TEN LOOKS AT THE MODEL AND ONE AT YOUR PAPER
In the 1960s, there was a comic strip involving droll humor that I just loved in the Chicago Sun-Times called Big George, by cartoonist Virgil Partch. Big George was big in stature and a big personality who was pictured in various situations each day. One joke that I still think about featured Big George as a painter, drawn wearing a smock and beret, holding a palette in front of his easel on which was an abstract painting that he had done. He had a visitor in his studio that day. George’s line went: “I only paint what I see.” The visitor, while looking at the painting said, “Well, what do you see?”
In that time, I was a 15 year old summer school student at the Art Institute of Chicago, enrolled in a life drawing class. Life drawing consisted of models that posed and changed positions while students, seated at an easel with a large newsprint tablet and some drawing charcoal, attempted to capture their likeness. Positions were not held for long and after a warm up period of ten minute, three minute and then two minute poses, they began to be only 10 seconds or so, necessitating fast observation and work. These quick poses eventually gave way to one 45 minute pose in order to really define the work. Our instructor for this class circulated among us and shouted throughout the morning, “Ten looks at the model and one at your paper!” (I imagine the woman seated at the right side of this frame as the teacher, perhaps saying this same line.) This was one of the most valuable art lessons I ever received, as it introduced me to the difference between looking and seeing.
Ten looks at the model surely meant “have keen observation”, or “see”. Seeing, then, involves not only looking, but a level of understanding, of contemplation, of analysis, and sometimes has to happen in a moment. In those quick poses, we not only had to gather the information, but also understand it enough to put something down, training the brain in observation. How does that translate, then, to abstracting what you see? As one theory, an artist friend of mine recently commented that one of my new paintings looked like a “modern day Hudson River painting”. In order to understand her comment, let’s take a look at a couple of paintings from the Hudson River School of the 1800s, one of my favorite genres in art history, a movement that happened during the age of Romanticism and Naturalism.
Here is one of my favorite examples, Regis Francois Gignoux’s magnificent painting titled On the Upper Hudson. Gignoux makes us feel both heat and chill at the same time, featuring hot oranges and reds on the closer riverbank to the left and then contrasting that temperature with cool blues and purples as the landscape recedes. Art historian Henry T. Tuckerman writes of Gignoux, “He carries into his observation of nature no morbid feeling; but catches her pleasantest language, and delights in reproducing her salient effects.”
And this work by the masterful Albert Bierstadt, The Falls of St. Anthony: Immediately we are warmed by the temperature of this sunset painting, but also feel the chill of Autumn evening approaching, as suggested by the attire of the figures. We can hear the rush of the distant Falls and the lapping of water on the near shoreline. We can smell the trees, hear muted conversation among the figures and we sense a mutual love of nature between them. It’s all laid out for us and expertly rendered. These paintings are grandly conceived and convey a lovely innocence, a romantic vision, a slower and simpler time that in many ways we may yearn for today.
My own method of painting involves intuitive marks inspired by nature, by atmosphere, by the passage of time and weathered surface. I like to think of it as updated Naturalism. Is it perhaps then, as my friend Jessie said, possible that this new painting of mine came out of my subconscious mind as a reaction to many years spent looking at the Hudson River School painters and other periods of art history, yet unpacked for viewers’ own interpretations but also reflecting the loss of innocence and breakneck speed of today’s times?