Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Getting the job done

 A good way to learn to paint or improve what you do is to copy the perceived masters. They come in all shapes and sizes and started pictorial art in the caves many centuries ago (well, Picasso's bulls are quite caveman-like, aren't they?).
In classical schools of painting, it was the rule to start with drawing, very often by drawing the statues that stood around in the studios of the masters (teachers). Then the apprentice painter progressed onto painting elements, eventually being allowed to do this on the (usually) big canvases being painted for sale or on commission. Some learners ended up as specialists for backgrounds, clouds, buildings, etc. Many early paintings were narrative. I doubt if any of the stories in the Bible have NOT been the subject of many pictorial interpretations. I always think of Caravaggio at this point, but look at the works of any great classical painter and you get the idea. The dominant figures were often the persons financing the projects, which explains why most of them were made to look beautiful (but still recognisable). The rich and religious loved to see themselves immortalised! The Neo-Raphaelites tried to turn the clock back from the trend to honest realism in the 19th century, but the rot had set in, and by Picasso's era, which started at the turn of the 20th century (Picasso was born in 1881 - just as van Gogh was setting out on his 10 year painting binge) it was time to break all the rules of painting. Where classical painting concentrated (and still concentrates) on beauty rather than truth, with the possible exception of portraits (which, however, often seek out the most flattering traits of the sitter), modern painting goes its own way. A plethora of trends was waded through. Quite possibly, van Gogh was the initiator of modernism. I tend to think he must have been, though there were several painters doing much the same thing at the time, so it's hard to say who got the ideas first. Van Gogh's realism was more or less unsaleable at the time. The first wave of modern painting (usually referred to as impressionism) caused scandals and wholesale rejection. People still hung genuine or reproduced classical paintings in their rooms. 
I didn't intend to give a historical account of painting. The central idea is really that each successive painter and painting school evolved from the one that went before it. It's amazing that this happened in countries and by artists unknown to one another, though painters did go on trips to meet and study their colleagues, which was not a new thing, but as long as classical painting was in the fore, of course, it was education rather than exploration. 
These days, all the painting styles that ever existed are used by painters, who often specialize in one or other style, but have often actually gone through all the trends while developing their own. It's interesting to look at all the work of an artist chronologically. You can do that online at 'Olga's Gallery'. Take Vasily Kandinsky as an example. Look where he started out! Brave little landscapes until one day he must have decided to rock the boat. What came after that is what we now recognize as his particular style. Of course, not all painters moved on, and some were rather unlucky. Braque was the 'inventor' of cubism, but Picasso took it on and drove it home, as it were.
To connect back to copying the masters - of course, you cannot claim your copy is genuine - it probably lacks a whole lot of what it took to make the original (that you chose to copy), but remaking a painting gives an insight to what the painter was thinking about. Connecting with his or her work is like connecting with the soul of the originator - unless we are talking about deliberate jokers, which would have to include Picasso, great artists though they were. 
So what happens when you come across a painting you want to copy and then you find out that you are connecting with loony, bonky, at the very least excentric elements? Is being unhinged part of being an artist? Don't answer that.
Associated anecdote: I went to an exhibition of Joan Miró's works a few years ago. It was crowded. People were pushing one another to get the best view. The huge blue canvases were there. A lot of small stuff, and some photos of paintings they presumably hadn't been able to hire. It was a baffling experience. In one corner I got the feeling I was in a kindergarten. Miró liked painting on unconventional grounds (e.g. packing paper or sandpaper). There was a video of him as an old man busily creating little paintings one after another, sticking things on paper, painting black and white lines, then moving on to the next work.... 
Much later I attended a workshop where a woman made 150 such paintings in a frenetical 2 days using exactly the same materials. It has only just occurred to me that she had probably seen Miró's video. On the way out of the art show I had talked to a security guard. I asked him how he liked the exhibition? 'I just don't look,' he replied. 'The guy was a nutcase.' But Miró really could paint (look him up in the gallery) - if painting is the reproduction of reality (but in the end it isn't!). Why did he drop his early style and move to what he did later?
Why do any of us do what we do?
By the way, the lecturer's amused reaction to the 150 artworks was 'very nice'. Was he envious? His own artworks are of the socalled 'informal' sort, and a colleague of his confided in me that that lecturer knew he couldn't paint, but had solved the issue his way. He is an art professor, so he should know......shouldn't he?
The fact is that in millions of homes there are posters and other reproductions of great and not so great artworks hanging on their walls. Cheap by the dozen, they are often the work of Asian sweatshop gangs, but you can order any painting by any artist and get a reproduction that is as good as the original. Since the originals are not for sale or incredibly valuable, it makes good sense to hang a replica. 
I took another look at Miró and decided to have a go. I chose this one:
figures and dog before the sun

