Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vincent and I ponder current events

Isn't this gorgeous?

In the dog days of the hottest summer, I thought you might enjoy Vincent's stunning breath of spring....

This is Almond Blossoms (February, 1890), which Vincent painted for his brother, Theo, and Theo's wife, Jo, upon the occasion of the birth of their child.

The painting was completed while Vincent was confined to the asylum at Saint-Remy, where he had gone to recover his mental health and physical strength after the incident where he had cut off his own ear.

Vincent at Saint-Remy
There has been a lot of discussion this week about a mentally unhinged genius with flaming orangey-red hair who pours his creative energy, phenomenal skills and precise artistry into a body of work that stuns the world.

He whom I shall not name
Like many of you, my news feed has been filled with the unfolding facts and the public's shocked reactions to the horrifying massacre in Aurora, Colorado.  I feel such a deep compassion and sorrow for the victims of this senseless action on the part of a person who is so obviously deranged.  As he was paraded for the cameras during his arraignment, I was fascinated to watch his dazed facial expressions, which ranged from stupefied, to sleepy, to seeming amazement at the attention he was (at last...?) receiving.

As they vied for ever higher ratings in the slow summer season, the anchors blathered on and on about what a gifted student this young man was, and what promise he had shown as a middle class boy from a good family who had been gifted with incredible intelligence and every advantage in achieving his full potential.

I knew that I had heard all of this somewhere before.  In Van Gogh, The Life, the authors describe an individual of striking similarity.

Vincent was incredibly good at learning things.  As a child, he obsessively collected and categorized - bugs, flora, bird's nests - anything that fascinated him was taken home, identified in a neat hand by it's latin name, and treasured, studied, explored and absorbed.

Vincent was also a loner, and described by many as "een oarige..." a strange boy.  He enjoyed solitary walks, and would tramp for hours by himself in all types of weather, including at night and during storms.  This was very disturbing to his minister father and "propriety above all" mother.  At the tender age of only eleven, his parents had finally had enough of their constant worrying and trying to get Vincent to "be normal," and they sent him away to a boarding school.  Although his father did briefly visit him after a few weeks, he did not see the rest of his close knit family again until Christmas.  At the age of eleven.  Eleven.

This abandonment by his family would prove to have a profound effect on Vincent's life.  He likened his time at the school (where he was the youngest and arguably the most intelligent student, as well as a complete outsider) to his time (later, as an adult) in the Asylum at Saint-Remy.  After only two years at the first school, his parents, for reasons that probably had to do with money, moved him to a different school, which was even further from their home.

Vincent van Gogh
Vincent with his classmates and instructors - he is on the front row, the third from the right - note his crossed arms, folded body and hat protectively on his knee (from the Van Gogh, the Life website.)
Modern day educators might have described the second boarding school that Vincent attended as "progressive," with cutting edge instructors and curriculum.  Vincent was admitted without having to attend the (usually) required preparatory school, and he threw himself into learning languages, math, history, geography and the sciences.  Despite his academic success, his time at this school was described (in Van Gogh, the Life) as a "haze of mental absenteeism."

When he was 15, and only two months away from the end of the school term, Vincent had had enough - He walked out of the school and didn't stop walking until he was home, seven hours later.

Vincent then began his adult life with a series of the lowest entry level jobs, most of which his father helped him to get.  First, he apprenticed as an art dealer at his Uncle's company in The Hague, Brussels, London and Paris (the transfers were not promotions; it was more of a hot potato situation).  He worked as a teacher under absolutely miserable conditions (for himself and the students) in London.  He also held a clerk's job at a book and map shop in Dordrecht.

Despite Vincent's intelligence and willingness to throw himself into his work with tremendous (probably manic) energy, he failed at each of these endeavors.  Vincent was surly, socially ill at ease, and a complete loner, which did nothing to endear him to his employers.  Throughout this period, Vincent followed a predictable pattern of initially being "good" and doing everything he could to impress and satisfy his bosses, followed by barely masked hostility when his unsustained and unsustainable efforts were interpreted as not being "good" enough.

No matter what Vincent did, it was never good enough for his parents (particularly his mother) his employers, and even (in Vincent's mind) for God.

