Farbe

Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

If I could kindle your enthusiasm about just one thing, it would be paint. If I use overly impassioned language when describing paintings, it’s not to be floridly arty—it’s not to transfigure paintings into words, and thus do away with the picture. I only want to show you how to be caught up in what you see, to guide you with a language you already understand. I want to show you a way in, and expose my own thoughts so you might feel confident in your own.

I feel so strongly about the physicality of painting. Every day I paint, and far from confining itself to a neat, two-dimensional substrate, paint subdivides and multiplies and sticks to everything. In my haste I smear it on my hands, I lean into it and get it on my clothes. The stuff has a mind of its own; like amoebic eighties horror film monsters it exists in three-dimensional space. With patience and determination, the painter tames it and uses it to describe something. This is why much contemporary painting disappoints me so much. Paint has lost its body. It has become a hesitant filler. It is so often reduced to a broad medium for covering an expanse in sloppy colour, as though with the click of the fill-bucket button.

Kunst Handwerk

My eyes are ravaged by it everywhere: just enough paint is used to block in a shape, a thin scratchy film, cheap bleached white canvas and its prickly texture shouting through it, proclaiming its cheapness. No wonder painting is so unpopular, when cheap paint smeared thin as vegemite across cheap canvases presents such a shamelessly insipid surface.

Daffodil

Robert Nelson cautions against the ‘fetishisation of paint,’ but a little over-enthusiasm might be needed to correct this scourge of painterly apathy. Painting can be more than colouring-in: paint, as German so poetically (in its beautifully literal way) reminds us, is farbe—it is colour itself. Nelson (2010: 39) argues, ‘Paint as colour is less interesting than colour as paint, because paint gives to the very concept of colour a willfully mutating character.’ Rather than thinking of paint as the filler that wedges between the lines of your drawing, you might embrace paint as ‘mobilised colour’ (2010: 42).

Yellow

Yes! Far from stretching like a skin over empty space, paint—embodied colour—can sprout from a surface, can clamber over itself, undulate, amalgamate. Colour as paint is nothing like a grid of pixels, an expanse with no depth. Paint allows us to move colour around almost as if it were clay. Of course, we are still constructing a two-dimensional illusion, and I am not arguing that one ought to paint in relief. But we ought not forget that we have a real substance in our hands and that its expressive properties are every bit as physical and substantial as clay. This is our advantage, as painters, over digital painting and photography. The quickening of our surface is what sets us apart from our sister arts. And it is the reason paintings need to be seen in the flesh, and why their pixelated reduction to disembodied colour is so dissatisfying.

Blossoms

John Dewey draws an interesting comparison between physics and the arts which perhaps makes a good analogy for Nelson’s conception of ‘mobilised colour.’ Nelson describes paint by way of its fluid application rather than by its dried and polished result. ‘Paint,’ he writes (2010: 39), ‘which first arrives on the palette in distinct colours, is nevertheless contrived in analogous viscosities so that each colour slips into its neighbouring colour and becomes another colour entirely (or other colours, prolifically mutating), often imperfectly dragging two or more discrete colours into a kind of staggered spectral section.’ For the artist, paint exists not only as a clever arrangement of colours, but it exists as colours struggling with each other in time, dancing about each other, harmonising, violating each other. Paint exists as colour-in-application: as colour in time. And this is Dewey’s contention: we are misled when we separate space from time in the arts, just as physicists were forced to wrap their heads around the concept of space-time. ‘For the extension and volume of an object, its spatial properties cannot be directly experienced—or perceived—in a mathematical instant,’ he (1934: 183) explains, ‘nor can temporal properties of events be experienced save as some energy displays itself in an extensive way.’

Physics roof

Vienna

 

None is more conscious of this than the artist herself, and it is something I am eager to convey to people who like to look at paintings. Perhaps it is something people make some attempt to come to terms with when they ask such questions as, ‘how long did this take to paint?’ But rather than quantifying a painting (and probably attempting to see if the price matches the labour), recognising the marriage of time and space in painting will bring a richness of understanding to a picture. A colour spans some distance. But paint, pulled by the vigorous action of a stroke and grooved with the bristles of the brush, is distance over time.

v = d/t

Dewey elaborates (1934: 183-4):

‘The separation of temporal and spatial in the fine arts was always inept. As Croce has said, we are specifically (or separately) conscious of temporal sequence in music and poetry, and of spatial co-existence in architecture and painting, only when we pass from perception to analytic reflection. The supposition that we directly hear musical tones to be in time and directly see colours as being in space, reads into an immediate experience a later interpretation of it due to reflection. We see intervals and directions in pictures and we hear distances and volumes in music. If movement alone were perceived in music and rest alone in painting, music would be wholly without structure and pictures nothing but dry bones. …

Any section of the music and any cross-section of it has precisely the balance and symmetry, in chords and harmonies, as a painting, statue or building. A melody is a chord deployed in time.’