Copying is hazardous. You are at a disadvantage anyway, and here I was really challenged because Miró may have planned the basic design, but I'm sure most of it was improvised as he went along, and improvisations are one-off! Determined not to resort to technical help (tracing, light-box etc), I drew the figures over and over again on a canvas roughly the same size as his, until I finally had more or less the proportions. I found myself saying: that must be the dog and the reddish blob is obviously the sun, which might be the only legitimate reason for not hanging it the other way up - thoughts like these were the only ones I had. No depth, no reaching out from the soul - just the tussle of where to put the dog's legs and the curly bits and other squiggles. So now I'm trying to imagine them all lying on a beach. There is no perspective, so I need not keep to any. The surface of the painting is quite rough. I'm not sure what Miró did to it, but I'm not making an exact copy, so I'm just roughing mine up with a little structure paste. I might get some birdsand and use that. I'm not sure yet. I'm still cogitating! His painting is done in gouache so I decided to use acrylics as I gave my bottles of liquid gouache to a friend who said she wanted to make a mural - years ago - but never did. Painting such a large canvas with dry gouache (like out of a school painting box) is not something I would attempt and my little gouache tubes are designer quality and not lightfast. Gouache is not really a permanent medium unless you get professional quality paint. Genuine egg tempera is more permanent, but messy. Acrylics is the modern solution!
unfinished lookalike
I'll post my finished version here! It went to an advanced stage (see smaller photo), but I decided to work on the backgorund and the sun is too big!
unfinished surface treatment - the sun is still too big!

The Miró isn't my first attempt to copy. I made a copy (= version) of the hands on the Sistene Chapel ceiling a few years ago (no, I didn't go there to do it). My depiction is actually larger than the original and I did two small studies in acrylics before the final painting! As you can see, in the photo it's drying off on the piano.

the hands from the 'creation' mural - 65x180cm oils on canvas 
I've named other copies inspired by various paintings "apologies". Here, I apologise to Michelangelo most sincerely. For me the hands say a lot about Michelangelo and the culture that financed the mural. God (on the right) has a muscular, strong arm with energy to the finger-tip. Adam is a bit camp and presumably the sitter was one of Michelangelo's beautiful boys! The hand is held high by a chubby arm, but the fingers droop gracefully. The general message is that God is greater than Man. A successful depiction, I think!

All the following are extracts from paintings by the artists named in the captions.

apologies to Renoir (dry pastel on coloured paper 50x70cm)
apologies to Cassatt (dry pastel on colourd paper 50x70cm)
apologies to Gainsborough (dry pastel on coloured paper 50x70cm)
apologies to Modigliani (dire pastel on coloured paper 50x70cm)

Finally I'll quote the cover text from David Hockney's book "Secret knowledge".

"Do artists cheat? A bus ticket was the nearest we got to it in my art school days. The secret from the Euston Road was that London Transport tickets (which strangely came in all sorts of Sickertian mauves and Ginneresque greens) had neat divisions along their sides. These, at arm's length, served to measure key proportions of the model, eyes to mouth, nipple to navel etc. It was considered an advance on the traditional squint at a raised pencil. How the good news was brought from Camden to Camberwell I do not know but I had it from Euan Uglow who had it from William Coldstream, a fragment of esoteric studio lore as yet unrecorded by art historians.
Can artists cheat? That is a deeper question at the heart of David Hockney's pictorial detective story. His book is subtitled 'Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters' to whom he ascribes grander methods of self help involving much juggling with lenses and mirrors and darkened rooms. He extends his list of optically assisted practitioners way beyond the usual suspects like Vermeer and Canaletto to encompass virtually the entire pantheon of painting. He is however at pains to point out that such techniques were not responsible for the quality of the work; "optics do not make marks, only the artist's hand can do that and optics don't make drawing any easier either."

The old masters were masters of deception, too, but aren't we all?

P.S. During that infamous workshop we were shown film of Pollock throwing paint and the famous Malevich black square, which the lecturer claimed was the greatest painting of all time. It so happens that I had recently viewed the original, modest black square in a show in Berlin of works borrowed from the MoMA while the gallery was being revamped. Around it was a large group of people and the guide was explaining what was actually behind the black. I moved on, chastened that I hadn't thought of it first. It took a guy who made installations with an aritificial rooster crowing on a pile of what looked like excrements with a background of an immense, green and yellow splodged canvas claiming to be a forest and a lot of self-carpented bird houses arranged tastefully on the ground round the pile, plus a lot of improbable birdsong tweeting through speakers to tell me which is the greatest painting of all time.......   

No comments:

Post a Comment