Sunday, February 21, 2010

Finish in impressionist painting

Willard Metcalf, Gloucester

Above; Dennis Miller Bunker

I wanted to begin talking about finish by establishing that it is normal, and that fast and loose is not the only way to paint the impressionist landscape. I know that today there is a big trend toward one shot plein air work, but when you go to the museum to see impressionist work, the overwhelming number of them are not one shot paintings. I know that I am more interested in historicism that many of you are, and that's fine, it just interests me. But I like to try and get my roots down into our cultures history. The history of impressionist painting is not written in one shot 5 by 7's. I should restate that there is nothing wrong with the one shot thing, just that there is another way to go, and I prefer it. There are purists out there who have organizations that use some kind of a formula to determine if a piece is plein air or not. I don't join those organizations. I don't qualify. I do what ever it takes to make the painting. If that means returning for several days or working on a piece in the studio, that's fine with me.


Above and below are two paintings by Camille Pisarro. They are both impressionism, full of brushwork and color. They have life, vitality and aren't one shot paintings. They also have lots of drawing in them. They are not sloppy or careless in their handling. Every bit of them is carefully considered. The bar is set pretty high here. These are demanding pictures for an artist to make.

Notice the careful drawing in the tree on the right in the image above. It has been studied out. It is THAT tree and not a symbol for every tree. This is a drawing of the tree that is sure and highly finished. Incidentally none of these paintings are small, all are of middling size.

The Pissaro above contains all sorts of detail and it is all drawn out. It is shown in a sort of brushy shorthand, but that reflects the sureness of Pisarros drawing. If you want to get finish in your paintings you will have to be a good draftsman. Impressionist paintings that have more finish contain more drawing. So if I could throw out a first principle of finishing paintings, get the drawing "right". By right I don't mean so tightened up as to remove the playful brushwork and evocative description that is the fun in an impressionist painting, it is drawing of a different sort. Impressionist drawing is understated and related to the whole of the painting, it keeps its place within the general unity of the canvas.


Mary Byrom said...

This is very interesting. How do you know when its finished ? How much is enough and what is too much? How often have you gone "beyond" finishing? I think it is different for every painter due to their style and approach. Thinking here of Hudson River School style painters versus Gruppe or Metcalf. I'm seeing a number of contemporary painters who call themselves impressionist and I don't know why they do. They seem to be an amalgamation of more than that. (I've seen these in the American Impressionist Society)

Unknown said...

I tend to call some of these painters "stylized realists".

Sidharth Chaturvedi said...

Wow, thanks for introducing me to another incredible artist (Pisarro). The drawing in those pieces is awesome.

Incidentally, I've started landscape painting for class this month. It's nice to get to apply all the stuff I've been learning on your blog for the last year. said...

Good Morning Satpleton! Victory! I knew you'd win and get what you want on your canvas. I get muddled when I can't decide what to go for.

Mary, one of my teachers ( a very very good figurative realist)said; "A painting is only "Finnished" if you are from Finland". From this I took that any artist can always find more to fuss with in the painting that becomes more about artist than the painting. We have to know what the painting needs, the decisions to be made inorder to paint the best painting that it is.

I like your idea of quick studies as sketches and thumbnail references to get to the "big picture." Looking at my snow camp picture in indoor lighting makes me see everything it needs to hang together to make it a painting. It looks like the scene fine enough but a painting it is not.

Carl Samson said...

Thanks for this post, Stape. Sid Willis once described the difference as a short story writer versus a novelist. I do enjoy a quick study from time to time. But I definitely was not born a one shot short story guy. Consequently, I feel a bit disconnected from much of the plein air work going on today. It's not uncommon for me to return seven or eight times on larger pieces - sometimes over a couple of years, to finish a landscape. In any case, this is a very important distinction you are making here. Too may have come to believe there is but one way.

Diane Hutchinson said...

I fear the artist's need to label his or her art greatly limits them. Do your sketches, carefully execute your drawings so that the composition is exactly as you want it, do a value study first to make sure the light is right. Then begin painting...Simple! Never let the joy evaporate out of the process. As one section of a painting is drying, I move on to another. This way, each painting is fresh. Your own style will develop. Does it need a label?? I think not.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

I'm guilty of doing lots of one-shot 5x7s - and even larger one-shot sizes. But these pieces always go onto my "viewing mantle" where I can study them, and I almost inevitably take them to the studio for adjustment. I have, on occasion, taken larger pieces back repeatedly to a site. Hm - maybe I'll do that this week!

