Story – An Artist’s Journey

56coveLa Jolla Cove

There are two journeys that await everyone the physical one and the one of the mind.

As a kid, I grew up in a privileged, beautiful, and bitter place. La Jolla is and was one of the wealthier towns in the world. It was made up of designer homes, coves with sleeping seals, beaches, cerulean skies, tennis courts, eucalyptus trees with their dusty-sticky smell, and earth crystals one could dig out of the hillsides. And it was populated by sophisticated and rich business people, models, housewives, and BMW’s. Alcohol and divorces flowed a little too freely, and the sun shined after the morning fog.

My grandparents were made up of a German adventurer and a free-spirited Canadian, and a Hollywood flapper and a cigarette executive; both sets lived in Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles. There are rumors of a touch of insanity in the family, something about the phantom uncle that died in an institution. Another story is that my German grandfather traveled from Argentina to Canada and courted my 18-year old grandmother, brought her down to Los Angeles and then married her. The same grandmother had the complete set of the Time-Life Library of Art books, the book on Delacroix was my favorite. I would spend hours looking at those books in their Mid-Wilshere bungalow with its streaming southern light casting rays of light highlighting tiny dust particles making them look like stars.

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Delacroix, Chopin

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La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club

Everyone in my family played some tennis. My parents thought it was a good way for the five kids to keep busy, tired, and off the streets. I had a knack for it being quick and strategic. Lester Stoffen, 3-time Wimbledon doubles champion was the local tennis pro gave me lessons once every two weeks which my grandparents paid for; he taught integrated fundamentals. And I liked art. In sixth grade, another kid forgot his math book and the teacher, Mrs. Bowden, allowed him to do his art project instead. That day on the way home from school I threw my math book under a tree. The next day I told the teacher I lost my book. For weeks I did my art project instead of math. Sadly another kid found the book, brought it to class and Mrs. Bowden looked at me with a puzzled expression. She pulled me aside and told me “you are going to float through life and I am afraid that you will not amount to anything.” I guess she didn’t think that being one of the best tennis players in my age group in Southern California (in its heyday) or my passion for art was work. For the next decade, tennis and art were my daily projects.

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After winning my first tournament, boy’s ten and under.

(Growing up and even today I wish I never had to attend school, rather, like in the Reniassance, I would have jumped at the option to be an artist’s apprentice.)

I was too young (11-years old) to understand, and may never know the causes when I locked myself in the bathroom for 3 hours, laid down on the tiled floor and pressed my hands to the sides of my head, hoping to push the voices out of my head. There was an incessant inner voice repeatedly screaming “evil, evil, evil, evil is here.” I asked the voice where it was? Was it something inside or outside of me? What did I do wrong? Was I bad? I looked inside and couldn’t find anything deserving of such a horrible dark feeling. Another voice said, “no, you are not bad, you are a good.” Continuing to rack my brain for hours I came to the conclusion that whatever this dark matter was it was outside of me. I didn’t know if it was a person, a thing, or something in the atmosphere, but I was relieved to feel it certainly wasn’t me. In the future, I would be on the lookout for it.

Awakening and My Grandmother

I loved my Canadian grandmother very much, she worked hard and appreciated sports and painting. She loved Los Angeles and I never once heard her bitch. She was so wise that if she were directing us kids, we never knew we were being corrected. I didn’t know but only subconsciously felt that she was giving me the green light to be an artist. She saw the seed bud and watered it as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do.

Once while walking with her down a sidewalk lined with shops, we stopped at a bookstore’s window. Time stopped. There was a huge book with a painted portrait of a woman on the cover. The woman’s eyes were so gentle, thoughtful, with a quiet intensity almost if she were to cry. The shadows made out of space seemed to caress and move around her neck and delicately touch her earlobe. The cover of the book was a portal to a universe that opened up and pulled me inside. I lost my real life bearings, and all could feel was the energy of this beautiful person; it was like being in a dream of light currents. I shook my head and realized where I was and looked for grandmother. Looking over to my left I saw that she was two windows further and she glanced at me with an expression saying “you go on and keep looking dear.” Which is what I did until I had had my full of looking at the portrait.

I was turning 12-years old, and my grandmother gave me a heavy package when I tore off the wrapping it was that book!  It was The Complete Works of Rembrandt.

