Friday, 21 January 2011

The Victorian Artists

"The Music Lesson" by Lord Leighton

I've always loved the paintings of the Victorian artists. For many years people turned their backs on works by artists such as John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, John William Waterhouse, Lord Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, rejecting them as cheesy and overworked.

"The Pot Of Basil" by Holman Hunt

Yet these and other realist artists working in the 19th century reached amazing heights of artistic representation in their work. Never had the human form looked so real and natural as it did in their work. They reintroduced dazzling colour and beautifully observed nature into their paintings, even as photography appeared to kill off the genre.

I've recently been introduced to another artist of the period whose work I have now added to my stable of favourites. His name is William-Adolphe Bouguereau and, unlike the other artists I mentioned, he worked in France to produce paintings on classical themes. Many of his pieces are of nude women and exquisitely painted observations of the human form.

"After The Bath" by Bouguereau

Classical realist painting fell from grace as the impressionists gained popularity. Yet they have so much to teach us about composition, the use of colour and of draughtsmanship, as well as classical beauty.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Pulling it together

The first in the series was "Morning Inspection". I wanted to convey how many people were involved in preparing for the soldiers to leave for duty at Horseguards — that was my narrative. The major decision when starting any painting, however, is the composition and this has nothing to do with the cast of characters chosen for the work. The layout is crucial, and this is based upon shapes and their distribution on the canvas. I knew that I wanted the captain to be my central point, but there needed to be a dynamic around him or the piece would become too static. I thus decided on a composition based around two interlocking triangles, one large and one smaller, with an offset curve to hold them together at the top (the archway).

Since all the subjects in the painting are vertical, it became important to use other lines to stop the eyes from sliding of the top and bottom of the painting. I tried to do this by creating repeating diagonals throughout the image that form a zigzag leading from one subject to another, leading the eyes around and not out of the painting. These diagonals, such as the red arm on the right leading visually to the arm in the centre then onto the rider and down to the khaki uniform on the left, also serve to bracket the faces which are the important parts of the piece.

Colour distribution also plays an important role in a painting, especially where there are highly differentiated blocks.   Red is a dynamic colour, so I ensured that it created dynamic right angles in the painting to indicate tension and give movement whilst carrying the eye from left to right. The white areas are then designed to carry the eye in the opposite direction.

Lastly, I wanted to pull the viewer into the painting and this means setting up a dialogue where the subject "talks" to the viewer. I had two characters who were in profile, creating a wall to the viewer and one whose face is partially obscured. To compensate, they are balanced by the same number of objects interacting directly with the viewer — the soldier on the left, the horse, and the soldier in blue on the right. The interacting and non-interacting objects form an alternating pattern, to keep the viewer engaged with the characters in the painting even if they aren't attracted to the subject matter or the style of painting.

It might not be immediately apparent, but the dynamics of composition apply just as much if not more to a painting of a single subject. The first decision about the painting must always be one of how shapes arrange themselves on the canvas. There are time honoured principles that can be used to help decide the correct balance of shapes in a painting and Juliette Aristides book, "Classical Painting Atelier" gives a really great insight into how these work in a contemporary context.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Choices, so many choices

Photographers and realist painters are both involved in the process of making art about recognizable subjects. A good photographer will compose their shots, just as any good painter will compose a piece of art. Both disciplines require experience and hard work in order to translate the image in ones head into the work before our eyes. Both must make choices about what to leave in, what to take out, how to crop and balance an image.

In many ways the painter has the easier job because, unless a photographer has complete control over the environment they are shooting, there will always be extraneous pieces of imagery that will be included in the shoot especially when  out of doors. The photographer must be able to see the potential whilst taking in all that noise that could change the focus of the shot.

The painter, on the other hand, can pick and choose what to leave in and take out of a piece. They can change their mind and paint objects in and out of their work. The trick then becomes combining objects in a way that is harmonious and doesn't make a piece look like a collage. They have to lose the noise and keep the essentials and that doesn't just mean what objects are included in the final piece, because the painter makes constant choices about colour, direction of brushstrokes, emphasis, etc. as they paint.

I took thousands of photos of the Household Cavalry on my visit to Hyde Park Barracks. They were essential references for the paintings I created. The works themselves, however, are not copies of those shots. Once again, the snapshots were jumping off points for the paintings, which are based on a series of impressions, rather than a specific event.