So each year brought only more failure, more tramping (on long, marathon distance walks), and more withdrawing into his interior self.  Although he worked brutal hours (a typical day was 8 a.m. until midnight), he slept very little, often staying awake until deep into the night pursuing his passions.  During this time, he translated writings from language to language (Dutch, French, German, English), he made scrapbooks of favorite prints, poetry and prose, and he read hungrily, both popular works as well as repeated readings and study of the Bible.

He also started visiting prostitutes and openly rebelling against his parents, who by then had about given up on him, as they definitively and without question escalated their favor of his "good" brother, Theo.

Poor Vincent was lost!  He was a failure at his work, he could not get any traction on his adult life, he remained dependent upon his parents financially, he was living a secretive life far from home, no girl would give him the time of day... Is this sounding more and more like the current news reports of the would be "Joker?".... So Vincent, in his despair, found God.

And it was through God, and his feelings about why God created the beautiful earth and all of the nature on the earth, that Vincent found his way to ART.

(Again, I cannot encourage you enough to rush out today and consume the Van Gogh biography...the story I am telling here is the merest whisper of a life that was shouted with a deafening roar...)

Vincent spent more fruitless, failed months trying to become a well educated minister like his father.  It did not work.  Then, when he had washed out of doing it the "right way," he made an effort to become a lay minister, which required only rudimentary schooling in order to obtain a position.

It was this last, desperate activity that brought him as an intern to the coal mining area of Belgium.  There, he lived among the miners, a poor and desperate people who's lot in life was one of filth, poverty and early death.  Vincent, who was in an absolute religious fervor at this time, lived with and like the miners, sleeping on straw, eating poorly, and keeping himself in the lowest condition imaginable.  His family was appalled, and his superiors (like all of the others before them) declined to renew their extremely limited support, pronouncing that his talents were insufficient for even that job.

But Vincent had started to sketch.  An obsession with the copying of maps while working at the map and book store had gotten his pencils and pens moving again, and he had begun listening to sermons that preached "a religion of beauty in which God was nature, nature was beauty, art was worship, and artists were preachers.  In short, art was religion." (Van Gogh, the Life)

So if the church bosses wouldn't let him preach with words, then he would do it with pictures.

He began with somber, tonal renderings of the coal miners and other peasant life that surrounded him in Borinage.  He gloried in the humble subjects, drawing at first, then beginning to explore an interest in painting.  He studied and began to copy works by other artists like Millet and Daumier, and developed a friendship with another painter, Rappard.  Theo, who was swiftly climbing the ladder at the Paris branch of their Uncle's art gallery, encouraged Vincent to continue with his art and to study anatomy and perspective at the Academy of Art in Brussels.

And of course, you know the rest.  The first great work was the sober, dark and humble Potato Eaters, which led to the explosive colors of the Sunflowers and Irises, which led to the intensely atmospheric Fishing Boats on the Beach and The Night Cafe, then to the most personal and poignant Yellow House, and the spiritually mesmerizing Starry Night and then finally back to the joyous and life affirming Almond Blossoms...

Vincent Willem van Gogh 128.jpgVanGoghIrises2.jpgVan Gogh - Fischerboote am Strand von Saintes-Maries1.jpegVincent Willem van Gogh 076.jpgVan Gogh - Das gelbe Haus (Vincents Haus)2.jpeg

What made Vincent, the original red headed stranger, transfigure our world through his visual imagery, instead of disfiguring all of us through blood and gore and sorrow?    Why did Vincent turn his physical struggle inward and against himself by slicing his ear, while the awful boy in Aurora felt compelled, instead, to metasticize his anguish like a cancer?

You hardly ever hear about these horrifying, violent episodes without nauseatingly detailed reports that the perpetrators were really smart.  There is always planning and precision involved, and, honestly, the dumb ones get caught before they can complete their plots.  Typically, the perpetrators were also bullied, or did not receive support from family or their community.  Sometimes they suffered a loss, such as the one Vincent experienced when he was wrenched from his family and deposited at the boarding school.  Almost always they are described as sensitive.  Like that's a bad thing.

As awful as the episodes are, there is a level of artistry involved; this latest madman was obviously a symbolist, with his dyed curls, strategically rigged "lair" and bad ass black ensemble - what was it that caused him to take his particular art in this unthinkable direction?

