Learning from Edward Hopper: Marshall’s House

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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.
-Edward Hopper

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.

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Some Thoughts on Photography and Painting

On Sunday night I watched a documentary called “An American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” that got me thinking about my watercolor pursuit a little bit differently. There’s a brief interview in this with Frank’s printer Sidney Kaplan. He talked about Frank being the architect of the image, and he being the engineer. Frank would tell him he wanted one area lighter, another darker, and Kaplan would have to figure out how to do it. I knew from my own efforts in black and white photography how much can be accomplished in the dark room, but I didn’t really think of these being two different parts because I did both myself. To me, I didn’t know what the image really looked like until I printed it. Hearing this interview made me understand that these can be two distinct acts—the capturing of the image, and the making of the product—with distinct skill and value.

This made me wonder if I could take advantage of this distinction now, but instead of printing the image, I could paint it. In one sense, this is pretty obvious—any time we take a reference photo to make a painting of later we’re doing this—but I’ve noticed that I have a different eye when taking a photo for the sake of it being a photo than in taking a photo as reference for a painting. Take the white house painting I just did for example. I wouldn’t have taken that photo for its own sake. It wasn’t an interesting scene in that sense. It was interesting as a basis for a painting, though. What would happen if I approached the photo not as reference for painting, but with my photographer’s eye?

I wonder why my eye is different between the two mediums. Maybe it’s something about the tactile experience of making a painting being so different from that of making a print that I’m inclined differently.  Or maybe it’s because in painting I haven’t settled on a thesis or a series of questions I want to pursue. I’m just having fun with it (nothing beats plein air painting for this) and learning the medium. Then again, I did have a thesis while learning photography. With painting I’ve so far been deliberately avoiding the thesis element so I wouldn’t box myself in. Now I’m interested in splitting my pursuits into thesis driven works and fun works. In writing fiction this was hard for me—I felt I had to have a purpose, and anything that deviated from that purpose was time wasted. I don’t have that feeling with painting. Somehow it’s far more open. Maybe it’s just a time of life thing and nothing more, but there does seem to be something more pleasant about painting than writing—an open engagement with the world without the burden of expectations for myself, or maybe just that it’s easier to share and discuss a visual work than a written work that is always weighed down by expected meaning. I don’t know.

I spent this evening looking over William Eggleston photos and thinking about David Byrne’s film “True Stories,” which was inspired by Eggleston and was for some reason influential for me. There’s an odd humor in all of this. I wonder if it’s worth looking into that in painting.

No images with this post. I just wanted to start articulating these thoughts to try to make more sense of them. Thanks for reading.

Plein Air Painting With Dad

It has been a few weeks since my last plein air exercise, and this time I had some great company: my dad, who is also a designer and artist. We went out in his garden for an hour in the cool afternoon, and found some nice points of interest where the light came through. I like his garden because there are a fair amount of small views to take advantage of. It’s like a small scale park. I picked a corner of the pergola he built emerging in view between an exbury azalea in front and a mass of trees behind. I have found that I am often attracted to the interplay of man made structures and natural growth, and this was a good small subject to get at that.

Since finishing the large white house painting, I have worked with more confidence. I am not sure that it shows in the final result, but the time to get there and the feeling while painting was very different. It was also nice to get back to a smaller work–this was about 5×7–and not worry much about washes. I used a mix of ultramarine and Prussian blue for the sky, quinacridone red, permanent yellow deep, and burnt umber for the flowers, and variations on all those colors with a little Pthalo green for the foliage. Burnt sienna and ultramarine gave me the warm and cool shadows. This palette was a bit of a hybrid between the White House painting (mostly Prussian blue, quinacridone magenta, permanent yellow deep, and Pthalo green), and what I had previously been using, and I find it’s a pretty comfortable blend. There is more I could do with this to make it stand out some more, but I want to show what I did outside before I clean it up further inside.

I am still working out a visual language for myself and thinking about a more unified series to pursue to help me get stronger with a few things, but I think I am getting closer with these experiments.

Thanks for reading.

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Fish: A Short Story in Two Parts — Part Two

When the tooth entered this story, I questioned myself. Was this really what I wanted to write about, a dirty human tooth? But of course I wasn’t writing about a tooth. I was writing about something broader– an exchange, a contract, the value of a story. In a sense, narrative is currency. As Calvino said, “In a narrative, any object is always magic.” So what magic is in the tooth, and what is it worth?

Here is part two. If you missed part one, click here.

Fish: Part Two

The next morning George and Ant woke early to mine the hopscotch courts with bang snaps. The low sun cast long shadows across the macadam, and sparsely gathered crows looked on from the jungle gym as the boys lightly dusted gravel over the their mines. The girls would be out after breakfast to play in their summer dresses, and the boys liked to watch them jump and squeak as the tiny paper-packets of flash powder exploded under their feet.

Still, as the clouds passed over and the sun rose and fell in the valley, the boys could think of nothing so much as the tooth. They waited impatiently all day for George’s mother to leave the house for one errand or another so they could take the whiskey. They turned out the kitchen, but found nothing. They turned out the closets, but found nothing. There was nowhere left but the basement, dark and unfinished, filled with concrete and cobwebs. The air conditioner fans stormed in the shadows of the naked light bulbs. “This is the kind of place where teeth are pulled,” thought the boys. They looked around cautiously as the fans cut in and out. The rusted bikes, the workbench cluttered with vises, chisels, and pliers. The reserve supply of bottled water and toilet paper and baked beans. And then they saw it. The whiskey. Exactly two bottles on a shelf far in the corner buried in lint between the pipes and clothes dryer. Two bottles. Within an instant they were up the stairs, bottles in hand, leaving nothing but the echoes of their footprints suspended in the particle-laden air.

