So many wonderful art exhibitions, so little time! The recent show in Los Angeles and Chicago entitled "Manet and Modern Beauty–The Artist's Last Years" is one I truly wish I could have attended. Manet is one of my favorite painters and to see so many of his works in person would have been a real treat. But it wasn't possible. Instead I asked Santa for the exhibition book for Christmas last year. (Thanks, Santa!)
This is a serious gift; it's a large 384-page coffee table book with gorgeous photos of 90 of the artist's paintings and sketches, many of which were new to me. I won't try to summarize the entire book for you, I'll just touch on what I most enjoyed.
First, some context. The impetus for this show of Manet's later work was the 2014 acquisition of "Jeanne (Spring)" by the J.Paul Getty Museum. The Getty curators felt that this painting was emblematic of Manet's focus in his last years because it shows his growing fascination with contemporary fashion and femininity, as well as his expanding skills as a mature painter.
Manet's work of this era often focused on the stylish young women of Paris that he depicted in portraits as well as genre scenes set in cafes and theaters. In other paintings he showed the details of everyday life; vases of flowers, household interiors, and small studies of fruit, vegetables and other edibles. Art historians tended to ignore these smaller, less controversial pieces in favor of the artist's bolder, much larger works of the 1860's, like "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia". This Getty exhibition showcased the accomplished intimate works of Manet's later years and allowed them to shine on their own.
The exhibition also gave insights into the artist's daily life with dozens of Monet's letters with watercolor illustrations, including charming sketches of flowers and deft portraits of acquaintances. These pages demonstrate Manet's inquisitive spirit, his tireless passion for creating, and his observational skill. It's easy to imagine him sitting at a cafe observing the fashionable footwear of Parisian women as he wrote his letters and sketched in the margins.
Several small paintings depict casual flower arrangements, pieces that are stunning in their intensity and freshness. Viewing these gems is a masterclass in composition, color, and brushwork.
The book contains a fascinating chapter on Manet's painting techniques, gleaned from intense inspection of his work and aided by infrared photographs that showed successive painting layers. Manet's paintings have the look of au premier coup ("first strike") painting, which is painted wet-in-wet in one sitting and has blended brushwork and partially mixed colors.
But in actuality, Manet's work was a combination of wet-in-wet technique and layers of revisions. Manet's process, grounded in his classical art training, started with stages of drawing, ébouche (value underpainting), and preliminary color layers. His modern palate, bold colors, and loose impressionistic techniques belied the planning and revisions of the painting's beginnings.
I was surprised to read that many of Manet's works have scraped paint surfaces that reflect unsuccessful sessions. It's comforting to learn of the struggles of a master painter, and fascinating to find that he used many of the same techniques that I do.
I'm sorry that I missed this exhibition, but the book's in-depth analysis and its beautiful images of Manet's paintings made reading it a delight in itself.
To learn about the exhibition that I did attend, Manet: The Early Years, read this blog post. What art exhibitions have you caught recently? What would you like to see?
Useful Little Gems
I just love my little 4"x4" pen and ink minis! They're quick, loose, and simple. If you follow me on social media you have seen them occasionally in my posts.
I do them as part of my planning process for my larger oils. They help me to define the values of the painting, the areas of light and dark that will create the overall design. To make them, I think in terms reducing everything to only three values–dark, medium, and light–and of having uneven amounts of each. For instance. the one above has more medium value, less light value, and a smidgen of dark value.
The Big Shapes
Another advantage to making these little sketches before I paint is that they force me to identify the larger shapes in my image and not get bogged down with the distracting details. It's the big shapes and values that create the impact of the painting and that plan the movement of the viewer's eye across the canvas. By working on a small sketch with large shapes I have an opportunity to easily play around with the design before I put paint to canvas.
Fast and Loose
Since I'm not trying to create a perfect drawing, I can sketch very freely using only a few lines to indicate figures, buildings, etch. When drawing people, however, I do pay attention to where the head is over the feet, the body proportions, and the line of the shoulders. These little things often indicate posture and mood.
