On beginning at the beginning

Velázquez

The Rokeby Venus (1648-51), by Velázquez

The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, has put on a remarkable Velázquez show that has afforded me a much deeper understanding of this Spanish heavyweight. I know that painters are supposed to adore him by default, but despite the Queensland Art Gallery’s efforts a few years ago, I have come quite late to this party. I stand by the view that it’s best to keep quiet about things you don’t understand, and to take as long as you need to come to terms with something on your own. You don’t have to fake it!

Natürlich, the former imperial seat of Vienna has much cultural clout and is presumably more trustworthy around nice things than that convict island somewhere well across the seas, such that the Prado, Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie and London’s National Gallery among many others across the world have graciously loaned some seriously significant works to our fair city and her already impressive stock of Velázquezes, making for an achingly spectacular exhibition.

Gloriette, Wien

Gloriette, Wien

One might lament that a roughly chronological exhibition is somewhat unimaginative, but the progression rather wonderfully traces Velázquez’s artistic growth. Each dimmed and solemn room is a cluster of works from distinctive times and places in the painter’s life, a fact that is obvious without needing reference to a guide book or captions. The first room is respectfully darkened, its rich wine-red walls closing in on you, that woody, furniture-polish scent of the Kunsthistorisches filling the air like incense. A serious reverence hushes this room, which is hung with saints and peasants: Velázquez’s earliest works from his native Seville. These paintings feel as if they emerged from the hot earth itself: warm and deep oranges and browns, as earthy as one imagines Spain to be. The saints sit steadfastly in their voluminous, course robes, complex godly thoughts straining their faces, their gnarled hands like roots from the ground, painted with love and precision. Sweet and lavishly-coloured egg-shaped Marys look down graciously from turbulent clouds, stars lacing their heads, and their hands gracefully prayerful. The painterly precision of these paintings is delicious.

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The three musicians (1617-18), by Velázquez

But the most heart-warming picture is the Three musicians (1617-18), who normally live in Berlin, painted when Velázquez was only eighteen years old. One hears Velázquez bursting, like his compatriot Dalí many centuries later, ‘Hurry up and grow old—you are horribly “green,” horribly “bitter.” How, before I reached maturity, could I rid myself of that dreamy and puerile infirmity of adolescence?’ This painting has the colouring of his other Seville paintings, and even the same sort of characters. His understanding of light and shade is solid, and his composition is far more daring than a youthful still life, with extremely satisfying design elements like the sure sweep through the boy’s downturned hand. The perspective through the instruments is endearingly skewed, but otherwise it is difficult to fault his execution. Yet Velázquez is not yet himself, and in but a few short years, at the nearby Waterseller of Seville (1622), we are treated to such an advancement in modelling, in tonal and pictorial hierarchy, in the treatment of texture, and in the pronounced fullness of forms, that we must be aware that we are in the presence of greatness. And this is only the beginning. For the lesson of Velázquez is that one can always learn, and always advance, and each mastery of a skill attained only opens the door to more powerful abilities to be learned. But the importance of chronology to this exhibition (at least to the painter student) is this: one cannot start at the end, with the effortless and airy brushstrokes of the Rokeby Venus (1648-51). This is an advanced level of fluency with paint, not a careless ‘style’. And we can appreciate this when we see Velázquez’s humble and determined origins, wrestling with the muddy pigments of Seville.

Velázquez

The Waterseller of Seville (1622), by Velázquez

You leave this room through an antechamber with one painting to each side and one before you. These pictures mark an important transition for Velázquez, as the one to your right, a portrait of the distinguished and well-connected Don Luis de Góngora (1622), brought him enough acclaim at the budding age of twenty-four to have him invited to paint a portrait of the King. The humble and elegant Portrait of King Philip IV (1623-4) lies to your left: cropped below the shoulders, as is the Don, and strikingly lit richly coloured flesh is set against caramel backgrounds. Their faces are deliberately planar and hard-edged, everything carefully placed where it ought to be, as though a mark of respect. The king’s hair is one delightful smooth-gelled mass, its rippling but singular volume indicating Velázquez’s sculptural way of conceiving of feathery masses—an early insight into his later facility with wafting hair and explosive lace. In his mind, one suspects, he always saw such indistinct surfaces as full and voluminous forms, whatever his increasingly competent brushwork deceives us into thinking.

