Monday, January 31, 2011

Mastery of the Palette

Cecilia Beaux' Palette
from the Smithsonian Archives of American Artists

I'm not the only one having a hard time mixing the right color and value to use on a painting. Here is an interesting account of how Cecilia Beaux' successfully overcame this problem:

"Some way must be found to make the obstinate mess on the palette something which, when lifted by the brush, might prove to be right when placed where it belonged on the canvas. The relation between the palette and the canvas cannot be absolute, because the mind is the amalgam that comes operating between.

The story is too old to be repeated, but too apt here to be omitted. When some one asked Sir Joshua with what he mixed his colors, he answered, "With brains, sir." But without restricting the elans of inspiration, one must recognize, on the differing angle, lighting, and circumstances of the palette, what is going to serve, and as swiftly as the bird selects the nourishment, invisible to the rest of us. In the classroom, I have always found that a glance at the palette accounted for much of the failure of the study.

Chance seemed to offer a sort of approach to a simple solution. This was in trying pastel again as means to an end, differing from its use merely as a change in medium. I greatly enlarged my pastel collection, spending much time, and something else, in choosing shades which were not primary colors, which of course I already had. I found a kind which were rather large in form, like chalk, and very sympathetic in substance. To work with them, I used a light tray, covering it with a piece of white cloth, to show the tone of the pastels, and also to prevent them from mixing. The secret of the procedure lay in the fact that I must know the tone I desired, and then strive to find it. The value of this lay in the fact, also, that the color tried and proved to be right was generally strangely unlike what it appeared to be in my hand.

This, as teaching, and for developing a faculty, was far more valuable than its use as permanent means of expression. Fortunately, I knew better than to abuse it. Also, I remembered a small circumstance during my first days under the criticism of William Sartain. One day, he took my dirty little palette, and, without the slightest hesitation, picked up, on a brush, what I would have seen as a bit of mud. Laid upon the half tone, generally one of the most resistant of passages, it proved to be pure, sustaining, and perfect in sequence. Recognition of tone on the palette - this, the fragile medium pastel by the separateness and individuality of its already existent tones (which positively were or were not right), taught me; also choice, and strict rejection.

Pastel was never a rival of oil color. It taught me only a bit of useful strategy that was an aid toward meeting the obstinate armaments of so-called oils. Another virtue of pastel was that one might push a morceau and leave it half conquered, to be taken up any time later and found in absolute status quo, a liberty never permitted by oil color, without heavy, often ruinous, taxation. This enables one to pursue continuously, and possibly conquer, a difficulty (and there is no teacher like this) in separate winds, giving it several fresh breathings, and so multiplying vigor on a single point of attack. (In oil painting, stopping, except at wisely arranged boundaries, will be taken advantage of by the enemy and defeat is nearly certain.)

Painting is much like war or hunting, adding the primitive zest of the chase to quite an opposite set of emotions. I had substantial proof that my dealings with the operations of pastel put me considerably forward in painting; hence this tribute to the medium I incontinently threw aside when I had extracted from it what it could do for me, which was to be my Aladdin's lamp at a critical moment when the treasure seemed to be undiscoverable."

from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

I am so excited...My new palette turns out to be an exact replica of Cecilia Beaux'! And where did I get it? I had been looking at my photo album on Facebook, Artists of the Past, and started noticing how the artists were holding their palettes. When I tried it with my palette, it really hurt my thumb...for more than a day. When I mentioned it to a most excellent artist friend, he showed me one that he had with the thumb hole in a place that helped to balance it better. It also was light, wrapped around my upper arm and snugged up to my body. I loved it...and offered him a deal, "Website work for a copy of that palette!" He looked interested, and before I knew it had one made for me (he is a cabinetmaker and phlebotomist as well - but I was not interested having my blood drawn).

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Visit with the Unusual Abbott Thayer Family

Angel by Abbott Thayer

You know Abbott Thayer, the artist who is known for his work on camouflage?! He was evidently very charismatic, but perhaps a little...well...eccentric. Enjoy reading Cecilia Beaux' account of her encounter with him.
Abbott Thayer's words were passed on to me by his pupils, who often never guessed the value to me of their gift, and when we finally met, he had no idea of having assisted me. I shall always regret, however, that I did not hear him in class, for his utterance, by word, was a fine and subtle in its simplicity as was his compelling personality.
I visited the Thayers at Dublin, and was admitted to the untrammelled, and so diverse, particularity of their living. Mrs. Thayer, who was the most cheerful of invalids, lived, slept, and cooked her own breakfast, in a piano-box on the edge of the woods. Mr. Thayer and Gladys, the only members of the family at home, at bedtime disappeared, each with a lantern, down the narrowest of paths to their forest retreats.

