A revolution in painting

Introduction

This post focuses on the revolution in painting that gathered momentum in the latter part of the nineteenth century. A key factor in its genesis was an earlier and still ongoing revolution in the then emerging science of visual perception (more posts on aspects of this to follow)At the core of this was an accumulation of evidence that demonstrated that colour is not a property of surfaces in the external world but a construction by the eye/brain.  In Chapter 6 of my book “Fresh Insights into Creativity“, I have described what occurred as “The Modernist Experiment”.  The word “experiment” is used because the discoveries of science, the threat of the recently invented photograph and the challenge to well-embedded assumptions posed by the Japanese print, led to:

  • A root and branch questioning of just about every aspect of painting.
  • A concerted effort to make paintings that would push forward the search for answers.

More than ever before, the thought-processes and working practice of artists illustrated the earlier groundbreaking contention of John Constable  that “paintings should be regarded as experiments.

A link to the chapter

Please click on the link below to access the chapter in question. In it you will read how the revolution in painting evolved between the 1860s, when the young Impressionists met with now celebrated poets and writers in the Café GuerboisParis, and the 1960s, when an exhibition called The Art of the Real, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, prepared the way for the arrival of so-called “Post Modernism” (to be the subject of a later Post).

CHAPTER 6 – “THE MODERNIST EXPERIMENT”

 

Three products of the revolution in painting

The three paintings below show three late nineteenth century painters experimenting with approaches to picture making which would have been inconceivable before the Modernist revolution in painting:

revolution in painting
Gustav Moreau: “The temptation of St Anthony”, an experimental work painted in the last part of the nineteenth century.
  • Gustav Moreau was an early influence on Degas and the teacher of Matisse,
revolution in painting
Toulouse Lautrec – La Loge: An essay in experimentation
  • For detail on the experimental attitude of Toulouse-Lautrec, see Chapter 7:  “Toulouse Lautrec , the questioning of values”.
revolution in painting
Berthe Morisot experimenting with mark making.
  • Berthe Morisot studied under Corot, a precursor of Modernism in painting, before meeting Manet and marrying his brother. Who influenced whom is a moot question.

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Science of light and colour

What science can now tell us

Two earlier Posts draw attention to the historical importance of Seurat’s science-based ideas on the practice of painting light and colour. In the one, which is on the “Venetian Colourists” , it is argued that the artists known by this label and those who built upon their ideas were not “colourists” at all. Rather they were “lightists”, whose reputation as “colourists” was based on their mastery of whole-field lightness/darkness relations (“chiaroscuro“). Colour did not enter into the theory of painting light until Seurat introduced his idea of using optically-mixed arrays of separate dots of complementary pigment-colours to give a new kind of luminosity to his paintings. This step proved to be the precursor of a transformative jump from “lightists” to “colourists”. The next steps, which were were taken by such artists as Cézanne, Gauguin and Bonnard, were later to inspire the synthesis of my teacher Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. It is these that provide the main subject matter of the second post mentioned above, namely “The Dogmas, Chapter 1 of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. There I explain how, as well as having an abiding influence on my own painting and my teaching, they were to:

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False confidence

A personal experience

Continuing in the spirit of Tapies’ game-playing approach to creativity, we find ourselves jumping sideways to false confidence and self-deception, two closely interrelated subjects of great pertinence to both artists and scientists. These I will spread over two Posts. Both can be approached via episodes in my personal history.

The first anecdote, which is on the subject of confidence, concerns a flight of fancy that popped into my head at the time I was meditating on the mysteries of recognition, and how on earth the eye/brain systems could enable it.  My reverie took the form of what I came to call the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model”.  It was a simplistic conception relating to brain-system processing that will be explained in more detail in a later Post.

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Self-deception

A conversation with Xavier

The possibility that artists can build substantial castles on insubstantial foundations leads naturally to the subject of “self-deception”. During a recent conversation, the French artist Xavier Krebs confided that, during the process of making a painting, there sometimes comes a moment of what he described as a time of massive self-deception. Suddenly, to his delight, the painting that he is working on seems to come alive in a way that is thrilling beyond belief. The experience is extremely potent and only too real. The balloon is not pricked until the next morning when Xavier rushes excitedly to the studio. There he finds himself confronted, not by the “masterpiece” he was expecting, but what he now experiences as a spirit-crushing “disaster”. Nothing has changed but the artist’s experience of what he is seeing, Yet he assures me that there is no room for doubt: The scales of self-deception have dropped permanently from his eyes:

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Fast drawing, learning and expression

Is there a connection?

