Considering Color: Seven Historical Paintings
Color on my mind… I have been teaching my color-mixing workshop remotely for the Woodstock School of Art and next will move onto another live-streamed class that starts with color-mixing that will be the immediate basis for paintings. In any style or genre, the artists will create three paintings in the color compositions covered: monochromatic, analogous, or complementary.
Surprisingly, I have never written a blog post about this information. So, to share with more artists than I can reach with my classes, I will analyze here seven paintings, discussing color composition as well as hue, value, saturation, and layering.
I have chosen works from some favorite painters, presenting them in order of less saturated, more tonal color, to brighter, more saturated color.
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Twachtman was a master of tonal color. In this piece, he is working in a very subtle complementary green-red palette. The greens come in more strongly and have black embedded within them for the deepest value and then move through a whole range of mid and light tones all of the way to the white of the clouds. The reflection in the water has both reds and greens in it in a lovely, soft color segue from left to right. Another way to look at the color composition would be that this is mostly a study in many colors of grey, which tend to harmonize with each other. Note the date on this very modern feeling, tonal landscape painting.
This Milton Avery figure painting uses a stunning, simplified palette in blues and browns, a combination that I have always found deeply satisfying. Blues tend to be be a kind of beacon color in the human psyche, partly having to do with the history of color—coveted, romantic, even sweet at times. The earthy browns ground them effectively. There are several value and hue shifts with both blues and browns, the lighter blue in particular is cool while the deeper blue moves to a warmer, slightly more purple hue.The deep greys and an off-black in the hair, while cool, look to be middle hues between the blues and the browns, linking the flattened shapes together into a well-knit composition..
In the Turner painting, below, a warm, desaturated monochromatic palette is used to very dramatic effect. There is not a full range of value contrast, the warm tones starting with a medium naples yellow and moving through deep, desaturated reds to to the deepest black, which is essential to the drama. The feel is of fairly bright golden colors, but in fact this is a tonal painting, relying on exquisite drawing and well-blended edges for the overall feel.
I selected this dynamic Frankenthaler in particular for it’s primary/secondary-color palette, red/blue/green. The three large shapes are equally desaturated, reminding me of slightly faded vintage cars that have been in the sun for decades. They are also of similar value and not quite flat, with canvas just barely showing through in some areas and breaking up entirely in the red. Also key to the success of the painting is the small shape of desaturated red on the right, presenting as a tint of medium value, somewhere between a pink and mauve in hue. (And of course, the graphic of that deep orange line!)
A still life by Soviet era painter Vladimir Yukin, this painting is interesting as a well-integrated color study. In a complementary warm/green palette, it does have a full range of value, from white to deep greens and reds to black, but most of the painting is in mid-value, rich but desaturated. I love this painter’s work, often distinguished by the similar treatment of fore- and background, both in terms of hue/value/saturation and paint handling. This makes the delightfully off-center composition and dark outlines key attributes, as the positive and negative shapes embed with each other within a uniform surface. Splashes of more saturated color with the red/orange flowers add drama.
I couldn’t possibly discuss color, or my comfort-art, or art of the 20th century, without including Rothko, my single most ever-present lifelong influence. He loved red, and used it oh-so well, and was the master of subtle layering. This is an almost monochromatic palette, but that top line of warm yellow-green throws that meaningfully off. The layering creates many shifts in hue and value, like the whiter color on top of the background red that goes to pink, leaving an uneven gutter of the deeper red around the orange rectangles to create a beautiful vibration. And while the narrow top rectangle has the most going on, the flattest area of the bottom orange one counter-intuitively draws my eye, enhancing that well-known Rothko mesmerizing effect. This is a perfect example of when less-is-more, the emptiest area drawing the eye more than the busiest (if you can even use the latter word in describing a Rothko!).
Kandinsky was my first true love, and immediately upon discovering his body of work at age 14, I was drawn most to his expressionist pieces over the early landscapes and the later constructivist painting. In the below piece we see seemingly all-over-the-place color, and yet it harmonizes. Several factors are at work here to create this effect of lively, dense painting that hangs together. One is that most of the surface area is actually in a neutral cream to naples yellow color, light on the value scale. This is often a factor in work that appears very bright at first glance—the brights are popped and prevented from fighting by the neutrals, which here include the black lines, as well. Two other factors are a composition anchored by those black lines that keeps the eye circulating within the painting; and that he pretty much left out purple—omitting one of the six primary/secondary colors or one section of the color wheel can be very helpful in organizing a cohesive palette.
