I was recently in San Francisco and was very pleased to discover that the Legion of Honor Museum was hosting an exhibit entitled Monet: The Early Years. It turned out to be a terrific opportunity for me to revisit Monet's work, to better understand his influences and motivations, and to get inspiration for my own work.
The Luncheon on the Grass, above, was the centerpiece of the show. I hadn't realized that the painting that I was so familiar with, on the right, is a cropped portion of a much larger painting. (A section at the far right and strips on the top and bottom were cut off by the artist due to mildew damage and are presumed lost.) Monet began this ambitious work to enter into the 1866 Paris Salon, but he was unable to complete it in time and it remained unfinished.
How I Look at Artwork
When I look at artwork in museums, I stand back to look at the whole canvas and see what strikes me first about the subject, style, and feeling of the painting. Next, I'll often get very close to the piece to look at the brushwork and learn as much as possible about the artist's working process. Here I was looking at Monet's loose strokes on the dresses, fruit, and background. The unfinished dress in front helped me to understand the order in which Monet put down paint, and where he worked wet-in-wet.
Then I stood back again to understand the rhythm of the painting. My eye was first caught by the seated woman, then it moved down to the food, continued left to the three figures there, then back to the central man and the two standing people at the right. I saw that the size and position of the woman in cream provides interest and keeps the grouping from being just a line of people against the forest. But the focal point remains the woman in white because she is the lightest figure and we can see her face.
The contrast between the bright blue color and the dull greens and pinks first attracted me to this painting. I like how the strong values in the foreground frame the distant scene painted in muted colors. The horizontal lines and reserved colors make this pastoral scene look restful.
Love That Teal
This painting was caught my attention because of its colors, the bright teal set against the bit of red orange in the chimney, the vivid greens of the foreground, and the muted blues of the sky. However, I'm confused about the composition; it seems somewhat staid with the house plopped right in the middle, but who am I to argue with Monet?
A Grey Seascape
The colors in this simple sketch really capture the sense of a grey day at the seaside, while the angled brushwork of the sky and the women's skirts in the background make it seem like a windy day. Notice how that tiniest bit of red and blue in the background liven up that area.
I thoroughly enjoyed this show and I'm looking forward to the next one, Monet: The Late Years, which the museum says will be coming in two years. I can't wait!
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In Search of The Perfect Brush
To say that I'm obsessive about my brushes is an understatement. I want a brush that creates a certain mark with the least amount of effort. The more particular I am about marks, the more particular I have to be about my brushes.
First of all, I'm looking for a brush that has a lot of spring and body, providing resistance against the canvas. I don't want it to be floppy, because that makes the paint harder to control.
Next I want a brush that is thick enough to apply a good amount of paint, but not so thick that I can't control the mark.
Finally, I want a brush that holds onto the paint and releases it when I apply pressure.
Are you noticing a theme of control here? That's really the bottom line. With my brush I I have to balance creating a loose, interesting mark with being able to control it.
Brush Fibers & Length
A paintbrush holds paint in the tiny flags on the end of the bristle. The best material for this is hog's hair bristle, and the best hog's hair is Chunking from the region in China of the same name. My favorite all-around brush is the Grand Prix by Silver Brush (The one at the top with the green handle). It has very high quality springy bristles that also hold a lot of paint.
I've also been using brushes with acrylic bristles for small canvases. Acrylic bristles hold less paint and create sharper edges, but on a small canvas I'm willing to trade that for more control. The acrylic brush I like is the Bristlon by Silver Brush (The bottom brush with the dark blue handle).
Typically, oil painters use brushes with long handles so that they can stand at arm's length and paint. If you paint up close and use the paintbrush like a pencil, your work can get too fussy and have problems with proportions.
Notice that most of my brushes are slightly stained on the end. Staining paint hues like phalo will color the bristles of a new brush, but eventually it fades to the grey that you see here.
There are several basic shapes in oil brushes, and each comes in a range of sizes. The main types are round, flat, bright, and filbert.
The round is a brush with a circular cross-section, is actually the least useful. I only use it in a very small size to sign paintings.
The flat is the workhorse brush for most painters because it creates a broad stroke and it can also be used to paint a line when used on edge.
The bright is a short version of the flat. I have recently switched to brights for most of my painting because it gives me a little bit more control than a flat. However, they're harder to clean because if you're not careful the paint can dry in the ferrule (the metal part) and ruin the brush.
The filbert has a rounded edge and is the preferred brush for portrait painters because it leaves more blended marks. I primarily use filberts for the faces on my figures.
A Whole Lot of Brushes
In order to have the exact brush I want as I'm working, I keep over 70 brushes on my taboret. The two containers on the left hold filberts, in sizes from 0 to 8. The two in the middle hold flats and brights, in sizes from 4 to 12. And the two containers on the right hold the wet brushes I'm using as I paint. The rocks in the bottom are to keep me from tipping over the containers.
The types of brushes I use cost between $7 and $27 each, so you can see that brushes are a big investment for me. I make my brushes last as long as possible by cleaning them thoroughly after each session. It's time consuming, but it's worth it.
As a painter, my work depends on my marks and my marks depend on my brushes.