New details will be published in the New Yorker this week about Bruce Springsteen's own battle with depression, and how the concert stage was the only place where he could stop the "voices inside my head..." How did the Boss turn his depression and self loathing into songs that became the defining anthems of contemporary American life?  How did he make the choice to let his art save him?

I am grateful that when Vincent came to the fork in his road, that he was able to take a path toward beauty, light, hope and salvation.  I am grateful for the uncredited people in his life who helped him, or were friendly to him, or who at least did not go out of their way to be assholes to him.  I am grateful that when he felt bad, he fixed it by letting the art come out of him.  I am grateful that it was easier for him to destroy his own ear than to destroy his paintings.

In one of his letters, Vincent said "for what is wrought in sorrow, lives for all time."

The victims of the Aurora shootings should never be forgotten, and they never will be forgotten by the families and friends who care about them.  But their names, we all know, will eventually become eclipsed by the name of place where they bled to death, or by the name of the shooter who forced our attention.

Vincent knew that the art he made was his path to sanity and salvation.  Instinctively, viscerally, and physically, Vincent knew that it was his art that gave him the only real voice that he had.  It was the art that held the demons at bay.

We all make art.  It is part of what makes us human.  Everything each of us does, in a sense, is a form of expression.  The words we choose, the way we put our food on our plate, the music we sing along to, the precision of driving a car well - each of these is an expression of who we are and what we think.  Even doing something badly, or clumsily, is still an expression, and our expressions are always our choice.

But the real choice is not the decision to either make art or not not make art.  The art, the expression, the communication is going to happen, whether you are consciously thinking about it or not.

The real choice we each make each day is: What kind of art do we want to make?

I am going to go ahead and publish this post now, and will begin the painting tomorrow.


A painting of a scene at night with 11 swirly stars and a bright yellow crescent moon. In the background there are hills, in the middle ground there is a moonlit town with a church that has an elongated steeple, and in the foreground there is the dark green silhouette of a cypress tree.

File:Van Gogh Almond blossom.jpg

Friday, July 20, 2012

I homage Cubism, Fred Flinstone, and Mrs. Potato Head in one spectacularly bad painting.

As I was looking through the Van Gogh section of the google art project, I kept turning back to his portrait of Armand Roulin (1888), a portrait of the hat wearing older brother of little Camille Roulin (see earlier blog posting).

File:Vincent Willem van Gogh 087.jpg
There was something about Armand that looked so familiar to me, with his downcast eyes, straight nose, thoughtful expression, and loose white shirt contrasting against his dark suit.

I loved the rakish floppiness of his hat, and the way his suit looked too big for his neck, shoulders and chest.

His sparse, lightly colored mustache, and the barest hint of sideburns  reminded me of my own two young adult sons.

Then it hit me:  I knew I had seen a picture like that somewhere before.  Duncan (of the velvet shoes) was horsing around on the piano while waiting until it was time to leave for his junior year high school prom when I took this photograph of him -

EE does look a bit like Armand, n'est pas?  Oui!
OK, enough of my high school french.

Like Armand, Duncan was posed in a dark suit, a crisp white shirt, and a black felt hat.  What you cannot see, but I know you already know - is that those black velvet loafers will be cushioning and cradling his dancing feet all night long.

The view of Duncan is more of a profile than Armand's three quarter, and Duncan's gaze is focused more downward than Armand's.  I have been painting for more than a month now, and I have known Duncan from the moment of his birth.  I should be able to paint around this, right?

Read on.

 I started by cropping my photo of Duncan so that the composition would remain closer to Van Gogh's original.  You can see my photo juxtaposed with the thumbnail of Armand on the GAP.

I selected an 11" X 14" flat canvas covered board as my support, and began my sketch in charcoal.
 At right you can see my first draft.

Because I wanted to quickly get to the (much more fun than drawing) painting part, I skipped my usual step of measuring and laying out the original as I transferred the image to my canvas.  I did not measure Armand, and I also did not measure Duncan.  I should have, as you will see.

Take a moment to look at the sketch.  By comparing my charcoal to Duncan's photo, can you see where the drawing is wrong?  Can you see where I got it right?

Do you think that I drew what I saw, or what I thought that I saw?

Next, I did some corrections to the eyes, the nose, and to Duncan's mouth.

