Art and Judgment

Over three decades ago, in 1982, I booked a private telephone consultation with an Objectivist philosopher (associated now with the Ayn Rand Institute) on reading The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand’s classic non-fiction work on aesthetics.

At 24, I was both an artist and an Objectivist.  A fine art major; I had taken several art history classes including contemporary art theory. At the time, I had just completed the painting Promethia, and even though it was a thematic work, I didn’t understand how one objectively identifies a theme of an artwork. With that in mind, I was excited to be mentored by an Objectivist philosopher.

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In our consultation, he pointed to Willem Kalf’s still life painting in the classic art history book, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.

“How do I discover the theme?” I asked, genuinely.

“The theme of this painting is malevolent because of the dark background!” was the swift and vociferous response.

This was “obvious” — i.e. self-evident — he said.  No further reasoning or discussion was necessary.

I ended the session and never consulted him again.

Alas, I had yet to learn how themes work in painting. So I returned to what Ayn Rand herself had written.

In the Romantic Manifesto she writes:

“Now a word of warning about the criteria of esthetic judgment. A sense of life is          the source of art, but it is not the sole qualification of an artist or of an esthetician,             and it is not a criterion of esthetic judgment. Emotions are not tools of cognition … In essence, an objective evaluation   requires that one identify the artist’s theme, the abstract meaning of his work (exclusively by identifying the evidence contained in the work and allowing no other, outside considerations), then evaluate the means by which he conveys it—i.e., taking his theme as criterion, evaluate the purely esthetic elements of the work, the technical mastery (or lack of it) with which he projects (or fails to project) his view of life.”

—Ayn Rand, Romantic Manifesto, Chapter 3: Art and Sense of Life

To discover the theme of a painting, you have to observe almost everything about it, catalog it, and find the common denominator among those things that unites them. Then when you know what the painting is about you have to persuade the viewers and yourself that indeed that is the theme of the painting. Also, it takes the observer some knowledge in art technique to note the successful execution of the theme.

In Kalf’s painting, we have exquisitely painted glasses with beautifully crafted metal stems. Ornate silverware. A luxurious table carpet, which is typical in Holland, even in today’s pubs. And a small pumpkin and a beautifully cut lemon. The background is dark which offsets the light on the pumpkin and the lemon, emphasizing their lightness and color.

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Notice the ellipse on the top of the glass: It is delicate and superbly done! Notice the form of the carpet and how it pivots towards us giving us a sense of spatial contrast between the foreground and background. We can tell from the light and the shadows that the light source is coming from behind and above our left shoulder. Notice the shadows and the bright illumination of the lemon.

The subject of the painting is some of the finer things in life: good drink, fine craftsmanship, and fresh produce. The tantalizing lemon and the silverware suggest that there might be fish roasting. The means of conveying the subject are spot on in perspective, precision, clarity, and a very dramatic use of light and dark. Imagine a banker, merchant, or a professor (has to be a person of some means to afford the finery): After working a day of solving problems elegantly they come home and are met by the rewards for their efforts. I would say the theme of this painting is “rewards,” and I would title it as such.

While I was painting Promethia, the work above, prior to my consultation with the Objectivist philosopher, I was certain about the feeling and the vision driving it. Putting it into words the famous quote by Nietzsche serves best: “The noble soul has reverence for itself.”  Conveyed through my ideal pairing of figurative sculpture, modern architecture, and nature.

Themes in painting are not absolutes and they have to be tried on and confirmed by what the paintings show us. There is no room for knee-jerk dogmatic judgments; understanding comes one step at a time through each individual’s lens.

Michael Newberry

Originally published with The Atlas Society

Energizing the Eye: Abiodun Olaku

“In the broad valley, far below him, in the first sunlight of early morning, he saw a town. Only it was not a town. Towns did not look like that. He had to suspend the possible for a while longer, to seek no questions or explanations, only to look.”

