (Later on, I added Indian Yellow.) Not sure what he used exactly, but I'll bet an umber would have been on his palette. I would say the one color I didn't quite nail was the green in the middle- and foreground.

What did I learn?
Most of his colors are quite neutralized. The blue in the sky - when I had gotten it mixed satisfactorily close to the original - looked just like a grey sitting on my pallete. The power of context when it's placed by the warm areas of the trees and the warmer clouds make all the difference, and heighten the apparent saturation of both.

The areas of greatest contrast are right along the horizon where the golden area of sky shines behind the dark tree trunks. Clearly, right where he wants you to look. Everywhere else is softer edges. The line of clouds in the sky and the water in the foreground all lead to the large tree left of center.

I think he may have done a warm, orange underpainting, or just had his canvas toned. I feel like it peeks through in some areas. I would of course, love to see the original. I think there's some thick impasto in the foreground grasses.

Here is an image of the original I found online. It differs from the one in the Cleveland book in a few ways. It has a less saturated green in the lower half and more extreme light values. I think the way it was lit for photographing exaggerates the surface texture. Possibly the photo online is before a cleaning and re-varnishing? (I tried to tweak this a little to better match the book version with some success.)

Golden Twilight
Arthur Hoeber c. 1895

In conclusion, master copies are good for you. Do one once in a while. That is all.

You can see some lovely Hoeber paintings here: