|Gerard Wickham - Cat's Cradle - 2014|
|Giotto - The Adoration of the Magi - 1306|
|Raphael - The Small Cowper Madonna - c1505|
|Hans Holbein - The Ambassadors - 1533|
I’ve noted an exception to this rule. Royal portraits tended to be less restrained and often violated Renaissance ideals.
|Antoine-Francois Callet - King Louis XVI - 1781|
Certainly the introduction of complex, overall patterning in figurative painting pushes the work towards the decorative. Unfortunately, the term “decorative” has taken on a slightly pejorative taint, in that “decorative” is often considered the polar opposite of “substantive”. This should not be the case. Without a doubt, patterning is most commonly used to create an aura of lushness, abundance and voluptuousness. Besides pleasing and delighting the viewer, the patterning, if presented in sufficient complexity and detail, would provoke awe and amazement with the artist’s audience.
Many non-European cultures have embraced patterning as an essential element in their visual arts. And as I have said earlier, prior to the establishment of the Renaissance ideal, ornate patterning was common in European art, particularly in medieval manuscripts.
|French Medieval Manuscript - Mars, Venus and Vulcan|
|French Medieval Manuscript|
|Kitagawa Utamaro - The Prelude to Desire - 1799|
|Albert Joseph Moore - Red Berries - 1884|
|Edouard Vuillard - The Reader - 1896|
|Gustav Klimt - Adele Bloch-Bauer - 1907|
|Dora Carrington - Annie - 1925|
|Henri Matisse - Small Odalisque in a Purple Robe - 1937|
|Henri Matisse - La Musique - 1939|
|Balthus - The Turkish Room - 1963|
So, having given some thought as to how in two dimensional work patterning related to the figure, I thought that I would further explore this relationship in my next work, a self-portrait. I knew the emotional state that I wanted this next painting to convey. As always, being my own model, I was sure that I could convincingly project the mood I was after, but I wasn’t so certain that I could find the appropriate pattern to enhance that emotional state. I began searching through the house, pulling clothing out of closets and drawers, looking through discarded blankets and shawls in the laundry room, going from room to room examining curtains, even the sheets on each bed. Nothing I came across matched my needs. Then I remembered a patterned, light spread that my wife and I purchased on a trip to
I set up in my studio a working area correctly lighted and able to accommodate a mirror set upon a presentation stand. Then I attached a horizontal beam to an old easel, draped the spread over it and positioned the easel so the material would fill the space behind me. I began painting, sketching in elements and blocking in general tones. At some point, I brought my youngest son up to my studio to take a series of photographs of me striking my desired pose before my chosen background. Eventually, I discarded the mirror and used only the photographs as my source of information.
I had anticipated that this painting would require about ten sessions but found that progress was made a lot more slowly than I expected. Right from the start I was unable to “nail down” my composition, repeatedly making adjustments to the proportions and placement of the figure. I was tenacious, refusing to settle on “satisfactory” and continuing to make significant adjustments until very late in the process. While addressing the figure, I was also quickly and loosely summarizing the background patterning. Most essential, early on, was establishing the general tones against which the figure needed to function. The pattern proved to be fairly intricate, and I wasn’t certain how naturalistic I needed to be in documenting it. I would work on an area of the background over a session or two, feeling that I had developed a successful approach to addressing the patterning, only to discover upon subsequent evaluation that I hadn’t achieved what I was hoping for. I would rethink my approach and begin again. This happened several times while I was continuing to work up the figure. At one point, I was convinced that the figure was complete for the most part and I only needed to focus on the patterning. I wanted the patterning to assert itself powerfully without overwhelming the figure. I was seeking a balance. Also, initially, I had thought the background could be addressed in a very painterly fashion but upon execution found that this approach did not relate sufficiently with the paint handling used for the figure.
I reached an impasse somewhere in the middle of the entire process at which I could not determine how to address the patterning and, upon objective scrutiny, deemed the figure, though competently painted, to lack visual interest and dimension. With me, most paintings reach a crisis point at which, dissatisfied with the results of my efforts and unable to see a clear path to resolution, I contemplate throwing in the towel and moving on to a new project. Commonly, I’ll avoid my studio and seek to clear my mind while only occasionally scrutinizing my current work. When I came back to the canvas, I began by repainting the patterning with a greater sensitivity to light quality, nuance and detail. Once I had accomplished that, it became evident that the figure had to be painted anew. At the end of one session, I took my wet palette and raked it over the figure, creating a pale web of fine lines over my earlier work. I thought in order to see the figure with fresh eyes I had to distance myself from my earlier conception of how the figure was constructed and addressed. I must admit I was a bit shocked when I saw how much of my earlier efforts had been obliterated by my rash action. I had no choice but to tackle the figure once more, and I did so, this time deepening the shadows and emphasizing detail at the plane breaks in the face and torso. Even at this late stage, I continued to make major adjustments in the construction of the head, repositioning the eyes and mouth to better conform to the perspective suggested in the work. At last, I felt that the painting was starting to gel and began to work with greater determination, extending the length of and making more frequent my sessions in the studio. On June 7th, I finished my work on the painting.
|Gerard Wickham - Before the Greek Throw - 2015|
Viewing this short movie is probably more revelatory for me than doing so could possibly be for a more disinterested audience, but I believe that even a viewer who has never taken up a brush will find the process absorbing. The movie exposes a certain hesitancy on my part to commit to a course of action, particularly at the middle stages of this work. Watching the movie, I could feel palpably that at some point progress stalls while I choose to address peripheral issues in the work rather than tackle the handling of the figure. I was finding it difficult to surrender my original conception of how paint would be handled, especially in the patterning. So the painting began to meander. This is not surprising. Painting, at least for me, is a journey undertaken without a map or an itinerary. I approach a work with some firm ideas of what I want to accomplish, the statement I wish to make, the emotions I want to arouse, but I’m never sure how to realize these goals. That’s probably what both appeals to me and frustrates me about the process. Working out the path to accomplish these goals is seldom easy... but always interesting.
While bike riding with my youngest son last weekend, we stopped to take a breather on a bench when he asked me how I knew when a painting is finished. I’ll try to paraphrase my response here: A blank canvas is perfect. Upon putting my first stroke on a canvas, I’ve destroyed that perfection. Every subsequent stroke I make represents my attempt to reclaim that perfection, to address the faults inherent in my all too human efforts. A painting is complete when I arrive at a point at which I find I can live with its manifest deficiencies.
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