The above was Ayn Rand’s description of Howard Roark’s Monadnock Valley development in The Fountainhead. Rand is revered — and reviled — as a philosopher and novelist, but to me she was also an artist. She defined art as a recreation of reality according to an artist’s values, and in her work, she recreated an inspirational world of heroes, light, and flourishing.

labour

That is why The Atlas Society chose art as an arena for intellectual and spiritual engagement with Ayn Rand’s ideas.  The 25-year-old philosophical organization capped 2016 with winners of first annual Atlas Art Contest. Over 400 entries were narrowed down to 21 artists by a panel of four judges: Sabin Howard, sculptor; Judd Weiss, photographer; Agnieszka Pilat, painter: and myself. The public was then invited to vote, further spreading the engagement with the outstanding work of our finalists.

The winners were, from first to third place, Abiodun Olaku, Eric Armusik, and Danielle Dalechek. Given Ayn Rand’s aesthetics, it is rather fitting that Olaku won first prize with his clean style, perspective, and nuanced light. Olaku is a Christian Nigerian, and he paints townscapes lit by twilight’s glow and dotted with the sparkle of electric lights and roasting fires — honoring both nature’s magnificence and humanity’s place in it. His winning work, Silhouettes of Labour, fit nicely the contest’s theme of entrepreneurial pursuits., fit nicely the contest’s theme of entrepreneurial pursuits.

Abiodun-Olaku

Before the Atlas Art Contest Olaku was unfamiliar with Ayn Rand, but during the contest; the did some research on her and concluded: “I could sum up her thoughts as the recognition and glorification of human endeavor, enterprise, and due reward.”

Like most artists, financial obstacles are the biggest roadblock to painting full-time. Olaku feels that his drive to perfect his unique style, which consequently brought him collectors, and his belief in God helped him practically and emotionally.

“An obstacle I overcame was the challenge of earning my livelihood, solely, on the income generated from my art. Eventually, though, I mastered the art of staying steady and balanced on the raging and wildly-bucking bull of survival. I discovered early that my art was my bargaining power. So, I pursued a uniqueness of it.”

Like many Ayn Rand fans, Olaku balances his reason with spiritual beliefs: The infinite grace of God had always been my Divine Intercessor at crucial junctures and critical times in my earthly sojourn. This emboldened me in no small measure career-wise, and also propelled me forward with renewed courage, instead of hesitation, apprehension or debilitating fear.”

Though Romanticism, notable for its dramatically driven themes of human character, is important in Rand’s thought, she has high regard for the importance of light in painting.

Indeed, it was for this reason she considered Johannes Vermeer “the greatest of all artists.”  She wrote: “Vermeer devoted his paintings to a single theme: light itself.

The guiding principle of his compositions is: the contextual nature of our perception of light (and of color). The physical objects in a Vermeer canvas are chosen and placed in such a way that their combined interrelationships feature, lead to and make possible the painting’s brightest patches of light, sometimes blindingly bright, in a manner which no one has been able to render before or since.”

This description works equally well for Olaku. Each patch of light is slightly different in tone and hue, creating a hierarchy of lights. Vision scientists Jan Koenderink and Andrea Van Doorn told me one night in a Scottish pub in Glasgow that the eye constantly compares and contrasts tones, bouncing from spot to spot. If tones and hues are identical then the eye becomes bored. Conversely, if there are subtle differences then the eye feels energized.

Olaku,24-7

Olaku’s sensitivity to light manifests in how deeply his landscapes recede — not only are the lights themselves different, they are placed in depth. Though light is the outstanding feature in Olaku’s paintings, he is also a master of perspective and the reflective nature of water.

What Ayn Rand says about Vermeer is very much how I feel about Olaku: “What his style projects is a concretized image of an immense, nonvisual abstraction: the psycho-epistemology of a rational mind. It projects clarity, discipline, confidence, purpose, power — a universe open to man.”

Originally published with The Atlas Society.

You can follow Abiodun Olaku on Facebook, he welcomes queries about his art.

For over four decades Michael Newberry has been pioneering figurative art with his unpredictable brand of beauty. www.michaelnewberry.com

“24/7, Lagos”, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, 2016

“Silhouettes of Labour”, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches

Creating Denouement

Creating Denouement by Michael Newberry

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54x78 inches.
Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54×78 inches.