In fact, Dewey insinuates, we sort of already experience the arts as both temporal and spatial. It is only when we try to describe them that we build these artificial distinctions. The painter knows it when she drags a loaded brush across a canvas, and the pianist knows it when he visualises a chord as the shape of his hand or as a numerically arranged hieroglyph on a stave. And the viewer and the listener taste it when they are absorbed into the aesthetic experience, or else something likely rings false to them.

Belvedere storm

Belvedere, Vienna

 

Perhaps, then, trusty English has something to offer us that German cannot. For the word ‘painting’ describes a process, a happening, an event. And this is Nelson’s (2010: 40) point, which clarifies Dewey’s: ‘The medium intrinsically narrates the events of the process.’

And this is why I live in hope that painters will express something bordering on a fetish for paint in their work. That their disturbing obsession with it might infect the viewer. For painting, as Nelson (2010: 39; 40) so satisfyingly insinuates, is very sexy: ‘Paint, … certainly, you can keep it neat, but the substance is made for creamy interaction. In any intercourse with another wet colour, the paint visibly mutates by the muscular caress of the brush. … As one colour works its way into another—according to the slewed interpenetration just mentioned—traces of the process are left visible, because the pre-existing strokes remain manifest even as the dramatic stage in which fresh impulses have collided.’

And perhaps Nelson (2010: 42) is right to insist that paint as mobilised colour, as colour through time, with its ‘inestimable expressive potential’ is more than ‘pretty extravagance’ or ‘material fetish,’ and rather something so lofty as ‘an existential resource.’ But I’m not above admitting to a little predilection for paint bordering on the prurient.

Tulips

 

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Composing as emotional construction

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve spent some time lately in the galleries trying to come to an understanding about composition. Not really knowing what I was looking for, I took my sketchbook and pencil and set about collecting some information, reducing it, simplifying it, hoping to see some sort of pattern emerge. In fact, many different patterns emerged from my little thumbnails.

Composition thumbnails 1

In Van Dyck’s Gefangennahme Samsons (1628/30) the heavy weave of the fabric of the painting showed a tightly constructed image, the whole picture electrified with energy and motion, though the frenzy offers no relief for the eye. His Mystische Verlobung des Heiligen Hermann Joseph mit Maria (1630) concentrates the action into a similarly dense knot, with figures and drapery tangling together, but the rhythms run three-dimensionally, not confined to the flat pictorial space. An oval slopes deep into the picture, running through the loop of arms at the centre. Similar retreating ovals swing through Rubens’ Heilige Ambrose und Kaiser Theodosius (1615/16) and Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum (1630/32), intersecting with the two-dimensional arrangement.

Titian’s Diana revealed complex braids of arcs through the dizzyingly busy picture. Actually each curve is a wonderfully simplified statement that seems to keep the picture in motion, a liquid in suspension, not snagged by unnecessary points of elbows or knees. And Degas blares out as the most unselfconsciously shape-loving painter, with his charmingly intimate square pastels, both Nach dem Bad, almost pieced together from strong, insistent shapes rather than representations of interiors. And yet, despite the prominence of these shapes, Degas never relinquishes the fullness of forms.

Composition thumbnails 2

While these investigations turned up some interesting ideas, the jumble of thoughts they produced in my mind left me no clearer of how I ought to approach composition. And despite the importance of concrete examples, I was looking for a more unifying, fundamental way to grasp the concept. It was at this point I returned to Robert Nelson.

The main point to hold in your mind when thinking about composition is that it is, at heart, about construction. You’ll forgive my constant sideways remarks about photography, but our aesthetic vision is currently somewhat obscured by the lens, and in the matter of composition, by the viewfinder. ‘Photography as a process, certainly in its documentary incarnations, might be described as a roving rectangle in search of a motif,’ writes Nelson (2010: 99), continuing sympathetically but firmly, ‘The nomadic and scavenging character of documentary photography makes for an art of great complexity; but it is essentially different from the constructed technologies of the past.’ As a painter, I know my own understanding of composition was clouded by this idea of finding and framing. Yet the painter suffers no such constraints: she is at complete liberty to compose, exactly as the musician may draw notes from his mind and not wait to capture them. Dewey (1934: 75) compares it to the ordering of thoughts of the writer: ‘As the painter places pigment upon the canvas, or imagines it placed there, his ideas and feeling are also ordered. As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.’