Love Those Sharpies
I work with three different thickness of markers to add texture. My favorite pens are Sharpies because they give a rich dark line. I don't, however, like how they bleed through the back of the paper. But they make such a nice line, I forgive them.
This viewpoint of this sketch is unusual for me, as it's from above. I liked the strong angles of the stairs against the water's edge, and the big repeated shapes of the umbrellas.
In this sketch the placement of the darks draws your eye around the painting. You enter the painting in front of the figures, travel left to the water, and then follow the line of the trees to the right and then left up the hill.
Here your eye starts with the large church against the water, then moves downwards and right following the trees to finally focus on the foreground figures.
I hope you enjoy my little sketches. Please let me know what you think!
It's Not What You Think
I think people sometimes have the wrong idea about artists. Since we're doing something that we are compelled to do and are creating a product that we love, they think time in the studio is spent in a glow of peace and creativity. "It must be so relaxing to paint!", they say.
Well, no. At least not for me. Painting is work, like any other job.
It Doesn't Get Easier
For me painting at its core is problem solving. I start with an unclear vision of what I am trying to produce. As I work toward realizing that vision I follow a path of uncertainty, false starts, and frustration, as well as inspiration and satisfaction. Every day when I go into the studio I ask myself, "How can I make this better?"
As I was starting to learn how to paint, I often thought, "Oh, it will be so much easier once I learn how to do this. Then I will paint without struggling." But then I read, "It doesn't get easier, you just get better." Fortunately, reading that didn't deter me, and years later I can confirm the sentiment. I am more accomplished than I was 20 years ago, but I demand more of myself and my work, so it's just as challenging.
Trial and Error
My time at the easel is one of complete trial and error. Each painting is a record of corrections on top of corrections until the image is mostly what I intended and no longer has anything that really bothers me. Sometimes that's the best I can do. Most often I am pleased with the results, and sometimes I create something that's wonderful. Often after I live with a painting for a while I discover more aspects to appreciate and a few more things to correct. And then I move on to the next challenge.
Along the way I have learned techniques that help me to avoid pitfalls and produce better work. Here are some of them:
In the end I think that persistence, curiosity, and drive are at least as important as talent in advancing as an artist. I feel privileged to be an artist and to work at this challenging and rewarding profession. I look forward to many more years of trial and error, learning, and creativity.
Your turn: when you're stuck in your work what techniques do you use to change your perspective and problem solve?
But What Is It For?
I know you've seen color wheels. You probably also know the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue, but you may have wondered how artists use the color wheel, if at all. In this post I explain how I use a color wheel to create color schemes and show examples in my paintings.
I have my color wheel next to my easel and I use it all the time for color mixing and to create harmonious color schemes. You'd think I would have the thing memorized by now, but I don't, and since I'm a visual person, it helps me to see it.
Color Mixing 101
You may remember from art class the idea of the different types of colors. Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors (at left above) and theoretically all colors can be mixed from them. (That's not actually true in terms of paint pigments, but that's another post).
The three secondary colors (center above: orange, green, and violet) are made up of the two primaries nearest them. The six tertiary colors (at right above: yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, red-violet and red-orange) are each made up of the primary and secondary colors nearest to them.
The main color relationship that is useful to me is knowing what is a color's complement, or the color that is opposite on the wheel. At full strength these two hues will be very vivid against each other. If one is dulled, then they will look very harmonious. If you combine them at equal strengths, they will make a neutral color.
I can dull a color by adding a small amount of its complement. I do this frequently because I rarely use colors full strength out of the tube; they would just be too bright.
The classic color schemes are based on complements:
Examples of My Color Schemes
"Cold Duty", New York City, oil, 16"x16", ©Linda Hugues, sold.
This complementary color scheme uses strong yellow-orange and toned down versions of its compliment, blue-violet.
"Our St. Pete, oil, 36"x36", ©Linda Hugues, sold.
This complementary color scheme emphasizes dulled blue-greens against brighter tones of red-orange.
"Neighbors", Paris, oil, 30"x30", ©Linda Hugues, sold.
