In an earlier entry, I introduced a new Painting, Cat’s Cradle, and addressed the challenge that representing a very actively patterned quilt as a backdrop to my two figures posed for me. I had to find a way of depicting the quilt convincingly without interfering with the primacy I wanted the figures to assert. I ended up seeking a balance between illusionistic and decorative painting, one that I hoped would not detract from the image’s substance while offering a heightened visual sumptuousness to delight the viewer.
Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle - 2014
Working on that painting got me thinking about how the figure related to Patterning and how other artists explored this motif in their work. Let me begin by declaring that representing patterning in an illusionistic painting is counterintuitive because it detracts from the assertion of sculptural form in a convincing space. Giotto understood this, resulting in his rejection of the excesses of the Byzantine Style. His figures are lit by a single, uniform light source, draped in pale, solid toned robes and placed before a uniform background of saturated blue.
Giotto - The Adoration of the Magi - 1306
Giotto’s innovations marked the initiation of a 200 year stylistic evolution that reached its zenith with the Italian High Renaissance. Artists of this period saw themselves as the natural heirs of the lofty achievements of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures and sought to reintroduce the simplicity and austerity that they deemed a central component of Classical Art. They would probably have been aghast to learn that the marble sculptures that served as their primary models had actually been brightly painted upon completion. That notwithstanding, the High Renaissance ushered in a slew of technical and aesthetic innovations which, for the most part, established the “ground rules” that European artists followed for the next 350 years, until the advent of the modernist revolution.
Raphael - The Small Cowper Madonna - c1505
Central to this Renaissance ideal that inspired artists for centuries was that artists, in painting and drawing in particular, must strive to suggest three-dimensional form set in a convincing, illusionistic space. Busy, intense patterning would certainly undermine that goal, and its use was eschewed by generations of Western artists except when used for very specific purposes.
Hans Holbein - The Ambassadors - 1533
The green curtain that is the backdrop to Hans Holbein’s ambassadors plays an important role. It maintained the illusion of real space by convincing us of its tangibility while providing a barrier, parallel to the picture plane, to a deeper, potentially more complex space that lies beyond its borders. So the curtain allows the figures to pop out more prominently from the picture plane, an effect intensified by its green tonality complementary to the warm flesh tones of the figures. But Holbein decides that the curtain should be patterned. Why? Painting is always a bit of a juggling act where one decision often leads to a multitude of adjustments that will permit the artist to “keep all his balls in the air”, so to speak. The inclusion of the curtain results from sound judgment, but Holbein recognizes that it represents a huge expanse in his painting that offers little of visual interest to the viewer. He introduces the patterning to activate the space, while being careful to keep it sufficiently subdued as not to compete with the primacy of the figures. So, Holbein chooses to enrich his visual imagery through the use of patterning while sustaining the ideals initiated during the Italian Renaissance, an approach adopted by many artists prior to the modernist revolution. I’ve noted an exception to this rule. Royal portraits tended to be less restrained and often violated Renaissance ideals.
Antoine-Francois Callet - King Louis XVI - 1781
There are a number of reasons for this. Primarily, royal portraits were intended to assert the wealth and power of a monarch. In doing so, excess was to be desired. So presenting the king cocooned in a vast array of costly, richly patterned furs and textiles in order to testify to his omnipotence took precedence over aesthetic concerns. Also, it seems that the vast majority of monarchs were not particularly attractive. For instance, Louis XVI, pictured above, was said to be rather short, stout and square shouldered, with the worst possible bearing. His mouth was over-full and flabby and his chin was pale and fat. (The Days of the French Revolution, Christopher Hibbert) There is an obvious attempt on the part of Callet to hide Louis’ physical imperfections, to mask his volume by “dismembering” his torso in layers of patterned material, to distract the viewer’s focus away from the King’s features. Here is a unique situation whence the artist wishes to disguise form and deter focus. Certainly the introduction of complex, overall patterning in figurative painting pushes the work towards the decorative. Unfortunately, the term “decorative” has taken on a slightly pejorative taint, in that “decorative” is often considered the polar opposite of “substantive”. This should not be the case. Without a doubt, patterning is most commonly used to create an aura of lushness, abundance and voluptuousness. Besides pleasing and delighting the viewer, the patterning, if presented in sufficient complexity and detail, would provoke awe and amazement with the artist’s audience. Many non-European cultures have embraced patterning as an essential element in their visual arts. And as I have said earlier, prior to the establishment of the Renaissance ideal, ornate patterning was common in European art, particularly in medieval manuscripts.