Sankt Marx composition

Nelson (2010: 95-6) argues that, despite the popularity of the idea, there are no ‘design principles,’ no rules to be taught, no natural laws to transform aesthetics into a science. Conventions of the past were simply that—conventions, not eternal ideals. Golden means and overlaid geometry reek of ‘numerological witchcraft’ to him. Yet composition remains vital to painting because of the deliberateness it entails. The painter actively arranges not only elements, but space and even, he (2010: 98) argues, ‘the way that you encounter the motif.’ The whole is a carefully contrived experience, deliberately built up from nothing.

Rather than groping fruitlessly after scientific justifications for the success of compositions, Nelson (2010: 96) suggests turning to the poetic. Composition, far from submitting to rules, is rather a matter of expression, and perhaps even, as Dewey suggests, of emotion. Dewey (1934: 70) writes of the deliberate arrangement of the whole: ‘The determination of the mot juste, of the right incident in the right place, of exquisiteness of proportion, of the precise tone, hue, and shade that helps unify the whole while it defines a part, is accomplished by emotion.’ The painter has complete control over how the stage is to be set, over how the experience is to unfold. The balance or imbalance is completely at her disposal; the weight of the tones may set the mood she desires, the space may be moulded or the shapes emphasised or the rhythms interlaced as best suits her own expressive purpose. Dewey (1934: 62) is quick to clarify, however, that this expression, however emotional, remains calculated and controlled:

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

In order to express something clearly, to honestly transcribe emotive experiences, the painter must keep the whole before her, and work in a flexible way. Her medium needs to be pliant enough to push around, to adjust, to exaggerate, to search out (Gombrich 1996: 214). Drawing is the most obvious starting place, offering a reductive description, a non-committal, experimental visualisation of the unborn painting. Without labouring details, the painter can think through the unity of the whole and observe the interaction of the ill-defined parts. She can crop and re-crop. She can design, she can grow the image organically. In keeping the whole at the fore, she can keep the emotional experience tight and true. Da Vinci (in Gombrich 1996: 213) confirms this fluid mode of working and the connection between emotion and composition in both his hairy drawings and his writings:

‘Now have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They do not trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines so as to make them better. So, painter, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your pictures rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.’

I expect I’ll continue to collect thumbnails at the gallery, but with renewed purpose: There are no codes to decipher and assimilate, no universal truths to unearth. There is only the deliberate hanging-together of the whole—directed by the emotional impulse of the author—to unravel and to admire. And my own emotional intent to orchestrate in my own paintings, beginning with my ever-pliable pencil.

Sankt Marx

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

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Collectors

Post Conrad © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

Post Conrad © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on canvas)

I have a theory about the collecting of art. People want to use their money to express something about themselves. Now that lots of things are cheaply and conveniently available, people would like to find more individual ways to express their interests and tastes. Handmade things are a sure way to assert ones individuality, and, in a world of convenience, our generation in particular is bending over backwards to source original and limited items, if not fashioning them themselves.

Art seems like the best candidate for such selective spending, but I believe two mental obstacles hinder people spending money on it. Firstly, there is the reluctance to spend large amounts of money all at once. And secondly, there is the mental block of seeing art as a luxury good. Even smart shoes, however smart, evade this block by having some instrumental value. And nice furniture, equally instrumental, softens the blow of its price tag by being available to buy in installments. Artists need to address these two obstacles if they are to subsist from their job as from any other job.

Tulpen (oil study)

Tulpen (oil study)

First of all, art need not be considered a luxury item. And, I would wager, people are not so taken with scattered and individual paintings, but become interested in the person behind them. Even when people buy a painting as though it were a product, to decorate their apartment and to express something about their own personality, it brings them satisfaction to think of the role they have played in the painter’s path to greatness. In that transaction, two paths intertwine, at least momentarily, and the buyer becomes part of the fabric of the painter’s life. The buyer learns that they are enabling someone to work, not satiating their own unjustified whim for luxury objects. I feel very strongly that this side to buying art should be recognised and emphasised in the midst of our consumerist haze of acquisition.

