Sunday, April 5, 2009

About restraint
What follows is my opinion, and I am making a case for that opinion.

But it is only my view on something that is rather subjective.

A lot of what an artist does, grows from his strongly held opinions. You like this, you don't like that. You may, in a late night bull session hold opposite views at once. However when you work on the canvas you must paint one way or a different way. At execution you are philosophically on the line because some ideas must triumph and others be left unused. So what follows is useful as a peek into how I think about painting and I hope you enjoy that.

I received a comment yesterday about the limited palette I had used for the small painting I posted. Now I don't always use this palette, but sometimes I do. I started to think about why I was working on a limited EARTH color palette. There have been a lot of artists in recent years working on three color palettes but they have generally been a cadmium yellow, some blue ,usually ultramarine and alizirin or a cad red deep. That's a bright chromatic palette and it allows the painter to make a wide range of different notes. Why would I want to limit myself to an earth color palette that would narrow the colors I could make so much? In a word, RESTRAINT.

Have you ever heard a six year old play an electric guitar? An electric guitar wants to shriek like the damned, and can easily be made to rattle the neighbor ladies dentures right there in the little glass by her bed. Hell, just turn up the amp and drop the thing. ( yes I know about Lennon and the first note of " I feel fine", do you?)
A fine musician can make the guitar whisper, sing lyrically, softly weep, or snarl like hellhounds on my trail. They have control of their instrument. Its nature is to shriek, skill makes it obey the artist who plays it.

Well, oil paint is like that too. It sits there on the palette in its very concentrated colors, in fact we prize the colors that are most concentrated. Cheap paint lacks pigmenting strength. Get that six year old over here and you can get the same result as in our guitar example. Paint wants to shriek, that is its' nature. If you walk through the studios of an art school, the paintings are all thrashing, seizing , and howling gibberish like flaming demons on bathtub amphetamines.
Much of contemporary painting is over colored and has a cheapshot kind of carnival tawdriness, a loudness and insistent grinding hype and clamor, like flyspecked yellow light bulbs flashing on and off on the dirty white plywood signs for a girlie show.

Look at me! Hey buddy, over here! Step right up, Git yer fine art! Got art here!

We're flowers the color of lifesavers and gumdrops, and we're the size of ottomans. We're hard candies the colors of radium and transmission fluid. We're 1940's tinplate toys airbrushed with candyflake enamel, as big as jetskis and we're covered with water droplets and highlights, backlit and outlined in black. You bet your ass we're going to get noticed above your sofa.

When I see the historic art of our culture in a museum, The Rubens, Rembrandts, Bouguereaus, and Sargents, to name a few, I notice how understated their color is, for the most part. There are some very bright colors, but they are usually accents or they are balanced by a grave note of equal or usually greater importance.. When I see their art I feel like most of the painting today is VULGAR .

We almost all paint a whole lot noisier than the masters, myself included. The art market often rewards it too. I feel like the contemporary taste has made many of our audience into crows who snap at shiny baubles and glittering bits of tinsel. Contemporary art magazines are full of this disco ball kind of painting. And because some painters try to draw attention to their art by making it even more garish than the next artists' in the magazine they are in a sort of chroma arms race. Its like showing up at a battle of the bands with an air raid siren.
( disclaimer: I am of course not talking about you, your favorite artist, or anyone you have ever met, I mean, those OTHER people)

The subdued color in the great paintings of our history gives them a elegance that comes from restraint. They have power in reserve. They stay behind their frames and appeal to the best in you. They don't pull their pants down at you. That's why you can see a great painting over and over and enjoy it with out tiring. It respects you, it expects discrimination and rewards those who wait for its ethereal logic. A great painting doesn't squeal for our attention by storming our senses like a six year old playing a detuned stratocaster with the neighbor ladies false teeth.

