Monday, December 17, 2012

Vincent warns me: Turbulence ahead!

While visiting family over Thanksgiving, I pulled out one of my Mom's old art history textbooks, and looked up what it had to say about my good buddy Vincent.

Although it said very little (that was new to me) on the subject of the Dutchman, the book did feature a color plate of Van Gogh's A Wheatfield with Cypresses, which Vincent painted during the time that he was recovering (after the ear incident) in the asylum at St. Remy.

The author of textbook described the work as being painted with a "turbulent" hand.

In thinking about my own struggle with re-starting the project, perfectionism and it's (recent) crippling effect, I was instantly taken with and scared witless by the idea of turbulence.  I really responded (and not entirely in a positive way) to that word: turbulent.  Unpredictable.  Unplanned.  No easier to capture than the wind.  Made by conflicting forces crashing together: Turbulent.

As soon as the T word crossed over my eyes and into my brain, my mind flashed to Lust for Life , the movie starring Kirk Douglas (author - The Ragman's Son, as well as an actor and icon of dimpled chin cool...) as Vincent Van Gogh.  Although I have not seen the movie for many years, I always remembered the super melodramatic scenes depicting the last day of Vincent's life, when he painted the wheat field with crows.

In one scene, Van Gogh (who is very near to his "suicide") sets up his canvas in the field, then is plagued (Hitchcock style) by a flock of angry crows.  As he fills in his painting, Douglas scoops and slaps the paint onto his canvas, waving his arms like a crazy conductor, of both paint and the avian attackers.  Given the inevitable denouement, Douglas portrays Vincent as crazed, manic, and in a very turbulent state.

Please indulge me while I share my Mac Dictionary definition of the word:

turbulent |ˈtərbyələnt|adjectivecharacterized by conflict, disorder, or confusion; not controlled or calm :the country's turbulent 20-year history her turbulent emotions.• (of air or water) moving unsteadily or violently the turbulent sea.• technical of, relating to, or denoting flow of a fluid in which the velocity at any point fluctuates irregularly and there is continual mixing rather than a steady or laminar flow pattern.DERIVATIVESturbulently |ˈtərbjələntli| adverbORIGIN late Middle English : from Latin turbulentus ‘full of commotion,’ from turba ‘crowd.’

Doesn't that just sound like Vincent's work? "Not controlled or calm," a "continual mixing rather than a steady... flow," "full of commotion..."

Obviously, the turbulence metaphor is completely appropriate in describing Vincent's troubled life and psychiatric challenges, but what I was really responding to was the idea of connecting the critical and artistic concept of turbulence directly with the way in which Vincent expressed himself through his paintings.

When I think of my own paintings, even of the paintings where I am trying to emulate Vincent's work, turbulence is not the word that rises.  Careful is more the top of mind expression.  Watch out!  Be careful!  Don't make a mistake.  Keep steady.  Don't be wasteful. Don't mess it up.  Fix it, quick, before anybody sees.  Make it perfect.

But I think (dare I say, I am even starting, on a visceral level, to know) that the great reason for doing this project in the first place is for me to try not to be so hung up on being perfect (see last blog).  I want to not need to not be so careful; I want to at least try to overcome my fear by painting bravely - with more turbulence, and a lot more commotion.

So, this week I set out to find a painting that can use to teach myself how to express the idea of turbulence.  In an effort to try to really encourage myself, I also want a cheerful image, so I selected as my project Van Gogh's Two Cypresses, which Vincent painted in June of 1889, shortly after his admission to the asylum at Saint-Remy.

Let me remind you what it looks like - at right:

Before we begin painting, I wanted to share with you a quote from one of Vincent's letters about how he felt about Cypress Trees:

"The cypresses constantly occupy my thoughts - I want to paint something similar to my sunflower paintings.  It's amazing that nobody has yet painted them as I see them; in their lines and proportions they are as beautiful as Egyptian obelisks.  And the green is such a special fine tone.  The cypress is a black mark in a sun-filled landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black tones, and I can't think of any other tone that was as difficult to capture.  One has to see the cypresses here against the blue, or more correctly in the blue." 

Sounds like a good challenge to explore turbulence, eh?

I wanted to do a biggish painting, so I selected a large, stretched canvas measuring 18" X 24."  The canvas is a wrap over style, with 1 1/2" sides.

I began by drawing in pencil the loosest, shlumpiest drawing I could.

Van Gogh Cypresses
I based the drawing that I did on my canvas on a preliminary pencil, reed pen and ink drawing that Vincent had done in anticipation of the Two Cypresses painting.

Completed in June of 1889, Cypresses presages the Two Cypresses painting almost exactly, with a noticeable (to me, at least) change: the way in which Vincent depicted the foliage of the cypress trees.  The painting shows branch ends rising vertically from the limbs with only the slightest waves as they reach toward the sky.

In the drawing, the "leaves" are depicted in a very curvy, curly fashion, and look almost like a fall of lush, thick, wavy hair.

Vincent's sketch reminded me of the painful childhood experience of having my wet hair pin curled to my head on Saturday nights in anticipation of Sunday Mass.  Plopped onto the floor in front of the T.V. like a bushel of corn my mother was shucking, I often wondered, as her fingers twisted and wrapped each section of my straight, white-blond hair, then stabbed at my scalp with the unyielding bobby pins, why all of this pulling and pinning was necessary?  Did she think that God wouldn't remember which hair He gave me?  Wasn't the choice He made good enough?  Hmmmm.  Something else to think about, I guess.