 

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Rembrandt, Hendrickje Stoffels (This is the first work I fell in love with. The shadows clothe her in mysterious space, the empathy in her eyes is palatable – so truthful and amazing that paint can be organized to communicate psychological depth).

Continue reading “Story – An Artist’s Journey”

Advancements in Painting Light

Advancements in Painting Light by Michael Newberry
Light delights us. In paintings is easy to see, but the development of it through history is anything but simple.It has been the focus of some of the world’s greatest artists. It is worthwhile to get a glimpse of some of the innovative artworks that advanced light in painting.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

Light in a painting is tied primarily to the form of the objects. Also, it has a yin/yang relationship to shadow. No shadow, no light. An artist will use light and shadow to mold forms.

These horses’ heads from the Chauvet Caves in France are a great example of forming with light and shadow. It is awe-inspiring that this artist had this knowledge 30,000 years ago.

Chauvet Caves Horses
Horses’ Heads, Chauvet Caves, 30,000 b.c.

In contrast to the Horses’ Heads, this flat image of a Minoan fisherman is without light. It is a fresco painting from Santorini, 1650-1500 b.c. The images are recognizable by their blocked-out silhouettes (like a cardboard cut-out).

I really like the colors and the balanced silhouettes of this image, but it lacks the substance of light and form.

Akrotiri-Santorini 1650-1500 b.c.
Akrotiri-Santorini 1650-1500 b.c.
There are few examples of ancient Greek painting. Here is one faded example from the tomb site of Alexander the Great’s immediate family.

The addition of light complicates visual imagery. It catapults a flat image into a 3D universe. It imbues the image with more weight and realism–closer to how we see real objects.

Here we can make out shadows molding the mouths, eyes, chins, and undersides of their arms.

 Rape of Persephone by Hades, Nikomakos, 350 b.c. Ancient Aigai.
Rape of Persephone by Hades, Nikomakos, 350 b.c. Ancient Aigai. The only complete example of an ancient Greek painting that has yet been found.

In these Pompeii frescos in Italy, we get some idea of what might have been classical Greek painting.

The environment is bathed in light. Notice the hierarchy, a key component in creating light, from the bright light behind the two woman and the more muted light between the bull’s legs.

Also, notice the light’s sweep up the half-naked woman’s torso.

Roman Europa

Europa and the Bull, 1st C. AD, Pompeii

This is a great example of the artist using light to bring out the form of anatomy. Notice the flicks of highlight along the man’s arm. And the flow of light along the woman’s torso.

Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern  Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern
Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern

Renaissance artists’ works are noted for attention to extravagant details. In The Arnoflini Portrait below notice the tour de force of exquisite details. The painting is very neatly broken down to each object’s color group: brown for the fur of the coat and dog; pale flesh tone for the people; red, green, and purple for the clothes.

The light here takes a subservient role. It is used to simply set off all the details of the objects. Light is coming from behind our left shoulder. But there is also light coming in from the left far window, behind the couple. This can set up objects competing with each other for our attention.
The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

In this da Vinci we have one light source, unlike the van Eyck work above.

Lady with an Ermine, da Vinci, 1482-5
Lady with an Ermine, da Vinci, 1482-5

Here is an important, though a subtle difference in developing light in painting. Notice the women’s shoulders. Van Eyck used just enough light to give shape to the green cloth and white scarf. In contrast to that, da Vinci cloaked a sheen of light over both her flesh and cloth of her shoulder.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

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Raphael makes a great breakthrough with the light in The Dilerverence of St. Peter below. He takes the idea of the halo, yet he wants to make it feel real. Behind the angel is glowing light, as if the light was coming from the end of a tunnel.

An interesting phenomenon is the transparency of the angel and it’s wing tips. Often I have shown students a fact of how translucency works. You need to have a bright window in a room full of shadow. Then you hold up your finger: half of it against the light and the other half against the shadow. Then you squint looking at your finger. You will see a very delicate border dividing your finger, making it literally transparent–exactly like the angel’s wings here.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514
Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

The flatness of this symbolic halo is a good contrast to the realism of the Raphael. Actually, there is some effect of light on his forehead, collar, and hand, but the light is by no means consistent.