Velázquez

Portrait of King Philip IV (1623-4), by Velázquez

King Philip IV was also duly pleased with his Elvis quiff, for he promptly hired Velázquez as court painter and refused to be painted by anyone else. On our way to the dramatic and high-ceilinged Baroque hall of court paintings, we are treated to some luscious larger portraits which begin to exude a confident and expert softness of paint, as though they melted right off the brush. Portrait of a lady (1630-33), pinched from Berlin, and Portrait of Juan Mateus (1632) are stunningly mature works. Juan Mateus’s sharp, black irises peer out of a roughened face. Every lump and pucker is attended to, the heavy bags under his eyes, but with a new delicacy of edge. A haze up close, the features are true and distinct from afar, because Velázquez’s softer mode of painting is not a shortcut or a cover up of a lack of knowledge. Rather, his earlier deliberate work has, over many years, formed a solid foundation for freer movement. His hands begin to catch up with the fleeting impressions that kiss his eyes because he knows what structures lie beneath them. These pictures still carry the warm earthy tones of his saint pictures, the lively flesh set against honeyed caramels, and an elegance of design despite the focus on the faces. There is much use of the space around the figures, and the large and bulging egg-shapes of the bodies are accentuated with arm gestures and clothing embellishments—a happy union of form and design. The woman’s sumptuous dress is faithfully embroidered, her pearls individually rendered, but all lavishness is tastefully subordinated to the greater picture.

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Portrait of a lady (1630-33), by Velázquez

Vienna has surpassed herself: we enter the grand hall decked with court paintings and realise that this entire exhibition serves to showcase her already impressive collection of Velázquez paintings, accumulated through years of intermarriage between Austrian and Spanish royalty. Better than a postcard: receive a yearly larger-than-life painting of your betrothed throughout her childhood and see how that rosebud is blossoming. The absurdity and glamour of court life takes a firm hold of Velázquez and we see him transform yet further: The tiny Margaritas sparkle in their shimmering dresses; the pearlescent and grotesque inbred faces of sickly royalty give him new forms, new shapes and new textures to adapt his well-trained skills to. Parachute skirts and elaborately piled hair fare well under his sense for design. Now Velázquez is such a sure painter that he implies as much as he describes. The complex pattern of Queen Mariana’s light red dress (1651-61) is reduced to a brisker grey and red contrast of shapes that offset to produce a shimmering pink and silver. And, of course, Vienna’s starlet, The Infanta Margarita Teresa in a blue dress (1659), famously shimmers at a distance, though up close her dress seems but a careless spattering of blues, of dull grey and neutral yellow. The liveliness of this painting and the sureness of touch become quite clear when it is hung next to a copy, as it cleverly is here. Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo’s green dress variation (1659) fails to translate the illusion-generating contrasts into green and gold. Worse, his fast and loose brushstrokes don’t hang from a knowledgeable scaffolding: mashing on some white fuzz where lace ruffles ought to be does not begin to approach Velázquez’s light touch that actually indicates a full structure.

Velázquez

The Infanta Margarita Teresa in a blue dress (1659), by Velázquez

More corridors bring us to the finale, a room packed with deftly-executed works, many as humble as the earliest, though bursting with the vigour of experience. Velázquez is not consumed by the grand regal images, but brings his evolved powers afresh to small, dignified portraits and allegorical pictures. Several dashing moustachioed Spaniards, their pencil-thin moustaches all pointing towards heaven and no doubt goading Dalí to painterly greatness, use all of his accumulated knowledge in a stripped-back, elegant manner. Portrait of a man (self portrait?) (c. 1630) boasts a daringly rough edge sweeping down the side of the thinly painted black coat. The audacity of this gorgeous mark is enough to make a painter tingle. The nebulous cloud of hair floats thick but weightless about Velázquez’s brow, and a subtle twinkle plays in his quietly thoughtful eyes.

Velázquez

Portrait of a man (self portrait?) (c. 1630), by Velázquez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A small, near-square Female figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa) (1648) is equally limited in colour, and the sibyl is draped in simple cloth, but this picture is wonderfully composed. Her gorgeous profile is in shadow, but her rosy cheeks glow fiercely; the background quietly supports her, making a dramatic but somehow unobtrusive change from dark—behind her light hair—to light—behind her shadowy face. The sibyl herself is full and round like a Rubens figure, and the arcs through her body and clothing and arms enclose her in a deliberate though unselfconscious design.

