A couple of days ago I started painting a picture from a photo of a friend’s miniature dachshund named Cocoa. Here’s a progress report.
First I copied the picture onto canvas in charcoal, highlighting the light and dark areas. With so many shapes and circles it’s beginning to remind me of painting by numbers!
Second day and I can’t decide where to start. At first Cocoa’s coat seems to be a variety of different browns, so I think it might be a good idea to paint it tonally using burnt umber and turpentine. So that’s what I do.
The under-painting isn’t working and I start to forget where I am. I realise that Cocoa’s coat is more blue than brown so I apply a mix of ultramarine and zinc white to see what effect this has.
I put down my brush stating that I can’t paint dogs! The voice of reason (wife) says, ‘You say that every time you start a painting.’ I think that she might just be right, but only just, and press on.
It’s getting late and I fancy a drink so with part of the coat complete I decide to have another go tomorrow.
Third day. Something odd happened during the night, the painting seems to have improved. I’ve noticed this effect before so, encouraged, I press on – despite the hangover.
I continue blocking in then move on to the background to see how different colours work with Cocoa.
The photo was taken on the beach. Cocoa is sitting on the sand and the background is a jetty wall. Painting in the stone mortar creates an impressionist feel which boosts my confidence, I think I can complete this!
It’s getting dark so I’m off to bed. I take the painting upstairs and show Helen. She likes it a lot, particularly the background trees. Still, even voices of reason get it wrong sometimes!
The Romans called it a memento mori, some object that reminds you life is short and one day we all die. It is a concept that is often explored by artists, it can be seen in the painting and sculpting of bones and skulls found in medieval and Victorian England and on Puritan tomb stones in the United States.
It can be expressed in the words, Tempus fugit, meaning, ‘time flies’ which even today are still written alongside clocks.
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrates and reminds us of those who have already died.
Signs that life is short are everywhere in art, the often quoted Latin phrase, ‘ars long vita brevis,’ dates back to the Greek physician, Hippocrates; tells us that life is short, but art endures.
In an interview George Harrison once spoke about all those books he probably would never read.
‘Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend,’ is a well known Beatles quote, the unintentional irony of which was later revealed through the many legal wrangles that hounded the Beatles right up until the present day. What a waste.
So perhaps today is the best time to start completing all those things we keep putting off.
Time is short, and as Shakespeare said: ‘our little life, is rounded with a sleep.’ A sleep at the beginning and a sleep at the end. The time to do things is now. And if you haven’t had enough already, here’s another quote:
The happy days are here and now.
Now is the time to laugh and live, drink all the wine,
Sing all the songs that live can give.
Our yesterdays are dead and gone,
Tomorrow lives so far away,
So be alive and think of now as the happy days.
(The Happy Days – Charles Aznavour)
And finally, one more:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Years ago I went to the local library to ask if they had any books by Joseph Addison. ‘You mean Addison and Steele?’ the librarian said. ‘I don’t know,’ I shrugged.
‘You haven’t heard of Addison and Steele?’ She paused. I hadn’t, but realised that I was about to get a lecture. For those of you who like me, didn’t know, Joseph Addison was an 18th century essayist, playwright and poet who together with Richard Steele, founded the Spectator. The title of this blog, is Joseph Addison’s.
The idea that education sculptures the human soul is an attractive conceit and reminds me of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting of Pygmalion and Galatea in which the figure is emerging from the block of white marble and kisses her creator.
For an artist however education is often thought to be a stumbling block to human creativity. The cliched idea of the primitive noble savage creating art instinctively is contrary to Addison’s thoughts on the soul needing to develop through teaching and instruction. Picasso, whose father was an art teacher and had a traditional art education said, ‘every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’
Some children seem to be naturally gifted in aspects of the arts and have a nack or ability that others will never attain. Likewise in the world of music, musicians are sometimes described as having a ‘ good feel,’ an ability to play their instrument well regardless of what type of music they are performing. The same goes for art, some children are said to be ‘really good at drawing,’ they are born naturals without the help of education.