St. Nicholas, early 14th century
St. Nicholas, early 14th century

Caravaggio went after light with a vengeance. He dramatically contrasted light adjacent to dark. Notice the boy’s eye with its startling brilliant highlight and almost black shadow.

In exploring these high contrasts, Caravaggio ran into some spatial difficulties–Goliath’s head doesn’t feel like it is a yard in front of David. Rather, it rests on the same plane. Contrast with the Rembrandt below.

David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio,1610
David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio,1610

On the other side of Europe, Rembrandt was taking light further than any previous artist. Rembrandt spotlighted the people and things in his paintings. He used light to highlight the things he wanted us to focus on. But he also solved the difficult problem of spatial relationships. It is quite simple for us to track the spatial relationships of all the people in his painting. Contrast that with the David above.

It is interesting that The Night Watch setup is similar to the van Eyck couple portrait. In both paintings, there are two light sources, one from behind us left, and from further back left.

Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642
Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642

The key difference between the two paintings is Van Eyck used light to heighten all the details, while Rembrandt stylized the light, making everything else subservient.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

It is impossible to talk about light in painting and not include Vermeer. Radically different than Rembrandt in style, Vermeer pushed the envelope of how far one could realistically perceive light.

I could spend volumes in comparing nuances of light effects here. Let me just point out one for now.

 The Milkmaid, Vermeer, 1658-61

The Milkmaid, Vermeer, 1658-61

Vermeer Milkmaid demo light

Just above her head there is an extremely subtle pink tint, somewhat in the shape of a rectangle. It is probably the cast light formed by the shape of the window. Lower right, behind her body, are several, increasing subtle shifts of cooler colors than the pink tint above.

Vermeer’s eye probably sees more nuanced light shifts than any other artist, before or since.

This is part 1 in the innovation series on light. In part 2 I will show how artists developed the light based on complimentary colors.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 24, 2007

Abstraction in Representational Art

Abstraction in Representational Art by Michael Newberry
Abstraction is one of the most important tools in an artist’s arsenal–it groups together masses of visual information into a cohesive whole, enabling the viewer to “see the forest through the trees.”

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Rembrandt, The Little Children Being Brought to Jesus (“The 100 Guilder Print”), 1647-49, etching and drypoint

Abstraction is a guide that allows viewers to take in small details while simultaneously keeping their attention on the larger panoramic picture.

Abstraction, in representational art, is a grouping of visual units into a bigger visual shape.

Not surprisingly, Rembrandt uses light and shadow to mass people and settings into large abstract shapes. What might be more subtle is that he also organized those shapes into forms that rotate in space.

For example, in the shape I outlined in green, Rembrandt has grouped several people into this swirl of light. This large shape pulls the viewer into the work and sweeps them around behind Christ.

By bathing this abstract shape in such strong light, Rembrandt also added the metaphor that this group is enlightened or receiving his light.

remjesus001P

As a counter balance to the large areas of light, he has grouped most of the background into a large cast shadow. Very few people, perhaps skeptics, are in the shadows. This dark area is not a cardboard cut of flat black. Rather, it opens up the cavernous depth of the setting, creating a sense of emptiness–a poignant contrast to the people-filled areas in light.

remjesusP1001

Abstract artists, such as Kline, distilled abstraction until there was little left other than abstraction itself. These bold expressions drove home the formal compositional elements, dividing the painted surface into simple positive and negative areas.

When studying an artist as complex as Rembrandt it is easy to get lost in all the things that he is a powerful master of: the human condition, the gestures, the light, the movement, etc. In contrast, studying Kline makes it easy to remember the importance of organizing the composition into big areas.

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Kline, 1957

Monet does a beautiful job of abstracting the pink sunset and turquoise shadows and their reflections in the water.

Arm of the Seine near Giverny Claude Monet001
Monet, Arm of the Seine near Giverny
While researching images for this tutorial, I came across this fun image of Monet’s Poplars. The “S” curve of the poplars creates a gestural abstract shape.

Monet---PD.9-1966_MED
Monet, Poplars

It’s easy to see the similarity of Monet’s “S” curve with the staircase of this Rembrandt. I cannot help but think that Rembrandt accented this staircase, not only as a major abstract shape but as a metaphor for learning in stages or steps.

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Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation, 1632

I hope you enjoyed seeing abstraction in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, January 14th, 2007