I find in working always the disturbing intrusion of elements not a part of my most interested vision, and the inevitable obliteration and replacement of this vision by the work itself as it proceeds.
I like this quote by Hopper. It’s liberating. If even Hopper couldn’t achieve his vision, then the rest of us are in good company. We are free to paint as best we can and let what happens happen. It’s still right to have a vision, understanding that failure to reach that vision isn’t failure at all but the ultimate beauty of work, of art, of life (Simenon would have cut most of that sentence). If Sisyphus had a paint brush instead of a boulder, things would have been pretty good for him.
Last night I spent some time learning from Hopper. I wanted to understand better his approach, which seems so nonchalant at times but also so precise, and how he made such compelling images. I’ve heard him criticized as flat, but upon close inspection, he is anything but.
Here are some of the key points:
1. He seems to have no concern for apparent “transparency” or “luminosity” of watercolor. He seems to layer glaze after glaze to the point that it almost looks like an oil painting, like he wants to make “mud.” Interestingly, this seems to be accomplished because of the transparency of the medium–at least that’s what I took advantage of in trying to duplicate his look–though using some more opaque pigments helps. I relied on yellow ochre to produce a thicker look in some places, which is something I don’t usually do.
2. The subtlety of his use of color is impressive. Though both slapdash and controlled (he colors inside the lines, but varies the colors and brushstrokes a fair amount), his application of paint and judgment give a lot of depth. Take the screen on the right. It has blue and green in it. They’re buried, but they’re there. They’re also present in the downspout and the siding on the screened porch facing the viewer. Unexpected but important.
3. The little bit of building on the left is a critical detail. Another painter would probably have left this out, but it goes a long way in situating the house and focusing the view. This makes it more than just a portrait if an old house. Coupled with the pronounced chimney shadow and the mysterious red house in the distance, there’s some hint of an untold story there.
4. The simple lightly abstract sky is an important backdrop. The subtle clouds frame the building in space, and the slight glow accentuates the chimney shadow. I used a little raw sienna in parts, while the rest was a very thin Ultramarine and Prussian Blue. To get the clouds I used a 1/4″ one stroke on its edge with the same paints and a touch of Quinacridone Red.
5. Hopper did some interesting things to the field leading up to the house, things I didn’t duplicate in part out of laziness and in part because I wanted to see what I could do just with a brush. He seems to have sanded and scraped out lights from a series of loosely applied washes and glazes and dry brushed areas. I applied the under washes, then using my 1/4″ one stroke dry brushed on some grasses. I didn’t bother with the sanding and scraping this time, but I do want to study how to do convincing fields at another time.
Here are the results of my efforts.
Thanks for reading.