Saturday, March 30, 2013

Vincent opens my Irises!

Van Gogh's Irises is one of the most expensive paintings ever auctioned, selling  in 1987 for a cool 54 million dollars.

Van Gogh crafted this masterful "study" (study!) while confined to the asylum at St. Remy.  It was one of the first paintings he did during his stay there; he was inspired to capture a stand of flowers that he had encountered on his way to visit his doctor (Dr. Paul Gauchet).  No painting, of man, woman or flower could be more voluptuous in its rendering of subject matter.  No painting, in its cool blues, greens and greys could make you feel (paradoxically) warmer; I dare you to look at this work without feeling the warmth of the sun spread like great hands radiating heat on your back and shoulders.

Our own Texas spring has been remarkably warm and sunny.  With the exception of periodic snaps of cold with passing fronts, we have had one of the most mild winters and spring seasons that I can remember.  Our bluebonnets, sadly, have been almost nonexistent, limiting themselves to a few small and scraggly patches looking for a foothold in the drought parched landscape.  The photographs that you see below were taken about a month ago at a nursery in central Texas, in anticipation of painting the Irises.

Although that particular day was cold, the weeks before it had been unseasonably warm, and you can see that the flowers at the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham were responding to the heat, light, and drip irrigation by putting on an earnest display.

As I wandered through the garden paths, I was soaking in the budding beauty of the flowers just coming to back to life after their winter slumber.

Although that particular day was cold and the wind was howling, the plants were basking in the bright sunlight; it was a cheerful and welcoming scene.
Coming around a curve in the pathway, at last I found a patch of irises, with their strappy leaves bowing formally every time the wind said hello.  There were very few that were sporting any flowers, but I did find one small patch with a fluffy white bloom that was nearing the end of it's glorious moment.
As I took the photo, I tried to get down low, as Vincent did, so that I could match the perspective from his painting.

Given that he was checked into a mental hospital at the time he did this work, I wonder if the grand possibilities of rebirth were at the top of his mind that spring...

Notice how the light dances on the leaves and flower!  Look at all of the color in this seemingly monochromatic image of white flower and other white flowers - there are yellows, greens, blues, creams, chartreuse, browns, turquoise, and, of course, a tiny bit of pink from the lil' photo-bomber  at the upper left.
You can see at right how different the leaf color looks in a different location.  These straps are much bluer and less yellow than the ones that you see above.  There is also a lot more grey in the picture, probably because the dappling sun in this image is more shade than bright.  The leaves also seem quite a bit more pliable as they bend forward toward the earth.

As I kept walking, I saw a row of potted irises ready for sale; one of the plants had a fading yellow and purple bloom, along with some spent flowerheads.  Note that the leaves are thicker and flatter than the planted irises above - perhaps this variation goes with the color difference in the flower. I think that leaves on Vincent's irises looked a lot more like this one.
Here is another view of that same group of pots... as this was taken a month ago, these very plants may be settled into someone's yard by now... I hope so!

The leaves on these iris plants are so flat and broad that they almost look like an aloe vera. They lack the succulent's juiciness, though.
Now, before we get to our painting, I will sprinkle in some beautiful geraniums for those who are still in the dregs of winter... our snowbound friends can feel encouraged that their spring is on the way!

(sadly, we Texans will be running our Air Conditioners full blast by the time that happens....)

So, enjoy some geraniums on me in the best possible way - where you don't have to plant, feed, water or smell them!

So now, on to the painting:

I started this work with a large (30 X 40) canvas - I wanted to create a painting that would coordinate with the large scale dogwood blossoms that I had already done.

Once again, I divided the work "pizza style," but this time (because the flowers were so "busy" and interwoven) I folded down my original into sections so that it would be easier to render.
You can see at right the pencil drawing for the lower center triangle of the work.

One burning art history question that I have not been able to find the answer to: Did Van Gogh do a line drawing on his canvases prior to doing his paintings?  (If you know this answer, please leave a comment, I am so curious about this!)  There are, of course, many line drawings (often in pen and ink) that correspond almost exactly with his paintings - this is evidence that he at least was working out some of the compositional issues and brush strokes on his paintings in advance - but what is driving me crazy is this: what was the very first thing that he put on his canvases?  Was it a charcoal drawing?  A pencil one?  Or did he go directly to the paint? How much (if any) detail did he put down?  How the hell did he begin?

If this particular painting (of the irises) was  indeed a study (according to the Van Gogh Gallery, it was a study because there were no line drawings found that corresponded with this work), does that mean that Vincent just painted it freehand, according to what he saw that day as he walked along that garden path?   If it was, indeed, a spontaneous painting, then I am completely amazed...

I, on the other hand, found this "study" to be so complex that I had to number which leaves and flowers in order to keep track of everything in my copy.  How on earth did Vincent keep all of those leaves separate, straight, and individual in his mind if he was just painting this piece directly from nature?  His ability to do things like that as if it were an everyday, normal approach, is what makes VVG a genius!

On the other hand, you can see by MY big duster brush that I had a lot of erasures as I was working out the composition.

What follows are some shots of the pencil drawing:

Because Van Gogh had styled this particular composition after the style of the Japanese Wood Block Prints (which were done in the cloisonne style, with heavy lines outlining the objects), I started with some blue outlines of the main elements of the composition.
I used dark and light transparent and opaque blues for my lines, and tried to keep a loose, steady hand as I did the outlines.

Because the leaves were such a bluish green, I did not hesitate to outline them in blue along with the flower heads.
I then added in some browns and started filling in the turquoise, light blue and greens of the leaves.