Car doors opened and closed in the driveways and streetlamps flickered on along the measured sidewalks of the neighborhood. Dinner would be served soon, and the boys agreed to meet by the big tree when the sun and moon lit the sky together. George arrived first with the bottles and climbed into the branches to wait. He thought about a battalion of tanks rolling through the valley laced with power lines; how easy it would be for them to cross the stream; how he would see it all from the top of the big tree where no one else would climb; how he would shoulder-fire anti-tank missiles at them as they passed.

Down below, Ant called out for George, impatient to see the stranger. Green leaves fell on the crickets and wildflowers as George descended. “You can see the smoke from the city up there,” he said, offering Ant one of the bottles to carry. “And if you try real hard, you can even smell it.”

On the way to the woods, the boys talked about the stranger. They talked about the fights he must have been in to get his scar and broken nose. They talked about what he probably kept in his pack—a gun and a deck of cards with naked ladies on the back—and they longed to see them. But most of all, they talked of the tooth and how he twisted it out of the mouth of a POW or how he pulled it from his own mouth on a dare and grew a new one.

When they came to the bridge, they made birdcalls to announce their presence. “Over here,” the stranger replied from his fire. “You have my bottles?” He filled his flask and stored the bottles in his pack. The boys snuck an unfulfilled glance inside. “If you’re looking for the tooth, I don’t keep it in there. I keep it in my pocket. Always.”

The boys protested their innocence.

“Now,” said the stranger. “We had agreement. Are you ready to hear the real story of the tooth?” Smoke drifted up from the fire, flitting sparks into the moonlight. The boys nodded.

“I want you to look at the tooth closely in the firelight. Do you see this cavity here? It’s small, so you have to look so close that your eyes go out of focus. Then you’ll see it. Remember the cavity.”

The boys strained their eyes in the shifting firelight, but could see nothing.

The stranger continued: “That’s what he told me. Remember the cavity. He was an old man on a little farm on the other side of the world. His fields were all fallow and there was blight on the crops for longer than he could remember, but he survived somehow. He took me in for three days and fed me on fresh fish he caught in a dirty stream behind his house. I looked at that stream every morning, but I didn’t understand how fish could live in it, it was so shallow. There was barely enough water there to drink. Each day I played cards with the old man to help him pass the time, so when I had to leave, he felt sorry for me. He told me I would never make it across the fields without food. ‘You have been good to me,’ he said. ‘Now I want to be good to you. I have seen you wondering how I have so many fish to eat when there is no food for miles around.’ And then he showed me this tooth. ‘This tooth,’ he said, ‘is special. See this cavity? Always remember the cavity.’ The old man then told me that whenever I wanted to catch a fish, all I needed to do was place the tooth in a stream and count to three. The next cast would catch a fish without fail. At first I didn’t believe him, but then he showed me how the fish rose up from the silt and bit his hook, one after another. ‘I can’t take such a gift,’ I told him, knowing that it was the tooth that kept him alive, but he insisted. ‘Every gift should be given again when the time is right.’”

Scattered raindrops slipped through the leaves as the rattling of cicada songs rose and fell in the distance.

“Is the time right now?” the boys asked.

The stranger urged patience. “The tooth can only change hands when the moon is full. Tonight is too soon. Tomorrow will be better.” He paused and looked at them with a narrow eye. “What makes you think the tooth should be passed to you?”

The boys replied at once with all manner of reasons, but none of them would satisfy the stranger. “Those are good,” he said, “but this tooth is very valuable to me. If you want it, I’ll need something valuable in return. Something I lost a long time ago on the other side of the ocean.”  The fire hissed lightly in the rain. “A golden ring.”

In houses full of jewelry, a golden ring was not hard to find. In fact, as soon as their parents left, the boys found several. They carried them all day on their fingers as they wandered around the fields and the neighborhoods and hurled crabapples at the occasional passing car. They watched the moon slowly appear in the afternoon sky, and they talked of the craters formed on its face from massive explosions years ago, until finally the daylight fell away and they could see the ragweed and dandelion seeds held aloft in shafts of moonlight. It was time for them to claim the tooth.

Fireflies lit the trees and underbrush as the boys looked for the stranger’s encampment. They tried the places they had seen him the previous nights, and they tried the stream. They tried the bridge, and they even tried the hollowed-out tree trunks they imagined were washed-up submarines. And then from behind them, a voice whispered, “Have you brought the ring?”

The boys asked the stranger about his fire, whether he would leave tonight, but he only repeated his question, “Have you brought the ring?” George and Ant brought out their fingers, adorned in gold, for the stranger to see. He thanked them for offering him a choice, commending them on their kindness. “We had an agreement. One ring for one tooth. Now, which of you will take the tooth. I will take a ring from only one of you.”

George volunteered himself, and Ant put away his hands. The stranger examined each ring in turn, taking notice of how the moonlight interacted with the luster of the gold, until he made his selection.

“This is a fair exchange.”

George felt the absence of weight on his finger as the stranger disappeared back down the tracks, the breeze from his footsteps lightly bending the wildflowers that peered up through the sleepers. The words, “Always remember the cavity,” echoed faintly behind him until they too dissolved into the damp night air.

***

When Ant arrived at the stream the next morning, George called out to him, “You missed it! I did just as the stranger said. I put the tooth in the water and came up with a fish!” As the boys discussed the stranger’s last words and the supposed size of the fish, the ghost of a cicada shell landed softly on the water’s surface and drifted downstream towards the city.