Sketching to Think About Louis Kahn

In college I didn’t get Louis Kahn. This was contrary to the prevailing understanding. Maybe it was his manifesto “Order Is” which seemed a bit silly in its semi-poetic seriousness or his 1944 essay “Monumentality” in which, among many important points, he proclaims that his generation “accepts the airship as a vital need,” that gave me the wrong impression, or maybe it was the magnitude of praise that didn’t quite click with the justifications provided, or, as I am discovering now, maybe it was just me. I knew the interior of the Exeter library was incredible, and the photos of the Salk Institute were also impressive, albeit apparently cold (the architectural photos never show the view of the ocean or the people who work there), but based on what the slides revealed, these didn’t resonate with me as much as I thought they should have or as much as other works of architecture did. As an aside, why are architectural photos so often uninhabited? These are buildings, not sculptures. Perhaps that’s why Julius Shulman’s iconic image of Case Study House #22 by Pierre Koenig stands out so much: the cocktail party happening suspended in the air.

Fortunately, this week I finally watched “My Architect,” and started to think about Kahn and his buildings differently based on the views of the buildings and interviews with others who worked on them and in them. There were some duds to be sure, such as the Richards Medical Research Lab, which seems blandly imposing on the outside and was, as revealed in the film, uncomfortable for the people working inside, but the Exeter Library, the Esherick House, and the National Assembly building in Dacca warranted further study.

As part of this study, I did a few quick pen and ink sketches based on some pictures I found online. I wanted to spend only a short time sketching, hence the crudeness of the renderings, so I would stick with the core impressions to understand what really jumps out. Then I thought about those points in more detail in the context of the film, photos, and other readings.

I will key in on two examples here:

One:

Using a photo by Ezra Stoller, I looked at the exterior of Esherick House, which revealed a few things I didn’t appreciate on first glance that might be telling. I hope my sketch helps to illustrate these things.

20130515-005453.jpg

I noticed the use of depth and volume. The house is fantastically open, but in that openness there is a lot of framing, often in ways that crop the view from the outside. It’s almost like looking at a gallery wall, but instead of paintings, there are shadow boxes. This is because of the receding perspective in each frame. These aren’t just lines, they’re planes, which serve to situate the frame in space and vary the depth of the views. It was a nice variation on the tendency at the time to put Mondrian onto building facades, something that can be seen on some of the townhouses in Reston.

Two:

Looking at the National Assembly building, I was struck by the play with darkness and light, and heaviness and lightness.

From the outside, the building is hulking and imposing, despite the softening element of the water. This hulking aspect is enhanced by the large geometric cutouts which appear exceedingly dark in the images.

20130515-005630.jpg

But when you look at the same shapes from inside the building, they are a fantastic source of natural light. The building interior, while still massive, is incredible and inclusive and symbolic–a true realization of what Kahn meant by monumentality. This was apparent in the film, especially when seeing the architect being interviewed starting to cry while discussing what Kahn did for them in Bangladesh. It was that moment, that humanization of the work, that made me connect with Kahn. Between that and my small sketching analysis here, I have a new interest in his works and hope to see a few in person some day.

Thanks for reading.

Advertisements

Learning from Edward Hopper: Marshall’s House

20130509-193109.jpg

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.

20130509-193244.jpg

Learning from Winslow Homer: On the Stile

I have been taking some close looks at Winslow Homer this past week, and decided it was time to get into his painting through an attempt of my own–a copy of “On the Stile.” His style is a nice blend of freedom and precision, with a surprising hold to it. Given my last post on Quickness, the timing seemed appropriate.

I remember when I last took up painting in high school before turning to history and literature, I copied a Winslow Homer and enjoyed it very much. That was my favorite class in high school, and I am not sure why I didn’t stick with it. I also started to appreciate classical music during that class, and it has since become a staple in the house.

Looking at Homer recently, I found myself at first wondering what the “greatness” was. I think I see it in the sense of immediacy in his Houghton Farm watercolors. He doesn’t waste our attention on extraneous parts of the composition. I think the pastoral sophistication also has a timeless appeal, at least to me, who spent some time with pastoral literature in my last novel.

I wanted to work on a few things in this exercise:

1. Use a limited palette of Prussian Blue, Permanent Yellow Deep, and Primary Red Magenta (all Maimeri Blu). I have relied on the earth pigments in prior attempts, so wanted to understand how I could get good browns and greens with only this palette. I wondered if I could get a more transparent result without the earth pigments. Also, it seemed Homer worked with these three or similar pigments for this painting.

2. Understand how Homer focused on his subjects and where he got a little more haphazard, or at least opted not to spend so much time, so I could better decide how to do the same in my paintings. I was struck by how much the perception of his paintings can change when viewed over a short period of time. At first they’re compelling, then they seem flat, then, upon closer study they become very interesting, far beyond the first impression. For example, the girl’s dress has a lot going on in his painting, and it seems so effortless.

I am reminded of one of the selling points of creative writing programs: even if you don’t make it as a writer, you will be a better reader. This exercise has made me a better reader of Homer’s paintings.

20130417-001418.jpg