French Medieval Manuscript - Mars, Venus and Vulcan
French Medieval Manuscript
Kitagawa Utamaro - The Prelude to Desire - 1799
But, once concepts concerning the presentation of illusionistic form in space and the aesthetics that governed what was acceptable in art had developed during the Renaissance, they were hard to disregard. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that Europeans truly began to question these long established strictures and started experimenting with new ways of depicting visual reality. Not very surprising, many “modern” artists turned to other cultures to find models to guide them in relinquishing traditional standards of presentation and developing new mechanics as to how tools and materials should be used. Artists began to challenge the concept that the figure must assert its primacy when represented in paintings and drawings. Patterning was used to mask or disguise form, to present the figure as integrated with its setting. Also, once doctrine governing how the illusion of perspective was created in art was brought into question, patterning was often used to “dissolve’ or “dismember” structure, rendering space as a series of decorative planes placed side by side, deliberately denying depth and blurring the transitions between planes. When presenting the figure in such ambiguous space, the artist had to find new ways to depict form that contradicted traditional rules pertaining to coloration, lighting and even anatomical feasibility.
Albert Joseph Moore - Red Berries - 1884
The British artist, Albert Joseph Moore, embeds his figure in an incredibly complex array of patterned materials, which he treats in a traditional, illusionistic fashion.It is the austerity of the model’s flesh and hair that draws the viewer’s eye to her.
Edouard Vuillard - The Reader - 1896
Among the Nabis, a group of French artists interested in exploring intimate scenes of daily life often presented in a decorative context, Edouard Vuillard was most attracted to interior views filled with layers of intricate patterning. Here the figures dissolve in their environment, treated with equal attention as the rug or wallpaper. For Vuillard, the whole is what mattered; he did not differentiate his subject matter hierarchically.
Gustav Klimt - Adele Bloch-Bauer - 1907
For Gustav Klimt, an Austrian artist influenced both by the Symbolist and Art Nouveau movements, complex patterning permitted him to mask in dense layers subject matter too risqué for the conservative tastes of his fin de siècle audience. Also, within his patterning are suggestions of nature’s fecundity, of pollen and sperm, of vines and foliage, and a variety of barely disguised erotic symbols.
Dora Carrington - Annie - 1925
The wallpaper in Dora Carrington’s portrait of her housekeeper completes the work, activating powerfully the space around the figure, a solidly built and plain country girl. The floral theme of the wallpaper seems to testify to this girl’s agrarian roots.
Henri Matisse - Small Odalisque in a Purple Robe - 1937
Henri Matisse - La Musique - 1939
The challenge for Henri Matisse was to accentuate the patterning in his figure paintings, striving for strident designs possessing unusual color combinations, while maintaining a sophisticated, flawless composition. The figures in these two works can truly be referred to as compositional elements, presented on an equal footing with the complex mesh of patterned components. Throughout his career, Matisse was interested in textiles, gathering an extensive collection of fabrics, rugs and costumes that appeared regularly in his work.
Balthus - The Turkish Room - 1963
Late in his career, Balthus became fascinated with surface texture and complex patterning. In the work above, it’s the very flatness and simplicity of the figure that permits it to assert its primacy. So, having given some thought as to how in two dimensional work patterning related to the figure, I thought that I would further explore this relationship in my next work, a self-portrait. I knew the emotional state that I wanted this next painting to convey. As always, being my own model, I was sure that I could convincingly project the mood I was after, but I wasn’t so certain that I could find the appropriate pattern to enhance that emotional state. I began searching through the house, pulling clothing out of closets and drawers, looking through discarded blankets and shawls in the laundry room, going from room to room examining curtains, even the sheets on each bed. Nothing I came across matched my needs. Then I remembered a patterned, light spread that my wife and I purchased on a trip to Greecemade over 25 years ago. I rushed to my closet and began to paw through various items tucked away and forgotten on the top shelf and, incredibly, found the spread carefully stored in a plastic bag. I was startled to discover that I had recalled the pattern and coloration fairly precisely and was pleased to find this spread projected the mood and associations that I desired. These specific associations shall go unmentioned because, though most likely common amongst most people living today, to state them would place too specific a “stamp” on the image. I set up in my studio a working area correctly lighted and able to accommodate a mirror set upon a presentation stand. Then I attached a horizontal beam to an old easel, draped the spread over it and positioned the easel so the material would fill the space behind me. I began painting, sketching in elements and blocking in general tones. At some point, I brought my youngest son up to my studio to take a series of photographs of me striking my desired pose before my chosen background. Eventually, I discarded the mirror and used only the photographs as my source of information. I had anticipated that this painting would require about ten sessions but found that progress