I'm sure you guys thought that I forgot about Whistler. I haven't. I've been reading about him for the past week and I've discovered that he is not the man I thought he was.
(For those of you just signing on, each month, Fine Line Artists studies the work of a safely dead artist and tries to create a work of their own using the techniques and skills learned - this month is James McNeill Whistler and any blogging artist is welcome to join in and send their links to us for inclusion).
Anyway, I've been reading about Whistler in Donald Holden's very readable Whistler: Landscapes and Seascapes and I find Whistler is certainly more and less than I expected. Whistler's Mother (more properly called an Arrangment in Grey and Black, the name he gave it), is no more representative of his works than this old drawing I did of my dog Peanut is of my general body of work. Whistler was far more about his "nocturnes," his abstract landscapes, than any of his portraits. Some of them, like the Nocturne in Blue and Silver on the right, I like quite a bit. Others I find were excellent in the concept and in my opinion, quite flawed in the execution.
Some important things about Whistler:
- He prized concept over effort - beautifully done pieces in a derivative, "safe" style weren't as valuable to him as an innovative piece done in short order.
- Abstract shapes defined his composition. Likeness came second, if at all.
- He abandoned traditional chiaroscuro lighting in favor of a more even one, flattening shapes and muting colors, borrowing techniques from oriental art. Whistler said, "As the light fades and shadows deepen all petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears, and I see things as they are in great strong masses: the buttons are lost, but the sitter remains; the garment is lost, but the sitter remains; the sitter is lost, but the shadow remains; the shadow is lost, but the picture remains."
- He named all his later pieces after musical compositions: nocturnes, harmonies, arrangments. They were meant to be enjoyed at face value rather than for an allegorical or literary meaning.
- He painted from memory in the studio.
- He mixed all of his colors in advance, taking hours to do so, diluting them heavily and calling them "sauce." He would then paint the painting quickly, rubbing out mistakes and taking pains to remove the evidence of the painter's struggle. His dilution technique was very poor for preserving art, and most of his canvases are degraded to one degree or another.
With that in mind, I think I'll try Whistler's method for painting from memory. Holden relates an anecdote about Whistler committing a scene to memory. Whistler stopped in his tracks, studied the scene, then turned his back and described the scene out loud, fixing it in his mind. Then he carried on as before, went back to his studio, and painted it.
It sounds like an interesting idea, just capturing impressions. I might make a dog's breakfast of it, but it might be fun too. Anyone else up for it?