The nose is still too long and flat, and the jaw line is far too low; I had forgotten that the jaw actually hinges from just below the ear lobe.  My Duncan has a jaw that emerges directly from his neck, which lends him a Fred Flinstone physicality - yet, somehow, I thought it was looking pretty good.

I did mark the sections of the shirt, suit, and tie so that I would know where I was painting what.
This version is cleaned up in anticipation of applying the paint.

I  start with burnt umber and alizarin crimson

You can see the two flesh tones that I used on the right - if you want to mix your own, you can use titanium white, cadmium yellow, cadmium red and burnt umber.
and the two flesh tones - portrait pink and Lukas flesh.

I begin applying paint, first outlining the face with the burnt umber, then adding in the flesh tones.  The first pass at the mouth is outlined in the umber, then filled in with the alizarin crimson.

You can see that my original sketch is not magically getting better by applying paint to it.


The lips are looking better with a little flesh tone added on to the top, but I have managed to twist them toward the viewer, and they are pursed in a way I have never seen Duncan do.

The eye looks fishy to me.

Van Gogh, no doubt, would cut off that ear.

For no apparent reason other than panic, I am also adding in some (titanium) white highlights, which you can see on the side of the nose and on the cheekbone.

More corrections to the face, and the under-bluing (with ultramarine) of the white shirt...

The blob at the left is where I removed the eye (which you can see above) - they were not eyes, they were more like frisbees that had been flung with great force into his face.


This eye is such a problem...

looking back at the picture, I tried to just draw the eye, and found it impossible to do.  Although it was an actual photograph of his eye, the eye was just at a very bad angle to depict.

Because Duncan was looking down in the photograph, his eye was really little more than a slit with eyelashes and a nearly indistinguishable iris.

I decide that I will just open up his eye and everything will work out.

As you can see by the Japanese boy in the painting, it does not.

Please note the cubist effect of the nose turned in opposition to the mouth, and both the nose and mouth turned in opposition to the all seeing and super creepy eye.  The face is amazingly flat, as if it were just a piece of paper laid on top of the canvas.  The only dimension I can see is the nose, which, thanks to my titanium highlights, looks as if it is being lifted from below by a thermal updraft.

 My only move is to shut that eye up by painting right over it.

That is the nice thing about painting; if you make a mistake, you just layer over it, and do not have to erase.

This works though, only as long as the mistake is not so enormous.

If the mistake is too systemic, or redone too many times, there will be an obvious build up of paint which will only draw attention to the problem.

I had also apparently come to the decision that Duncan's head was not really deep enough to hold his brains, which I resolved (oh, snap! How could it possibly be this easy?) by adding more hair to the back of his head.

Oh, snap! Indeed.  This solution would prove troubling, because it caused me (in yet another chain reaction of horribleness) to have to increase the depth of the hat, as well.

The lesson that I think I learned (or, at least I hope I am on the way to learning) is that doubling down on bad proportions only leads to more really, really, really bad proportions.

 So, with his enormous hat and now much rosier lips and cheeks, I take another crack at Duncan's eye.

At first I drew it completely closed, then, in a fruitless effort to make it better, I gradually kept painting it more and more opened up.

It does look very much like a fish eye on one of those flat fishes that live on the bottom of the ocean.  Yes.  The word is flounder.  I get it.  'Nuff said.

The face is also quite torqued around, and, take just a moment now to look at the lips.  Where have you seen them before?

 I fill in the suit, add more highlights and a hat band to the hat, and carry on.

This painting looks NOTHING like my Duncan, who is a very handsome fellow.

I question the validity of even filling in the rose, but I have alizarin crimson left to use, so I sally forth.
With one more squirt of a new magenta, I fill in the rose boutineer, paint the loosely tied cravat, and throw on  a light purply blue background.

In desperation, I add some eyelashes and eyeliner, which does not help.  (In my defense, sometimes these additions make me look better.)  I keep adding paint onto the Groucho looking eyebrows, and, for no artistic or other reason, make his right eye look as if it is pointing in a completely different direction than the left.

Bryan is home, and asks why the jaw is coming from Duncan's neck instead of his ears. Derp!  So I finally see the problem, and sketch in a quick charcoal correction.