Secondly, art need not be out of reach. Even the artist doesn’t buy all her materials at once, but spaces it out. Imagine if you could set aside a small amount of money per month, slowly building up a tab, and at the next show you were automatically entitled to a painting—or more than one. You would be invited to the exhibition, drink some wine and partake in some pleasant conversation. Perhaps you had chosen your favourite painting long ago, and knew you were going home with it well in advance, because as a collector you have been in private communication with the painter, and aware of her doings. As time wears on, the painter—now at liberty to work—finds her rhythm and grows in prowess. Her paintings are not objects in a marketplace. They already belong to you and to others in a supportive elite. The party is for you.

Basilikum (study; oil on canvas)

Basilikum (study; oil on canvas)

At my forthcoming show, nothing will be for sale. I don’t want you to come to buy pictures, but to look at them, because paintings are for looking at. I hope this will be a breath of fresh air to art-lovers. I’ve certainly heard enough of the ear-grating rattling of tin cans at art shows, echoing the desperation of beggars in the street. The reason none of my work will be for sale is that it already belongs to people: my collectors. Rather than buying single paintings (under time limits, social pressures and the influence of alcohol), my collectors understand that a long-term solution to my being able to work is to support me. Not to think of my work as products, but to think of me as a worker.

Kohl (study; oil on canvas)

Kohl (study; oil on canvas

And so my collectors just make sure I have a roof over my head and something to eat. I don’t think this is a revolutionary idea, but I think it’s one that has become obscured in the current climate in which we trade heavily in products. Yet it shouldn’t sound so foreign, since most people are working in jobs where they are paid for their time. Some of my collectors send me money each month. Some of them let me stay with them for months at a time. Rents are paid, needs are met, worries are eliminated. And I happily carry on painting. And the paintings have homes, because in a sense they are bought in advance.

Should this idea interest you, and should my work and my ongoing ability to produce it delight you, you need only write to me. No campaigns with time-limits, no alcohol, no third parties, no commission. Only an arrangement between a discerning individual and a hardworking painter.

And to my existing collectors: thank you for being a part of the fabric of my life.

Flusspferd (study; oil on board)

Flusspferd (study; oil on board)

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A rich inheritance

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The enabler (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It is, of course, extremely unpopular to paint the way that I do—representational pictures, ‘stuff that looks like stuff,’ images thoroughly stripped of their purpose by the speed and apparent accuracy of photography. Though I’m finding pockets of representational painters around the world, we are undeniably on the periphery, and perhaps rightfully so. Different demands are made of art now, and art must adapt accordingly. I cling to what I do because it is the most satisfying thing I know to do, and because the roots of it run deep and strong all the way back through our Greek heritage, a heritage of which I’m proud and a willing inheritor. I see this akin to a respect for our philosophical tradition and its Platonic genesis. This is where we have come from; this Greek impulse is part of our cultural and intellectual makeup.

Enabler (composition study)

Enabler (composition study)

And the Greeks, as Gombrich points out in a chapter on ‘Reflections on the Greek revolution,’ may be credited with a truly remarkable deviation. ‘There are few more exciting spectacles in the whole history of art than the great awakening of Greek sculpture and painting between the sixth century and the time of Plato’s youth toward the end of the fifth century B.C,’ he (1959: 99) writes with palpable enthusiasm. It is no coincidence that at the very time Plato was penning his timeless philosophical observations, Greek artists were asking new questions of the physical world and expressing wholly new observations of it in their work. Plato himself challenged this frighteningly unbridled power art was summoning, famously equating illusion with delusion, for this revolution unfolded during his own lifetime.

Aktzeichnen

For until the Greeks invented mimesis—the attempt to ‘match’ the visible world, which Gombrich (1959: 99) contrasts with the more widespread and primitive impulse simply to ‘make’—equally impressive civilisations were demanding something wholly different from art. The Egyptians, the Mesopotamians and the Minoans were concerned with a fixed, eternal art. Uninterested in particulars, their art rather ‘held out a promise that its power to arrest and to preserve in lucid images might be used to conquer’ the ‘irretrievable evanescence of human life’ (Gombrich 1959: 107-8). Keats expresses the deliciousness of such a timeless power in his ‘Ode on a Grecian urn’:

‘Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! That cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu.’