Rembrandt has painted this girl above, with her gown hiked up to the top of her full thighs and yet the painting is not vulgar. In fact she has an enormous dignity The reserved color of this painting makes it elegant and anything but pornographic. Very few painters today would handle such a subject without getting a gritty mens' magazine result, best for hanging in the washroom of an out of business Jiffy lube. They would paint it in lifelike, and natural colors, making her the naked girl they hired to stand in their studio by the hour, except for ten minute breaks when she prattles on about her commitment to the environment, Cosmo magazine zen and her, like, hair color.

Rembrandt's woman is not going to embarrass us with shallow chatter, if she spoke at all, what she said would be eternal and informed by having met life and its trials, and survived with grace. This is the kind of woman you could depend on at your side. She is strong. This woman would tower over the blathering late night starlets and the dancing manufactured teen singers in their thongs and hair extensions.
Madame Tussauds has figures in natural color and they are ghoulish, the marbles of Houdon look just fine without. More realism isn't always the best thing at all. It is the restraint of presentation that elevates a painting to noble poetry. It removes it from the commonplace of our experience and shows us nature in a different and heightened manner.

Restraint is taste. I don't mean timidity, look at the dazzling light on the figure and the supreme confidence with which Rembrandt has chopped out the squared off forms of that hand and arm. The painting radiates confidence and power. Restraint is not weakness, it is control over the medium. Rembrandt sometimes painted in much brighter color so we know he had the means at his disposal to do so. He chose to make this painting limited in color.

So I am using that earth color palette to achieve restraint, I am trying to use less color than is actually before me . I want to hold back from the commonplace naturalness of Kodachrome and get the detached and elegant, the different from average vision that sets a thing towards poetry and away from the matter of fact. I am not a realtor telling you," there's the kitchen and the bath is right over here."

Many of the great artists of our recent history have painted in a restrained sort of color, like Wyeth, Hopper and Pollack. So it can be done.

Gee, I was going to be nice today, Tomorrow, I'll put in another picture of a baby animal maybe. Or a happy little clown or something. Maybe some wax fruit.


willek said...

Just another in a long list of great posts, Stape. Lots of meat and potatoes in there.

There is a big movement in a many circles now to push the color really hard, as you say, and those paintings do command attention at shows, but you have put into words what I have long been coming to believe. I guess the big lesson is that each picture needs its own consideration before one starts to paint.

I am fascinated with these limited pallets and was amazed with the gamut that ivory black, Tit. white, Cad red and Cad yellow could produce. I used a pallet knife to make different combinations and then added yellows and white to lighten them about 5 values each. The blues and purples surprised me. But I can't wait to try it with indian red and yellow ochre.

In the late sixties I studied with Chris Gorey, A Museum School grad, now a Canadian Citizen and painting in Cape Bretton. He advocated a hot and cold pallet of three primaries as you have described. He also tagged Ultramarine as hot and it might have been cerulean or prussian as cold. But aren't phthalo or other yellow blues considered warm too? lately I have been using Phthalo blue Ultramarine. I really have no "cold" ( pure) blue on my pallet. I don't really seem to miss it And I thought that prussian blue was considered to be somewahat impermanent ; that it darkened over time. No? Wrong color maybe. Thanks, willek

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think of Ultramarine as warm and reddish and pthalo as cold. supposedly it is a violet blue but it looks ice cold to me. I almost never use pthalo as I find it too electric. Its pigmenting strength is so great that it is out of step with the rest of the palette.I use Prussian because it has less of that electric problem and I like that it leans towards green. Prussian is relatively permanent if it is of good quality, or so I have been told. the earlier Carlsons and Hibbards paintings are painted with Prussian and are almost 100 years old, they seem to be okay.I also use a Prussian hue sometimes which is a doctored pthalo and I like it as well as the real thing.
Cerulean is a great sky blue. It has however become expensive and hard to find. The hues are dreadful....Stape

willek said...

Thanks, Stape. Again, very helpful. WillEK

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