I also make corrections to the throat and to the front temple, which was too pronounced. (I know my son is not a neanderthal, yet I insisted upon portraying him that way.  My bad.)

The Final Painting.

As you can see above, the final painting is awful.  It looks like a cross between Charlie Chaplin, Sean Penn, and Kato from the Pink Panther movies.  The mouth looks like it is hiding some very bad teeth, and had just been wiped clean of some stinky, viscous drool.  The whole image, including the rose, looks like it has been ironed flat; not with a home iron, but with one of those giant road rollers that David Letterman uses to crush things.  Like bad paintings.  And my ego.  But not my spirit.... at least not yet.

Go ahead and laugh out loud if you wish.  I did.  It is really bad.  Sorry, Duncan!  Sorry Armand!  My beautiful boy looks like an extremely kissable turn of the century thug.  Words cannot express the awfulness of this image, and I am so sorry that you (and I) will never be able to unsee it.

So, I start over.

Here is a pretty good three quarters of Duncan.

(Although it seems like Duncan is a regular James Bond, the way he is always appearing in tuxedos, he was actually required to don formal wear frequently when performing with his high school choir.)

These performance snapshots and the prom pictures were some of the few times that Duncan or his entourage would allow photographs.

(At left is evidence of one of the rare instances when Duncan's date of performance came just after a hair cut.)

 Because I want to keep a hat in the painting, I got my sketch proportions from the photo at right, which was one of the left over proofs from Duncan's senior photos (hence the weird writing across the image).

You will note the center lines, which are drawn on sticky notes that I had used to crop the image.

I matched these to crossed center lines on my support, which was, again, an 11" X 14" canvas covered board.
Here is my nearly complete sketch.  I changed the hat to a different one that Duncan had, which is shown below.

Duncan's hat is seen at left, modeled by his buddy, Brent - in heaven with his arm around his girlfriend, Anna.

One of the few entourage snapshots.

They are such a cute couple!
The sketch on the easel surrounded by pictures of Duncan.

(I am sure that Duncan is grateful for his summer internship, which puts him a day's drive away from this entire episode.)

I start with the face.  How on earth do you do men's lips without them looking like they are wearing the latest shade from Revlon?

The charcoal is smudging into the paint (which always happens), but it should get blended and covered by subsequent layers of color.

How are the proportions?

As I start painting, I feel as if I may be falling back into the rabbit hole I just climbed out of.  This is not a good feeling.

I am coming to the realization that you can't just "mash up" a bunch of different photos because each expression positions the rest of the face in a completely unique way.  Merde!

OK, the mouth just had to go.  With my French teacher's voice ringing in my ears, I keep hearing the phrase fermez la bouche!, which means "shut your mouth!"  I take that to mean paint it shut.  Vite!  Vite! Vite!

I decide to concentrate, instead, on all of the other things in the painting, then come back to the mouth and lips after I have a chance to study more Duncan photos in depth.

How on earth did Vincent do it without photos to study?  Or did he use portrait photos?  Would his subjects have had photos of themselves made?  Did he have Armand sit still while he stared intently at his mouth?  Did he make a number of sketches from different angles that are now lost to history?  Did he allow Armand to talk while he sat for him?  How did his keep little Camille in place?

I am grateful for the invention of photography.

I begin avoiding the painting of Duncan's mouth by making some adjustments to the shape of the hat, and simplifying the band to a single color so that it will be less distracting.

After many paints and repaints, I am finally happy with Duncan's eyes, which are big, but not bulging.  I am pleased with the iris color, which is done with patches of burnt umber, mars black and prussian blue.

Next, I added highlights of titanium white and raw sienna.  There are no lashes, just a rim of prussian blue daubbed with black, and drawn on with a thin brush.  With the blue black quite dried on my brush, I add the barest hint of a shadow underneath the lids of each eye to give the eyes depth and dimension.  The eyebrow on the left side of the painting still needs lightening and roughening to look realistic.

The hair is painted with mostly the same colors as the eyes, including the prussian blue.  Although I did finally get the hinge of the jaw in (almost) the right place, I need to soften the jaw line to make it look less cartoony.

The tee shirt and jacket were typical Duncan clothes, and they look good enough for now.  Although Duncan has no wrinkles, he does have smile creases in his cheeks and around his mouth, and he always has merry little cat's whiskers around his eyes, just like his Dad and Grand Dad.

