Friday, 6 July 2012

Mark-making by the greats.

I'm spending today looking at mark-making by Klee, Picasso and Van Gogh.

 400 Domes by Paul Klee

The first thing I notice is the colours. That they are in squares. Unusual for a cityscape. Or not what I expect anyway. And very much breaking up the space with contrasts between the different colours, and now I see the different textures also. This brings to mind the sides of lots of different buildings made of different kinds of building material cutting into the view.

Looking at the lines, the only non-straight lines are domes. Are they in fact the only lines at all actually painted there, other than the ones along the lines of contrast? Not quite - there are some green crosses towards the foreground. Strange. There are also, now I look specifically for them, some lines of the slightly greyer blue on the top right dome effectively outline the construction of it and shadows thrown on it.

The lines between the shapes are not all outlined in darker paint - many of them are represented by contrasting colours, or in some cases by a change in the texture. For example the two squares of brown at the lower right side.

The texture of the foreground is generally more deep and complex than the blocks on the horizon, and in dirtier colours, as it would be, being closer to the viewer. This lets us see that the sky is bright and clear, and the foreground is in shadow. The foreground is without eye-catching detail, which leads my eye upward and out of it, as I suppose the domes would do in real life.

This is the jumbled and lively impression of a city rather than anything really representational. Which makes me look at the domes up against the sky as the most striking thing about the scene.

 The Red Balloon by Paul Klee

The mark-making in this painting seems to be much more about the texture of the background. Looking at it in higher magnification, I can see that the background marks are mostly short sections of grey, gold, or rust-coloured line, mostly horizontal or vertical, mostly not crossing each other. There are some areas (like in the bottom left hand corner), where they are more connected to each other in geometrical shapes, like the cracks in old lino or the surface cracks of skin. The shapes are almost all outlined with darker lines of paint in this painting.

The balloon and the other red areas are striking in that they do not have these lines on them, but are painted to produce highlights that make it look as if they have a soft sheen on their surfaces. This is accentuated by the outline being more 'fuzzy' on these areas. This and the curved line of the balloon, makes the viewer focus on these red areas, and particularly on the balloon itself.

I've picked three Van Gogh pictures from the web that look very different from each other.

 This is Self-portrait with bandaged ear.

To begin with it looks quite simple, almost childish rather untrained painting. I think this is because it doesn't look the way a portrait is 'supposed' to look. (From a classical point of view). And because the brush strokes are visible and large. As if it were done jabbing hard with the biggest brush in the pot.

Does smoke really look like that? He has painted in curls of lighter pigment and some wriggles coming from the bowl of the pipe.

There is a great contrast in textures between the face and the rest of the painting. The grain of the face is more delicate, and to a certain extent of the bandage. I guess it was done with a smaller brush, and with much less paint on it each time. The features are detailed and he has looked and seen the reality of their asymmetrical expression of feeling. He looks tired and as if he has given up. I think this is because of the slightly lowered eye lids and the lack of animation in his face. But also because of the colour of his skin, somehow. The shape and texture are represented by shadows and colour variations. In the rest of the painting the colours are more in blocks with the texture being shown by the brush strokes rather than detailed shadows or colour changes. The red area has texture added to it by scraping off paint in disconnected lines, by the look of it. The fur hat has more detail than the rest of the surroundings, with the brush strokes showing the messy furriness of it. The coat is interesting - the green seems to be painted over beige, leaving areas of wear, showing that it is an old coat.

It's probably obvious that I don't like this painting. Why? It doesn't really speak to me and I don't understand why Van Gogh is thought to be a great artist. This exercise hasn't yet converted me!

Van Gogh - Trees
This painting has so much texture in it it makes me want to step back a few paces. And for this subject that seems to be more appropriate somehow.

I see that the whole surface of the painting is covered in texture marks, so there's something super-real about it and it feels as if it's 3D and you could feel the knobbles of the surfaces with your fingers. The trees themselves are outlined, making them stand out from the textured surface of the rest of the picture. This even applies to the little ones in the background. It really is about the trees. The size of the people gives an idea of the huge scale of them, and also a slightly claustrophobic/ protective feeling from them being so close to the fronts of the houses.

The bark seems to be painted with layers of colour with short sharp lines of stronger colours on top. This works well to show the qualities of hardness and movement in the bark. There is more detail and more variety of colours in the trees than in the ground behind the or the strange grey lumpiness between them. Not sure what that is - perhaps something to do with the men kneeling next to the blocks on the right hand side. Perhaps they are building a wall there. The men are little more than outlines. The blocks, though, have striations and shadows of interesting colours. And the ditch they are working in seems to be moist because of the richness of the colours there and nowhere else.The strokes there are more complex and overlapping than elsewhere.

Van Gogh - The Starry Night
This one again has short hard strokes, this time of oil pastels I think, in this case being used to show the glowing auras around stars in the sky. This is much less realistic than the others, and more emphasising the feeling the scene gives out using the imagination. eg the swirling pattern of the sky and the magical pinnicle shape of the top of the tree (if that's what it is). The circular patterns around the stars are so different to the 'star-shaped' radiations usually drawn around stars that it makes you think, and you find that it is the way lights seem much more. The blues and yellows are too bright and artificial for them to be the real colours of the night sky, but they give a feeling of simple joy to the viewer.

Pablo Picasso - Torso of Venus

I saw this one when I did a web search and thought wow, the man could draw. You can really see it as a real woman by the texture of her bottom and thighs, despite her being truncated. Which makes me think about the depiction of women in this  way and feel somewhat offended by the thousands of years it has been done. Perhaps that was a point Picasso was trying to make?

There is a very accurate realistic outline, and then it  is filled with shading to show the fleshy texture. I particularly like the shading showing the ribs underneath, and the irregular shading demonstrating the dimples of the bottom.
Picasso - Au Cirque

I think this is just a little sketch, but I included it here because it shows the very clear and real line that Picasso was able to draw. For example the shape of the horse's back legs and neck look like a real horse does. And at the same time there is something prettily artificial about the mane and tail pencil strokes that lets us know this is an entertainment. He made it look so easy - the man was a genius.

In side the horse outline there are short strokes that tell us that this horse was slightly shaggier than we might expect. As if it has worked hard since it was last groomed.

Picasso - Woman Playing on the Mandolin
In this painting he has taken what he sees and rather than transferring it realistically onto the canvas, he appears to have taken the shapes of each part of the woman and of the background, and depicted them separately as if they were made of something hard and smooth. Like a carving out of wood or a model of cardboard. The colours have been chosen to accentuate the unusual shapes and texture rather than to illuminate the colours or texture of the woman. The breast stands out as being the most obviously rounded part of the subject, more round, and with more light on it, than anything else in the painting. The face is the most stylised of all the shapes in the picture, presumably intentionally so as not to distract. The shading in many parts is done with stippling or dots of a bluer grey. The mandolin itself is much more of its own natural shape than most of the rest of the picture, and closer to its natural texture. It's almost as if Picasso were saying this woman who is playing is set in stone.

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