Well, this is the most fun I have had all week. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much, and please feel free to comment—agree, disagree, elaborate!
CHRISTIE SCHEELE COLOR MIXING AND COMPOSITION FOR PAINTERS ONLINE COURSE
Paintings of Infinite Worth
In the postscript to Umberto Eco’s dense and philosophical historical novel, The Name of the Rose, he observes: “…I would define the poetic effect as the capacity that a text displays for continuing to generate different readings, without ever being completely consumed.”
Such interesting language, and of course relevant to all art forms. I have often mused on the first part of this observation, knowing that the art that moves me the most and that I am intent upon creating invites interpretation and projection on the part of the viewer. But the second part is so delicious—“without ever being completely consumed.”
So which pieces from my formative years, my “comfort” art, can I point to that continue to nourish with new information, new sensation, never being finished?
The four paintings below send me into an almost conditioned swoon. So, pulling myself out of my art-induced trance, I will take a close, fresh look at them.
Rothko said, “If you are only moved by color relationships, then you miss the point. I’m interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.”
I enter into a Rothko like looking at the ocean. This phase can last for quite some time. Eventually, as the eye wanders toward the edges, my consciousness is popped back out again and onto the surface of the painting, the blues anchoring me to the here-and-now. The gorgeous uneven edges of the main shapes going into the brighter blue…they make me feel stirred up and moored at the same time, as does the color. On the whole, I would say, deeper than tragedy, ecstasy, or doom… way down deep, sub-verbal.
“I have always been concerned with painting that simultaneously insists on a flat surface and then denies it,” Frankenthaler has said. The flat surface at work here is quite evident—and beautifully so. The mauve shape has the illusion of sheen that brings silk to mind. The most complex shape in the piece is without paint at all, bringing the eye firmly to the surface of the raw canvas. The small dark shape in the upper left looks like a piece of tape or paper placed on top, emphasizing flatness.
What is denying the flat in this piece? I see a subtle vibration in the mauve field that is full of movement, as if rippling in the wind, inviting the viewer to float into it.
What delights my eye the most is the interaction of shapes. The edges are softly stained and jagged with lovely variation. Each shape is a statement in its own right, but all are nudging the eye toward the unpainted angular form as it moves across the canvas. The dark corner at the top left presses the eye down and into that shape. The spot on the lower right where it almost but not quite goes off the canvas also leads the eye back into the piece, and both of these elements create a needed tautness to the otherwise open surface.
It is nowhere clearer than in minimalist non-geometric abstraction how much a play of edge and composition can directly reach the viewer’s heart. Without the descriptive content of a representational image, it is much easier to see how these shapes interact. There are good (dynamic, interesting, disconcerting, playful, assertive, and/or pensive) shapes and not-so-good (boring, overly regular, static, needlessly complex, and/or repetitive) shapes. Even more importantly, their interaction and directionality define the feel of the painting.
“With color one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft. “
Clearly, I love color-field painting. This iconic Matisse painting was already there back in 1911. It does as beautifully as any painting I’ve ever seen what a non-realist representational painting should do: both describe the space and flatten to the front of the picture plane. This is much like Frankenthaler’s observation above, made more complex by the descriptive aspect of the subject matter.
I have always delighted in the way that the white lines, created from negative space underneath the red, are the drawing element. (The grandfather clock is brilliant!) I am now noticing for the first time that it is the perspective, I think quite accurate, that really describes the room for us.
Whites and pinks punctuating the space and a handful of curved shapes keep the eye circulating and create clusters of compositional interest.
All of this is embedded in one, flat plane of red; a red so rich you can almost breathe it in.
“Art cannot be modern. Art is primordially eternal.”
Shapes, stunning shapes. This painting has a complex composition that still leaves the piece feeling open, mostly due to the reduced palette. The whites and almost whites along with the Chinese Lantern snaking up behind create the most startlingly interesting element of the piece, to my eye—the small white shape sitting on top of the shoulder of the figure.
There is narrative here both in the painterly treatment of the figure and in its placement and expression. Schiele depicts himself with his signature angular shapes and dramatic cropping. The harsh texture on the face projects a view of self while the subtler texture of the black shirt brings movement to the largest single shape in the painting. One is pretty and the other is not.
