I chose to attempt a copy of a painting for this assignment. The other option was an analysis, which seems like the obvious choice for a non-painter. The course material notes “copying isn’t just a technical exercise – it’s also a powerful way to learn”, plus we’re not expected to make a skilled literal copy, so I decided to go for it.As mentioned in my annotation of a still life by Cézanne (30-Jan-2014), I decided to focus in on his work and this landscape of the banks of the Marne. This seemed like a great choice because the work is actually part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, so generally I have plenty of opportunity to see it in person. Unfortunately just as I reached this section the painting disappeared from display. I decided to continue as planned, using the high quality photograph in the google art project as my source – http://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/banks-of-the-marne/SAEWBj7YSSuNOA?projectId=art-project.
The assignment asks for brief notes, so I built up this post as I progressed.
* Late January. Painting proportion 5:4 width to height. Seems unusual for an expansive landscape. I’ll use a 10 x 8 grid to keep track of position while copying.
Original is oil on canvas. I’ve decided to use my conte crayons since I have a good range of colours and have some experience with them. Size and weight are issues given postage. Requirement is at least 42 cm in one dimension. College insists nothing rolled. Australia Post has “girth” as well as weight restrictions. After lengthy discussions at art supply store have chosen 290 gsm canson oil sketch paper which I will glue to foamboard to give some rigidity without weight. A border will give some protection. Can go to A2 if total package is no more than 4 cm high. Decide on 45 x 36 cm.
* 1 – 2 Feb
Initial observations show tight structure of horizontals, verticals and diagonals in village and boats. Bands of repeated brushstrokes form shapes, especially in the foliage of trees and grass on the river bank. The sky is more varied with some scrubbing marks.
Desaturating the image shows a full range of values, but focused in the middle range. Highest values are where light reflects from the walls of the village, and slightly lower values in the sky. There are touches of darker values across most of the picture, excluding the sky. The automated histogram confirms this general impression.
The palette is in greens, ochres, greys and blues. There are a couple of small touches of red on the boats. The little auto-generated palette is quite misleading – after all there are many more than 256 colours in the image and everything gets averaged down.
This is a comparison of a small section where a roof is in shadow – the colour version and a desaturated version. If you click on it you will see the maximum resolution I have in my image. It’s going to be difficult to get close to this subtlety of colour and the unevenness of cover of the canvas.
After brief test with my sample pieces I definitely prefer the coverage and blending of colour that I get on the smoother side of the canvas. It also showed that at the scale I’m using it won’t be possible to get close to any detail of colour and line. I was already strongly inclined to focus on composition and broad shapes, since forms in space seem such an important aspect of Cézanne’s work and influence.
The canvas is glued down. I had weighted the foam board as the glue dried, but there is still a slight bowing. Today I penciled in the grid and tried to add broad outlines, but the complexity is overwhelming me. I ran a ruler along the image both horizontally and vertically trying to find correspondences across the picture, but nothing seems to quite line up.
Abandoning the attempt to sketch in all the major lines, I decided to start top left in the sky and progress across the canvas treating each grid square as well as I could. This photo was taken at an extreme angle to pick up the initial sketch lines.
Progress shot. This process is really drawing me in. The complexity of colour is incredible. My earlier notes about the palette were totally inadequate and the computer generated colour analysis had everything averaged into nothingness. I have pretty much every shade of the conte crayons plus a few CarbOthello chalk-pastel pencils and of course none of the colours are right and in any case Cézanne layered colours to get lots of subtle changes on the canvas.
I settled into a working method of 30 minute “bursts”, which is about as long as my concentration lasts. I’d look at a section of the image on the computer, looking at shapes and the layers of colour, then select a crayon, maybe make a few dabs then change to something else. There is just so much happening in this painting!
This is where I’ve decided to stop. There is so much more that could be done, but I think I’ve achieved the overall objectives of the exercise. If I keep going over areas they just get dark and drab.
