All posts by Judith Reeve

Immensity and the Largeness of Effect

fig10-2Rockwell Kent from Wilderness: A Journal of a Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920.

“Why is the sight of the sea so infinitely and eternally attractive?

Because the sea simultaneously provides the idea of immensity and movement.”

Charles Baudelaire

Baudelaire goes on to express that all great works of genius contain an element of ‘immensity’. Immensity has very little to do with the actual size of a work but with  that interior feeling of vastness combined with a sense of fragility. The image astonishes us and “…entails a nervous shock…” producing something like fear, that this sublime moment shall pass and I will fail to seize hold of its nature. It is a moment of recognition that this very immensity I experience in the image resides simultaneously within myself. There dwells a correspondence and a ‘sympathy’ which allows my being in its wholeness to complete the image. The image itself has been waiting for me.

Last week, I reread “Wilderness” by Rockwell Kent which combines images he produced in Alaska with his daily journal entries on Fox Island during the seven months he spent there with his 10-year-old son. In one entry he describes a woodblock he is carving. It contains vast mountains and a rough sea. He spent several nights carving it and deliberating over its form. He ends the entry by saying that it is only two inches square! Multum in parvo– Immensity held in a small space.

“There are moments of existence when time and expanse are more profound, and the sense of existence is hugely enhanced.”  Are not the images that we find truly moving descriptive of these moments? These images may not contain great or historic events or unbelievable places or profound personalities, but are most often an ordinary commonplace. “In certain almost supernatural states of soul, the profundity of life is entirely revealed in any scene, however ordinary, that presents itself before one. The scene becomes its Symbol.

When I reflect on the child portraits of Robert Henri, especially the late Irish portraits, I find immensity there. Though ordinary children, he expresses an ‘immensity of soul’ combined with the fragility of childhood, so time bound and fleeting. Henri expresses this immensity with all the potentiality of the child which time destroys as the child matures. This is something that we too have been a part of- our own childhood and the memories of that time and our own latent potential in youth. The immensity expressed in these children reaches out to us and we find our place there.

Are there some painting techniques or practices that can assist my images as I search for a feeling of immensity in my work? I look to Delacroix as my guide. A strong composition and the evocative use of color can lead you. The suppression of detail combined with a preservation of the masses as well as a quality of incompleteness adds to this feeling. It must also not be too objective, but needs to contain an element of the ‘self’ or personality of the artist as well as unconscious or ill-defined material. There is also an element of movement. When Baudelaire describes our fascination with the sea, it is movement that also captivates us. Delacroix achieved movement through brush stroke as well as the use of complements and colored edges. Henri achieved movement through the compositional use of color where there is a constant and subtle adjustment in color and tone to move the eye around the image. There are others as well. These are just some of the tools in the artists’ toolbox. But first and foremost one needs the eyes to see.

I love the obscure French book, Mt. Analogue in which the characters of the story find that there is a hidden world in our very midst and that it only takes their willingness to engage that world in order to enter upon the journey. The journey itself takes place under the guise of a commonplace, a sea voyage. But it is this initiation that will inevitably lead them to Mt Analogue. I believe having an open mind and heart will create the ability for one to see with a greater awareness the imaginative potential and vastness latent in the commonplace. Immensity of soul, of lived experience, will inevitably lead to a feeling of expansion within the image.

All Quotes from, Charles Baudelaire’s, Intimate Journals, trans. Norman Cameron, 1995.

Baudelaire’s Rockets

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Rockets: Never despise any person’s sensibility. His sensibility is his genius.

Charles Baudelaire

This statement should give every artist and poet hope. This is a statement of real support and encouragement to be true to one’s particular gift, one’s unique tendency and voice called up from deep interior meditation. In regards to visual  rendering, it allows for one’s particular envisioning of phenomena and the intuitive insight that comes to those that meditate on the material and immaterial nature of our being. This role that the artist plays in society is crucial to the maturation of all its members.

The judgement of artistic works lies then in whether what is rendered is conveyed with truth and sensitivity and whether it inherently evokes an emotional response that reflects that singular image. There then is no place for a verdict of whether it is right or wrong according to the norms of society but more importantly, whether it fulfills its own destiny.