After a nights sleep and Duncan's complete silence on the issue, I begin again the next day.

 The first item on my agenda was to review how to (actually, carefully, and taking my time) draw a mouth in general, and Duncan's mouth in particular.

So, I got out a book that I had purchased long ago called Secrets to Drawing Realistic Faces (which apparently I was keeping a secret on my bookshelf), that breaks down the face into component parts with lessons on each.

After a basic anatomy primer on the lips, teeth, and skull (who knew that the little trench above the center of your lips is called a "philtrum?"), the author advised
focusing first on the upper lip, which should be drawn out fully.

In contrast, the lower lip should only be suggested, and NOT completely outlined.  This "suggestion" is probably easier to accomplish in a drawing, which can leave unmarked areas, than in a painting, which is typically completely filled in.

 Above and at left is my sketch of Duncan's smile.  Note that the teeth are not separated by lines - the book termed this practice "flossing with a pencil."

I would agree that the teeth look more realistic when not drawn individually.

The shadows inside of the mouth (and particularly at the edges) were also important to the illusion.

 At right is the mouth as I painted it.  It is not perfect, by any means, but after the 16 previous incarnations of the mouth that I had already put underneath it, I was relieved to have anything on the face that looked remotely like a dimensional, human pie hole.

I can see (now!) that my mouth is too compact and not stretched sideways and elongated enough.  Crap!
 I threw in this close up picture of the eyes because I think that they are the most successful part of the painting; and after this week's work, I just felt like I had to encourage myself with a "rose" after such a barrage of self inflicted "thorns.

My take away: I need to draw what I see, instead of what I think I see.  I thought I knew what my kid looked like - these paintings are proof that all teenagers are right about one thing: Their parents don't have a clue.

Below is the finished painting.  Please let me know what you think, if you are so moved.

But before you look, I want to take just a moment to personally thank everyone who is reading this blog.  Blogspot informs me that I now have an international readership, with page views from Canada, Russia, and Germany!  Thank you all for your interest, and I will strive to reward that interest by being interesting.

And here is Duncan (barely):

You may definitely expect a landscape or floral next week.  Geez!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I learn that painting like Vincent takes BALLS!

Hello, art lovers!

I know that I am a little behind on the blog; I have come to the realization that writing two blogs a week was not leaving me enough time to paint and to do the research and reading that I wanted to do on Van Gogh in order to write the blog. (I will confess that I also got myself caught in an all consuming Breaking Bad (amc) marathon, which I was absolutely riveted by - it was definitely television worth watching, and I have watched four seasons worth in the past two weeks) So, I shall be limiting my blog postings to once a week, beginning this week.
Vincent's painting
                                                                                   The painting I have selected is sprig of flowering almond in a glass, which Van Gogh painted in March of 1888, just after his arrival in Arles.  (Thanks to fellow blogger Chris Crockett for teaching me a more elegant way of doing the links - check out her blog at musingsfromkaty.blogspot.com)

Vincent had escaped the cold dreariness of Paris that spring, and expected to be greeted by warm, temperate weather upon his arrival in the South of France.  He was anxious to be outdoors painting, and could not wait to feel the heat of the sun upon his back as he explored his new surroundings.  He was greeted, instead, by a deep snow that left him stuck, new in town, friendless and isolated in a small room.  Looking for a subject, he cut a budding branch from an almond tree, then forced the blooms indoors.  Once it had started to blossom, Vincent painted it, simply, suspended in water in a cheap, thickly pressed glass.

The still life depicts the buds of earliest spring, as well as branches reaching out toward the viewer and toward heaven above.  The subject is warmly lighted by the sunlight streaming through a nearby window, and the blossoms appear vibrant and pulsing with life.  The color of the buds is subdued, but you can see new vibrancy - in pinks, greens, peaches and blues, peeking just below and through the petals. Could Vincent have selected a more perfect metaphor for the hopeful beginning of his new life in Arles?

My version

Above you will see my version of VvG's painting; but before you see how I did it, I digress with a little chat about color:

Art critics have described Van Gogh's time in Arles as "an explosion of color," and  his exploration of the full and rich palette of colors, light and scenery of the south gave him a voice as one of the first great artists of the early 20th century.