was made a lot more slowly than I expected. Right from the start I was unable to “nail down” my composition, repeatedly making adjustments to the proportions and placement of the figure. I was tenacious, refusing to settle on “satisfactory” and continuing to make significant adjustments until very late in the process. While addressing the figure, I was also quickly and loosely summarizing the background patterning. Most essential, early on, was establishing the general tones against which the figure needed to function. The pattern proved to be fairly intricate, and I wasn’t certain how naturalistic I needed to be in documenting it. I would work on an area of the background over a session or two, feeling that I had developed a successful approach to addressing the patterning, only to discover upon subsequent evaluation that I hadn’t achieved what I was hoping for. I would rethink my approach and begin again. This happened several times while I was continuing to work up the figure. At one point, I was convinced that the figure was complete for the most part and I only needed to focus on the patterning. I wanted the patterning to assert itself powerfully without overwhelming the figure. I was seeking a balance. Also, initially, I had thought the background could be addressed in a very painterly fashion but upon execution found that this approach did not relate sufficiently with the paint handling used for the figure. I reached an impasse somewhere in the middle of the entire process at which I could not determine how to address the patterning and, upon objective scrutiny, deemed the figure, though competently painted, to lack visual interest and dimension. With me, most paintings reach a crisis point at which, dissatisfied with the results of my efforts and unable to see a clear path to resolution, I contemplate throwing in the towel and moving on to a new project. Commonly, I’ll avoid my studio and seek to clear my mind while only occasionally scrutinizing my current work. When I came back to the canvas, I began by repainting the patterning with a greater sensitivity to light quality, nuance and detail. Once I had accomplished that, it became evident that the figure had to be painted anew. At the end of one session, I took my wet palette and raked it over the figure, creating a pale web of fine lines over my earlier work. I thought in order to see the figure with fresh eyes I had to distance myself from my earlier conception of how the figure was constructed and addressed. I must admit I was a bit shocked when I saw how much of my earlier efforts had been obliterated by my rash action. I had no choice but to tackle the figure once more, and I did so, this time deepening the shadows and emphasizing detail at the plane breaks in the face and torso. Even at this late stage, I continued to make major adjustments in the construction of the head, repositioning the eyes and mouth to better conform to the perspective suggested in the work. At last, I felt that the painting was starting to gel and began to work with greater determination, extending the length of and making more frequent my sessions in the studio. On June 7th, I finished my work on the painting.
Gerard Wickham - Before the Greek Throw - 2015
At the start of this project when I optimistically expected to need about ten sessions to complete this self-portrait, I thought it would be interesting to record my daily progress by taking a photograph of the painting at the end of each session. My intention was to display on this blog each individual photo documenting my progress in order to reveal a bit about the painting process in general and my personal technique in particular. After months of work and sessions too numerous to count, I realized that I couldn’t execute my plan; the series of photos would be ridiculously long and the variance between one photo and the next too minimal. So I turned to technology to discover a solution and found a way to make a short movie, transitioning smoothly from slide to slide, following the project from bare canvas to completed painting. I was even able to add some music to accompany the presentation. Viewing this short movie is probably more revelatory for me than doing so could possibly be for a more disinterested audience, but I believe that even a viewer who has never taken up a brush will find the process absorbing. The movie exposes a certain hesitancy on my part to commit to a course of action, particularly at the middle stages of this work. Watching the movie, I could feel palpably that at some point progress stalls while I choose to address peripheral issues in the work rather than tackle the handling of the figure. I was finding it difficult to surrender my original conception of how paint would be handled, especially in the patterning. So the painting began to meander. This is not surprising. Painting, at least for me, is a journey undertaken without a map or an itinerary. I approach a work with some firm ideas of what I want to accomplish, the statement I wish to make, the emotions I want to arouse, but I’m never sure how to realize these goals. That’s probably what both appeals to me and frustrates me about the process. Working out the path to accomplish these goals is seldom easy... but always interesting. While bike riding with my youngest son last weekend, we stopped to take a breather on a bench when he asked me how I knew when a painting is finished. I’ll try to paraphrase my response here: A blank canvas is perfect. Upon putting my first stroke on a canvas, I’ve destroyed that perfection. Every subsequent stroke I make represents my attempt to reclaim that perfection, to address the faults inherent in my all too human efforts. A painting is complete when I arrive at a point at which I find I can live with its manifest deficiencies.
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