So in my drawing, (observe, right) I rendered the leaves as loose curls, as well. Fortunately, I did not require bobby pins or other hair bobs to make these curls.

 At the left you can see a more wide angle view; I was working mainly to get the right shape on the trees, and the moon, clouds, and scrubby hill side with the correct proportion.

The cypress trees look like a tall, skinny brain or an undersea coral formation.  I think that this won't really work, but I decide that the less careful, more turbulent painter would just press ahead anyway.

To gather courage, I decided to look up some more quotes from Vincent's letters.  Almost immediately, I found one that was just exactly what I needed to hear:

"I can tell you from the beginning that everyone will say that I work too quickly.  Don't believe it.  It is the excitement, the honesty of a man of nature, led by nature's hand.  And sometimes this excitement is so strong that one works without noticing it - the strokes of the brush come in quick succession and lead on from one to the next like words in a conversation or letter."

Well, Vincent.  Touche!

So I decide to start with some darks.  Payne's Gray, Ivory Black, Mars Black are loaded and ready to slather!

Again, I am using acrylic paint, which I have splooted out on to my pre moistened palette.

So I grabbed my favorite medium sized angled brush, took a deep breath, grabbed a big blob of paint, and started slapping it in roughly the direction of the upward growth of the cypress trees.

As you can see, I also used the darks to rough in the scrubby hillside...

I made myself paint very fast, and tried to not even really watch very carefully in seeing where my brush and the paint were landing.

Below you can see a close up of the top of the canvas which shows the loose and sloppy brush marks.

This was a truly scary painting venture, but I just kept on telling myself that the worst that could happen would be a canvas tossed into the trash.  Right?

Notice how I am completely ignoring my not so carefully drawn circles and curlicues.

Next, its time to go green:
from left to right, veridian, chromium oxide green, and green gold.

Above is the overview of the initial green additions; below are close ups of the same.

Notice how the color is swirling and blending - this loose style can be fun!

And here are some more greens - a sap green and a different brand of the (previously used ) green gold color.

There was variation (in the two different brands of the same color of paint); oddly the Golden (brand) tube of green gold was (irony points here...) much more green than the non Golden (brand) of the same color.
And here are my favorite translucent blues, phthalocyanine blue (green shade) and prussian blue (on right).

This photo shows a good example of how the phthalocyanine blue is translucent; you will notice how you can see right through the streaky bit at the top of the blob (to your left in the image).

You can see a tiny hint of the same on the prussian at the right.

Because I am trying hard to paint this one fast, I go for it by adding in pinks, oranges, yellow, some lighter blues and whites.
I think it is shaping up

The sky is coming along, but I have to figure out what I am going to do with the foreground.

Vincent's painting is just abstract enough that it is challenging to figure out exactly what is growing underneath the trees; I decide to just press forward with the scrubby brushy stuff that I think I am seeing there.

Look below for my solution...

And further below is a photo of my painting along side of Vincent's original (in the book...)

I am not quite satisfied with the sky, so I keep on painting on...

I think maybe I should have stopped earlier, but that is really not the point of this exercise.

I believe that the cypress paintings are very important to both Vincent's personal art history and art history as a whole, because they represent a maturation of Van Gogh's style and abilities as a painter.

These landscapes  were painted at a time when Vincent had to do without  the crutches that had sapped his self confidence.  Because he was in the asylum, Vincent did not have access to his perspective frame, and he was not interacting at all (other than the letters back and forth with Theo) with anyone in and of the art world.  Therefore, the paintings he was doing were done purely as he reacted to the environment around him.

Vincent was making art because it was therapeutic for him to do so.  The point of his painting was not to produce anything in particular, it was to keep him calm and centered.  His physical needs (like shelter, routine, abstinence, medical care and healthy foods) were being met, really through no effort on his part.

He was clearly thinking about art a lot, but doing so in a very internal way.  He was not subjected to the criticisms leveled at him by others - things like the impressionists rejection of his ability as an artist, and Gaugin's insistence on precise line and idealized form - these things had become completely irrelevant, because the only ones to see his work were the trustees who escorted him back and forth during his daytime painting excursions.

Naifeh and Smith describe it in their book -

"In this peaceful, supple valley, far from the storms of Paris, surrounded by the fantastical shapes and meandering lines of the Alpilles, Vincent conceived a new notion of line and form.  "When the thing represented is, in point of character, absolutely in agreement and one with the manner of representing it," he suggested after one of his first outings, " isn't it just that which gives a work of art its quality?"  Not only should color express the essence of the subject depicted (earth tones for the peasants of Nuenen, red and green for the lonely denizens of the night cafe); so too, the form should reflect the subject's true nature, not just its outward appearance.  And what could be more "in agreement" with this enchanted valley and its fairy-tale mountains than an art of exaggerated forms and playful lines?

In other words, Vincent stopped trying to be perfect, and in that exact moment, he became Vincent Van Gogh.

Turbulent indeed.

I offer, above my final version of the painting.

My college age son has just gotten home for his Christmas break, so I will probably not be posting again until after the new year - Happy Holidays (whatever you are celebrating) to all, and I will return to you at the start of what I hope will be an exciting and very creative 2013!