Vincent's sense of color was both innate and cultivated.  Like the perspective frame we discussed earlier, Van Gogh used tools to help him "see" colors with more clarity.  My favorite of these tools was a basket full of balled yarn.  As he planned his paintings, Vincent would twine different colors of the yarn together to see how the colors reacted to each other.

I liked this idea so much, that I made my own yarn balls out of old embroidery floss, left over needlepoint wool, and crewel yarn:

We all know what "clashing" colors are.  They are two (or more) colors that, when placed side by side, do something that just doesn't look "right."  We also know what complimentary colors are: they are colors that, when placed next to each other, sing and hum and vibrate together in a beautiful way.

But what makes them clash?  What makes them hum?  Is it fashion, taste, perception, or something more?  Let's start with color 101.

You probably already know about primary colors, which are single, pure and unmixed.  Secondary colors are a muddling of two primaries, and tertiary colors are a mixture of three.  A HUE is the name of a color (like Red).  WARM colors (yellow, orange and red) advance (meaning they come forward in the painting) and COOL colors (green, blue and violet) recede (meaning they fall back in the painting).
One of the color tools used by artists is a color wheel.  This tool lays out the colors in a particular and consistent way, so all (painter's) color wheels everywhere are laid out in exactly the same fashion and the colors always appear in the same order.

Arbitrarily calling this the front
Because it is a wheel, there is no "first" color; all of the colors are equal.  On the color wheel shown at left (front), there are six single name colors:  Blue, Violet, Red, Orange, Yellow and Green.  They always sit in between dual name colors, and "marry" the single name colors together: Blue Violet, Red Violet, Red Orange, Yellow Orange, Yellow Green, and Blue Green.  So, going around the wheel we have Blue, Blue Violet, Red Violet, Red, Red Orange, Yellow Orange, Yellow, Yellow Green, Green, and Blue Green.

But if you are painting, the point is just to pick the color you want and who cares what it is called, right?

Well, that's where the layout of the color wheel comes into play.  Once you pick your color, the color wheel can help you to figure out which color is gonna play nicely with another color.

And, on a whim, calling this the back
Blue is always right across from Orange.  Green is always opposite Red.  Violet and Yellow spend long hours staring at each other.  Colors that are opposite each other on the wheel are called complimentary, and that means exactly what it sounds like.  Each individual color looks better because their buddy constantly compliments them, and they each make us think that their buddy color is fabulous.

The following photographs feature colors against what is called a neutral grey background.  White is sometimes difficult to see colors against, because white can have its own sneaky undertones that can be blue, or red or yellow.  If you are confused by a color, try putting it on something grey; you will be able see it more clearly then.

Now back to the balls of yarn.  When I first began twining my leftover threads, yarns and fibers into balls, I noticed that there were many variations in the colors, even in the extremely limited palette of odds and ends that I had in my sewing kit.

The balls divided by hue
As you can see above, there were a lot of different greens, blues, reds, purples, oranges, browns and yellows.  There were also whites and creams, varying blacks and grays, and many lightened "sherbet" versions of each of the colors, like petal pinks, icy blues, minty greens, lemony yellows, etc.  If you look closely, I think you will see colors that you think I put in the wrong dish - there are greens that could easily go in the blue bowl, and purples that could have been construed as pink, etc. etc.

these defy categorization
Most of the colors were, in fact, very difficult to categorize.  Take a glance at the photo at left.  Is the ball on the left  green?  A softened white?  Grey?   Bluish?  Taupe?                

And how about the one on the right.  Is it pink?  A softened white?  Grey?  Purplish? Taupe?

Additions just make it more confusing

What happens when I throw a few other, quite similar hues into the mix?  (to add to the degree of difficulty, I also apparently turned the camera, reversing the original colors on the bottom row) How is the new pink (upper left) playing off of the original pinky hue?  What does that do with the purple at the upper right?  Has the minty green browned next to these other colors, gone whiter?  faded?

The point of this exercise is to spend some time really looking at and thinking about color.  There is no right or wrong; only observation and reaction.
Are they greens?  Blues?  Whites?  Yellows?
Notice above how the colors seem to reflect and bounce off of each other - a good example is the ball that is the second from the top left, which is really reflecting the blue on ball the just below it.  You can also see a dark green reflection on the ball that is four down on the left side, and again, more dark green on both sides of the ball at the bottom left.