The head is cocked and the gaze quizzical but challenging.
Knowing that Schiele died at the age 28 of the flu, and viewing this piece from my current age and perspective, I can’t help but feel that along with its pictoral brilliance, the painting projects a young man’s working-it-out doubts and hubris, all very raw.
Some of these emotions I remember feeling at 17 or 25, and other observations are fresh. Looking at these pieces today, I find the sensations that they provoke, familiar or new, are more exciting and moving than ever.
So it is a conversation that never ends.
Multiple Panel Paintings and the Grid
Those caps are not an accident.
If you were in a BFA program in the late 70’s, as I was, conversation turned frequently to the various methods of exploring the ubiquitous grid by our hero-artists, from Sol LeWitt to Chuck Close. Two great loves of mine in this pantheon were, and still are, Agnes Martin and Louise Nevelson, both of whom used grid imagery in the most moving way possible.
What are the associations with the grid that hold our attention? Order, containment, rhythm, vibration, line and edge, surface and depth…and then all of the artistic possibilities of using it as a framework to break out of.
Agnes Martin, for example, applied the lines on her paintings free hand. It is the subtle variation in those lines that convey the meditative moments of their creation. In the lithograph below the lines were clearly ruled, but there is all kinds of lovely variation in the surface. (Basic tenant of minimalism—reduce the amount of information in the piece and what is left becomes supremely, gorgeously important.)
Louise Nevelson, often worked with constructions of irregular boxes painted black or white, asymmetrical sculptures creating an off-hand sort of grid; and other times adhered to a more organized grid, as in “Ancient Secrets”, both below.
Mark Rothko, my biggest influence ever, worked with a very reduced grid, just a few rectangles—the epitome of less-is-more. There is a remarkable amount of emotion in these canvases, and they allow the viewer to bring personal experience to the moment of contemplation. This is another aspect of minimalism— open, non-specific imagery invites the viewer to interact rather than being told exactly what to think or feel.
Like all of my classmates, I ate it all up, exploring the grid myself in my earnest art-student manner. After I got over the most derivative phase, I used architectural plans as a basis for a series and a few years later did several abstract triptychs while attending the Royal Academy in Madrid.
When I was looking to bring my exploration of the landscape into new terrain back in the late 1990’s, I circled back to my longstanding affection for the grid and pondered multiple panel imagery. Thinking, at that point, from the outside, I could only see two possibilities, and they seemed a little bit obvious—either dividing one image into multiple panels (an illusion of window panes) or joining several related images into one piece.
This was, kind of blissfully, pre-internet, so I had no idea if/what other landscape painters were doing in this arena. I decided just to jump in and see what evolved. (I still tend to leap before I look at what others have done when exploring a concept that is new to me. It keeps it fresher.)
Below is a recent example of one of these options, and, as so often happens, once immersed in the process I found it anything but ho-hum.
I have explored the divided field imagery repeatedly over the years, and just now understand that it, too, is loosely grid-based. We’ re seeing it in perspective, which creates the slanting diagonal lines that I love so much.
Returning to my comment about minimalism, I am including the triptych below because I feel that it illustrates well my version of of less-is-more.
“River in 5” is an example of one image in five parts, exploring the more extreme horizontal. In single image multiple-panel pieces the subject wants to be quite simple, so often I begin with the size and format and then look for imagery to suit. The landscape that I choose generally has a strong horizon and often other elements that visually link the panels.
I am frequently asked if each panel should be able to stand alone as an individual piece. My answer is that this is not something I look for—often one panel might need to be quieter to serve the composition as a whole. In the piece below, the far left would not work on its own; in the wave piece above the right hand panel would be too static as a single. “Triptych in Reds”, in contrast, is comprised of panels that would each stand alone quite nicely…but it just so-happened that way.
The piece below explores the other option, three separate images. In this case they are of the same stretch of road minutes or seconds apart and so are tightly linked. This also creates a film strip feel, though without a progression that moves the action from point A to point B. Each of these panels would most definitely function well as a single piece, something that I do look for in multi-image pieces.
Starting around 2000 I did a series of four “Samplers”, named after the quilt style, 16 square 5″x5″‘s in pastel. I debated doing them individually and then moving them around until I liked the order, but decided that I liked the integrity and challenge of figuring out the order as I went along and then committing to it. Thus, these were all done on a single sheet of paper.