Although, all visual works contain an ineffable quality, there should always be an attempt by the artist to qualify the language of paint verbally. Not that this will ever be a summation of the image and its visual language, but it will provide a bridge to understanding the work. I say this because many times an image is created prior to society being able to grasp the full meaning of a works significance. Words, however inadequate, can provide that necessary path to understanding and also, an openness to the meaning conveyed in the image. This paves the way for the unique sensitivity of the artist to be transferred and felt by society.

In my periodic fatalistic frame of mind, I am often forced to believe that society has become totally disinterested in painting and drawing. You noticed, I did not say the ‘visual arts’ because that is constantly touted around by society but it has very little to do with the person who is the artist struggling to render a unique and prophetic vision. The power of an image to magnify our thoughts both those that are conscious as well as unconscious, has been weakened. Through advertising as well as the prevalent use of photography, we have become over-stimulated and therefore desensitized to image and meaning.

But Baudelaire’s statement from his personal journal speaks of another kind of world where one trusts one’s unique sensibilities as a necessary dynamic for a thriving society. These sensibilities will one day bear the fruit of understanding which is genius itself.

Delacroix’s Drawing Method

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This winter I have engaged in a practice of drawing figures from memory. This ability to draw from one’s mind’s eye is a skill that was practiced by artists until the 20th century. It subsequently, has fallen out of use with, I believe, the advent of photography. In the 19th century artists engaged in both working from life or “imitative” drawing and memory drawing. The artist, Paul-Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, in the 19th century, taught a method of memory drawing that was meant to liberate the artist from strictly working imitatively. He found that memory only retains those things that have produced an effect on the mind and the emotions.

Delacroix worked from both methods and felt that both poles were necessary to create great work. Delacroix avidly sketched from life in order to refine his eye and gather a deep understanding of natural phenomena. But conversely, he also felt that all great work of genius derived from the imaginative force that dwells within the artist. It was this subjective force that had the capacity to express the intangible. So his practice entailed sketching from memory fortified by observation and an understanding of nature.

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In his practice as described in his Journal, Delacroix would sketch freely from memory seeking to manifest the imaginative force and energy of the image as well as the emotional content through multiple rapid sketches. The energy of the action and the heightened emotion are always captured in the initial engagement with the idea. Delacroix fed on that furious passion and sought to maintain that force even in his larger work. Although the larger paintings called for immense preparation and craftsmanship over long periods of time, he desired that they should maintain the feeling of the “larger effect” that a sketch visualizes so acutely while suppressing the details.

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In the Journal, Delacroix describes his method to get the best of both worlds- the dynamism of the initial sketch heightened with the accuracy and understanding of natural phenomena necessary to carry a larger piece to completion. So to begin with, Delacroix would choose a theme to activate his imagination. This was the “visioning” process. Next, he would then sketch freely and spontaneously, not concerning himself with accuracy but with the emotionally charged interplay of figure, objects and space.  After rendering multiple sketches based on his subject, he would select a sketch that contained all the elements that he was searching for. He would then take this sketch and place a sheet of tracing paper over it. Next came the process of “refining”. Using the tracing paper on top, he would re-work the figure and bring it into context, taking exaggerations and inaccuracies and bring them into a harmonized relationship that reflected nature. If he was not satisfied with the re-visioning of the figure, he was in a position to begin again from the initial sketch.

I found this process surprisingly easy to do. When one draws from one’s memory, one is apt to exaggerate the action to try to elicit an emotional response. This is a necessary step and is key to amplifying the image. But it also needs to be tempered by truthfulness to nature. By containing some of the energy through refining the drawing, one actually allows the figure to hold some of that exaggerated energy within. By holding power in reserve, one adds force to the image that is not obvious. It is analogous to a ‘boiling pot with the lid on’. And this is what you want- not all the energy spilled out at once, but seething just below the surface. Delacroix’s ‘Jacob Wrestling the Angel’ is the culmination of years of practice in this method.

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The images in this blog post follow Delacroix’s practice. The red sketch is the initial rapid drawing. The green sketch is on the tracing paper. You can see how I tempered some of my exaggerations and redefined the drawing. In the last image, I have placed my tracing paper on the canvas to align it with the rabatment lines to give it extra force and a relationship to the outside edges of the canvas. One could then transfer it, but I tend to redraw in paint as this is a more fluid method for me to work.

 

 

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