So now our focus has shifted from naming to seeing.  The point of the naming, for me, is to know enough about the color names to express (to myself) what I need for the color to do - this green will work if I just make it a little more yellow - not orangey yellow, but soft, lemony custard - very buttery yellow...  

That is how you make a specific color so you can match something that you are trying to paint.  But how does that color do, when sitting next to another color?  Let's go back to Vincent's painting.

You can see that we have green in the branch that is next to a clayish red (the stripe on the wall and his signature).  There is greenish - turquoise ocean - blue next to an orangey yellow, interspersed with creamy yellows and greens in the table cloth.  The neutral whitish wall is washed from beneath by red, blue, green and grey.  Some of the colors are complementary, but some are not.

Do the colors in the painting work for you?  It is OK if they don't.  Obviously they worked for Vincent (he signed it), but art is a two way street.  Just because Vincent painted it, does not mean that you or I or anybody else is not entitled to have an opinion about it.  Like all things to do with color, either you like it, or you don't, or your opinion falls somewhere in between.

So what might Vincent have done to work out this color scheme in advance?

Vincent's color scheme
The colors that you see on the right (or, as close as I can get to them with the colors I have on hand) approximate most of the colors that Vincent used in his painting.  Softened lemony yellow, petal pink, delicate lilac, creamy white, new growth brown and minty green make up the majority of light colors.  The few darks that are featured in the painting include a deep reddish clay, russet brown, evergreen and blue.

Again, with no right or wrong, no names or preconceived ideas about the colors, do you think that the colors look "nice" together?

Do you think that the colors in the Van Gogh look "nice" together?  I have to admit that when I saw this painting, I liked the composition and subject, but I thought that the colors were a little weird.  Not bad, just a bit weird.  So what do YOU think of the colors?

And now comes the fun part, where get to start marrying the colors together.

I took specific colors and entwined them to other specific colors.  First, the complimentaries:

 Red and Green

                         Blue and Orange (right)

and Yellow and Purple (left)

Are you noticing how common these pairings are? Christmas decorations?  Football teams?  Flower colorations?

What do you think of the way they look together?

Do they compliment one another?  Do they fight, or play nicely?  Do you like them?

I encourage you to open yourself to think about color.  It is all around you, and always interacting - It is so common, though, that we sometimes don't see it.  Don't miss color - it makes the world an interesting place to be.

And now, for the painting.

 In a very unusual move for me, I started with a study.  I had some pastels that I wanted to try out, so I could see how the pastel did on one of my pre - gessoed melamine boards.

I started with a sketch, which you can see (at right) that I compared to the original on the google art project.

Here is a more close up photo of the sketch; I was trying to get pretty close to Vincent's layout.

At right you can see the initial laying down of colors with the pastels.  Despite it being recommended as good for pastels, I did not like the way they worked on the smoothly gessoed board - there was not enough "tooth" for the pastels to get a grip on the surface.

And yet more color.  Then I set it aside and decided it was time to paint.

Here is my sketch for the painting.  Note that my canvas is configured to be a bit taller than Vincent's, so I had a lot of empty space at the bottom, which threw off the original composition.

Here is the computer comparison where you can see the compositional differences.

I resolved the empty space at the bottom by adding in a few extra blooming branches.

Here is the only additional picture I took of the work in progress.  (I promise to leave my camera right on my easel in the future and to set a timer.  I promise!)

I have the glass sketched out in blue, and put in dark browns and greens on the branches.  The blossoms were rendered with magentas, pinks and creams, with centers of yellow.

I used a minty, whitish green for the highlights on the branches, buds, and edges of the blossoms.

Below is one more shot at both finished paintings.  Note the differences in color selection; my tablecloth is purply lilac instead of yellow - my blooms are much pinker than Vincent's creamy blossoms.  Is one "right" and the other "wrong?"  What do you think of the choices I made, and of the ones that Vincent selected?  How would YOU paint it?  Please feel free to share your own work, or just your opinion, if you are so inclined.

Thanks again for reading; I hope to return to our regular schedule this week.