In a Moment

Renaissance painters largely did Royal/High Society  portraits along with the obligatory religious work. It was important for the portraiture to look like the subject. However, there could be subtext either positive or negative in the clothes the subject was wearing, the accoutrements around them.  These send their own narrative out into the world.

The painter locked in the subject’s position, then worked from there. Now, with camera/photos, people expect, if the subject is leaning their head to the left, then paint it exactly that way.

I have often written about the relationship between artist & model and audience expectation. Another aspect which has changed is positioning.

I want my portraits to look like the subject and I include every little bit of minutia that I see, from a blemish to an about to fall off button. when not working from a live subject, I do not rigidly adhere though, to position offered up in the photo .

Once I did a commission, working from a photo. When I was done, it was the spitting image.

“Oh, my head had been tilted back slightly more in the photo.”

It had not been a flattering angle, chosen because it decreased a chin but increased nostrils as focal point. A strange argument to me, as angle aside, it looked just like her. Most people would never see both the photo and the portrait.

Not by way of excuse but as part of my usual modus operandi, I do sometimes slightly alter an angle. It is as if I am capturing the moment before or right after that in the photo. Depending upon the naturalness of the pose, at other times I do not alter a thing.

She took possession of the portrait. Upon hanging it in her home, she snapped at photo of it on the wall. At one of the fuller cocktail parties she faux-casually brought up her portrait. Wanting some justification for her initial cool reaction she had been eager to show a party goer or two  the photo I had worked from and the finished portrait both of which rested within her phone.

“Oh, that is great, it looks just like you, especially in the eyes!”

After a few more comments like this, she felt better. She put away the photos of twins, born a minute apart.

 

“Blue Pillow”

Watercolor & multi media paper 9×12

 

 

Left Bank

What makes for a good trip or proper travel is not checking off a list of places to see with their associated objects;

The Louvre, Mona Lisa….

It is absorbing the feel of a place, ambience of scents, sounds..In taking time to do this, one notices how others live their lives & what is important to them. It also allows for a deeper memory retention of the entire experience which then adds to the “you”. It is what is actually meant by “Travel broadens the mind”.

For artists there is even more of a potential benefit.

Every artists works & travels differently. I am always “working” regardless of where I am in the world. The only variation is what equipment I am utilizing. Short trips will find me leaving the paints at home, filling my coat pocket with my trusty pocket pads as I like to travel as light as possible and most likely would not have time anyways.

Any give place should effect an artist. Not in the most obvious way such as “I am in London, I painted Big Ben”.

It is ambient light, the lines of architecture, they become further accoutrements to the palette. It does not mean that one enters artistic phases ala Picasso and Cubism et al. Rather, work done in one place  does not look exactly as it appears back home. The artists voice is ever present but there are different components to the fore, mixed in with some of the more familiar.

If you have never been or only as part of a tour group, then every place in France is lumped in together. Despite some commonalities, each area is distinctive with their own cuisine and habits. It is the same with the ambient light.

Aix-en-Provence is all beautiful yellows punctuated by bursts of trees and the sounds of fountains. Lyon is soft pinks as if the buildings are made or at least coated with the delicate charcuterie which they are the masters of making. Paris in itself is diverse. From arrondissement to arrondissement, from the Left Bank to the Right .

People, myself included, proudly proclaim themselves of their side of the river and which number arrondissement.

I like even some of the seemingly “ugly” streets with their time worn dirty gray and fatigued creams. These areas tend to be where some of my artistic heroes lived, cheap rent and every third door a no nonsense bar having been the draw.

I like working with colored pencils on gray or brown paper. I limit my palette intentionally as a challenge to myself. Getting the effects that I want in this way makes it “easier” when using paints. Although I use mainly pinks, it is realistic in that in the real world there are seemingly limitless colors but go out on street  look at buildings and the street. On encounters a fairly limited palette.

These pinks, urban children of Fauvists, remind me of some parts of Paris. Not that this color is found there but it is same effect, translated in my minds eye. This little corner I continue to pass almost daily. It has been there forever and i do not think it ever had any straight lines about it.