This tetradic color scheme uses two complementary pairs: yellow-orange/blue-violet and red/green.
Notice all the neutrals that support this complex color scheme.
While I often approach colors analytically, I don't always end up with such clearly defined color schemes. In the end I always stand back and decide what feels right to me. Understanding the rules allows me to confidently break them.
Now for you: do you think about color theory when you create or view art? What approach appeals most to you?
A Trip to Remember
This was a commission for clients who who typically visit Paris in November because there are so few tourists and no lines. My clients had a candid photo of themselves in front of the Square du Temple, an English landscaped botanical garden in the heart of the city. I love this image because my clients seem delighted to be together in the City of Lights, and not at all bothered by the late fall temperatures.
Starting on Canvas
Top left: I started with a 6x6 pencil grid on my 30"x30" canvas, and used that to place the elements in roughly the right spot. Then I refined the drawing and used grey and white paint to show the darkest and lightest values. Lastly I continued to refine the drawing using a thick black line.
Top right: Here I started to block in color, just using two values for most forms. I wanted the warm muted fall colors in the background to contrast with the cool colors of their jackets and the bench in the foreground. I put the faces in very loosely.
Top left: Here I continued to refine all aspects of the painting. I decided the tree in the middle distance on the left needed some green leaves, even though it was November. Artistic license! :)
Top right: I worked further on the faces and clothes. I lightened the foreground bench and the distant grass. I added texture to the ground under their feet and put more detail in the orange shrubbery behind them.
The Dance of Painting
I never start a painting knowing exactly how I will paint it or how it will look. I have an idea, but the painting really takes form step by step as I react to what I see on the canvas. I see something that needs to be changed; made lighter, darker, warmer, cooler, bigger, or smaller. When I do that, then I see something else that needs to be modified. So it's a dance, a process that creates the painting from a series of decisions, each flowing from the one that preceded it.
"Fall Vacation", Paris, oil, 30"x30", commission, ©Linda Hugues
It All Comes Together
Here's the final painting of "Fall Vacation", Paris, oil, 30"x30", ©Linda Hugues. I think the colors and values work beautifully together, and my clients' expressions and poses make the painting.
Below you can see a detail of the faces and figures. The challenge with this kind of commission is to have enough detail on the faces to make them recognizable, but still keep the image loose and painterly.
The Clients Love It!
The clients were delighted with the commission. She said,
"We love the painting and will cherish having it. We always love to buy paintings to remind us of where we've been on our travels. This one is extra special because it was such a special time for us."
Detail "Fall Vacation", Paris, oil, 30"x30", commission, ©Linda Hugues.
Great Camera, So-So Photos?
There are so many great camera options today; smart phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and DSLRs. No matter what you use, my tips (and example photos from our vacation in Greece) will help you take more photos that you'll want to share. If you're already a pro, skip to the bottom and leave me your best tip! If not, read on:
Tip 1: Experience First, Then Shoot
Vacations can be overwhelming! I understand the temptation to look quickly, take a photo, and move on to the next thing. But that robs you of actually experiencing your vacation. And a photo can never duplicate the in-person experience. What I try to do is to give myself time to just be, to feel what it feels like to be there. This allows me to decide what is unique and wonderful about this place and to then try to show that in my photos. In the photos above, I liked the contrast of the solid historic buildings with the delicate, fresh flowers so that's what these photos show.
Tip 2: Place the Subject Off-center
Centered subjects can be powerful, but they can sometimes be boring. I usually find it more dynamic to have an off-centered subject that is balanced by other objects in the composition. One easy way to do this is to mentally divide your viewer into a 3x3 grid and place the subject roughly on one of the 4 intersection points. My iPhoto editing function has that grid built in so its a snap to do this when I crop the photo.
Tip 3. Think: Foreground, Middleground, and Distance
Did you ever photograph an amazing vista–like a view of the Tuscany countryside–only to be disappointed by the result? In the photo everything just looks small and distant. Instead, include objects in the foreground, middleground, and distance, to provide a more interesting composition and show scale.