Copy after Velázquez

Copy after Velázquez, female figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa)

And, unless you began the show at the end (as did I, breathlessly storming the marble staircase of the Kunsthistorisches after too many months away), you will at last come face to face with the infamous Rokeby Venus (1648-51), who stares blithely back at you through a dimmed mirror right above her achingly lovely behind, which you had hoped to appreciate unnoticed. I’ve heard her lauded as ‘the finest nude;’ Kenneth Clark (1985: 141) registers her importance by including her as the first picture in his comprehensive book on The nude, though only describes her as ‘dispassionate.’ And what shall I say of her? That the silks and satins, breathily painted, must be intentionally course to dazzle us by how perfectly fleshy that pale and luminous figure is? That Velázquez is a master of subtlety? The quietness of the pink, blue and white is in remarkable contrast to the sizzling red-oranges of Seville and the fanfare of colour of the court. This painting is a mystery to me, a surprising anomaly in Velázquez’s oeuvre. Perhaps its brilliance lies in his ability to bring a lifetime of learning to this age-old subject and treat it with fresh delicacy and empathy. For Velázquez could not even paint a nude without regard for her thoughts, reflected back at us in her defiant face, just as his brush illuminated peasants, saints, kings and princesses and dwarves with equal dignity.

Velázquez

Rokeby Venus (1648-51), by Velázquez

And so, in mastering our craft, we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves and try to start at the end. For our humble beginnings are cementing the foundation for our careers, for our entire lives. And whether we paint peasants or royalty, clay pots or pearls, our brush should focus with devotion on the excitement of the visual, on the possibilities of paint. The painter makes no moral judgements, but casts her levelling eye over all humanity and finds its dignity through the language she knows: the language of shapes and forms and colours. And in the end, it is all made of earth.

 

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

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Positive learning

Kaffeehaus

The pace of Vienna immediately imposes itself on me: after the bustle of travel, of train connections and ever-changing beds, Vienna lures me into Kaffeehäuser and time drifts to a standstill. Vienna invites you to think, to take time, guilt free. Our ideas can’t settle in a frenzy of activity, and to return to Vienna means to luxuriate in slow days—enforced late starts, inattentive waiters and friends hungry for deep conversations late into the night. Overwhelmed at the scheming ahead of me, the plans and hopeful ideas, Vienna has lulled me into an unworried place and whispered, ‘Kein Stress; collect your thoughts.’

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

And yet, I’ve kept my hands and mind well-occupied. Shortly after my return, my painter friend Philip arranged a week-long pose with a model. This was an excellent chance to test some of my recent thoughts on memory. During this week I thought a lot about two contrasting modes of learning, which I came to think of as positive and negative learning. Many of my peers in Vienna lack, and desperately crave, a teacher—as do I. Yet our approaches to commandeering our own learning are like night and day. I sat down in the weeks before and wrote myself a plan. I decided what to investigate, how I would go about it, how I would limit myself, and how I would test myself. I set something clear to aim at, and prepared myself to achieve it. I saw that my studio colleagues, meanwhile, were seeking to improve themselves largely by inviting criticism and adapting their work accordingly. The trouble is that everyone has an opinion and these haphazard offhand comments are unlikely to resolve themselves into a harmonious picture.

Oberes Belvedere, Wien

Oberes Belvedere, Wien

I appreciated anew the generosity of my teachers Scott and Ryan in Brisbane, who teach in a giving, positive way. Rather than waiting for me to fail and knocking me down, they set me a fresh task each class and helped me concentrate on achieving it. And they taught me how to make my way without their instruction; how to set and evaluate my own tasks. Outside criticism might be useful to a point, but largely irrelevant if the bestower of criticism is ignorant of my goal. And, in my experience, willing critics do not consider even asking what you might be trying to achieve.