And, indeed, such ritualistic art never lost its attraction. ‘In the time of Augustus,’ Gombrich (1959: 124) notes, ‘there are already signs of a reversal of taste toward earlier modes of art and an admiration of the mysterious shapes of the Egyptian tradition.’ The middle ages, rather than a period of decadence and darkness, might be seen as a time of reaffirmation of this powerful mode of art. Clear, schematised, generalised, symbolic motifs executed with primitive clarity work a sort of magic that is difficult to resist. Gombrich (1959: 124) argues that it is misleading to describe art’s history in terms of progress or decline, and considers the Greek ‘revolution’ a true innovation, a notable break in the story, but he argues that the reclamation of schematic art ought not ‘be interpreted as a fresh revolution in favour of new ideals. What happened here looks much more like another process of natural selection, not a directed effort by a band of pioneers, but the survival of the fittest; in other words, the adaptation of the formulas to the new demands of imperial ceremony and divine revelation. In the course of this adaptation, the achievements of Greek illusionism were gradually discarded.’ Artists overwhelmingly produced what they were required to.

Aktzeichnen

The appeal of such ‘conceptual art,’ as Gombrich classifies it—and this arguably applies equally to the reductive abstract art of our own time and more recent history—is not difficult to account for. ‘What is normal to man and child all over the globe is the reliance on schemata, on what is called ‘conceptual art’ (1959: 101). The art which today holds sway appeals to universals, to the general, to broad human experiences in an amusingly primitive way. ‘With the beholder’s questioning of the image, the artist’s questioning of nature stopped’ (1959: 124). It is the Greeks alone who have demanded something altogether different of the image: ‘[Egyptologist Heinrich] Schäfer stressed that the ‘corrections’ introduced by the Greek artist in order to ‘match’ appearances are quite unique in the history of art. Far from being a natural procedure, they are the great exception’ (Gombrich 1959: 101).

Aktzeichnen

The nude is central to the Greek tradition, and has survived in western art even until our own time. Yet I am not clear on what its role should now be, stripped of its Greek philosophies of embodied ideas, of godlike perfection in supple human form. The role of the nude has changed dramatically since its invention by the Greeks. As Clark (1985: 337) writes, the workshops of the middle ages which trained artisans—manual workers—gradually gave way to academies which urged more intellectual pursuits. ‘When this old discipline of grinding colours, sizing panels and copying approved models was removed … what new discipline took its place? Drawing from the nude, drawing from the Antique and perspective.’ The nude became inextricably linked with cleverness in art, with intellectual abstractions (Clark 1985: 337-8):

‘Instead of the late Gothic naturalism based on experience, [drawing from the nude] offers ideal form and ideal space, two intellectual abstractions. Art is justified, as man is justified, by the faculty of forming ideas; and the nude makes its first appearance in art theory at the very moment when painters begin to claim that their art is an intellectual, not a mechanical activity.’

The Greeks made an unprecedented leap in grasping after mimesis, in matching their observations. But as Gombrich (1959: 121) argues, ‘we mistake the character of this skill if we speak of the imitation of nature. Nature cannot be imitated or ‘transcribed’ without first being taken apart and put together again. This is not the work of observation alone but rather of ceaseless experimentation.’ Here the Italians emerge, smug in their mastery over nature, with their newly intellectualised painting, built around the worship of the nude: ‘there is no doubt that the Florentines valued a demonstration of anatomical knowledge simply because it was knowledge and as such of a higher order than ordinary perception’ (Clark 1985: 340).

Aktzeichnen

The nude persisted throughout the twentieth century, but she was shamefully ravaged. The fact that the nude became almost exclusively female is significant, and Clark (1985: 343) links this change to the Florentine pride in knowledge. ‘No doubt this is connected with a declining interest in anatomy (for the écorché figure is always male) and so is part of that prolonged episode in the history of art in which the intellectual analysis of parts dissolves before a sensuous perception of totalities.’ Art, of course, grew in its intellectual aspirations, forced its way (perhaps unjustifiably) into the universities, and discarded anything tainted by technique, scrambling instead after a pitiable faux-philosophy, loosely held together by sensual feminine curves.

Aktzeichnen

What are we to make of the nude and of mimesis in our own time? Can we turn back to our cultural origins and embrace the Greek intent? This feels false in the wake of Christianity and its accompanying shame for our bodies, our gothic repulsion to the human form, our appetite for punishment and decay. And there is something surprisingly appealing in the ruthlessly grotesque German representations that Greek perfection never touches. The Judeo-Christian tradition is equally a part of our cultural fabric and our western attitudes. Perhaps, then, the nude is a private and academic exercise, and once mastered it serves only as a support to our other representational endeavours. Perhaps the interest in the nude that has resurfaced in the modern ateliers is a propitious start, but is not justified in being considered art. Ryan has spoken warily of the present-day ‘cult of the student:’ the misdirected celebration of studio nudes as ends in themselves. I’m inclined to agree.