Tip 4: Cull Frequently
It is a good idea to take lots of photos; trying different viewpoints means you have a better chance of getting a great shot. But you know you won't want to wade though hundreds of photos when you get home. I like to eliminate the duds daily. When we sit down for a meal or a break, I pull out my camera and go through what I've just taken. I usually edit out at least half my photos this way and only keep the promising ones. When I get home, I cull even more.
Tip 5: Crop, Crop, Crop!
In my experience amateur photographers don't crop nearly enough. When you crop you have an opportunity to straighten the horizon (do you do that too?) and re-compose the image to make the forms bigger and place the focus where you want it per Tip 2. Here I eliminated the busy left side and cropped the top and bottom of the image. This makes the fortress bigger, the dark dock on the left is now a nice foil for the bike rider, and your eye moves easily around the image.
Did this help? I hope so! Please leave me a comment to share your favorite photography tip.
Did you ever look at a painting and say, "How do they DO that??" Well here's your chance to see. This is a step by step record of my progress (and missteps) as I painted one of my latest.
"Follow Me" is a scene from St. Petersburg, a beautiful city on Tampa Bay that attracts retirees from around the world. I wanted to capture the chic, laid-back vibe of a Saturday morning on Beach Boulevard.
Not A Piece of Cake
When I look at these images of my progress it looks so easy and straightforward! But with each step I consider multiple options for form, line, value, and intensity. I ask myself, "Does this part work? Does it work with the rest of the painting?"
When I think I'm finally finished, I put the painting away for about a week so I can look at it with a fresh eye and make final adjustments. Then all that's left is the signature and a coat of varnish. And on to the next painting!
What are Your Plans?
Do you have travel plans? Are you going to any wonderful cities with great museums? Museum visits are always on our travel must-see list, and we plan our vacation around them.
But what about planning the museum visit itself? Do you actually have a plan? Or are you like I used to be, just expecting to show up and see everything possible until you drop?
But after visiting many museums, I realized that a little planning goes a long way. Here are my 10 favorite tips to make your visit more enjoyable and fulfilling.
1. Select just a few art museums per visit. We rarely do more than one museum a day. Buy tickets ahead of time to avoid the line.
2. Wear comfortable shoes and bring an extra layer. I bring a super light shopping tote that holds my essentials and I leave everything else in my regular tote in the cloakroom. Lugging my regular travel tote around with a guidebook, camera, etc. for hours is fatiguing.
3. Read up about the museum and look into their special exhibits. It really helps if you aren't starting from zero.
4. Research the best time to start. Usually this is first thing in the morning before the crowds get there. Plan to visit must-see exhibits first and then fill in your time later with whatever strikes your fancy.
5. Be realistic about how long you'll last. We're really only good for two hours or so before we need a break. We like to get to the museum when it opens, visit the special exhibit first, then stop for lunch. Many museums have great cafeterias that are a welcome respite to refresh, refuel, and think about what you've seen. After lunch we might be good for another hour. Or not.
In the Museum
1. Get the audio guide. It's almost always worth the price and sometimes it's fabulous. I love audio guides because I can go at my own pace and only view what I want. The guides give so much more context to the artwork that just reading the labels.
2. Don't try to see everything. Give yourself time to experience the few pieces that you are really drawn to and understand why it affects you. For a few really special artwork, give yourself a lot of time. If I can find a bench to sit on while I do this, I'm in heaven.
3. For thoughts on what makes an object a worthy of a place in a museum see my blog post Why Is That Art?.
4. When your visit is over, celebrate by buying something at the gift store. Really! It will give you a fun memento and it supports the museum. Win-win!
5. Afterwards, allow time to digest and discuss the art with your travel partner. Art is even more interesting when you can experience it from another perspective.
What are your favorite museum-going tips? I'd love to hear!
Paintings By An Introvert
From my very first paintings, my work has almost always included people which is kind of strange because I am a major introvert. You would think I would paint lonely buildings and solitary people like Edward Hopper, but I prefer more happiness and activity in my paintings, plus I like the challenge of painting the human form.