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

Schloß Schönbrunn, Wien

So, this being my second ever full-figure painting from life, I decided to concentrate on three things: translating the fluidity of drawing into paint, consolidating some anatomy, and testing my memory. I did not intend to make a charming finished picture, or a genuine portrait, or to get too lost in colour. While all of these things would be nice, I would at best consider them happy by-products, and not let them carry me away from my focus. If the colour lacked life, so be it. The drawing must have life, and I must find a way to energise the paint with it, and not let the paint stiffen my drawing. Part of this would be to not be afraid of painting over the drawing, but to trust myself to be able to redraw, and redraw better, knowing I was ever more familiar with the subject. And anatomy, of course, is always a challenge to locate under the skin of a real and wholly individual model. Memory would permeate this as well, as I would be forced to recall what I knew as I tried to locate it. And hopefully the finding of it would cement it further in my memory.

Nude2

To orient myself, I brought in a large pad on the first day and set to work making a detailed drawing. I went slowly and lightly, at first feeling for the gesture of the pose, feeling the cramp through the hunched torso, the stretch through the extended leg. I found myself excellently situated in a spot with almost full-light, able to see every muscle which was turned towards me, and to concentrate on the anatomy and the forms. I spent two days on this drawing, modelling it with fine hatching. In between, at home, I had my anatomy book out and made little practice sketches of the pose, searching out the probable locations of the muscles I had identified in the book, to compare with the model later, or trying to identify unknown lumps I had observed in the surface of the model’s skin.

Classic3

When I returned on day three with my freshly-stretched linen towering above me, the figure was so ingrained in my mind that I quickly and freely drew him up directly in paint in the first session. The rest of the day was spent carefully observing colours and tonal relationships and blocking in as much colour as I could. I decided to keep the contrast softer. I worked simply, with one mix for light and one for shade for each colour.

Classic4

The next day I went in more firmly with the shadows, and spent some time fitting them within the context. By the fifth day, things were getting serious: making decisions about the flesh, how to colour it, how to model it, and how to make it lively. I was given all sorts of advice about contrast, about whacking in some arbitrary blue bits, about how dull and flat my figure looked. But I persevered. I had a plan, after all. By the end of this day, I was satisfied that my figure felt full and that he expanded into a three-dimensional space, and that I could explain all of the ridges and swellings. No lies here.

‘But this has nothing to do with erratic, ‘skilful’ negligence or any alibi for covering up what has not been resolved. The perception-related attributes of this activity go together with the ability to filter out and select anything not immediately essential to the fundamental realisation of subjects and ideas.’ (Bammes, p. 240).

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Classic6

Having worked very broadly up until this point, and ever keeping the construction of the body at the fore of my mind, I was now at liberty to refine my picture. I only adjusted things in small ways, trusting my earlier and hard-won decisions. Clark (p. 133) would approve: ‘The average student cannot make a success of this procedure because accident is more attractive than substance. He seizes upon tricks of style, and overlooks essential structure.’ I introduced more pink at the extremities, mixed more neutral colours for the furthest limbs, and set a point at which the light fell the strongest on him to work out from.

Classic7

Suddenly our seven days were up, and I had to cart this guy, still wet, home on the U-Bahn and through the fog, via another life drawing session. I set him up in my own studio and worked a couple more days. Seeing him in natural light was extremely helpful. I was pleased at having thought everything through systematically, for my decisions held up under a different light. At home I worked from my drawing. I had already paid such close attention to the hands, feet and face that the simplified planes I had established in paint were readily transformed into fingers and toes and features.

Classic8

 

Ash

Ash

But then—the test! Not only had I intended to consolidate some anatomy, and translate drawing into paint, I wanted to use this week to push my memory. Ryan had boasted that he could redraw entire drawings from memory if he had been working on them long enough. Incredulous, I was determined to do the same. And so, at my desk, with my painting turned to face the wall and my original drawing tucked away, I set about redrawing him. And really—I had been staring at one man seated in one pose for a week; if I couldn’t recall him then I could not have been so attentive. The pose came out easily, but the more I got into specifics, the more difficult it got. In general terms, I remembered where muscles belonged and where they should go, but not necessarily how limbs overlapped. The gaps that were revealed—the squashed chest, for example—showed up things I could guiltily admit to not understanding so clearly, like how the pectoralis and the deltoid meet.

Drawing from memory

Drawing from memory

It became clear that few of my fellows enter such a scenario with a clear idea of what they will investigate. They are desperate to learn, but not purposefully approaching their learning, or taking charge of it. Their strategy was, rather, to rely on the critique of others, and as such they seemed disproportionately eager to dole out criticism. Their defensive drawing and painting strategy makes for a wholly negative learning experience—draw, fail, and be corrected.