Why this painting?

Painting Denouement was a chance to live inside glowing, colorful light and to express through art what love feels like to me.

Influences

Puccini, Polyclitus, Aristophanes, Beethoven, and Michelangelo rock my world. In their time, they were innovators with a love of beauty, humanity, and passion. Their art was a constant source of inspiration.
There were visual influences for Denouement. But most of the epic works were from “brown” painters, classic technique with a limited pallet in which dark things are brown and black hues. The French Impressionists had a fantastic sense of color harmonies in light and shadow. What I had in mind was to take the best of both and integrate them.

But there was no one work from these artists that I could use as a prototype for what I had envisioned, so I had to create a new path.

Rembrandt Danae
Rembrandt Danae
velazquez-las-meninas
Velazquez Las Meninas
nerdrum001
Nerdrum
dali1
Dali
cafe_terrace001
Van Gogh
vangogh
Van Gogh
monet119
Monet
monet.st-romain-soleil001
Monet

Concept

In 1984, I began studies on a moment of love shared. The first sketches were drawn from my imagination. In the images, you can see the glow from the light between them.

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Construction

Then I began to develop studies from live models for this composition.

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I modeled for the two left drawings, having rigged a couple of mirrors. All the studies for Denouement were from scratch – no photos.

To create glow, it would be important to backlight the guy. In hindsight, backlit objects are a bitch to draw because it is hard to see the dark stuff.

I began color studies in pastel.

Newberry study  Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

I didn’t like the gray colors. So I kept drawing pastel studies, changing the light sources, colored objects, and color of the paper.

With these pastels below, the color harmony clicked.

Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Composition

I began to evaluate my overall composition: should the man be closer in size to the woman? Should they be closer together – more connected?

Changing the guy from standing to reclining solved both the size and connection problems.
Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Newberry study

What turned out to be cool was that his new pose worked great with hers. The two of them now created a diagonal line through the composition, like the flight line of a jet taking off.

Having solved the imaging of the man and woman, the next problem was arranging all the stuff to fit naturally.

Newberry study

I relied on two-point perspective to get the perspective of the carpet right.

Newberry study

Each object had to be adjusted to fit the perspective and be the right size.
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Spatial Depth and Transparency, Integrating it All

Having drawn all of the information I needed, there was still the small matter of how all of this information was going to fit together. I needed to create spatial depth of about 20′, every object had to fit naturally in its space, and the overall lighting had to feel like it was from one source.

I needed to develop a theory of integrating the color, light, and space. I discuss this theory in my articles : Transparency: A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting, Part 1 and Part 2. To give you a sense of the problem here is a pastel study of the lamp, and final in the painting. They are quite different. Just transferring it exactly from study to painting doesn’t mean it will fit.

Newberry study Newberry study

What do lemon green, green, and cool magenta have in common? Cerulean blue. Her arm rests in a subtle shadow, by using cerulean blue as the common denominator I was able to push the color boundaries and softly place her in the right place. This was the way I saw the colors from life, but understanding the color theory helped bring out those color connections for all the other elements of the painting.

Newberry study

I hope you enjoyed this presentation.

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54x78 inches.

Michael Newberry

Jacob Collins, Sensuous Nature of Light

Jacob Collins, Sensuous Nature of Light by Michael Newberry

To talk about the art of Jacob Collins is to talk about his inquisitiveness.

Jacob Collins is a contemporary realist artist. He paints and draws portraits, landscapes, still-lifes, and nudes. Across the board, he imbues them all with sensuous light and an aptitude for finely wrought detail. He reminds me of a scientist who shines a light on an object to see it to full advantage. And like a scientist, he sees beauty in realizing his understanding of things. He told me “I find beauty in observing and in furthering my knowledge about light, the identity of plants and trees, and even such things as the nature of the formation of rocks and land masses.”

Currently, he is working on completing a landscape project of 50 oil paintings and graphite studies, with the centerpiece being a large landscape 50 x 100″. An exhibition of this landscape project will be on view May 8 – June 13, 2008, at Hirschl Alder Modern in New York City.