It was very confusing keeping everything straight.  I cannot imagine the added difficulty to trying to accomplish this task without any line drawings and/or in an environment where the subject was waving in the wind while you were trying to paint it!  (Or being kind of on the edge of craziness and having just cut off part of my ear while attempting to do this very complex image...)

A close up of the first crack at the browns, greens, and blues of the leaves.  I did do a lot of color mixing right on my brush, dipping first into one color with one edge of the brush, then picking up the second color with the other side.  This technique makes for a sloppy palette, but it works well to streak color together on the canvas.

Speaking of my palette, I am embarrassed to say that I let it go for too long without throwing it away.  I had more than a week in between times that I was able to paint, and while my colors did stay moist on the magic moist palette, some of them got too moist and began to grow a nice little beard of mold...

And yes, I kept on painting with it.  It painted just fine; I was careful to avoid the really bearded edges.

The finished painting seems fine and does not smell bad.

Vincent ate his paint - so, I could be worse!

The price of cheapness.

(But I am trying to be as honest as I can with the blog...  If you read this far, feel free to tell me just how disgusted you are.)
So with my uber-earthy browns, I continue on, filing in the first layer of the dirt at the lower left corner of the piece.

What you can see at right and in the
following photos are close ups of most of the colors that I used in the painting.

It will make the blog longer for me to make the photos big enough for you to read the colors, but I think that is part of the point of this exercise.

Violets, and more violets...

I thought I had two blobs of the same color, and it looks like I did (Prism Violet, at right and below...)

At right are the violets and the blues that I added.

Close ups of some of the blues below:

And here they are in the same order (that you see in the tubes) on my palette.

Notice how some of the colors are opaque, (no clearish trail when they are spread) and some are translucent (the ones with the clearish trail).

And I found some irises on sale at Whole Foods.

Again, these are American Irises, which I think are different from the ones that Vincent painted.

Aren't they pretty?

I stuck them in the tallest thing I have, an antique lemonade pitcher.
I managed to do my own lil' flowerbomb by experimenting with some pink paint that was not too moldy on my palette.

I then looked at Vincent's original and observed that his flowers were orange.

But I was painting boldly and with turbulence!

Here are the live irises along with a copy of Vincent's painting.  His are much bluer, and of course, I do not have that one lone albino iris  (which in fact I kind of never liked in his painting... I get why he did it, but I just find it rather distracting).

And now for more greens and yellows

And more awesome blues...

And here they are lined up in their neat rows...
It is fun to fill in all of the blues, but this is a big painting!

A close up for your viewing pleasure... One of the great challenges was making the flowers look like they were going the right direction, and not twisted inside out.  This was the same problem that I had on the dogwood painting.  It looked like more pork chops, but this time they were blue.
I am starting to do some of the detail on the flowers and leaves now, trying to get them all to look less flattened.
Here is a close up of one that was shaped very much like the purple and gold one that I saw at the nursery.  It was very helpful to me to have seen that one in person, as well as to have the photograph of what I saw.
And here are some other random close ups...

Are they too exuberant?


I got carried away on some of the petals, as you can see.
This shot approximates the one above, you can see that I have added a lot more detail to the petals.
Pink flower bomb.

The third flower from the left (with the curled over top petal) is the one that should have been white.

Mine is not.  I think Vincent will forgive me.

More close ups...
And looking again at the fresh irises, which are starting to really open up.
Leaves and stems.

Live flowers next to the canvas, and in close up below.

Notice how they are already starting to fade, right after they just opened up!

I promise that I completely refreshed the water each day, and cut a bit off of the stems with every changing.  In all, they lasted about a week.

Starting to add in the meadow in the background.

I did this by mixing a lot of different greens on a very wet brush, then slopping them together on the canvas.

I am painting holes around where the orangey flowers will go.

Notice at right and below, the many different greens and yellows that were deployed...

So many yellows, in fact, that I had to break open some more from the color bin...
Again, lined up in order on the palette:

I really like the creamy naples yellow at the far right.
You can see where I started adding it to the dirt, along with other yellows in the centers and making the "tongues" of the irises.
More dirt, coming up.

The colors at right are in the order below:

And below that is a close up of my

I started adding some white highlights to the flowers....

And got most of the dirt and meadow filled in...

I kept on just playing with it, adding  more and more color where I thought it was needed.

Until I finally declared it "done."  (Again, I don't know if it is really done, or if I am just done with looking at it for a while...  If you see anything you think it needs, let me know.)

 Here are some close ups of the flowers and leaves that you may remember from earlier in the post.

 There is the one with the petal that is too large; I could not figure out how to correct it without it looking like an obvious correction.  I do like how dimensional the petal on the upper right looks, I think I captured a curled over quality fairly well.
 And here is the one that looks like the original purple and gold iris that I saw at the nursery.
 I decided to make my flowers orange, pink and yellow.

It is a varietal straight from my imagination...
 At right are some of the smaller, less in focus iris at the upper center of the painting.

I was trying to be very impressionistic with these, as well as with the orange/pink/yellows.
 More close ups, including the dying flower at right, which I depicted as having lost half of it's petals. This is the one that Vincent painted light blue in his depiction.

More leaves and dirt are below, along with some fading, prostrate blooms.

And below is the finished painting!

 Thanks so much for reading along!  I welcome your comments, and would enjoy any discussion this painting might inspire.  I have been getting a lot of feed back about selling some of my pieces.  Please contact me with a message if you are interested.

Thanks for reading - happy spring!


And PS - our coming attraction: tulips!