Robert D'Arista, Monotype

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Contemporary Genre

Genre (in Art): pictorial representations in any of various media that represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes.                                                                                      - Wikipedia

"There are only two types of people in the world: artists, and subject matter."                                                                                                                                - Robert D'Arista

Ever since cavemen drew pictures of the hunt on their cave walls, we humans have taken a voyeuristic interest in art that reflects everyday realities. Holland in the 1600s was the golden age of genre, but the art form has appeared in every century and every culture. Even the artists who decorated the tombs of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt reveled in depictions of the every day actions and occupations of the common people. 

In this album you can see work ranging from the Limbourg Brothers' early 15th century illuminated manuscript, Le Tres Riches Heures, to that of contemporary artists. Click on the slide show to see high resolution images.

For an earlier related post see: Genre Redux  

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tonal Games: the Mezza-Macchia and Notan

Spill your wine in Italy and you might hear your waiter utter the word, "macchia," which means stain, among other things. Consider for a moment an accidental stain from a spilled glass of red wine. The shape of the stain is essentially an abstract pattern, like a Rorsach blot test. In fact, this is what everything in nature looks like to your eye in that nano-second before your brain has "read" the pattern and figured out what, and where, everything is.

It's often said that part of an artist's training is learning to see, which is a stripped-down way of saying learning to bring conscious awareness, critical assessment, and emotional excitement to the perceptual process. From it's beginnings in optical sensation, to its culmination in emotion, association, and "meaning," the perceptual process is, for most people, a completely unconscious chain of events. For the artist, by contrast, nothing can be taken for granted. To paraphrase Henry James, the artist is someone on whom nothing is lost. The sense of sight is like the shell which conceals the pearl, or the rough ore which contains the gold. It's not enough to simply copy what you see. You have to dig for the treasure, and sift it out. How do you do that? The mezza-macchia is one strategy.

 The mezza-macchia is a grand-child of the kind of radical chiaroscuro practiced by Caravaggio in the 17th century. Chiaroscuro, as we've discussed before, is the systematic behavior of light falling on form that Leonardo da Vinci, and other artists of the Renaissance, observed and codified into artistic practice. Equating tonal variations in nature to the value scale of art made it possible to render three-dimensional effects of light and shadow in powerful new ways.

So where does the term mezza-macchia come from, and what exactly is it? As early as the 16th century Vasari uses the word "macchia" to describe the rough, less refined chiaroscuro in Titian's late paintings, a quality that today we might call "painterly."* The word macchia gradually came to denote not only the essential tonal patterning of the subject but its effect, or its emotional impact. Mezza, in Italian, means half. So, mezza-macchia, as it came to be known and practiced in the art academies and ateliers of Italy, means a kind of condensed chiaroscuro that dispenses with some of the tones found in the typical gradations of classical tonal rendering.

The "Mezza-macchia" is to western European art what "Notan" is to eastern art, a study of light and dark. Like notan, the mezza-macchia study is limited to two or three values, the game being to reduce the chaos of visible reality to a structural essence. The resulting pattern, stripped of familiar details and identities, reveals abstract design forces that can potentially help or hinder composition. Especially in the work of older masters, particularly Poussin, for whom drawing was more a kind of visual thinking than a finished work, the reduction of the subject to simple masses of light and dark was an effective way to test and resolve issues of composition.

From the following examples you can see that the concept of the mezza-macchia has played a powerful role in shaping the teaching and practice of drawing and painting throughout the centuries and, in fact, continues on into the work of many contemporary artists for whom drawing is a self-sufficient art form, not just a means to an end.

*from Norma Broude's wonderful book on the Macchiaioli, a group of Italian artists who lived and worked in Tuscany in the 19th century. 

Double click on the slideshow to see full scale, high resolution images.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Working on Toned Grounds

Drawing on a toned ground is an old technique that has been knocking around in the history of drawing since the invention of paper. Unlike drawing on white paper, the half-tone ground allows the draftsman to compare values in the subject with the value of the ground, applying both darker and lighter values to develop the drawing.

Making a toned ground is simple. Traditional methods include staining the paper with tea, or laying a watercolor wash over the page. Acrylic paint can be used to tint gesso applied to paper or other surfaces. Toned papers and drawing supports of all sorts are available from art material suppliers. The range of materials that can be used on a toned ground are nearly infinite: charcoals, chalks, crayons, pastels, colored pencils, gouache and other paints...

In the album below are great examples of the toned ground approach, beginning with Michelangelo's teacher, Ghirlandaio, and ending with contemporary artists who are using the technique in new ways.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Interview with Alex Kanevsky at Painting Perceptions

Alex Kanevsky was born in Russia and grew up in Lithuania. He studied art there and also in Philadelphia where he now lives and works, teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. In this recent interview, Kanevsky addresses a diverse range of topics, from the evolution of his work and his influences, to thoughts about the relationship of drawing and painting.

"Looking at a good drawing is like talking to a completely insane person, who nevertheless says some beautiful and profound things."

"I feel connected to what so many other artists did. We are not in vacuum. The dialog really exists. I don’t think it is some sort of linear progression that art historians are so fond of. It is more like a complex fascinating conversation with many people, dead and alive spanning several hundreds of years. It is a wonderful feeling to be able to talk with Rembrandt, and there is no other way to do that for me."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Learning From Poussin

The following is an article that first appeared in Modern Painters, by Richard Wollheim.
Learning From Poussin