I occupied the house alone. John, or William, the only servitor, lived in his own house down the hill. All doors and windows were open, of course. By day, the house was full of visitors; Mr. Thayer was not working at the moment, but understanding between us was complete and immediate, and although we walked off upon the mountain-side, words were little needed. Once we were followed by two ladies, and AT's efforts at flight were touching. He showed me some of his investigations in the field of the concealing power of their brilliant coloring, in birds; and the essential importance of his stripes, black and white, for the safety of the zebra, while drinking.I was obliged to leave at an early morning hour, and Mr. Thayer cooked my breakfast, calling up to know if I liked my egg hard or soft. I longed to stay and drop off encumbering habits, but, alas, can our complicated humanity shake off one impediment without inventing another?
Abbott Thayer spent his creative years in a search which precluded his prolonged attention to other aspects of Nature, and which he found in his young daughters, Elise Pumpelly, and one or two other friends and neighbors. He was fortunate in having the material he desired so constantly near him. The remote and fundamental beauty which he found in these types alone satisfied him, was alone worthy to be sought for and expressed by him.
He saw ultimate realities of structure, of a rare equity and proportion, in the young, firm, or tender, and sometimes wistful, countenances of these subjects. The material of his painting, modeling, and the surfaces of his form were rich in quality, chiefly. He could do without what is known as color. The swan's plumage in light; the idea of light, only, on dark objects; these were sufficient for the limits of his scale, in which not one fractional passage was out of place. His hand, his tool, was sometimes heavy; he went crashing through the metier to carve a tender eyelid or cheek. How stimulating is his passage from dream to substance! How commanding his vision!"
Abbott Thayer's desire was toward monumental works. He saw his large pictures as balanced, static compositions. But his profound insight was intimate. It was a rare and synthetic type of beauty that he saw to do, but his expression of this was as intimate as his feeling toward it. He never sacrificed this to the generalization almost demanded by a monumental and strictly balanced group, and one is glad to let him have his way. How serious, how silent, how unconscious are these young creatures - unhandled Nature: yet something emanates from their human features which will be know to them later - which life will not spare them."
from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Visits with John Singer Sargent

Imagine eating lunch with John Singer Sargent, then having him take you to his studio and ask you for your thoughts on one of his paintings in process! Here is Cecilia's account of such a time:

"I had seen a good many of Sargent's paintings and had keenly felt his power. We had letters to him, and, although I had always shied at the moment of such presentation, feeling it to be a mean advantage, we sent him our "ticket of admission." His instant and kindly reply invited us to lunch with him at his club. His appearance was a surprise, though, of course, we had often heard him described. The fact that there was no flavor of the studio about him was no impediment for us, for we did not belong, ourselves, to the group who thought it necessary to carry about with them the labels of their profession. There were fewer cigarettes at that time, but many of the devotees of painting thought grimy velveteen, and a slouch, the proper uniform for artists, male and female.

We were gay. There was so much to talk about that we all, for the time, forgot our calling; at least we did not discuss it, except that I remember Sargent pointed out especial opportunities that might be ours just then, for seeing pictures, etc., outside the well-known galleries. He took us to his studio in Tite Street, where he was at work upon the central painted bas-relief for the "Christianity," in the series of "Religions," destined for the Boston Library.

Sargent was apparently much puzzled as to the treatment of one part of the design of the Cross, with figures of Adam and Eve: he was a very shy man, and his almost stammering appeal to me as to what I thought of the problem, and how to solve it, was that of an eager, anxious self-doubter. I was filled with confusion, but concealed it, and knew, of course, that I was only a fresh eye, and that it must all be taken as the most natural thing in the world. I said what I thought, and he listened in exactly the same mood. I saw that his "worldly" appearance, manner, and speech were a sort of armor for his sensitiveness, though not an armor put on by him, for he was homogeneous.

There were no portraits about, and very little of any kind of furnishing, but it was a grand large place, and somehow good, and extremely suggestive of the style and simplicity of all his best things. As everyone knows, Sargent was not a collector, and satisfied his beauty sense in the glamour that for him hung about every person and object, and to which most of the world is blind, though, of course, his high culture and lifetime familiarity with the Art of the Old World in all its phases had been always with him.

I saw him again long afterwards, at lunch at Mrs. Gardner's, at Fenway Court. She had given him the Dutch Room as a studio, and he was engaged on his portrait of Mrs. Fiske Warren and daughter, which he allowed us to see, in its unfinished state. I regret that this was the only time I ever saw any of his portrait painting en passage."
(from Background with Figures by Cecilia Beaux)

Mrs. Fiske Warren and Daughter

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Visit with Claude Monet

Cecilia Beaux had the happy fortune to brush shoulders with Monet, Sargent, Thayer, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins among many other well-known artists. This is her account of her visit with Claude Monet:

A Visit with Monet

"It was midsummer, the least characteristic period of the year in Paris. But before I left, one, to me, highly memorable event had occurred. Mrs. Tom Perry (Lilla Cabot Perry) was painting at Giverney, to be near Monet, and would take me to see him. No sun and weather could have been more fortunate for a visit to the specialist in light than we were blessed with. We found him in the very centre of 'a Monet,' indeed: that is, in his garden at high noon, under a blazing sky, among his poppies and delphiniums. He was in every way part of the picture, or the beginning and end of it, in his striped blue overalls, buttoned at wrists and ankles, big hat casting luminous shadow over his eyes, but finding, in full volume, the strong nose and great grey beard. Geniality, welcome, health, and power radiated from his whole person. There was a sleepy river, lost in summer haze not far away. The studio, which was a barn opening on the garden, we were invited to enter, and found the large space filled with stacked canvases, many with only their backs visible. Monet pulled out his latest series, views, at differing hours and weather, of the river, announcing the full significance of summer, sun, heat, and quiet on the reedy shore. The pictures were flowing in treatment, pointillism was in abeyance, at least for these subjects. Mrs. Perry did not fear to question the change of surface, which was also a change of donne. "Oh," said the Maitre, nonchalantly, "la Nature n'a pas de pointes." This at a moment when the haute nouveau seekers of that summer had just learned "how to do it," and were covering all their canvases with small lumps of white paint touched with blue, yellow, and pink. But they had not reckoned on the non-static quality of a discoverer's mind, which, in his desire for more light, would be always moving. For Monet was never satisfied. Even the science of Clemenceau, and his zeal for his friend, did not get to the bottom of the difficulty, which was purely physical. One could push the sorry pigment far, but not where Monet's dream would have it go, imagining that by sheer force of desire and volonte, the nature of the material he thought to dominate would be overcome. For the moment, when actual light gleamed upon it, fresh from the tube, it had the desired effulgence, but it could not withstand time and exposure, and maintain the integral urge of Monet's idea."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

In Which Cecilia Paints Dorothea and Francesca - and Doesn't Complain

Dorothea and Francesca

If you've ever been unhappy about your studio - or lack thereof - be encouraged by Cecilia Beaux' account of the creation of this lovely painting, Dorothea and Francesca:

"Tyringham Valley is a realized version of the Twenty-Third Psalm. It is a valley one may enter and behold, lying between its hillsides and modelled by its river..."Four Brooks", the Gilders' Farm, lies upon one of the enclosing hillsides, near the upper end of the vale. The Mountain Hill hangs like a tapestry behind it, and it was upon this hill, among laurel, pine, rock, and sugar maple, that I spent most of the mornings of my summer-long visits at the farm.

They gave me the unused tobacco barn for a studio. It was a huge enclosed shed on the edge of the orchard. Its walls were single upright boards, one inch apart. The ground itself was its floor, and when I took possession there was only one window at the farther end, a square opening with a heavy wooden shutter, through whose frame one could see the near surroundings of the farm, and beyond. When I entered it, the barn was more than half filled with winter and other farm-furnishings, sledges, broken farm tools, ploughs, old wagons, etc., a veritable heaven for the summer hours of children. They (my benefactors this time) put in a long large window on the orchard side, at the farther end, and cleared the space there. I had already had a clear view of the painting I would do there. I saw straight through the ploughs and wagons, and when three glazed windows went into the long opening in the wall, light actually fell upon a canvas (the ghost of one) which would stand in perfect view from a deep ample corner.

The big and little sisters, Dorothea and Francesca, used to execute a dance of the simplest and all too circumscribed design, invented by themselves, and adorned by their unconscious beauty alone.
This was the subject. I built a platform with my own hands, as the girls could not move easily on the bare earth. When it rained hard, in September, the orchard let its surplus water run down the hill and under the barn-sill, so that, as my corner was rather low, I put on rubber boots and splashed in and out of my puddle, four inches deep. October was difficult, for it grew bitterly cold. But valiant posing went on, though the scenic effect of the group was changed by wraps. Summer, indeed, was over, when on a dark autumnal night, in the freezing bard, the picture was packed by the light of one or two candles and a lantern."
from Cecilia Beaux' autobiography Background with Figures

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cecilia Beaux: Background with Figures

Cecilia Beaux was a well-known American portrait artist at the turn of the 1900's. She was born in Philadelphia - the youngest of two girls. Her mother died shortly afterwards, and her French father was so grieved that he left the family in care of his wife's family to go back to France.

Cecilia's grandmother and relatives gave her a good upbringing. After her success as a portrait artist, she wrote her autobiography, Background with Figures. It gives a clear and interesting picture of life growing up in the mid-1800's, her journey into art - including her studies in Paris at the popular Julien Academy. There are also accounts of her summer in Concarneau, France, and contact with such famous artists as Monet, Sargent and Winslow Homer.

In the following posts, I would like to share some highlights from her book.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Magnificent Studio

Today I was amazed by a description of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's studio at 44 Grove End Road in London. The interior was three stories high, and included a half-domed apse. Since lighting was particularly poor in London, Alma-Tadema came up with the idea of painting the dome with reflective aluminum paint. The lower walls were sided with marble and then the walls up to the apse were painted white. The effects of this silvery light are seen in his paintings such as the one below.

Silvery Favourites

My studio is really an old dining room. It has three large west-facing windows - and they face a yellow house just ten feet away. All of that yellow light bounces onto my canvas and I can't really see true color. I have thought about how to address this issue and am considering an idea that I saw in another artist's studio. It is the use of translucent paper blinds that pull up from the bottom of the window and allow just the light from the sky to filter in. It would take advantage of the natural daylight and also block the yellow reflection from the house next door. All that remains is to implement the idea.

Little by little improving my art by addressing problems with creative solutions and determination!