Kevin Kasik said...

It's a fine balancing act, and one that I struggle with on every good painting 'keeper' or bad 'frisbee'.
Richard Schmid said retouching has positive value, and also that a painter needs to be a dual self; someone to paint a worthy image, and the other to keep him from spoiling it... Hawthorne said that many times you take a fine sketch into the studio to finish it and "you really do 'finish' it..." In a Van Gogh's letter to Theo while in Arles he rues the spoiling of a cherry orchard that started out well and finished in the ash can. All this aside, I welcome your theme. Secret; even on my purist landscapes painted en plein air, they are at most 85% outdoor / 15% retouch - especially to better key colors and refine edgework. Thanks for your writing; since the Impressionism show is in S. F. in a month or two, I think I'll copy your thoughts to the group as a meditation on the subject. Again, thanks -

Deborah Paris said...

Thanks for posting the Dennis Miller Bunker-He is a favorite of mine.

More and more, I work from drawings done on location and memory. I find memory, when trained , to distill and intensify the essentials of the place. Carlson had some great things to say about working from memory and the tyranny of the real.

Robert J. Simone said...

Like Mary, I also wonder why some painters call themselves or are called impressionist. Like Deborah, I am discovering the value of drawing and working from drawings. Her's are not bad footsteps to follow.
Besides, good drawing is fun!

Saw some nice Pissaro's at the AIFAF in West Palm Beach a couple of week's ago. Wanted to bid on them but alas, no family fortune to draw on.

CM said...

There was a paperback book written in the sixties by Selden Rodman entitled "Conversations with Artists". In his interview with Alexander Calder (page 140) he asked Calder how he knew when a piece was finished. Calder answered, "WHEN THE DINNER BELL RINGS!".

Sometimes paintings are finished before we think they are and we could use a dinner bell to stop us couldn't we.
Corinne McIntyre

Charlie said...

Stape, thanks for a wonderful blog! (Now, just tell where the first post about lead ins are...)

Taking part in the discussion: Impressionism doesn't consist of sloppy haphazard painting and stabbed brushmarks, it is a school concerned with the colour of light. As such, it can be very sketchy, or very tight. Degas painted from photographs, in painstaking layers that ended up looking airy. Monet cultivated the myth that he did all paintings on location, but got too upset when accused of painting from a photo of the Parliament in London... He had, at the end, no less than four studios on his property -- wonder why...

Stape, would you agree that the impressionist drawing doesn't come first, but only after the major shapes have been painted?

mike rooney studios said...

i'm in the one shot camp proud to say. fast yes, sloppy no.there are as many ways to paint as there are painters. some work on them for a few hours, some a few days. who's to say whats right or whats wrong when it comes to making a personal/graphical statement. i liked samsons novel vs. short story analogy. so right carl!

Philip Koch said...

Good post.

It takes a long time to figure out where you want to go with a painting- sometimes days, sometimes years. Some of my best pieces fell into the last category.

"Finishing" a painting is really about clarifying how you imagine the painting- fleshing out where it could be terrific and pursuing that with determination.

billspaintingmn said...

God Bless You Stape!
When you said,"I do what ever it takes to make the painting, I could relax~!
Lately I've been doing(or trying to do)a stroke laid, a stroke stayed.
I get a bit angry because some strokes don't quit hit the "target"
and I'd like a more accurate look.
So I felt I would be cheating if I wiped & tried again.(And I'm trying to be brutely honest, Honestly!)
Also I like and can tell that you have a passion for historical.. I respect that very much Stape!
So If I "Tweedle" or "Twaddle" to
get my desired look, I have artistic licence for this?

Tom said...