Aktzeichnen

Certainly, the Greeks began something wholly European, a complete anomaly in the story of art. Our thoughts, our perception are unavoidably influenced by their invention. I will be so bold as to say there is something worthwhile in this, something worth preserving and carrying forward. Something beyond the schematic, conceptual art that even children are capable of, that every other culture has independently produced. ‘What most of us lack in order to be artists,’ argues Dewey (1934: 75), ‘is not the inceptive emotion, nor yet merely technical skill in execution. It is capacity to work a vague idea and emotion over into terms of some definite medium.’ Far from teaching us how to be human cameras, the Greeks taught us how to override the schematisation and simplification our brains naturally strive for and gave us an intelligent way to think with our hands. And I have no desire to abandon such a rich inheritance.

Aktzeichnen

 

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

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Keats, John. 2006. Selected poems. Ed. Deborah West. Oxford University: Oxford.

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In pursuit of control

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Our happily proactive gang of painters in Vienna recently got together for a longer session with the model—eleven hours over four evenings. It was a great opportunity to bash away at a few things I have been trying to improve in my drawing. It has been a long time since I’ve troubled myself overly much with rendering, and I have instead been making crude visual notes about planes more than anything. I decided, therefore, that rendering would be my project. I want controlled lines, delicacy, and pure intent—no lazy, unthinking scribbles. And a little bonus anatomy and memory training never goes astray.

Alexandra1

We seem to have a never-ending supply of lovely Russian models in Vienna, and Alexandra graced us with a beautiful and complex knot of a pose. From every angle, a gentle sweep ran over the arch of her back and down her raised leg, her head tucked away. As I began to draw her, I kept this sloping mass in mind, as well as the slope at the bottom of the picture—her foot extending forward. Rather than strictly observing the jutting shapes, I pushed the unity of the drawing, clinging to big C-curves and using their rhythms to drive the composition. I loved the shocking right-angle through her head and left shoulder, but tried to subordinate it to the broader flow over the back. And what became quickly apparent as I drew was the importance of her right arm—it seemed to beg for all the attention. This was very fortuitous, since I had been studying arms, and here was a very clear and prominent arm to investigate, pronated and everything, with the radius pulling the extensor muscles over the forearm.

Arms1

After the first session, I went home and nerded out with Bammes and Goldfinger. Having noted down the bony protrusions and muscles that I thought I could see, observing the colour changes across the skin as the light hugged different forms in its predictable way, I did a bit of fact-checking. It helps to have battled with some real forms in front of you and only then to read all that involved text in your anatomy book, rather than trying to memorise everything first. You are already familiar with so much, and the explanation helps to make sense of the particular situation rather than a general one.

Arms2

My drawing felt quite stiff, though, and I was sorry that I hadn’t really warmed up with some quicker drawings beforehand. Perhaps I should have made a smaller practice one to get the feel for it. But, undeterred, I hoped I could bring some new energy to what I already had the next day. With this in mind, I made a very fast copy in my sketchbook, letting lots of things slide in favour of a looser, livelier drawing. Then I used this little practice drawing to work through what I had learned about arm anatomy as it applied to this pose. I very forcefully (in a feverish excitement, one presumes) marked in the muscles as I understood them.

Arm study

Returning to the model, I adjusted the arms of my larger drawing with the new knowledge fresh in my mind and the real thing before my eyes. This time I was searching for what I knew, and trying to subdue it according to what I could see, rather than just putting down what I could see. Satisfied, I turned to concentrate on something I had neglected for a long time: shadows. Obsessed as I am with form drawing, I haven’t made tone do much work for me in a long time.

Alexandra2

I marked in the terminators (the hazy, dark transitions between light and shadow as a body turns away from light—the form shadows) and the cast shadows (the neat-edged shadows that fall across the body because something else is blocking the light), paying attention to the masses and the way that light ought to work. Light obeys rules, because physics, and will always make certain shapes on spheres, cylinders, cones and prisms, which the human figure is more or less composed of. I wanted my shadows to help describe the form, not obscure or flatten the picture, and so I made sure to wrap them around the figure in clear, descriptive shapes. The shadow cast by the arm on the leg was a beautiful opportunity to show the gentle bulge of the thigh, meaning I didn’t need to do much to the lit area, but could keep it fleshy and soft. I tried to remember to vary the breadth of the terminator according to the curvature of the forms, and decided to keep the shadows quite light. This drives everyone mad, because they want to see me darken my shadows for maximum impact. But I potter away at my own little challenges, loving to experiment with how much I can say in a controlled and delicate manner.

shadow study

I did a bad job of this shadow business, I reflected when I got home. I made another copy in my sketchbook, enjoying the process of redrawing and my growing familiarity with this pose. I marked in the shadows again, and practiced rendering them, trying to keep the tone uniform and trying to do a better job of the terminators—expanding them appropriately, experimenting with how dark they should be. I played around a little with the transition into the light, practicing the strokes I wanted to use. I have been working so hard at hatching neatly and evenly, and I don’t know what the secret is except for probably hatching several million of those tiny lines. I’m never sure that they look any more controlled, but I live in hope that my untiring practice will reward me with superhuman dexterity.