There were questions of composition (both within each small piece and for the piece as a whole), color (which in landscape painting is related to season, locale, and time of day), directionality, and type of imagery (manmade objects? more detail or more open?). Simple things like placement of a horizon line had to be carefully considered to create variety and enhance the whole.
From 2009 to 2011 I did a series of five vertical triptychs in a wide black frame that I titled “Colorcode”, related color being the unifying factor. I have a few more of these frames, so I may pick this format back up again.
In 2002 I created the Cyclone Sampler, 37 tiny pieces in a vintage tintype box. Below the image is an excerpt from notes that I made about the piece when it was acquired by the Tyler Museum of Art in east Texas in 2009.
“The Cyclone Sampler reflects a synthesis of my interests in the landscape as narrative, the listening aspect of working with vintage, distressed objects/frames, and the postmodern use of the grid and serial imagery.
The result of my investigations, these multiple-image pieces are about a sense of contained energy (unlike my single-image landscapes, which most often have a feel of expansive energy), the telling of multiple stories, and the rhythm of the grid.
The narrative in my landscapes is ever-present, though often second to abstract concerns. The image of the cyclone fascinates me on a very formal level—the shapes are varied and gorgeous, with the complex, soft, scumbled edges that I love, and often have unusually juxtaposed colors. The story that they tell is equally riveting — nature at its most intense, both deadly and awe-inspiring. The Cyclone Sampler projects the feeling of energy tightly controlled within the grid, since the images are tiny, but the energy of the twister that they depict is vast. The final decision I needed to make while assembling the piece was to leave some sections empty; after trying it out with all of the spots filled, it became clear that to avoid seeming like a dry and busy cataloguing of twisters, the empty sections were essential to give space and emphasis to the 41 that I chose to include.”
In 2007 I did a larger piece in oil that is similar to my Sampler series, made possible by a lucky find with a frame that came with dividers for 35 images. The finish on the frame has tones of red, so each piece in it has at least some red, and a number of them quite a lot of it.
Like the Cyclone Sampler, I found that it was becoming too busy, but I knew that with this presentation I couldn’t leave compartments open. I opted to include six very minimalist images using only black and red, inviting the viewer in by creating depth and encouraging the eye to travel around the piece.
I found a smaller version of the same frame, and did 16 images with a road theme. Using fewer panels allowed the detail in the many manmade objects to create a rhythm of alternating focal points that doesn’t feel overly busy.
I am currently working on one last version of Trove, this with a weather theme, which I will exhibit in my solo show at Gold Gallery, February 18-March 21, 2015.
A vintage box or tray that has several compartments always provides an enticing challenge for a multi-panel piece, even more so because no two are alike. My choice of imagery follows the same idea of strong horizontal or vertical elements to link that panels, and also needs to visually mesh perfectly with that vehicle (for more on this, see my earlier post: https://scheeleart.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/vintage-boxes-slates-and-siftersthe-occasional-found-object/).
Recently I did a commissioned piece in two trays from a vintage fishing tackle box. Many of the images are from places of significance for the couple, and I worked with a combination of diptychs and single panel pieces, which created an interesting challenge while finalizing placement. The view of Opus 40 on the upper right was the only panel that didn’t get moved around repeatedly in the process.
With multi-image paintings, concept and execution are both complex. They generally are thematic, and I always find that these pieces are a wonderful balance to the more open minimalism that I normally work with.
Finally, my Affinity Series, oil on linen with frayed/distressed edges on board overlaid with graphite gridding—about which I will write a separate post another day—can be expressed in the diptych and triptych format as well. In this series I have incorporated gridding into the image itself.
Recently, I had a vision for a different type of multiple image piece, now almost finished (and also headed for my Boston show). But that, too, I’ll describe in another blog post—exploring how a new idea is conceived and executed.
I choose to do a multiple panel painting for several reasons. Most importantly, I like variety in the studio, so today’s choice of format, color, and type of imagery is likely to be different from the piece I just finished. That is also why I feel the need to come up with new series from time to time (see my post on this subject: https://scheeleart.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/staying-fresh/).
And then there is the reference to the grid, an association that is interwoven through my own history as an artist and is, much like with food, my