Volksgarten, Wien

Volksgarten, Wien

 

I realised how fortunate I’ve been to receive a great deal of positive teaching. My teachers have long since instilled in me the approach of dreaming up a challenge, a strategy, and working toward it. It is focused and limited. To muddle me and burden me with anatomy corrections far too advanced for me would only have distracted and discouraged me. Instead, they always kindly directed me towards something, and made their generous corrections in sympathy with this goal. And, perhaps most importantly, they taught me that I didn’t need them to set tasks for me. They taught me how to set my own tasks.

Musikverein, Wien

Musikverein, Wien

 

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

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Der schönste Beruf

Minotaurus © Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Minotaurus © 2011 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Ryan and I had the great fortune to meet and talk with the formidable painter Ruprecht von Kaufmann while in Berlin. This man has made a mighty impression on me and his simultaneous humility and aloofness have set a firm example for my own painterly pursuits. His whole being exudes a reverence for his profession; his quiet manner seethes with indignant contempt for the expected mode of operation of the artist. Painting is his only master, and he has humbly followed where its dictates have led, never turned aside by the suggestions, temptations and despairing rejections of those who have sought to drive the direction of painting. Von Kaufmann is a true artist, as the word ought to be used: skilled, inventive, searching and single-mindedly devoted to his task—by the labour of his hands he brings objects into the world which embody his wordless thoughts.

Der Schimmelreiter © Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Der Schimmelreiter © 2007 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Von Kaufmann’s integrity as a painter is rooted in a profound respect for and love of painting itself. Artists, far from being diligent and talented artisans, are generally expected to think at great length about themselves and then string found objects together in shocking ways (or at least arrange them in rows). Yet von Kaufmann’s quiet dedication to painting shows that he cares not for the title of ‘artist’ but for the quality of the work, and finds great satisfaction in the production of it. He diligently works with his hands and raises a family as any other respectably employed person might. In an immersive video in which he presents his work to the students of Laguna College of Art and Design in California, he says so artlessly and truthfully of being a painter: ‘It’s one of the most beautiful professions that I could possibly imagine to be in.’ This sweet and simple statement has stayed in my mind. The more I look at his work, the more I realise that this sentiment is at the heart of it.

Der Schiffbruch mit Wolf (detail) © Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Der Schiffbruch mit Wolf (detail) © 2012 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Von Kaufmann’s delight in the substance of paint is evident in his lascivious handling of it: the thick and gutsy paint is an absolute pleasure to the eyes. He has long been conscious that the visual artist works in physical media, and speaks of his growing awareness of ‘the idea that a painting is an object.’ At first this meant that his paint grew thicker and more audacious, boldly making itself known within the image. And with time it provoked him to challenge his substrate, leading to experiments with painting on rubber and felt, with gashes in the surface, with questioning the most desirable viewpoint, and with merging painting and installation (though, notably, never abandoning painting). It drove him to adopt wax as a medium for pigment, rather than linseed oil, to give a satin glow and a cloudy transparency to the generous lathering of paint. The earthy physicality of painting remains ever at the fore in von Kaufmann’s work, and I think we would do well to seize upon the sensuous strength of paint even if others fashionably abandon it for every material but.

Mittsommer (detail) © Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Mittsommer (detail) © 2010 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since von Kaufmann’s work is heavily imaginative, reference material can only serve him so far. His strong representational training as a painter is thus reinforced by memory, driven by a genuine fascination with the visual. Again and again he refers to memory, and it becomes clear that he has devoted a large part of his working time to internalising his observations. Small studies, lovely as stand-alone still lives, were born as a means of his absorbing sights. And even apart from these studies, his intersection with the physical world is one of curiosity and deliberate observation:

‘When I see things that I know that interest me and that I want to use in a painting, I look at them very consciously, trying to break them down into the most simple thing that would allow me to memorise how to put that into a painting and how to represent that.’

Painting from memory allows him a vast amount of freedom, and he relishes his early discovery that ‘you can tell people a lot of lies visually.’ But his irreproachable draughtsmanship is ever the firm scaffolding for these imaginative constructions.

