All posts by Judith Reeve

Delacroix’s Calculated Lapses

Tiger's hunt - Eugene Delacroix -

This winter I am rereading Delacroix’s journal (Phaidon). Every time I read the journal I find more jewels. It has helped me to re-evaluate my painting and what it means to actually complete a piece. This is one of the most difficult tasks. One wants a balance between a sense of finish while also allowing for the vigor of the initial lay-in to be felt as well as all those spontaneous touches that relay an emotional intensity. It is a balance that needs to be constantly re-evaluated so there is continual personal growth in the artists’ technique and his ability to bring his ideas to fruition.

This time reading the journal, I found that Delacroix muses, over many years, what it means to complete an image. He compares Rubens and Rembrandt. Two artists that he most admired. Rubens tended in his larger pieces, to complete the image fully, in every corner, exhibiting his skill with the figures and horses as well as the most minute details such as a belt buckle or sword hilt. Whereas, Rembrandt tended to create a visual hierarchy, completing things in order of importance to the visual impact.

Delacroix searched for a compromise between these two methods. He called it calculated lapses. This was the artists ability to leave certain parts of the image less complete without detracting from the force of the over-all visual sweep. Although Rubens’ work is highly finished , Rubens found room for these kinds of lapses. Delacroix states again and again in the journal that sacrifices must be made. An unsuccessful painting is one that, “…never contains those omissions, those sacrifices made for the sake of relaxation and enjoyment, which give serenity to the effect and allow our eyes to travel easily over the composition.” (June 6, 1851)

These lapses are not errors or misjudgments of form or color. Calculated lapses refer to the artists ability to subject the rendering of forms and the accuracy of details  to the necessary supremacy of the image. All things must align within the image to heighten the emotional content and the visual effect. Delacroix states, “The first idea, the sketch- the egg or embryo of the idea, so to speak- is nearly always far from complete; everything is there, if you like, but this everything has to be released, which simply means joining up the various parts. The precise quality that renders the sketch the highest expression of the idea is not the suppression of details, but their subordination to the great sweeping lines that come before everything else in making the impression. The greatest difficulty therefore, when it comes to tackling the picture is this subordination of details which nevertheless, make up the composition and are the very warp and weft of the picture itself.” (April, 23 1854)

When too much attention is given, “…to each separate object, (the objects and the entire image) become lost in a general confusion, and an execution that seemed precise and suitable becomes dryness itself because of the total absence of sacrifices.” ( Ibid) I find that when I am working with a model in the studio, I am drawn to certain aspects of the figure that are individual. I can, many times, make this work with the larger conception. But there are also many times where I need to sacrifice these details to carry the emotional intensity and flow of the composition. These details are always halting. The viewer stutters over their specificity. It is the artist’s power of conception, being true to the source of the inspiration, the ideal, to sacrifice anything that inhibits its authentic manifestation. “A great painter concentrates the interest by suppressing the details that are useless, offensive, or foolish; his mighty hand orders and prescribes, adding to or taking away from the objects in his pictures, and treating them as his own creatures; he ranges freely throughout his kingdom and gives you a feast of his own choosing…” (April 28,1854) It is these very calculated lapses that allow the imagination full reign to enter into an image, participate imaginally in its completion and come away transformed by it.


What Does it Mean to be a Master

Letters to a Young Painter

Dear S.,

received your last letter. You asked me what does it mean to be a master? That is a question whose answer is very subtle. We recognize a master as presented in a museum, of course. But what does it mean to be a master now without history filtering the choices. There are characteristics that are easily recognizable in a masterwork such as craftsmanship and skill with drawing and the brush. These are things that one must study diligently how to render what you see correctly will give you the ability to capture your ideas whether they end up being naturalistic or abstract. Studying from life will also build a memory for form and color. And as one develops one’s images, this memory bank will allow the language of form and color to speak to one and reveal layers of meaning that are more subtle and unexpected.

One must put their 10,000 hours in and it is only by working through a practice on a daily basis that one will be prepared for the bigger moments when inspiration lays something significant at your doorstep. Without such preparation for that moment, one will not have the skill to capture the essence of the meaning and emotion being presented. So much of being a master is work, patience, study and more work. There is a necessary obsessiveness to perfection. It drives one to constantly render the image until it feels right. And be prepared for the reward to be insignificant to the labor.

What also makes a master is the pursuit of what is truly human. All great artists make one feel the profundity of the human condition. They express our deepest emotions that remain unspoken, unidentified, but when one witnesses these images and partakes of them, one can say ‘yes, that is true of me.’ They also bring us into relationship with a greater whole, an archetypal correspondence. One not only sees oneself anew, but one’s greater relationship and responsibility to one another.

The most mysterious thing that identifies a master  is something so elusive and hard to grasp- the source of inspiration, the muse. It is an interior conversation, a dialogue between artist and inspired source. And it is the means by which images find the exact form that they are seeking and no other. This is an intuitive trait and cannot be studied or extracted from any source. This is also the trait that is most individual. And the fact that it is so keenly individual should give you hope. Every artist is a unique person with a unique vision of the world and because it is so personal, it will inevitably appear singular. William Blake believed that every artist that is engaged in manifesting his particular vision adds a stone to the city of Golgonooza, the place where all images reside. And this stone is laid by the manifest individuality of an artist. Maybe you will have a chance to lay your own stone upon this structure.

Multum in Parvo

Cloud Study, John Constable
Cloud Study, John Constable

Multum in Parvo is a Latin phrase which literally means, ‘much in little’. But what it really implies is a richness that speaks beyond and outside of an objects’ present confines. ‘There is more than meets the eye’. Phrases like these spark the imagination because the phrase itself is a  condensed expression that speaks of endless possibilities, inviting the listener to satisfy his curiosity by seeking more. I see multum in parvo as an invitation to a voyage, taking Baudelaire’s title from his poem. Like his poem, we are enticed into a personal dream of foreign voyages, of riches found and of creative engagement that spans two worlds, one that is conscious and one that remains on the shadowy edge of consciousness, wrapping us in deep emotions.

All poetry falls within multum in parvo and so does painting. In painting one can never express fully all that there is to say or feel. A painting just invites us to seek more, to look again. The medium of painting acts as the portico, the threshold one passes through, into a world one recognizes as their own yet is unable  to fully possess. A painting secretly whispers those things one cannot put into words, things too elusive and fleeting to be shaped into thought. Yet they are spaces of profound emotion and subtle insight.

I like to think of the pochade as a multum in parvo, par excellence. A pochade, a small, quick painting,  acts as window into a world where one can only see but a part, yet one knows intuitively that there is more. I love Constable’s small studies of clouds. He did hundreds of these. There is an illusion of an expansive space expressed in the movement of the wind and cloud formations. There is a vastness here that catches one by surprise. The frame cannot hold all this immensity in.

Multum in parvo also expresses a kind of ‘enchantment’ found in small objects almost like a miniature. In Medieval manuscripts, artists would paint small, beautiful images hidden between the pages. I can imagine how one felt that while they were reading a text, they would suddenly turn a page and come upon a beautiful window, a portal between their own world and the one they wished to have magnified within them. There would be a shock, a sudden awareness of grandeur and  immensity. I like to think of a pochade as these jewel like spaces that seek one’s attention away from the everyday particulars and embark on a journey to seek more.

I invite you to view my small pochades in my current show, Songs of Experience.

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