Thursday, May 17, 2007

James McNeill Whistler, continued

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.
Normally an idea to emulate each master of the month comes to be quite naturally but this month I find myself somewhat stymied. I do like his nocturnes, however, and I'm reminded a bit of one of my favorite modern painters, Bryan Evans.

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?


Anonymous said...

Just wondering, do you do Abstracts as well? If so do you show them in public? I know alot of artist's do abstracts and don't show them.

vivien said...

His use of memory echoes Degas - who felt that an art school should have the life model on the 6th floor.

New students would work on that floor drawing the model and as they grew more experienced they'd move down a floor.

So they'd have to climb the stairs to look at the model and then run down again to continue their drawing/painting! eventually they'd be climbing the stairs from the ground floor (puff gasp wheeze) what they retained in their memory were the essential elements.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Angela - I don't do abstracts but I love uber-stylized stuff. I play around with pieces influenced by stained glass, which I love, but I've never tried to sell them.

Vivien - that's a great story - I love it!