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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.

Delacroix’s Drawing Method


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.


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.


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.


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.



Delacroix’s Palette for the “Nymph”

Copy of Delacroix's "Nymph" from the Apollo Ceiling
Copy of Delacroix’s “Nymph” from the Apollo Ceiling

I have re-immersed myself in the Journal of  Eugene Delacroix.  This work has always been a part of my aesthetic inquiry since I first delved into it as a student. Unfortunately, many of his color notes on his paintings are missing from the English translation of the Journal and the complete Journal is in French only after all this time. But there are stil some color notes in the Phaidon edition that are worth exploring.

This past week, I have been experimenting with the palette that Delacroix used on the Apollo Ceiling in the Louvre. This is really a masterpiece and exhibits all of those qualities that Delacroix pushed himself to achieve- mastery of color; the suppression of details; and a largeness of effect. In the journal he lays out his process of laying in the color on the Venus, the children and the Nymph. All of the colors of the palette are inter-related between the various figures. It is not a simple palette by far yet it is one where Delacroix expends his energy achieving form through the use of a wide range of color temperature. Color temperature more than a change in value allows the forms to be felt. Therefore he expresses this color temperature change in very subtle ways. One way that he acheives this is by mixing a  key color, such as violet, and creating that mixture in three different intensities with three different blues but using the same red-orange. So the red-orange ties the three different blues together. Here is an example of the violet with three different hues, in three intensities moving toward a near neutral:

Prussian Blue + Vermilion = violet (this carries the highest intensity)

Cobalt Blue + Vermilion= violet ( slightly less intense and more towards a deep violet brown)

Cassel Earth + Vermilion=  violet (least intense- nuetral)

Delacroix often spoke to the colorist, Michel-Eugene Chevreul and through these conversations about color, Delacroix came to understand the idea of  “simultaneous contrast of colors“. He notes in his journal how he observed this phenomena in nature and how he began to apply it in his painting. In the figure of the “Nymph”, Delacroix applies this idea of contrast in a very subtle and modern way.

Delacroix develops a palette that is much like Robert Henri’s. Both developed the subtle contrast between tertiaries such as OY to BV or a contrast of near complements such as OY to V. But what is different about the two artist is that Henri strove for an underlying unity and simplicity of color through a palette based on sets of triads whereas, Delacroix strove for diversity of hue held in balance by complements or near complements. So this combined with a hierarchy of intensity allows Delacroix a full range of color temperature on which to model the figure. As Delacroix paints more and more murals, which require a composition to have less contrast and lighter values but a more compelling sense of color, this becomes his primary mode of working.

Here is Delacroix’s Palette:

Vermillion    Cadmuim Yellow (or Antimony)    Naples Yellow(this was only used with a viridian mix)    Viridian       Prussian Blue    Cobalt Blue      Cassel Earth    White

"Nymph" first lay-in
“Nymph” first lay-in

These are the mixes he describes:

Lay-in of the Flesh:

Vermilion + White; Cadmuim Yellow + white; to these mixes is added Viridian+ Naples yellow +white; so one achieves an orange flesh color that is slightly neutralized by a yellow green.

He then creates a series of violets in several states of neutralization:

Prussian blue + vermilion: This is the primary violet he uses and it is mixed into the shadow area to cool it off

Cobalt+ vermilion: This is used for cast shadows and to render the drawing at the end

Cassel earth + vermilion (this is the most nuetralized): This is used along the dark shadow edge

Vermilion + white: This is thickly applied to the brightest lights

Cadmium yellow + white: Highlight

Viridian + naples + white: green half-tones

Prussian blue + vermilion +white: cool blue half-tones; This combination is also used as a glaze over the shadow side to unify it and also before applying the reflected lights

Vermilion + Cadmium yellow + white: a darker value used for the reflected light. The viridian + naples can also be added here

I found these combinations produced very surprising results that were colorful yet unified. I also found that the violets did not compete against one another and that the subtle variations between the blues added variety within the shadow area that might have otherwise appeared to unified. I also found that the constant juxtaposition of the warms and cools added a sinctillating effect. I also found that the yellow highlight worked exceptionally well in areas where the violet predominated. Delacroix took this technique from Rubens who used it constantly, although he could not identify why since one is apt to make the highlight violet.

Experimenting with color combinations is a practice that I use to enhance my feeling for color as well as my sense of color memory. With such a practice, whether it has a practical side or not, allows one to develop a heightened sensitivity to color increasing one’s awareness to color in the natural world. But more importantly, I am drawn to color and am fascinated by the effects of juxtaposed combinations. Delacroix states that color is the most important factor in painting because it affects the viewer immediately and unconsciously before the subject itself is understood. It is the musical quality of paint.

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