Thursday, October 31, 2013

Composing a Painting

© David Hockney

I had a question from a student about how I put this painting together, whether I had worked from a photograph, or from life. The answer is somewhere in between, and needs some framework to be fully understood.

Making a painting entirely from life was rare until the 19th century. Scholars believe that the incised marks that litter Caravaggio's canvasses as evidence that he departed from the usual conventions and worked from life. It was the pride of French realists such as Gericault or Corbet, that they often worked from life. The Impressionist Monet practically turned this into an obsession, switching canvases every fifteen minutes to remain faithful to changes in light. More recently Antonio Garcia Lopez has worked this way on his massive landscape paintings of Madrid. He typically works a few minutes a day for years on a single painting. There is a simplicity and directness about working from life. Some, such as John Ruskin, have attached a moral virtue to working from life. Yet often the scale, complexity, or even the weather preclude working from life. In such circumstances artists have turned to reference material in one form or another to guide their practice.

Being a recent invention, photography only became an important tool for painters in the past 150 years. Thomas Eakins worked out compositions and refined his drawing with reference to photographs. Prior to this, painters learned to work from their drawings. Sketches served as references. The trois crayons technique was uniquely suited for preserving value and temperature information from which a painter could develop a composition. Similar, artists would refer to the works of their colleagues in the form of drawing or paintings. When the original works were not accessible, prints would serve. One of the primary motives behind the formation of the European academy was to afford students access to visual libraries or the work of the Masters. Curators are fond of pointing out the borrowing of visual tropes on the didactics that line museum walls. Consider the similarities of Noah and Manoah in two these paintings by Natoire and Murat. Kehinde Wiley is a contemporary artist known for his appropriation of art history, as in this piece, which hangs in the Brooklyn Museum.

From the Renaissance to the Modern era, history painting, such as exemplified in the work Laurence Alma Tadema, or Charles Le Brun, occupied the highest position within the discipline of painting--as opposed to genre, still-life, landscape, or portraiture--because of the skill required to compose such a work. They required erudition, as well as the technical skill to orchestrate multiple studies into a single cohesive whole. The best painters in this vein cultivated a certain showmanship and sense for drama. They needed to be able to cut to the quick of a narrative and capture subtleties of emotion and body language. I would consider them more akin to film makers today. A good history painting tells a story in a single moment, but it wasn't possible to paint one in a single sitting, or even from a single reference. Artist brought in models, made sketches, and united these into a single image, much like David Hockney creates a single image from multiple photographs above.

I completed St. Kateri in God's Creation using such a methodology. I had the benefit of a model, and took a couple gigabytes worth of photographs. I worked from three distinct images to create her body--one for general body language, a second for the head, and a third for the lower limbs. I made use of additional sittings for the hands and eyes with a second model. The landscape came from sketches and photographs made in the Mohawk Valley and on campus at Siena. The ferns grow in a park near the river, but the lilies are located outside of the Sarazen Student Center. Through a careful study of light and color these disparate elements are united into a single, unified whole.

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