More than anything I’ve realised the complexity of the painting. It’s quick to write about planes sliding against each other and a grid of simplified shapes – but this is no simple grid and the number of decisions the artist made is incredible.
Above is my bad photo of the original, and one of my copy. There are clearly places where I got totally lost – glaringly the right side of the tree. The colour is totally different. Still overall I’m pretty pleased. I wanted to concentrate on composition and overall shapes and given everything that’s going on in the original I feel I’ve made a decent attempt.
The experience of attempting the copy has been amazing. I very much want to look at the original again and see all the detail, but sadly it is still absent from the gallery walls. I’m also keen to do more work with the pastels in my sketchbook. The colour mixing, little dabs of this and that, building up layers and interactions, was absorbing and exciting and satisfying. I want more! I’m also full of ideas for translating some of this into textiles – in particular felt, which I think really lends itself to layering and mixing of colours. I’d need to go an extra step towards abstraction…
While working on this assignment I’ve been reading Cézanne’s letters as edited and translated by Alex Danchev. Many of them were keeping in touch with people, making arrangement to travel or meet, or making excuses for not meeting people. There were comments like one about a visitor – “the poor man, I soaked him in theories about painting” (letter 179) – but for many years little if any on the actual theories. He wrote “it’s better to talk face-to-face – one always explains oneself and makes oneself better understood that way” (letter 188), “we can talk more, and perhaps better, about painting when sur le motif rather than devising purely speculative theories, in which we often get lost” (letter 206) and “talking about art is virtually useless” (letter 235). However there were some comments that resonated with the work I have been doing.
“I continue to seek to develop through design and colour the idea of art according to my beliefs” (letter 226). This assignment has brought home to me just how detailed and flexible Cézanne’s use of colour was. My version is over-coloured, but it is based on his.
“Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth … line perpendicular to this horizon give depth. Now, we men experience nature more in terms of depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our vibrations of light, represented by reds and yellows, a sufficient quantity of blue tones, to give a sense of atmosphere” (letter 233). I remarked early on about the proportions of the subject painting which is closer to a square than many landscapes. Looking at it now I see those repeated horizontals giving breadth – the edge of the grass at the base of the walls, also the river, the boats, the lines of walls and roofs. Then the vertical of that tree right in the centre, creating space before and behind it. I used a lots of purples and violets in my version, to warm up the blues and greys which are used across the picture. Once again, I am very keen to see the original – can there really be so many greys and blues in a picture which at first glance looks yellow, green and orange?
“The sensations colorantes that create light are the cause of abstractions that do not allow me to cover my canvas, nor to pursue the delimitation of objects when their points of contact are subtle, delicate; the result of which is that image image or painting is incomplete. On the other hand, the planes fall on top of one another, from which comes the neo-Impressionism that outlines [everything] in black, a defect that must be resisted with all one’s might” (letter 255). There seems to be a lot of uncovered canvas in this painting and I wonder about the cause. I have seen an anecdote a number of times about Cézanne’s portrait of Vollard, which remained with two blank spots on the hands which Cézanne could not fill unless he could determine just the right tone. I’ve also read suggestions that canvases were “unfinishable”, a concept which I don’t properly understand. My subject painting provides many examples of the subtle delimitation of objects. There were many places where I couldn’t really tell exactly what was happening, how one building or bush became another.
“I can’t achieve the intensity that builds in my senses, I don’t have that magnificent richness of colour that enlivens nature” (letter 267). Unsurprisingly given all I have written about Cézanne’s use of colour, I was startled at the idea that he should be so dissatisfied with it at the end of his life (the letter was written to his son in September 1906, just weeks before his own death). Was this modesty, or that one always want more? Nature can have infinite variety, while a painter on his canvas is limited – but from my close observation I would say that Cézanne pushed his limits.
All quotes of Cézanne’s letters are from
Danchev, A. (editor and translator) (2013) The Letters of Paul Cézanne Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum