Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What to Look for in Art, Cont'd

So far, I have described the basic underpinnings of a process. Soon, this process will enable you to read the language of color.

Does that sound odd? 

Essentially, you are learning how to read color in the same way you learned to read letters, words, and sentences.

Learning to read the English language took some time, did it not?  This will also.

Before I explain the “why” of all this, why it matters to learn to read color, why you must understand the difference between the subject used and the picture created, and why artists adapt relevant visual ideas in order to make pictures, I will review.

This past year, I assisted colleagues in a class of 4th graders at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary School in Philadelphia.  None of the children knew how to draw or paint, nor had they taken classes in art appreciation.  The school did not have an art teacher. 

During the initial classes dealing with use of the subject and the adaptation of tradition, we focused on portraiture. 

We showed the children these two paintings by Picasso:

Picasso, The Old Fisherman (Salmerón), Museu de Montserrat, Barcelona, 1895         


Picasso, Portrait of Madame H.P. (Hélène Parmelin), Collection Edouard Pignon, 1952

They quickly did the math:  Picasso painted the portrait of Hélène Parmelin 57 years after The Old Fisherman.  Born in 1881, they figured out Picasso was 14 years old when he painted The Old Fisherman.  Definitely impressed, they wondered why anyone who could paint like that (meaning skillfully—so it looked like the model) at 14 would not continue to do so.

That’s the lesson here, isn’t it? 

The children described the differences between the two pictures quite readily, and even though they liked the Fisherman more, they focused on Hélène.  In fact, one student described the depiction of her “hair” as “oodles of noodles.”  Another student renamed the picture “Spaghetti Hair.”  Notice, they went straight for the qualities expressed by the color units.  This enabled them to discover “clues” that assisted their visual discoveries.

I posed for them so they could use me as their subject, gave them paper and Cray-Pas, and they went to work.

Me posing
 Here are some portraits the students made:



The children learned from Picasso how to pattern, how to flatten, and how to select key color shapes to make their pictures.  They used certain details of my dress, my hair, and my visual quality in general as starting points.  Their pictures are a result of their experience of me (the subject) and Picasso (a way of seeing—a tradition).

The transformation of subject into color along with adaptation of tradition for visual ideas fuels picture making. 

I learned this years ago when my daughter, then 8 years old, worked in my studio along with several of her friends.  I showed them H.P. then as well, and they hated it.  They told me it was “ugly.”   I tried to argue that, in the picture, Hélène was not a woman, just a color shape.  “If she looked like this in real life,” I said, “you could call her ugly.”  But this is a picture; it is not her.  They were not convinced.

Months later, my daughter used two Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls as a subject.

Using watercolors, she painted this picture:

When I suggested to her that her picture was “informed” by what she had seen in Picasso’s, she claimed she never had seen a Picasso portrait.  I had to produce it again and show it to her. Then she argued hers was nothing like Picasso’s, that Picasso’s was ugly, and she hated it, and hers was just the way the dolls looked, just the way she saw them.

The compressed space, the repetition of patterns, the overlapping units of “hair,” the stark simplicity of the cubist arrangement, all of that, according to her, was just the way it looked.

Consider what she said.  She said she saw those dolls just the way they were, just the way they looked. 

I call this “informed perception.”  She learned to see through Picasso’s eyes, and that “seeing” transformed her subject into a picture idea.  No one else in that class “saw” those dolls the way she did, nor did I until she made her picture.  While she believed she was literally copying them, you can see how she made a color statement.  Her vision had been “educated” and she “saw” what she decided to see.

While this may sound mysterious and bizarre, it is neither.  Artists see this way every time they make a picture, and you need to learn to see this way to understand their work.

Consider another example concerning the use of subject.  When I told you before the subject did not determine what the picture is, this is also true in other art forms.

Here are two poems, both inspired by daffodils.

To Daffodils, Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Fair daffodils, we weep to see
You haste away so soon;
As yet the early-rising sun
Has not attained his noon.
Stay, stay,
Until the hasting day
Has run
But to the even-song;
And, having prayed together, we
Will go with along.

We have short time to stay, as you;
We have a short a spring;
As quick a growth to meet decay,
As you, or anything.
We die,
As your hours do, and dry
Like to the summer’s rain;
Or, as the pearls of morning dew,
Ne’er to be found again.

 I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the starts that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in a never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Both Herrick and Wordsworth used daffodils as a starting point, but each of them discovered in that subject very different meanings based on their individual backgrounds, interests, and skills.  

If we wanted to understand each poem, we would need to know how to read poetry: the language of poetry is word sounds.  We would listen to each poem as we read it and hear how it builds its form from rhythm, imagery, and ideas.  We would experience it.

When an artist subjects a subject to his interest, he makes visual discoveries he then shares by transforming them into a medium of expression. 

John Ciardi, in his book How Does a Poem Mean? says the question we need to answer is not “what does a picture mean?” but “how does a picture mean?”

In the next post, I will explain how the “how” informs the “why.”  I’ve said this process helps you understand the art in art.  I have not explained yet, although you may have sniffed it out by now, the role your senses play.

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