I initially encountered it when staying at my first great apartment. It was en route to my groceries and favorite bars. Four floors, impossibly winding stairs that made you drag your shoulder against the wall as you ascended since the light was always broken. The biggest part of the place was the bathroom, with a large old tub, frosted glass windows which opened up onto a shadowy verdant courtyard with its cracked flagstones. I kept the primitive hi fi in the bathroom doorway since it was connected to the bedroom. Only music with a minimal of voices sounded good as it was a mono player. Mostly Zoot Sims duets and Lester Young trios.The neighbors would lean against their window boxes of geraniums smoking and slowly nodding their heads to the music. Dark silhouettes with one wavering orange eye-dot that would flare with inhalation.

Hard work and I was fortunate to be able to trade up apartments. I remained in my neighborhood just moving a few streets down. The building has become one of the visual shorthand for the deep affection that I hold for the every day in Paris and those first exciting years.

W.Wolfson ’19

Left Bank 9×12 colored paper and pencil

 

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Roman Senator’s Wife

I am reading Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida. Some of what he says of photography is equally true of current figurative painting.

Everyone has a phone which allows them to now capture the minutia of their daily lives. This has effected photography as even someone with no artistic inclinations can take a shot which is frame worthy given the right location. now we are witness to location porn or given the ease of snapping photos, luck of happening upon an interesting moment more than compelling individualized photographic voice. Digital photos have become akin to infinite monkey theorem albeit at an extremely accelerated rate.

With painting the negative impact is slightly different. Regardless of an artist’s style, people expect a type of hyper realism, being able to capture and document their lives with a pocket sized device instantly would make anything short of this, espcially when time consuming posing is involved, seem absurd or archaic at best.

To paraphrase Barthes on being the subject of a (portrait) photograph:

I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art.

While hyper realism bores me, I do aim for each work to capture the subject’s likeness. Not a disconnect but an unexpected effect sometimes occurs. The subject of a portrait has a definite image of themselves. The artist may notice something physically or psychologically that they do not see in themselves (or like).  The effect similar  to when one hears a recording of their voice. Few think it accurate.

Part of what Barthes has in mind, perception of oneself versus the relationship between artist and subject. With portraits, I want accuracy of portrayal but it has always been that it is the artist describing the subject using their words. Words in this case being the artist’s style/voice. I talk about you but I choose my own words to do so.

This is a 9×12 piece on French cotton paper. The inherent properties of the paper is a softness and delicacy of line.

 

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Two

I have a definite methodology to how I work. But on the road there are variations. This is an aspect of how I feel a location should subtly add its flavor to work being done (there). In the states, I do my hour or two of woodshedding at night, the end of my day.

In Paris the lighting is better to do it in the morning with my coffee.

Even in my stateside studio, different times of year present better hours to paint by, as I use natural light to do so. It takes anywhere from three days to a week to really nail down what hours to pick up the brush. I am lucky though, that there are some aspects of a piece that I can do in less than ideal lighting.

I do not go to museums every time I am in France, as I know that I will always be back. Sometimes all I need is the poetry of the streets to inspire.

There is the constant though, of chatting with my peers.

While here, a huge sale by a post-pop artist got us all talking. The question of “Is it art?”

Eventually we all got bored with gnashing our teeth and started discussing nudity in art and the conected social mores in North America.

There is a cyclical debate of what seperates art from eroticism (“dirty” or “porn” labels)

Some say it is merely a matter of intent. This is too simplistic and facilitates filling the room with devil’s advocates and semantics.

Of course,  intent is always important as proven by Duchamp, but a more reliable yardstick which also keeps in mind a modicum of rationality are the components and concept of the work.

A work can seduce or excite but is it doing so because a main componant is titillation? The same question can be asked of shock value. If a work happens to induce heat, then regardless of why, it can’t be “dirty”. Someone setting out first and foremost to excite makes it so that a different label may be appropriate to apply.

Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde comes to mind. It is graphic to some but beautiful, there is no question that it is art.

The first question being asked should never be “Is there nudity?” nor even necessarily “is it art?” but rather, “is it good ?”

Having to ask if it is art is sort of like  guestioning yourself if there has been too many drinks to safely drive home, it becomes almost besides the point.

I used my canson watercolor paper 140 lb. A thing which appeals to me about it is that it’s not temperamental, being effected by wet weather as the French cotton ones that I used to solely use was.