Does it matter whether you are educated in art or not? I personally think that a basic understanding of perspective is one of the vital building blocks on which to build a firm foundation in art, but I would say that. Others won’t agree.
But in the end whether you aspire to clamber up and be the next Jean-Léon Gérôme or are just content to once be the winner of the school prize for drawing, everyone meets the same end. As Borg said in Star Trek, ‘resistance is futile’.
Addison summed it up best of all in his Reflections in Westminster Abbey:
‘When I look upon the tombs of the great, every emotion of envy dies in me; when I read the epitaphs of the beautiful, every inordinate desire goes out; when I meet with the grief of parents upon a tombstone, my heart melts with compassion; when I see the tomb of the parents themselves,
I consider the vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow. When I see kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival wits placed side by side, or the holy men that divided the world with their contests and disputes, I reflect with sorrow and astonishment on the little competitions, factions, and debates of mankind. When I read the several dates of the tombs, of some that died yesterday, and some six hundred years ago, I consider that great day when we shall all of us be contemporaries, and make our appearance together’.
From the 7th century onwards coloured glass was produced by firing a mixture of metal oxides and minerals. This was known as pot metal glass. Later in our history one of the most widespread and sophisticated forms of glass production available for all to see was stained glass.
This all came about during the beginning of the 14th century when it was discovered that if silver stain (a silver compound such as silver nitrate) was applied to the back face of the glass it would produce patches of yellow or orange when fired in a kiln. Not only could the glass colour be changed, white to yellow, blue to green etc, but also with careful manipulation the same piece of glass could produce different hues.
If a clear piece of glass was coated with red or blue on the front and yellow on the back, a bit like a colourful sandwich, then when the front colour was ground away it would reveal the shining yellow from behind. This was extremely useful as glass with patches of yellow could be used to highlight halos, crowns, sun rays and hair.
Jan Van Eyck’s Magical Alchemy
Vasari credits Jan Van Eyck with inventing the technique of oil painting in the 15th century, when in the confines of his ‘alchemist’s lab,’ Van Eyck discovered that oil could be used as a medium to carry pigment.
The Schedula of the 12th century compiler Theophilus Presbyter however shows that this was not the case and that oil as a medium for painting had been looked at a lot earlier. Coincidentally Theophilus Presbyter’s second Schedula happened to deal with stained glass and the painting of stained glass.
Nevertheless history says that on discovering Van Eyck’s magical use of oils, the itinerant Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina rushed off to Italy where this new and sensational idea was readily adopted by not only himself but others, thus opening the floodgates to a painting revolution. So how does this all tie up?
Van Eyck’s Beautiful Dream
Whether or not Van Eyck invented oil painting is not relevant here, his biggest success was to develop the art of glazing, a sensational technique which would change the way paintings were produced. Looking at Van Eyck’s painting technique now we can see that it appears to be a natural continuation if not an imitation of the stained glass process but this time using oils.
Getting Down in Black and White
After priming the board, Van Eyck would execute his painting in earth tones of browns, blacks or greys with bright, white highlights. Working with immense skill and diligence a complete painting would be built up in stages without colour, similar to a sepia or black and white photograph.
Single or Double Glazing?
We know that when producing medieval stained glass, the dark outline of the figure was the final layer painted on top of the glass. Van Eyck’s innovative glazing process mirrored this stained glass technique but in reverse. With glazing, semi-transparent or transparent colours were painted over the black and white underpainting until a layer of thick, glassy vanish or glaze was produced similar to glass. Extra glazes would then be added countless times until the desired glossy optical effect and depth was produced. You can see an example of how I have used glazing on the painting on my home page. Look at the turban and the cardigan.
What I’m suggesting is that the roots for glazing in paint lies in an attempt to imitate the richness and depth of colour found in the production of stained glass windows but in oils. Don’t you agree?