So sometimes, when I mix a color, I can feel it in my teeth.
So sometimes, when I mix a color, I can feel it in my teeth.
I found myself on hands and knees, and then even prone on my stomach while working in my vegetable garden yesterday. Whenever this happens, I am aware of channeling “Christina’s World”. It is an odd place to be. Such a posture outside with my face inches from the lovely pungent dirt makes me feel reverent and disabled, focused and inept all at once. I usually fall to my knees first, in a fit of passionate weeding, and then as I reach further and further from my centered kneel, I extend an arm down to support myself, and before long, I am lying extended across the ground relentlessly extracting every last offending plant that wasn’t either officially planted or noted as a wild food plant.
Andrew Wyeth’s painting was pictured in one of the few books about 20th century art that I had at home when I was a teenager. I can remember studying it and other Wyeths to try to figure out how Wyeth achieved that level of representation. This was before I went to art school in New York City and learned to adopt a more scornful attitude to realists like Wyeth.
So it feels a bit circular to be back in the verdant energy of a garden, thinking about Andrew Wyeth, or rather Christina. The figure in the painting is based on Wyeth’s wife-to-be crossed with the matriarch of the family who Wyeth portrayed relentlessly throughout his painting career who was crippled and named Christina. I imagine that the painted Christina had arrived in her current location accompanied by other people, but at this moment, suddenly appears as if alone, gazing at the far away house. That is one of the tensions of the painting…why is she on the ground, and how will she locomote to the house? If someone suggested to a painter that this would be a good subject for a landscape painting, I don’t think most of us would agree. It sounds pretty “out there” as a subject idea. The second tension in the painting is the relative size of the figure against the large expanse of grassy hillside. The figure is dwarfed and rendered more pitiful. A final tension is perhaps my favorite one…the tension of representation in painting; can the physicality of the painted surface disappear for extended periods of time as we revel in the created illusion? How insistent is the painted surface about being recognized in all its glorious materiality?
Looking at the painting today, with the freedom of an ex-art student, I am smitten with Wyeth’s ability to be the woman in the painting. More than most other famous paintings of women by men that I can think of, we are experiencing Christina’s world when we look at the painting. She is not posing for us or the artist, she is dealing with her situation, and we are not even privy to what her face says. We are privy instead to almost exactly what she is looking at , we just have a slightly wider angle that includes her. Like her, we have to wonder how to climb the hill, whether we will crawl or walk, what awaits us up at the desolate looking house, and whether the course grass hurts as it stabs our wrists. Egg tempera too. No wonder this painting is part of my subconscious world view.
“Christina’s World” shares with “The Scarlet Letter” a sophistication of experience that is easily lost on a younger audience. I remember staring at Christina, vaguely aware that she was somewhat crippled, though it is only alluded to visually with the depiction of her thin limbs and slightly gnarled hands, and I felt just sort of puzzled and perplexed. What was she doing on the ground? The image bothered me more than it conveyed some sort of message. (Perhaps that is, though, the greatest message) When I reread “The Scarlet Letter” a year ago or so, I was struck more than anything with amazement that it is assigned to high school students ad nauseum. How could a high school student even begin to comprehend this tale? Many high school students have never been in love, or been in a relationship. Most have not experienced first hand a great moral decision. The story is so muted, so alluded to. It is utterly restrained. I was an avid reader as a teenager, but I lacked any level of life experience to make this story come to life and it was completely lost on me. 40 years later, I was awestruck with it’s beautiful tonality and the restrained subtlety with which it is told. 40 years later, I am on my knees with Christina also.
It wasn’t until I was in the middle of painting the molasses jar above that I suddenly remembered “Wacky Packs”. My siblings and I spent hours collecting them, laughing about them, and trading them . I see that they are still “a thing”.
I can’t help thinking that they had a role in shaping my formative artistic outlook.
Pachebel’s Canon and Handel kept me company through hours and hours of work on this. The canon is “a polyphonic device in which several voices play the same music, entering in sequence.” How apt for what I was painting. My immersion in this polyphonic aural and visual experience for days on end in my studio has reinvigorated my faith in art. It does prey on our emotions. It is not an intellectual exercise, but rather the sensitivescience of aural and visual orchestration that sends us to our knees when we allow ourselves to really feel the music. (or the paint?)
|applying a coat of zinc white (mostly avoid the lead these days) atop two thin layers of animal skin glue|
A woman contacted me to ask about having her portrait painted in a Victorian dress that she had a black and white photocopy of. She wanted the dress to be blue. She mentioned having photos of herself that I could work from. I asked to see the visual material. She sent me photos off of an i-phone. The photos of her were small, but clear. She had a beautiful smile….the image of the dress was a different story. It was a rather worn photocopy and difficult to see any detail on the dress. It appeared to be a painting of a woman in a Victorian dress.
I began to worry about how I would come up with a believable Victorian dress, and I decided to look in the local community college library, which happens to have a good art book section. “John Singer Sargent” popped into my head and I thought to myself that he had created portraits of women in dresses around that time period…so I pulled a book of his paintings off of the shelf and checked it out. I was looking at it for the third time about a week later, beginning to feel panicky about how to design a light blue Victorian gown, when all of a sudden, I turned the page in the book past a dress that almost looked right, and spotted a painting that pictured the identical image from the black and white photocopy. Except, most puzzlingly, it was cropped slightly different…the painting in the book had more space above the figure’s head….I wondered wether the b/w photocopy was a copy of a copy….but anyway, I had found the dress! I looked it up on-line and printed out a beautiful 8″x 10″ photo of the painting. Not only did this give me brush stroke information about how to create the dress, but it presented a pretty believable warm-hued background.
|Blocking in background and foreground areas|
The painting looked like the client from the moment I started sketching her in.
|Committing to the background|
|The completed portrait|
At the client’s request, we replaced a “clutch” for what seemed to be a bud vase in the figure’s front hand. It was really fun paying such detailed homage to the Sargent painting…I found myself quite interested in the white shape slightly behind the figure…is it a pillow case cast to the floor? Why did Sargent think that this disordered element was a good idea? Or perhaps more significantly, why did he want such a noticeable white shape in that spot?Maybe to simply direct the viewer’s eye along the top diagonal so as to take the viewer’s gaze under the sofa and behind the figure? Maybe this is what gives the painting it’s lively sense of depth?
This woman’s family were all involved in obtaining updates on the portrait and then making sure it was beautifully framed for her for mother’s day. I wasn’t sure whether to tell her husband when I met him to hand off the portrait, how small my expectations for my own mother’s day were. Not much fanfare at my house. “If I was lucky,” I finally told him, “my youngest son would bring me coffee in bed. That was about it.” We both chuckled.
As it turned out, I was wrong. My youngest son coerced his older brother to help bake me a cake. So I had a mother’s day cake! (but no coffee in bed)