For photos of my work I am just using my phone and as the paper has little tooth, the photos (I never work any digital magic on pics) gives accurate gist of a piece.

Song & Bellissima 5.5 x 8.5 watercolor and paper

 

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Raspberry tart

Where a painter who eventually becomes famous worked/lived does not necessarily reflect their posthumous reputation.  This is because more often than not the factors in no particular order are location, price and availability.

Not apparent from the work with which he became known, Paris was very important at the start of painter Ellsworth Kelly’s career. Several years ago, address in hand, I hoofed it over to this first studio (which remains just an apartment, having probably passed through dozens of hands since he lived there).

It looked just like all the other apartments arround it, neither more spacious nor with better light.

This year having read Jed perl’s excellent book on Alexander Calder, I decided to take a look at where on of his studios was. Once again, it was the same thing with the added touch which I think he would have appreciated, of a Chinese restaurant below his place.

Most people, when they think of an artist’s studio are imagining a large space, perhaps with a skylight or two. Or at the very least something which will look suitably dramatic and cinemesque upon seeing it after the fact.

For every Cezanne studio museum, there is Kelly’s or calder’s.  This is because no artist is thinking in terms how it will look once they are famous and gone. Calder liked most of his Paris studios because they were an easy walk to the cafes he frequented and his friends, yet slightly set back as to avoid the noise keeping him up.

Kelly’s motivation  had been the even more pragmatic financial one.

Another aspect of the painter life which many give no conscious thought to is the personal visual lexicon. This ever growing vocabulary is made up of the intentional such as portraits but also the instinctual. This is the every day as encountered by the painter, not made dramatic but rather it’s beauty drawn out. Cezzanne’s apples, soutine’s elevator operator et al.

The painter is not bragging of the incredible life lived a la some instagrammer’s vacation or food photo. They are recording the every day encounter(s) whether it’s the view from a studio window or some utilized necessity such as hat or groceries waiting to be put away.

I had no ambitions towards this as I had been unaware of the phenomenon until I started practicing it. The concept of “draw/paint from the guts” doesn’t mean to viscerally go at it until some sort catharsis is achieved. This misconstrued point is more about conveying the true, the reality without over thinking it nor worrying about drama.

Now one of my greatest pleasure in life is capturing on paper some little thing as it is from my daily existence. As ever, serving the process has become the pay off to me.

This is my second Paris painting this year. A dessert I had meant to try for a while, which was delicious.

I used 5.5x 8.5 spiral bound canson watercolor  paper 140 lb. When i first started painting i used exspensive blocks of french cotton paper. This was initially my practice paper. Although the paper’s “voice” is inherently different, I have now long used it for fully realized pieces, espcially when traveling.

Raspberry tart

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Paris Painter

I have said time and again, for me truth is beauty. I am interested in the real, real bodies real emotions. Even and espcially those which seem counter to traditional ideas and portrayal of beauty.

This honesty has  always been the facilitators of the emotional resonance that is my raison d’etre for all my work.

By no means am I doing something new. From Lucien Freud and Jenny Saville back to Tintoretto and courbet, honest portrayal of people has been utilized to create a powerful, real beauty made even more so because of the seeming imperfections.  Proudly, I am merely adding my voice to the chorus.

Traditional beauty bores me except in the smallest doses. It’s akin to the frosting flower off of a cake. I’m not adverse to now and then taking a bite, but it’s sweetness has no true flavor.

The thought of using my work merely to shock or insult is anathema to me. I work too hard on my chops and conveying my philosophy for such things.

This is my first painting back in my Paris studio. Unintentionally approp as today is mothers day in North America.

It has been overcast. The sun would come out, then retreat like a shy friend, then blaze too bright to see the paper properly.

I had to go slow,  it ate into my record buying time, but I am pleased to the extreme with the results.

5.5x 8.5 watercolor and paper

Michelle

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Equipment

As much as I say & feel that I do not watch much television, being in Europe makes me start to suspect my assessment is a little off. This is reinforced by the amount of books that  I go through away from the states. Halfway through my Parisian residency I always need to restock my bedside pile.

There are certain publishers which one can not go wrong in choosing almost anything by them such as NYRB and Green Intenger. The same goes in non fiction  for certain authors. For art writing & biographies, it does not matter if you know or like the artists, anything by Jed Perl, Richard Ellman, Ross King and John Richardson is worth delving into.

To almost zero notice John Richardson passed away recently. He had become a gallerist, putting together some amazing Picasso shows, often in conjunction with the artist’s family. He wrote articles for such magazines as vanity fair. His earlier years he had sat at collector Douglas Cooper’s side, moving through (art) history, bearing witness to important events and also the behind the scenes dynamics. He wrote several fantastic books on this which shows the all too human side of great artists without ever lapsing into mere salacious gossip.

Perhaps the most important thing John Richardson did was the massive multi volume set on the life of Picasso. He was working on the fourth, final volume when he died. These volumes get into meticulous detail about the artist’s life, those around him and the times he lived in. Impressively, over the course of all the volumes Richardson manages to write without agenda, neither praising Picasso to the sky nor trying to tear him down. The artist as a talented yet imperfect man is presented.

Picasso is sometimes talked about as a magician for the protean way he seemed to conjure up new genres. He was mercurial in his ability to shift styles, often creating his own new ones before dropping them to birth a new phase. However, a point Richardson goes into and one which has become more public knowledge was that he did not spontaneously create from nothing. Picasso was a bit of a magpie. Direct contemporaries used to tell each other not to have works on display when he came to visit the studio or he would borrow ideas that he liked, making them his own. Many opted to turn unfinished canvas around to face the wall like an ill behaved child.

All artists wear masks out in public. Piccasso’s public persona was that of a sui generous, fully formed at birth. There is no disputing that the talent was there from the get go but like even the most individualized genius, he took from and was inspired by ideas from outside of himself. According to  him, all his then radical ideas which freed up generations of painters were solely of his invention. There seemed to be a feeling that he would be a lesser titan were sources to be cited. Oceanic art, Matisse et al were kept hidden ingredients in his recipe book.   Great trouble was taken on his part to hide or camouflage the sources not his own which he turned to gold.

To me, this always seemed oddly tragic as much time and energy was wasted on trying to cover up that which has become common knowledge. Even some of the poorer written biographies on Picasso now easily trace some of what ideas from others went into radically new and important works.

I am paraphrasing here but towards the end of the third volume it was said that he still possessed a virtuoso’s voice but with very little to say. I think part of this was that he was existing outside of the stream of life. The vitality of being in competition with his peers or if not that then at least among them at cafes, parties and studios serves as stimulation. Being surrounded by a crowd who hangs on your every word and who in one way or another are dependent upon you is not the same.  On the first flush of huge fame it was more important to him that he keep his secrets. After that, that he not be wrong, corrected or not the alpha.

By comparison, artists like Renoir, Matisse, Calder and Giacometti even once famous and older, would make it a point to still put in appearances  at cafes and studios to see what was new with the upcoming generations while chatting of their latest works.

All this inspired me. I would never waste any time nor effort in being secretive. If someone created an effect in one of their works which I do not know how to do, unashamed, I will ask “how?”. If anyone asks me about what equipment I use/used on a piece, i will gladly tel them.  Much to my surprise, not all my peers are like this. Asking a slightly older painter how she achieved an effect, what she had used, I received a curt “watercolors”. When I politely asked for specifics it became clear she did not want to tell me. This is absurd as two people can have same recipe and ingredients yet when the dish is made they will be different from one another.

We should all feel free to ask away as none of us are Picasso.

When back in Europe I always have my painting kit & my sketch kit. Over the years the painting one is largely unchanged. A few colors added, a few taken out of the palette. My sketching kit is ever in flux. The Blackwing pencil & Kuro Toga .5 MM pencil being the two constants.

 

2019 Sketch Kit for the Road:

(Left to right )

Sharpener, .5 MM Kuro Toga, Staedler 2MM Lead Clutch, blender, two writing pen refills Waterman & Parker) Tombow Mono Zero eraser, two sided Faber Castell Lead extender, BlackWing Palomino w/Blackinwing Point Cap, Faber Castell 2B pencil w/Blackwing Point Cap, Faber Castell 7B w/Blackwing Point Cap, Staedler Eraser, two blenders Faber Castell HB Pencil, gum eraser, 2x 5MM Pentel  Lead refills 4B & 2B, Pad of Sandpiper to custom hone Lead Clutch point, Rubber eraser (bottom)

 

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