Kreuz © Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Kreuz © 2009 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Von Kaufmann’s investigations lead him down rabbit holes that make him difficult to categorise, and thus difficult to brand and market. And this is extremely admirable. The difficulty he presents to galleries and collectors is precisely what establishes him as a creative innovator. The market thinks in terms of contained packages fit for profit, making projections based on trends. But a person of real genius concocts something entirely new as if from nowhere. As we wouldn’t expect our favourite bands to churn out the same predictable album every year, but (as true fans) we grow with the band and delight in their growth as artists, there is a real satisfaction in seeing a painter boldly stretch and grow with a searching honesty.

Leap of faith © Ruprecht von Kaufmann

Leap of faith © 2009 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

His quiet disregard for expectations is fortifying:

‘For one thing, I don’t really care. … It seemed pretty clear to me from the get-go that I was never going to have any museum shows or any broader art world acceptance anyway, that this was purely a niche thing.’

Not deliberately shocking, but rather true to his profession, von Kaufmann perseveres on his own path, treading where he must. Collectors may not appreciate the dramatic shifts in his work, gallerists might not consider him a safe investment; these are but small obstacles on the road to being the best painter you can be.

The Pawning © 2010 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

The Pawning (detail) © 2010 Ruprecht von Kaufmann

And this is the heart of it: von Kaufmann knows himself to be a painter. He understands that his work is physical and visual. He knows that he stores memories in his body, and he uses them to weave visual thoughts into objects. Not strictly pouring out narratives, but using subtle narrative cues, he builds counterfactual worlds dense with mood rather than with symbolism. Trained by his sight, he is liberated by invention, able to ‘tweak everything to just fit the composition and the mood you want to set.’ His impressively trained memory enables fluency with his visual language: ‘I actually love, as a drawing medium, on a beautifully prepared canvas, to work with the brush and oil paint. It’s a beautiful way to draw that’s a lot freer.’ Might this sheer love of and reverence for painting well up in our own defiantly intelligent brushstrokes as they do his. We are fortunate to have, after all, one of the most beautiful professions imaginable.

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Memory

Drawing

The more I work, the more I realise how crucial a tool memory is to the painter. In circles of representational painters, it is a point of pride to paint from life rather than from photographs, and yet this reliance on what is physically before us is of course imaginatively limiting. If our ultimate goal is to so master our super-power that we can uninhibitedly create boundless worlds through our brush, a competence with copying arrangements before our eyes will not be enough. It is simply a step on the way to omnipotence.

Computer time

Our language is visual, and working from life allows us, if you will, to build our visual vocabulary. It forces us to slow down, pay attention, and battle through each problem of light, volume and texture, of colour relationships, of atmosphere, of design. It demands that we are wholly present and alert to the very substances of the physical world: we must pry into the construction of things in a way that word-languages do not. Where our word-brain is content to recognise a chair by ‘some legs and a horizontal bit and sometimes a back,’ our visual-brain needs more information. It notes the turned legs, the crossbars, the torn padding, the ridges, the carvings. But to simply note down these specifics is little more than dictation. Our still lives, if driven by an effort to remember, can serve us more than the image we are currently creating. Draw that chair, paint that chair, and attempt to own it forever.

Sleep time

Much of this remembering is physical, in our bodies, learned through motions and repetition. The artist can achieve astounding facility in drawing by nurturing a muscular memory that is not consciously directed by thought. And so, it is not enough to draw; one must redraw. There is no brilliance in fluking a great image, or in transferring a lucky design and colouring the shapes. Repetition cements what we have seen, both in our minds and in our hands. We do well to draw again with greater understanding, greater confidence, a better feel for the image. Through repetition we fuse part of the physicality of an image into our bodies, we store it in the movement of our arms and wrists.

Tiny hands1

I have started to think of my learning in terms of developing multiple selves, concurrently. This might be as crazy and complicated as it sounds. But it becomes more and more evident that progress in drawing and painting is not strictly linear. Drawing, for example, is not simply the precursor to painting, though solid draughtsmanship is unendingly helpful in painting. For even once we apply our drawing skills to painting, we can continue to improve our drawing. I imagine three selves with three fundamentally different approaches, each supporting and reinforcing the other.

