Sunday, January 06, 2008

Kay Nielsen - Artist of the Month Part I

As promised, it's Sunday and I'm dutifully posting about one of the artists of the month (well, of the months as I'm probably going to stretch this over January and February). Today I focused mainly on Kay Nielsen, after discovering that Bauer's going to be a bit tricky. Most of the material on him is in Swedish and he also inconveniently drowned in his 30s, leaving behind not a lot of info for us to study. So we'll save him for later in the month. Plus, I think I'll need to get my sketching skills back up to par to do his style justice.

Okay. So onto Nielsen. I was asked by two people in the comments section how I studied artists. I come at it from a couple of different angles:

  • how they learned. I scout out bios to find out what sort of schooling they had.
  • who influenced them. No point reinventing the wheel.
  • composition. Do they have rules they always follow? Maxfield Parrish's adherence to Dynamic Symmetry was fascinating.
  • palette. What colors do they tend to use? I learned an amazing amount about mixing colors when I studied Waterhouse. I had no idea I could use that much blue and red-brown together in one composition.
  • technique. Sometimes, like Sargent, they leave behind journals and students who describe their process for us. This is like gold.
  • overall feel. Romantic, like Waterhouse? Aggressive, like Van Gogh? Dark, like Sargent?
So I'm not (usually) looking for something very specific, like "I want to paint women like the Mona Lisa." I look at their whole body of work and try and take something away from it as a whole. It was that method that first really drilled into my head that I should be striving for a cohesive style. Our style is what we leave behind, not one specific piece.

Anyway, onto Nielsen. If you follow the link above, it'll take you to a pretty good bio page. I prefer this page for examples of his work, because it's a bunch of them in one place. So, I gave myself over to reading and looking for awhile, and this is what I got to:

  • His work is highly stylized, after the manner of Japanese prints
  • They are for the most part flat, using colors and patterns to give them depth rather than any particular sense of foreshortening or recession
  • His figures are elongated and androgynous, pale and idealized
  • He uses color to attract attention, like the warm red in these three primarily cool images.
  • Aside from red, his colors tend to be muted -- dusky pinks, gray-greens, sea-foam blues.
  • Compositionally, he uses a lot of vertical elements, especially parallel elements, and he breaks them up with arches. Curiously, I was noticing a lot of the exact same curve in his work (do you see the curve in each of these three examples?), and then I read that he made frequent use of the "Hiroshige wave." Well, that took me a bit more research, but I found that Ando Hiroshige was a prominent Japanese artist. One of his most famous images (one that I realized I had seen before) was one of a wave:
  • Finally, Nielsen did a lot of images where most of the compositional interest was in the lower third of the painting. His skies and upper thirds are fascinating examples of compositional support systems, active backgrounds to support the subject.
I'm hoping to find out more about his technique (all I know at this point was that he used watercolors and that he was slow enough that Disney kicked him to the curb), but I think I'll have to go for printed material to get that info. And my library is rather coy on the subject of Swedish illustrators, so I might have to - gasp - buy some books.

Anyway, by this point I was dying to have a go at some sketches, so I got out my new sketchbook (and yes, I will also be giving this one away to a blog subscriber, once it's full). Since I began last year's projects by illustrating a scene from one of my novels-in-progress, I thought it would be fitting this year to illustrate a scene from my current novel-in-progress, Still Wolf Watching.

So the first thing I did was tackle the long, high composition with the subject down at the bottom. My first effort was sort of satisfactory, but to me, it looks like a cheesy calendar image. It might be different once I did it full size (this little sketch is only 4 inches tall or so), but I was missing that stylized pizazz.

I can't believe I just used the word "pizazz."

Anyway, so I decided I needed to work on my wolf, both poses and anatomy. Next page was wolf sketches, stylizing and cleaning up and making edgier.

And then my second effort was supposed to be a grand culmination of what I had learned from the first sketch and the wolf sketches, but I think I still like the first one best. Maybe put my stylized wolf in the first one. Hmm. See how I'm using the Hiroshige wave in the shape of the wolf's back? I'm sooo proud of myself. Still, these aren't the amazing creatures (the sketches, not the wolves) I was hoping for. I'll see what you all think and maybe try my hand at more sketches next Sunday, using more of what I've learned.


Becca said...

You almost made me spew my drink at the "cheesey calender image" line e_e haha

Anyways, in your first sketch I don't really see the arch being utilized, slap that sucker in the sky as the northen lights! Or does that increase the feeling of "calender imagae"? humm

Jo Castillo said...

Love the pizazz in your sketches. I like the wolf in the first and the trees in the second.

And ... you are teaching me something again. Thanks. :)

Kellie Hill said...

wow- loving the sketches. I see the arch being used in them, in the background trees in the first one and in the hills behind the trees in the second, but it seems like he tended to use it higher in the composition- maybe that makes the curve stand out more, visually?

and I love his trees in this one , the way the center of the piece is where they've receded the most and become the darkest- but he still uses the arch in that slender tree on the hill, doesn't he? I was kind of toying with that in the sketch I posted Saturday....

wow, that's a long comment- I'm sorry. thank you so much for your encouraging words on my blog yesterday- it's something that's concerned me for a while now, and I really appreciate your input. I'll keep you posted!

Debbie said...

Hope these help.

bilby said...

Insightful analysis of the work. Have you checked out Arthur Wesley Dow? He was greatly influenced by "Japonism" and was influential in bringing that system of design to the US in the early 20th century. He was teacher to Georgia O'keeffe and others of note. Big influence in American Arts and Crafts design.
just a thought,
cheers, bill b.

Jackie said...

Thanks so much for going over your method of studying an artist.

When I first saw those "wave" compositions, I immediately thought of the divine proportion, but I suppose that's because aside from the rule of thirds, I don't know of any other comp rule. (I'm a beginner, don't laugh!)

Lisa B. said...

The most intriguing part of "the wave" is how many times I'd seen it, and NOT seen the boats. It's a fantastic piece.

Need a fairy tale? Try here:

I like the trees in cheesy calender image. Branches arching over the moon would connect the two groupings of trees. The 2nd image reminds me of a picket fence.

XineAnn said...

Nielsen said in an interview that he was influenced by Aubrey Beardsley and I do see that influence. You are totally right about the Hiroshige influence and I never made that connection! I see it especially in The North Wind Went Over the Sea here.

Thank you for your insights!