Wednesday, January 5, 2011

John Constable and a cameo for Lady Gaga

image from

The best known of the six footers is the Hay wain, shown above. I want to talk a little about why one might make a full sized sketch for a painting that size.

I don't find it particularly remarkable that Constable made these sketches. I have done full sized sketches for my own paintings. I did it for a couple of reasons and I assume that Constable did too. You can push a 24 by 30 around forever if things don't go well. A painting the size of the haywain could fight you nearly forever with it's reworking. By the time the battle is completed you may have the image, but it looks fought over. That is, passages have become too thick and there are pentimenti, or the slightly visible ghosts of previous parts of the image, now painted out. Also a painted passage looks best if it is painted authoritatively. That is more likely to happen when you know exactly what you intend to do, and do it, not as the result of reworking over and over again.
My own teacher, R.H. Ives Gammell, did this too, he painted complete versions of his allegorical pictures and then copied them to make the finished image. It seems laborious, and is. But it does solve the problem of a piece looking labored over. After making it once and with the full sized sketch as a guide it is relatively simple to make another copy of that, making small alterations and finessing things as you go.

Today there is so much attention paid to the sketches and I think it misplaced. They ARE interesting as a window into Constables working methods. But that's not why they are so popular. People today like them because they better fit our contemporary preference for looser more "expressive" art. While there is nothing that says you can't like them, I would caution you against missing the great beauty of the finished pieces which are the artists actual intent. The sketches were merely a step on the road to the creation of the finished salon pieces for Constable. They are how he wanted his ideas realized in their final form. Valuing historic paintings based on how much they fit our own times preferences brings with it some dangerous baggage.

When I was an art student, art history was thought to be progressive, and those pieces which "led to the triumph of modernism" were deemed important. Those which did not, were ignored, or like Bouguereau reviled. The idea that the art of our time is transcendent and all art before it matters only as shown by its reflected light is chronocentric ( yes, that is an invented word, I needed one to explain the idea, Oswald Spengler should have, but evidently didn't, perhaps chronological imperialism might be useful too)

For an example, let me turn to rock and roll, as I so often do. Despite the warm charm and prodigious wisdom of Lady Gaga, the Beatles are not better or worse because of the degree that they are her percuser. Their music was good because it was well made, even without it's influence on the delicate slaughterhouse songbird, Lady Gaga. If Lady Gaga proves to be a passing fancy, will that diminish what the Beatles did, will they need to be reappraised as leading to say....Ke$ha?

The Beatles wrote and played some great rock and roll, and had the multitalented meatdressed Gaga been stillborn, that would have still have been the case, despite her great chops.


Deborah Paris said...

Well, you have managed to do at least two pretty impressive things here Stape. First put the "why" of the six footer sketches in context-from the perspective of an artist's practice (something the art historians often completely fail to do) and to debunk the idea of art history as progression where "the story" is edited (or deleted) when it doesn't fit into the narrative of the current gatekeepers.

Deborah Paris said...

AND get Lady Gaga in a post about Constable!

Jim G. said...

Quote: "...despite her great chops."

Would that be pork chops or lamb chops?

Lots of great information in this post and in the whole series on Constable. Thanks for the insight.

Mike Thompson said...

To rephrase the old carpenter axiom:

Paint twice, enter once.

As for Lady Gaga, I always thought that she misread the C's as G's when she read back her name after the chemically enhanced brainstorming session with her manager.

Most people probably believe the purpose of two billion years of evolution is to produce them, so it is understandable that they think events in history are the causal products of their thoughts and actions today. That's why they choose Mega Million Lottery numbers based on their birthday, the last 4 digits of their social security number and the time they bought the ticket. They win 25 million bucks every week because that how it works.

ramon said...

Stape,I'm impressed. I'm 21 and I definitely can't keep up with what kids are listening to these days. I ran and got the Constable book you recommended (my school has it), I'm thoroughly enjoying it.



JonInFrance said...

Stape, that is a great post! Down with chronological imperialism, up with empathy with Constable's mind as he speaks to us personally across the yeats. Pretyy well every household in England used to have a copy of the Haywain somewhere/on something - I, above all, love it when the painter finds an image that has to be painted - because it has a deep, deep resonance. The idea that a great style makes anything interesting has its limits - it seems to me

Lucy said...

We should all heed these important lessons, both for our working methods and general philosophy about art making. (and art history)

The concept of making careful observations doing drawings, sketches, (small and large) is one that serves an artist well and goes a long way toward making better paintings. And it's so true, just because a painting has some "free" brushstrokes doesn't always make it magnificent.

Thank you for a superb series on Constable!

Bill Guffey said...

Wicked good post!

Makes me want to slow down, take my time, and really study. Thanks.

Simone said...

Lady Gaga has warm charm and prodigious wisdom? Guess I really am missing something by not knowing who the he## she is let alone having never heard her sing. Unless she does a duet with Greg Brown or Antsy McClain I probably never will ....Thanks for the insight into Constable's methods.

Woodward Simons said...

Stape, thanks for this post. I'm always amazed at how artists can pull together a great painting on the spot (plein air) in fact, I admired watching your demos during the workshop.

However, I am the type who enjoys doing preliminary thumbnails, sketches, color studies before embarking on the final project. Your post here has given me confidence to continue with my own approach.

Have fun at Snow Camp this month!

Steve Baker said...

Another good post Stape, thanks. I need to work from sketches myself. I paint outside sometimes, I do 2-3 hour still lives. Then I try and fix what I screwed up. That much of the post makes perfect sense. But... seeing Spengler and Lady Gaga so close on the page sent my brain spinning of kilter.

billspaintingmn said...

You can always count on Rock and Roll to get a point across. (At least as long as we baby boomers are still here) Maybe a band will come along and put rock back on a roll.
Speaking of Beatles, when they releast "Anthology" it put the
practice sessions on stage. People enjoyed it.
But the releast versions are the ones they ment for us to hear or know as "the song"
I've been to concerts where the band does a version of a song that is dubbed "live" as supposed to the studio release.
Sometimes the live version has an energy the studio didn't. Anyway the bigger picture,(no pun intended) is that these bands knew there songs so well they could play them upside down and backwards
and the audience called out for more!
I think Constable rehearsed his paintings, (or songs) so well, the viewer could experience what the artist felt in his heart and soul about the place he so dearly loved.
I think Constable wanted us to know
these places as he did.
What a cool guy he must have been to do this for us.

Martyn Chamberlin said...

Very well said Stape. It took genius to compose this blog post! It's a polished work of art - not a mere sketch. :)

MCG said...

Want your bad romance

She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

HUGE culture gap.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Well put, the Gatekeepers part.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I wondered if anybody would get that,

Stapleton Kearns said...

Draw twice paint once, good advice.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hi again.I pay little attention to what the kids are listening to today. But Gaga is inescapable.My kids think she is gross.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

It is good to do studies but many good things are also made by impressionist winging it too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. I am slowing down too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't think that will happen soon.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Lady W:
Thanks, I am looking forward to snowcamp.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Spengler wrote about the problems in studying history from the viewpoint of a fixed spot on a timeline. Tough reading.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Nice analogy but I wish they wouldn't remaster all those old tunes.

Stapleton Kearns said...

No, I did it myself. No geniuses were involved.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Maybe you had to be there.

Steve Baker said...

I tried to wade thru Spengler once. Tough ain't the word pal, that stuff is too dense for me. It was like chewing on a brick.