I started this painting on site with a pleine aire painting group. It’s nice to get out of the studio in a very satisfying location both environmentally and socially. It was a perfect day. There was not a cloud in the sky and the temperature hovered in the mid 70s with low humidity. What more could I ask? I’m very easy to please with perfect!
The owner of the farm had a barn painted in a not usual color—yellow. The strong sunshine and consequently strong shadows reminded me of the paintings of Edward Hopper. He was a modern realist whose simplified, austere landscapes expressed an alienation and loneliness of twentieth century American life. He was particularly attracted to what he called the vernacular architecture of rural America. With variations on the theme, it was a characteristic he stayed with all of his life.
For my painting above, the side of the barn with the singular tree against the pale yellow and bright white of the barn in the sun seemed perfect for an homage to Hopper. The difficult part was maintaining a pared down, simplified look without getting caught up by the textures of the masonry foundation and the complexity of the leaf masses. The tree was repainted several times because I had gotten to fussy. The difficulty was in deciding what degree of detail was required in communicating the feel of the tree crown. It had to be in keeping with the more flat, detail limited landscape and surfaces of the building.
It’s the starkness that I wanted to convey. From the descriptors ‘austere’ and ‘simplified’ one would think it might be less difficult but, it’s not. It’s not any less difficult than any other painting except non-objective abstract painting. Nothing is more challenging.
I often get the question, “Why nude figures?” The question has multiple answers. Bear with me dear reader. I’m a teacher and I have at least three answers. The first answer is art historical. The history of western art is based on the art of ancient Greece first with illustrations of myths on pottery and then figures as bronze sculptures. Their entire ouvre is dominated by beautiful, powerfully built, nude men engaging in all sorts of activities. There are very few nude women until the late classical period. Of course, the Romans plundered all the bronzes and melted them down for armor but, not before copying them in stone, preserving them until they were rediscovered during the Renaissance. These Roman copies inspired Michelangelo’s monumentally heroic figures. All of western European art is based on what was saved of ancient Greek art by the Romans.
The second answer is about learning how to draw and paint the human form. It’s difficult to learn how the body is put together when clothes are in the way. Imagine the how much clothing people used to wear. Women wore layers and layers of underclothing as well as outer garments. The answer is having the model unclothed in order to see the structure and exactly how the light plays across the body. Then drawing with clothing becomes more believable. Once one has gained some knowledge of anatomy, it becomes easier to depict the drape of fabric on the body.
Since the nude dominated the classical Greek art and then later European art, the acquisition of skill in rendering the nude figure became a requirement of any artist seeking a commission. Women were at a distinct disadvantage in this regard as they no right to an education let alone a right to undertake the study of life drawing. Even in instances when women did become artists, they were part of dynastic art making families. Many times they were taught to paint in order to help out in the studio, but not to read. Women weren’t admitted to instruction until the end of the academic system in an attempt to keep it alive. But access to a nude human model was still a problem. There is a painting titled The Life Class depicting women engaged in drawing from life. The model is a cow! The human nude model, especially the male nude model, was considered too indelicate for female students. Oh, the vicissitudes!
The third answer is my personal answer and relates to they way I make watercolors of the model. I paint directly without the benefit of any penciling. When the model is nude I mix just two flesh tones: a light and a dark. I add intermediate tones later after the figural image is somewhat established. When someone is clothed the flesh tones are interrupted by clothing. I have to put down where the flesh tone should be in relation to the clothing and how the clothing sits on the body. When someone is wearing a white shirt, as in the above images, no paint goes down at all until I am ready to indicate the folds in the shirt. I have to paint around the shirt because with transparent watercolor there is no white paint. There is only the white of the paper. I have to save the paper white. It’s an added complication to an already complex subject matter. The tradition of the nude study is so long and so ingrained in western art its hard to take it out of the realm of study. Introducing the clothed figure can help do that. It is something each figure artist needs to learn and master.