Jacob Collins

Jacob Collins

In this graphite on paper, Collins concerns himself only with the silhouette and shape of the land and tree masses, leaving the sky and water blank. This frees him to fully concentrate on details of the trees and land masses, as well as their relationships. In other studies, he has concentrated on only the water or some other section of the total image.

In his student days in the 80’s, aside from copying masterworks in Museums in New York and Italy, he studied anatomy to fully comprehend the curves and landmarks on the body’s surfaces. Integral to his figure studies is his need to see what the light is doing on the surfaces.

Jacob Collins

This drawing, a study for the painting Redhead, shows the light and dark on her body. In addition, Collins has made notations, commenting on how to further enhance the lights and darks. A painter that is working with light has one enormous obstacle to overcome: light in real life is about a hundred times brighter than the re-creation of light with paint and canvas. An artist, through paint, can’t very well shine a 500-watt halogen light in your face! One way an artist simulates light is to show the reflection of light on objects. Think of the Moon in relationship to the Sun. Another thing that an artist can do, and which Jacob has done, is to fine tune the nuances of light to the nth degree. Compare the different tones of highlights of her forehead, breast, and thigh. Once viewers have adjusted their eyes to a painting that has a great range of nuance between light and dark, their eyes will feel the brightness of the light.

Jacob Collins

I found it easy to talk with Jacob. Perhaps, because he is also an educator and a man who goes his own way. He is the founder of the Hudson River School for Landscape in Hunter, NY, the Founder of Grand Central Academy of Art in NYC, and the Founder of Water Street Atelier also in NYC. He has also taught at National Academy of Design, the Portrait Society of America, and the New York Academy of Art.

Jacob Collins

Drawing is my favorite Collin’s painting. Spreading out in foreshortened perspective are the paper and tools for drawing. Even if you are not an artist, you might have experienced the joy in going into an art store and seeing and feeling the textures of the papers, looking at the pastels and charcoals, and wondering how much fun it would be to make art. Notice the different textures and subtle colors of the papers in Drawing. You might notice the highlighted, ruffled, and delicately torn edges of several of the papers. I have fond memories of learning about different papers as an art student. One lesson we learned was to tear a really good acid-free 100% cotton rag paper to size using a straight edge–it’s a very sensual experience. Collins gets that tactile beauty of the paper down exactly.

Jacob Collins

In the painting, Candace, Jacob is doing several impressive things. One is that the composition is powerfully divided between the light and dark of the fabrics, which is echoed by the high contrast of light and dark on her body. The modeling of her body is superb. Notice the form of her left thigh, how the form rotates up to the highlight on the iliac crest, and then gently descends onto the plain of her taught belly. Her flesh-tone color is natural, rich, and subtle. Notice the pinkish fingertips, the crisp pearl-color of her breasts, the cool blue mid-tone of her ribs, and the ochre highlights of her thighs.

Jacob Collins

In Candace, and in Collins’ art in general, I cannot help but see hints of da Vinci’s attention to molding forms, Rembrandt’s hierarchy of light, and Bouguereau’s delicate skin colorization.

A funny experience I have had with musicians has been their use of the word “stagnant” to describe the form of painting. But Jacob describes light as it “bounces in soft and hard ways.” A good place to see this “bounce” is by comparing the highlight on her forehead, to the shoulder’s highlight silhouetting her chin, and to the highlight on her throat. Collins is “bouncing” the highlights through space.

The last aspect of this painting I will comment on is the exquisite detailing of the fabric. Collins painted her body first, then he set up the fabric with a mannequin so that he could paint the folds of the cloth undisturbed. By doing this, he could arrange the folds of the cloth to bring out their beauty, even down to the smallest details, and he gave himself all the time he needed do to them justice.

Many people wonder why artists go through all this work when they can simply copy a photograph. Collins volunteered that “photos are not as rich an experience as working from life.” Let’s take a cue from Collins, and enrich our lives by looking more closely at his universe of inquiry and light.

Michael Newberry
New York, April 2008
Originally published in The New Individual