Tiny hands3

The first self is very literal and rooted in the physical world. She first comes at drawing and painting by observation, and makes great progress with the model or the still life before her. She comes to know what to look for and how to notate it. The external world offers her an abundance of information, stimulus, truths and complexities. Rubens himself was one such dedicated student (Clark, 1985: 133):

‘Rubens copied everything which could conceivably add to his already overflowing resources. For the nude his models were, of course, the Antique, Michelangelo and Marcantonio. Titian he copied for his colour, but altered his form… he drew from the Antique and copied from his predecessors till certain ideals of formal completeness were absolutely fixed in his mind.’

If we neglect this observational self, our visual store is weak and our vocabulary shamefully sparse. All the clever ideas in the world will not make up for our appalling inability to express them visually. Yet the element of memory remains crucial. Ideally, we are not only repeating what we see, but repeating it in order to remember it, so that later we can work from our vast store without needing a model, a chair, a light-source before us. Delacroix (p. 208-9) insists, ‘The only painters who really benefit by consulting a model are those who can produce their effect without one.’

Copy after Titian, Girl in a fur

Copy after Titian, Girl in a fur

The second self turns away from the physical world and creates her own, from memory. She is the test of how much we have really internalised. And yet, frustratingly, she starts out almost as frail and helpless as the first did. She draws infuriatingly badly, makes stupid mistakes, forgets seemingly obvious bits of anatomy, and generally lags painfully behind. For this reason it can be easier to smugly rely on our observational self to keep producing lovely pictures. But without abandoning our observational habits, we can also begin to nurture this little self and watch her drawings improve and find to our utter delight that she only strengthens our memory.

Tiny hands4

A wonderfully modest yet accomplished Berlin painter who demonstrates how powerful such training can be is Ruprecht von Kaufmann. There is a lovely video of a talk he gives to some American students, during which he is repeatedly asked about his ability to paint from memory. They incredulously inquire after his reference material, bewildered at a convincing and detailed chair. ‘Oh yeah,’ von Kaufmann explains off-handedly, ‘the couch is really a rip-off, because one of my most favourite artists is Lucien Freud and he has leather couches like that often in his paintings, so … I sort of looked at how he did it and then translated it into my own way of painting.’

Copy after Raphael

Copy after Raphael

The observational self thus never leaves us; never dissolves or transforms into the imaginative self. Rather, she continues to turn her eyes afresh on the physical world, unrelentingly fascinated. And having trained her memory so well, she might not even need a pencil to own new observations, as von Kaufmann further explains:

‘When I see things that I know that interest me and that I want to use in a painting, I look at them very consciously, trying to break them down into the most simple thing that would allow me to memorise how to put that into a painting and how to represent that.’

And not only can we learn to recreate observations from memory, but, as in the case of Rubens, our observations can be ordered by our imaginative intentions, as Clark (1985: 133) describes. ‘The more we study [Rubens’ nudes] the more we discover them to be under control.’ Once the aforementioned ‘ideals of formal completeness were absolutely fixed in his mind,’ when he approached nature he ‘instinctively subordinated the observed facts to the patterns established in his imagination’ (1985: 133).

Tiny hands2

And far off in the distance I begin to detect a future self who, supported by her sisters and their razor-sharp memory, no longer needs to prepare with repetition, with fully-resolved studies either from life or from imagination. This self will have such a fount of sure and reliable knowledge, such a fluency with weaving her visual vocabulary into intelligent images, that she will be able to work directly onto the canvas. Her ideas will be well-formed enough in her head, and the movements of her wrist so well tuned to her thoughts that she will be bold enough to investigate in the final medium. And though I’ve no doubt she will struggle as the first, and begin weakly and uncertainly, she will grow in power as she trains her ability to imagine and realise a work.

My most pressing challenge on the way to painterly enlightenment is thus to develop my memory in terms of these differently-focused selves. My recent projects have involved a great deal of memory-exertion, and I will share these with you soon. To be a fully-abled painter of the calibre of Michelangelo depends on ‘a confluence of mental activities, calculation, idealisation, scientific knowledge and sheer ocular precision’ (Clark 1985: 57-8). The burden, then, is on us to look, to really see, and to remember.

Copy after Franz Hals, Catharina Hooft, Berlin

Copy after Franz Hals, Catharina Hooft, Berlin

 

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

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