Alexandra3

I went back on the third evening determined to take charge of those shadows. I forced myself to neaten the tone, making it uniform, and only allowing myself to knock back some subtle reflected light (only according to the form!) with my eraser.

arms3

I realised that although the arm was the star of this drawing, I was presented with a very good opportunity to study knees. I couldn’t let this pass. A bent knee and a fully flexed knee! All manner of bony goodness to investigate. I returned to Bammes and his simplified conceptions of the knee—all blocks and planes and axes. I thought long and hard about how knees fit together. I copied out drawings of the widening gap between the femur and the tibia as the knee bends further and further. I made notes in my sketchbook so I wouldn’t forget: ‘Kneecap never slides upwards because anchored by the straight patellar ligament.’ ‘Skeleton accounts for greatest part by far of sculptural form of knee.’

Alexandra4

Armed with these mantras, I spent some time on the final day trying to match my understanding with what I saw. Then all that remained were the light zones. Having worked out all the forms, the most prominent anatomy, and the direction of rendering, all that was left to do was exercise a controlled hand and make the nicest little lines I possibly could.

Alexandra memory

Bonus exercise! The next evening I put my drawing and sketchbook away, and began with a fresh sheet of paper. I redrew the same drawing entirely from memory (without the hours of refinement!). This part really feels like magic. Have I really internalised all this information? This extra test really consolidates all the new knowledge and all the particular decisions that you have made when working with the model. And you realise what power you have when you understand the human figure, and can summon one at will.

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Vernissage

GroenestynVernissage

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It gives me great pleasure to announce that an exhibition is on the horizon. Next month I will be showing the work I’ve produced during this period of intense independent study in Vienna. I’ve had the unimaginable luxury of a Dachgeschoss studio with north-facing windows beaming me achingly lovely views of the city, impressive galleries but minutes from me by bike, the world’s best and creamiest coffee, and, most importantly of all, sweet, precious time in which to draw, paint, study anatomy and think.

I’m pleased to share my studies and experiments in the flesh, in a cavernous brick cellar hidden underground in the ninth district. It promises to be a tasteful Viennese affair: witty conversation, philosophising and elegant attire are encouraged. Ich freue mich auf deinen Besuch!

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Reverie

Baden oil sketch © Samantha Groenestyn

Baden (oil sketch) © Samantha Groenestyn

Going to the gallery without headphones is a sure way to subject yourself to the painful sound of people trying to demonstrate their cleverness about art history to their miserable companions. Wrenched from your dreamy pictorial-musical reverie, you will very quickly become aware that people seem to spend very little time contemplating paintings and much more time reciting history. What, then, is one to do at a gallery, if not to recall historical facts? How does one make sense of paintings—those vast, still frames; flat surfaces invoking every conceivable illusion in order to masquerade as three-dimensional, as some slice of reality? On our way to answering these questions, we might find some kinship between painting and poetry.

Poetry: that mysterious web of words. It takes our ordinary language and heightens it; it snatches away our very means of communication and taunts us to work harder to understand. How does one edge closer to poetry? A thick anthology full of lofty words is every bit as daunting as a day ticket to a high-ceilinged Gemäldegalerie. These are slow arts, meditative arts, not like going to the cinema. By repeated and unhurried acquaintance, we grow to love paintings as we grow to love poems.

Conrad

Conrad

Perhaps, then, there is something to be learned from poetry lovers about the nature of loving paintings. The ever discerning Conrad recently loaned me a book by Edward Hirsch, How to read a poem and fall in love with poetry. Hirsch makes the interesting assertion that poem and reader operate in a sort of circuit: ‘Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of intimate immensity. I am shocked by what I see in the poem but also by what the poem finds in me’ (1999: 8). This strongly echoes my experience of gazing at paintings. A painting evokes many thoughts and moods, many of them irrelevantly personal, but connected nonetheless to our experience of looking at that particular painting. Having our thoughts gently guided by a visual cue, we are not simply trying to understand a picture, but are in turn probed by it.