Hi Stape
Wow I love the eye level Pissarro, it is so into the picture. It feels like a big rectangle he carries us down the street up the trees and architecture on the near side then across the street via the clouds down the tree on the other side back to the start via the line of people. The people the clouds the trees and even the architecture line up on straight lines. Everything seems to be about parallel lines. The figures and the trees also tend to form pediments if one includes the ground plane as the base of the pediments

I mention Vernon Blake a few post ago and a quote I think you get a kick out of in regards to finish, ‘ “Modern European representational artist by which I mean artist who try to paint pictures as like the real subject or effect as possible, seem to be broadly divided into classes: those who aim directly at the effect, as Monet, Sisley, or Renoir; and those whose first preoccupation is the actual solidity of tangible objects, the effect only being considered in the second place. Such a painter was Cezanne. This second class is by far the more rare. Obviously you must choose for yourself your own line of march; and success will probably attend you in proportion to the degree of clearness with which you make up your mind as to exactly what you are aiming at. The usual failing of most amateur work is vagueness of primal intention; or as I have said elsewhere, failure to analyze correctly wherein lies particular charm of the subject whether in form, chiaroscuro, or color.”

jeff said...

It's interesting to note that the small paintings done by all the landscape painters from Contestable on through Metcalf were meant as studies for larger works. I suppose most were done in the studio and in the case of the Impressionist they really moved the studio outside.

In doing some research on Sorolla I found some photos of him painting a huge canvas on the beech. The canvas had all sorts of guy ropes and he had wind breakers and umbrellas set up. It was quite the set up. From what I read he would return to the spot with models for days on end.

I'm more of the kind who does the small ones as sketches in the hope that they will lead to a larger studio work. Nothing wrong with one shot paintings but I always thought that part of painting was invention and composition which I have always thought needed a larger canvas size than 5 x 7 inches.

I also like making a painting from drawings done on the spot with color notes.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have certainly killed a painting in the studio. But I wouldn't have worked on it if I had thought it was OK the way it was. So I only lost a flawed picture.
I think a painting is finished when I can't figure out how to make it any better..
I don't think Gruppe did much studio work, but he did have a nice studio on Rocky Neck for some reason.

Stapleton Kearns said...

All of those painters fall well within the recognized category of impressionists. If you look in the impressionist wing of your local museum you will find them there.I chose them for that reason to illustrate the post.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I hope something from this blog is of use to you in the at class.

willek said...

Just got in from 4 days of on site painting in Northern Vermont. What a place! There is a painting over every hill and around every bend. Thanks Terry for the answer about Gruppe. Great post tonight stape. I don't know where I stand on this matter. I love to bang out a good painting in a few hours, but I hate to throw the ones that miss away and I love geting a good one out of a mediocre start. There is a lot to chew on in your post and in the comments today. Great blog.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There are, as we have discussed, a number of wats to skin a cat.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Coming from you I shall take that as high praise.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I agree a painting does not need a label. The only thing that matters is the way it looks. Still sometimes it is good to have terminology for different approaches to painting, with out which it would be difficult to explain that which we are discussing.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Another cat skinned via an alternate method.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Please tell the group that these thoughts come from a an artist who has made many Frisbees.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I was told once by a senior mentor that the last chapter of Carlson, that on memory was the most important.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think I will go after an answer on that tonight.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I used to joke that a painting is finished when it was sold. By that I meen that the job isn't done until it is delivered to the dealer, framed, marketed and sold.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am going to do a post on impressionism tonight.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I get way to hung up on what the pictures actually look like. How long or short a time they took to make is of only passing interest to me.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. I like that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You have that license, or you don't.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sorolla was such a giant. He did little ones and huge ones. What an artist!

Stapleton Kearns said...

I am glad you agree on the usefulness of Northern Vermont. I think it is good to do whatever works.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks for the quote."The usual failing of most amateur work is vagueness of primal intention; or as I have said elsewhere, failure to analyze correctly wherein lies particular charm of the subject whether in form, chiaroscuro, or color.”

Anonymous said...

DaVinci said "A painting is never finished, only abandoned"; but I think he was referring to the totality of the artist's career. That makes it easier to burn those worthy of it, knowing the piece is just one small step in the process.

Clem Robins said...

Good article. Trying to hit a reasonable degree of finish has obsessed me, and i haven't figured out yet how to do it. All I know is that ragged drawing does not appeal to me, nor can I imagine it appealing to a paying customer.