Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Nature of Figurative Work

This will be a kinda stream-of-consciousness post here as I'm still thinking this through.  As is pretty obvious by now, I'm a figurative painter.  I've always been interested in the figure.  Way back in the mid-70's (yes, I'm that old), I was an art major at Memphis State University taking a bunch of required courses, including ceramics.  The instructors wanted me to throw pots, but pots bored the stink out of me.  Instead, all my creations were figures of some sort: a "vase" shaped like a head (it was really hideous), various figurines, that sort of thing.  Years later, in a continuing-ed painting course at Maryland Institute College of Art, the teacher had us doing abstract and non-objective works so that we could have a better understanding of basic composition, color, and other issues.  I learned about that stuff, but the figures kept creeping back in.  My senior show at UNC Asheville was all figures.  After I established my own studio, I did a series of still lifes using old children's toys and stuffed animals.  They were really figure works using stuffed animals as stand-ins.

Okay, so I'm a figurative artist.  The next question is, which artists are my influences?  Which ones do I want to emulate to a greater or lesser extent?  That's a bit trickier to answer than it first appears.  It gets into the purpose behind the art.

Some artists use figures as a way to tell their own story.  The figures in the painting may or may not be realistic and recognizable, but their identity is not that important.  Instead, it's all about the context in the picture, and the context is the artist's story.  Think of the Renaissance paintings, for example, in which individual figures are used to tell biblical stories.  More recently, Norman Rockwell's paintings are narratives that use his neighbors as role-players.  The figures are recognizable, but their role in the painting has nothing to do with who they really are.  Currently, Jerome Witkin is using this sort of approach to make some unbelievably powerful images about the Holocaust and other social issues.  I do this sometimes to tell a specific story, as in these paintings:

You Don't Understand
Oil on canvas, diptych, 40"x62"

Dancers
Oil on panel, 52"x40"

Another approach is to use the figure as an object of beauty, or of study.  In this case, the identity of the individual isn't important, nor is there a story.  It's more about making an interesting image, or of showing the beauty of an individual form.  There's a lot of this type of work out there.  Google "figure painting" and look at the images and this is the type of work you're going to see.  It's most often a pretty young nude woman and could come out of any life drawing and painting session.  One artist who takes it to an extreme conclusion is Philip Pearlstein.  I gotta say, I can't stand his work.  Why?  Because Pearlstein may as well be painting a slab of meat.  His paintings are studies of formal compositions using people and other objects.  There's no story to tell, and there's no interest in the figures as individual people.  Take this painting, for example:

Two Nudes and Four Duck Decoys
Philip Pearlstein

You know a lot about the bodies of these two women, but you have no idea about them, personally.  And there's no reason they should be hanging over some duck decoys except that it makes for some interesting shapes and color contrasts.

Let's contrast Pearlstein with another artist who did a lot of nudes lying around in the studio, but who had a very different approach.  Lucian Freud seems to have channeled his grandfather in order to dive into the psyche of the people he painted.  Even though his sitters had poses similar to Perlstein's, and Freud's color palette was very similar, Freud's subjects are very real and very individual people.  This painting, for example:

Two Women
Lucian Freud

I feel like I know something about these two women, just from the way Freud painted them.  They have life in them, there's a relationship between them, and I get a sense that there's a lot going on behind their eyes.  They're not just two people arranged in a composition.

This is the approach that appeals most to me: getting something of the subject's personality, character, and individuality into the image.  These days, I'm not so much interested in telling my own stories because I don't find my own stories that interesting.  It's more interesting to learn something about the person I'm working with, even if I don't know them or even speak to them.  As an example, here's a drawing of an Afghan bazaar merchant who was sitting in one of our meetings in Kandahar province:

Bazaar Merchant

What struck me about this guy was his dignity and composure.  He seemed like an honest, hard-working guy, intelligent, and reserved.  That's what I was trying to get in this drawing, not just an interesting face.  I think it was successful.

That's the same kind of approach that underlies most of my work.  Over the past couple of years, I've been experimenting a lot with new technical approaches.  I've been looking at several artists, particularly Mark Demsteader and Nick Alm, because their chiaroscuro lighting and compositions are technically excellent and have a lot of dramatic impact.  I've been experimenting with this chiaroscuro with the models who've worked with me in the studio.  But what has really driven my work is trying to get some of the models' personalities.  The dramatic lighting and compositions are tools to help the story but they're not the end in themselves.

Jennifer #5
Charcoal and pastel on toned paper

I can explain a lot of my technical approach when I run a workshop, including lighting, anatomy, and connecting your eyes with your hands in getting the image on canvas or paper.  One thing that I cannot explain is capturing the personality.  When I'm working with a model, I am always conscious of that individual as a person.  I can clinically look at them to analyze the shape of their skull or the way the shadow of the jaw falls across the neck, and I can explain that to students.  What I haven't figured out is how to explain that I'm aware of them as Jennifer, or Amy, or James, or whoever.  That part is the filter that processes the analytic stuff.  I don't know how it works, it just does.

Last week, I had a new model work with me in the studio.  You're going to see a lot of new artworks come out of that session over the next few weeks.  Here's one in progress to whet your appetite:



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