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The looking, like the reading, is not passive. Our active immersion unearths little treasures in the painting or the poem, and perhaps in ourselves. There is more in a painting than we can actively take in all at once, and so our eyes wander along investigative trails. Hirsch (1999: 8) talks of being coaxed and quieted by the steady stream of words: ‘The words move ahead of the thought in poetry. The imagination loves reverie, the daydreaming capacity of the mind set in motion by words, by images.’ In this light, it makes little sense to speak of understanding a painting. Its elements run ahead of us, being present all at once, all vying for our attention. The whole makes one impression, the parts make others, the rhythms that connect them urge our eyes onwards. As we begin chasing brushstrokes through the picture, we begin to infuse them with our own runaway thoughts.

Baden3

The painting, a silent and motionless panel on the wall, begs to be inhabited: ‘The work of art … is mute and plaintive in its calling out its need for renewal. It needs a reader to possess it, to be possessed by it. Its very life depends on it’ (1999: 8). The painter, like the poet, ‘issues a concealed invitation through metaphor which the listener makes a special effort to accept and interpret’ (1999: 15), though our imagery, perhaps to our advantage, is visible. Indeed, our visual medium is so powerful that ‘unlike the poet, [Leonardo da Vinci] writes, the painter can so subdue the minds of men that they will fall in love with a painting that does not represent a real woman’ (Gombrich, 1959: 82). (True story, insists da Vinci.)

Conrad

Conrad

The spell is not weakened for being more literal. Imagery drawn from life is nonetheless different from life, and deliberately composed by the painter. Each representation is infused with the vision and the emotions of the painter. Colours and forms are manipulated and compelled to create a mood. What seems literal for being so easily read by the eye is a carefully contrived artifice, and herein lies the enchantment. Representational painting seductively augments reality without straying too far from it—it is this delicately balanced illusion which stirs our imagination. Painting borrows from life, but reworks life into dreamy other worlds. Poetry is a fine example, made of nothing but words, but infusing them with new power: ‘Poetry charts the changes in language, but it never merely reproduces or recapitulates what it finds. The lyric poem defamiliarises words, it wrenches them from familiar or habitual contexts, it puts a spell on them’ (Hirsch, 1999: 12).

Baden

As Gombrich (1996: 158) argues, ‘ordinary language’—which ‘develops as a social tool to communicate ordinary experiences … fails notoriously when we want to convey the elusive states of subjective reactions and automatic responses.’ He (1996: 159) cites Plato’s discomfort with the capacity of art to reach us outside the limits of reason, and by deceptive means at that: ‘To him illusion was tantamount to delusion. He saw art in terms of a drug that enslaved the mind by numbing our critical sense.’ Painting, like poetry, is beyond ordinary language, and even beyond ordinary vision. It might mimic life, but remains ever defiant, reworking life into something less enslaved to natural laws.

Baden2

Being static, a painting must find other ways to move and thus to move us. While a poem can be read aloud, can merge with our breath, pulse to our heartbeat, and so become animate by borrowing our own bodies, a painting yet hangs on the wall. It is for this reason that drawing—copying in the gallery, or drawing from life—can be a more alert and engaged way of looking. But even if we only trace it with our eyes, a painting can propel our gaze by a purely visual rhythm. Arcs through limbs and twists of drapery, undulating counter-rhythms down the sinuous length of a figure, the ebbing and flowing of fullness of nebulous masses—these rhythms, like those to be met in poetry, create ‘a pattern of yearning and expectation, of recurrence and difference. … [Rhythm] takes us into ourselves; it takes us out of ourselves’ (Hirsch, 1999: 21).

Baden1

Looking at paintings demands time: quiet, thoughtful time, searching for a way in, being seduced by the rhythms, by the colours. One doesn’t march up to a picture, extract information and walk away. And paintings lure us back, and ‘the repetitions loosen the intellect for reverie’ (1999: 22). Our love grows with familiarity, as though these paintings were poems we could recite, owned deep within our bodies, known by heart. The gallery might become a portal to ‘another plane of time, outside of time;’ it might, as poetry does for Hirsch (1999: 8,9), ‘give me access to my own interior realms.’ A visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum might resemble one to T. S. Eliot’s (1963: 52) Hyacinth garden:

‘—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.’

Baden

 

Eliot, T. S. 1963. Selected poems. Faber: London.

Hirsch, Edward. 1999. How to read a poem: and fall in love with poetry. Harvest: San Diego.

Gombrich, E. H. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

 

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