I feel that people add life and interest to my work. The shape and orientation of the human body depicts energy and emotions, even without clear facial expressions. And the combination of the figure's movement and body language contribute a story to a landscape that would otherwise be static.
My Favorite Things
So when I travel I'm always on the lookout for people to photograph, especially people in groups who are interacting. It doesn't take much, maybe a glance or a tilt of the head to say that one person is listening to the other.
I do have favorite things I like to include in a painting. I look for people in motion; walking, running, or on a bike. I love hats, interesting bags, suitcases, and anything red. I especially like scooters, motorcycles, and people walking dogs. I do sometimes show people with cellphones, because they are ubiquitous. But cellphone use tends to be an isolating activity, so I am judicious about including them in my paintings.
I tend to avoid painting facial expressions. This is because I want to keep the face as simple as possible to make the people more generic and maintain the focus on the overall story.
I like the interplay of figures in their urban environment. I find myself wondering; do they live there or are they visiting? What are they thinking? How are they experiencing the city? I find that having figures in a painting encourages the viewer to imagine themselves there and experience the scene more fully.
I enjoy the challenge of capturing people in my photographs and using them to enliven my paintings, and I continue to look for ways to tell interesting stories in beautiful cityscapes.
Thanks for reading! What are your favorite cities that I should visit next?
She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and then in 1865 she convinced her family to send her to Paris. There she took private lessons from academic painters since women were not allowed to study at the School of Fine Arts. Although her European art education was interrupted by the Franco-Prussian war, she was later able to live in Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Holland and study the works of European masters, as well as learn from local experts. She eventually settled in Paris, where her work was regularly shown at the Salon.
The American Impressionist
In 1877 Edgar Degas asked her to join the group of independent artists that were later to be know as the Impressionists. She exhibited in four of their eight exhibitions.
Cassatt was influenced by all the avante guard artists, especially by Degas, who would become a mentor. However she developed her own style and subject matter, painting scenes that related to the world of upperclass women of her era; tending to children, socializing, reading, and going to parks, cafes, plays, and the opera.
I am especially drawn to the work of Mary Cassatt because of her insightful paintings of people. She was a master in both pastel and oil. Her canvases show a mass of loose brushwork that convey a sense of movement and life, but at the same time her figures seem both solid and three dementional.
Mary Cassatt never married and had no offspring, but she clearly had an understanding of the special bond between mothers and their children, which became a specialty for her. These portraits are tender and warm, depicting intimate everyday moments without sentimentality.
In the late 1800's Japanese woodblock prints became available and were very popular for their artistic merit and their novelty. In 1890 after seeing an exhibition of Japanese prints, Cassatt began to work on a series of etchings and aquatints that have a distinctly Japanese feel. She experimented with designs that cropped and flattened the subject, creating dynamic compositions with interesting negative space. (Negative space is the shape created by the subject against a background.)
Another reason I admire Mary Cassatt's work is her use of bold, painterly brushstrokes and varying patterns and textures that support the figures in her paintings. In the painting above the textured upholstery contrasts with the girl's frilly dress, the smooth carpet, and the plaid sash and socks, while the shapes of the chairs move the viewer's eye around the painting.
In this painting I love the soft enigmatic features of the women as well as the beautifully rendered silver tea service. The texture of the wall, chair, and chair fabric all support the strong figures and convey the feeling of a comfortable bourgeois household.
A Trailblazing Artist
Mary Cassatt was a master painter in a time when it was extremely difficult for a woman to be educated in art, be financially successfully as an artist, and receive acclaim for her work. The fact that she was able to do all three is a testament to her determination, drive, and vision.
You can read more of this "My Favorite Artists" blog series here: John Singer Sargent, Claude Monet, Joaquín Sorolla, Fairfield Porter, Tim Horn, David Hockney.
Thanks for reading! I'd love to hear your comments.
I'm Linda Hugues and I paint cityscapes from my travels in Europe and my home in Florida. Here on my monthly blog I write about everything related to my art life, in and out of the studio. Enjoy!