This Post is about the connection between fast drawing, learning and personal expression. It is an important subject because there seems to be a connection in many people’s minds between speed and expression. Various questions arise. Perhaps the main one is whether there is any necessary connection at all. In all my books I assume that personal expression can come in a multitude of ways: fast, slow, passionate, quietly sensitive, and all gradations between these extremes. This Post concentrates on using fast drawing.  As its core is  “Movement, speed and memory”, Chapter 8 of my book,“Drawing on Both sides of the Brain” (see below”).

CHAPTER 8 – MOVEMENT, SPEED & MEMORY

Fast drawing

The question raised by Chapter 8 relates to the widespread practice of starting life drawing sessions with poses that are so short that they force fast drawing. Those who advocate this practice, believe that their shortness will increase the likelihood of creativity and personal expression.  In Chapter 8, I question this belief.

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Copying photographs

Is copying photographs cheating?

I have met many people who think that copying photographs is somehow cheating. Certainly it can be used as an easy way of sidestepping the challenges (and opportunities) provided by copying directly from nature. But this does not mean that it can never be justified.

The main purpose of this Post is to publish Chapter 7 of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, which discusses the advantages and disadvantages of copying small, static, two-dimensional photographic images, as compared with confronting the full force of nature, in all its dimensions. Its conclusion is that both possibilities have their place. Rather than condemning the practice of copying photographs out of hand, artists might be well advised to work out what is the best option in the circumstances of the moment.

The chapter also considers an earlier and, for many years, much used memory-based alternative to copying photographic images.

CHAPTER 7 – MEMORY & COPYING PHOTOGRAPHS

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CLAM as a teaching method

CLAM explained

CLAM is an acronym forcontinuously looking at the model. It describes a teaching method, suggested by Kimon Nicolaїdes and popularised by Betty Edwards. However, they describe it as “contour drawing”. Since 1941, when Nicolaїdes‘ book “The Natural Way to Draw” was published posthumously and started its life as the most influential book on drawing published in the twentieth century, his method has proved its value as a powerful teaching tool. However, in addition to its well established advantages, it has significant disadvantages. Chapter 6 in my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”  explains both its strengths and its limitations.

CHAPTER 6 – CONTOUR DRAWING

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Negative spaces

Why avoid talking of “negative spaces ” or “negative shapes”?

The title of Chapter 6 of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain” is “Negative Shapes”. Some people may be surprised to find that I question the widespread use by art teachers of the phrase “negative shapes” and of its equivalent, “negative spaces“. After explaining the reasons for the popularity of its use as a means of bypassing the problems due to familiarity, I argue that it has significant shortcomings. In the light of these, I suggest that there are alternatives which avoid its disadvantages without relinquishing any of its advantages. Perhaps more importantly, these provides better ways of using drawing from observation as a tool for discovering the unique characteristics of objects in the world around us.

CHAPTER 5 – NEGATIVE SHAPES

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Scientific revolution gives artists ideas

Five Scientists and a scientific revolution

Strictly speaking a scientific revolution cannot have either a starting point or and end point. It is always part of an ongoing process. However, two events provide milestone contributions to the scientific revolution in the understanding of visual perception that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was a lecture given by Gaspard Monge in 1789 . The second, the publication of a book by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1867. In between these two dates, various other scientists made key contributions to the science of visual perception. Three worth special mention were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Michel Eugène Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell.

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Cézanne falls short

A tiny bit of unpainted canvas

The portrait of Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne, now located in the Petit Palais in Paris, took one hundred and five intense, emotion packed sittings to produce. At first sight, it seems complete. But on closer inspection, we find that, even after all those hours of concentrated effort, there is a tiny patch of unpainted canvas, situated in the area where a knuckle should normally be.

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