Friday, September 15, 2017

Observing color and brushstrokes

This summer of travel and art adventures has been great. A recent trip to visit family in North Carolina and Georgia included a stop in New Jersey to deliver artwork to the John F. Peto Studio Museum* and a quick tour of the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. I especially enjoyed their McGlothlin Collection of American Art and since I'm about to embark on some serious, color study with Todd Casey, I found myself focusing on the kinds of color and value subtleties that make master paintings so compelling.

The collection includes this rather dark portrait by John Singer Sargent of Madame Errazuriz. Ignoring the light glare above her head, the brightest area appears to be the tip of the lady's nose. But, in Photoshop you can sample specific areas of color and then make larger squares of that color to compare with other areas of the painting. The lightest, pink square in the close up corresponds to the tip of her nose. The square below that is the darker pink of her cheek. The vibrant pink rectangle is a tiny highlight on her lip and the dark red is the overall lip color, yet her lips seem brighter than that! Her earlobe looks similar to her nose, but its actually darker than the nose and duller than the cheek.
classical 19th century realism
Madame Errazuriz by John Singer Sargent circa 1883
That hierarchy of value and color is not what I first thought I saw, but it makes sense because areas closer to the light source should be lighter - and something to remember when painting.  

Finally, to find the lightest area overall, I compared the nose highlight to the painting's background. The nose-highlight-pink is in the circle on the light area of the background (not the glare). It's quite a bit darker as you can see in this grayscale version below - so the lightest area of the painting overall is in the background, not any of the highlighted areas of her face, even though those areas draw your attention. Surrounded by darker, duller colors, they shine!

One of the things I love about visiting new museums is being introduced to artists I don't know, like Seymour Joseph Guy. The description by this painting says he is a "British-born, American artist working in the Victorian style of academic painting... during the era of Impressionists"! Not exactly a trend follower, this guy. I loved his sweet painting, At the Operaat first sight. Then saw the many colors and values of "white" in the close up - from her gloves to the fur trim on her dress. Plus the opera glasses with their "white" mother-of-pearl veneer are quite dark because the luminescent, pearly nature of nacre adds color and shadow to their white surface. So interesting.
Classical 19th century realism
At the Opera by Seymour Joseph Guy, 1887
 There is so much information to be gained about the artist's brushwork and technique seeing the work in person. Subtleties are not lost. The beautiful painting below is by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (also new to me). The energy of his brushstrokes and subtle variety of color can best be appreciated in real life, but you can get a sense of it by looking at the detail here. Amazing! You just want to touch that fabric!
portrait painting, realism
Portrait of Lydia Schabelsky, Baroness Staël-Holstein by Franz Winterhalter
I've been fortunate to see a lot of artwork this summer but have been missing my painting practice. I am back in the studio now, focused on improving my craft, armed with information gathered from so many masterly paintings and reinforced by color study drills in Todd's color wheel class. We're a determined group and working hard at this important classical practice. (More to come.)

Through all this, I'm thinking about what it takes to make a compelling, representational painting. Much of it has to do with observing and interpreting the qualities and character of the subject. These words of wisdom from a brilliant old master and a wonderful contemporary realist that seem especially true this week.

All our knowledge has its origin in our perceptions. (Leonardo da Vinci)
I feel as though I haven't seen an object until I actually start painting it. (Janet Fish)

*If you'd like to see some challenging realism you can visit the John F. Peto Studio Museum where the concepts of perception and reality might possibly fool your eye at the Tri-state Invitational Tromp L'oeil Exhibit. The show runs through through December 10th and I'm honored that two of my paintings are included. The Peto Museum is about two and a half hours from northern Westchester in a quaint, quiet neighborhood in Island Heights on the Jersey shore (there's a really nice B&B close by in Tom's River). If you go, stop in Point Pleasant along the way for antiquing. At least that's how I travel - always a vintage scavenger hunt for painting props along the way!

I hope your summer has been full of wonderful adventures!
letters and papers
Noteworthy (left) and Ticket to Ride (right). Both ©2017 Dorothy Lorenze

Thanks for joining me on my art journey.

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