Sunday, February 17, 2008

Serial Painting

Claude Monet is probably the best-known serial painter, though he was not the first: Corot and Turner had tried the experiment decades earlier.

In the 1890s Monet experimented with painting the same motif several times—each time from the same angle, but under different conditions of light and atmosphere. These images were conceived, executed, and exhibited as a group.


Here are just four out of the 30 studies that he did of the Rouen Cathedral. He didn’t get too caught up in the mind-bending complexity of detail in the cathedral fa├žade.

Instead he developed a way of painting to convey his sense of the transitory light effects, from the warm frontal lighting in the upper right image to the veils of mist in the lower right. The worthiness of his approach comes across best when you see the paintings next to each other.

Monet approached other subjects as a series. He painted matched sets of grainstacks, spring meadows, ice floes, poppies, the city of London, the Creuse Valley, and the Seine River.

During a painting vacation in central California, I thought I’d try Monet’s idea, maybe not for 30 paintings, but at least for a couple. I painted the first one in the morning. The first light touched the farthest range of mountains and began to sweep across the hills in the left foreground. The colors in the central mountain mass were cool and close in value.


I returned in the afternoon to find everything transformed. The far hills blazed with browns and oranges of the chaparral lit by the warm light. The jagged landforms became insistent. The sky appeared relatively darker and more saturated.

This little experiment was a reminder that the colors I actually mixed for my painting owed more to the particular conditions of light and atmosphere than to the local or innate color of the objects themselves.

Or to put it another way, color in landscape is less a property of material surfaces than it is of effects of light and air. You see this principle most forcefully when you try painting a series.

Nathan Fowkes, a conceptual designer for DreamWorks Animation and an instructor at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art produced one of the most impressive examples of serial painting.


Looking out of his workplace window during breaks, he created this array of 36 paintings of the same Los Angeles valley scene. The non-descript white buildings and the far hills take on a limitless range of transformations as the haze and light shimmers and changes. No two are alike, and no camera could have registered these subtle nuances.

Note that blue shadows on the buildings tend to occur on days with blue skies. The colors of the distant mountains vary from earthy browns to pale pinks to soft blues.

If you want to try a series experiment, here are a few tips:

  1. Choose a motif that has a piece of sky, some distant reaches of space or mountains, and ideally a house or other white object with planes facing in different directions, because white is the best register of colored light.
  2. You can paint the images either on a set of separate panels, or tape off a larger board into equal size increments. But as you work on each study, don’t look at the previous ones.
  3. Keep the drawing consistent each time, so that the only variable is the light and color. Spend the first day working out the drawing for all the panels, or do one careful line drawing, photocopy it, and glue identical copies down on each separate panel.
  4. Paint the subject in different times of day, and if you can, different seasons of the year.

Nathan Fowkes's Blog, Link.
Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, Link.
1990 New York Times review of a Monet serial exhibition, Link.

Tomorrow: Strange Tree

17 comments:

Erik Bongers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erik Bongers said...

Hmm, I'm first again...must be timezone related, or my big mouth.
I'll be brief this time.
Google on photographer Richard Misrach's "Golden Gate". Aperture and the link below give some good examples.
Book is currently on top of my coffee table. Cross my heart !

Be sure to read this quote...
http://www.rm116.com/2006/06/richard_misrach.html

vivien said...

interesting post :) and good paintings of yours and examples by others


I love the changing light in the landscape and my seascapes are about that - not always from the same spot, though sometimes they are - but the changing weather and light I love.

charleyparker.wordpress.com said...

See also Jared Shear's Cougar Peak series of 365 views of that mountain in one year.

craigstephens said...

Another wonderful post. Definitely check out Jared's site. It's serial painting at it's most ridiculously obsessive extreme. It was wonderful to log on to his site and see the new pictures as he was doing them.

Victor said...

This is the first time that I've looked at Monet's Rouen cathedrals at such a small size, and I think the effect is a lot stronger in miniature (not that the paintings aren't great at full size). The same with Fowkes's serial paintings.

Heather Lister-Cook said...

Just wanted to say thanks very much for the information, time and effort put in to your blog ... I love it :)H

jeff f said...

This would be an interesting thing to do with a still life. Same object(s) painted in a 12 or 24 hour period as the light changed, and at night I guess you turn on the light.

Great post again.

Michael said...

Great advice! Monet's serial paintings were awesome.

Kevin Hedgpeth said...

I'm amazed at Nathan Fowkes' ability to manage his time in such a way as to complete those paintings.

James--

I would say that you are certainly prolific at painting and drawing. How do you manage your workday/painting sessions--and get a blog done?

Maybe you have one of those gold watches that stops time...

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Charley and Erik for those links to other serial experiments (Kudos, Jared!), and thanks to everyone else for your comments.

Kevin, I'm not as prolific as you think. Unless I actually tell you I did a sketch that day, most of the art is culled from a shelf of sketchbooks and a big box of plein air studies. I do the posts after supper. I used to just write all this stuff in notebooks, but it's much more fun to blog the thoughts, thanks to all the wonderful feedback and ideas that you all have been sharing.

Jared Shear said...

Those Monet's...forever are they etched in my brain....and the work of Nathan Fowkes is as always suberb!! From his use of color to his command of the brush, he is able to say so much with yet so little.

Thanks James, Charley, Craig, etc....for the kind comments on my Cougar Peak project. As Craig noted, I probably did take my project to an "ridiculously obsessive extreme", but it was a such an immense learning experience, exploring and learning about the different color temperatures you get throughout the hours, days, months, seasons.....as well as learning how to pick my brush up on days when I did not want to.

Knitting Painter Woman said...

What wonderful suggestions and examples. Thank you.

Clare said...

I've been doing something similar for my daily writing practice -- 30 words about the same quarter-mile walk round the park. It has made me take note of different lights and how the feel of the air varies. It's a good experiment for anyone creative to try.

James Gurney said...

Clare--
What a great idea to write a short piece about a daily walk. It wouldn't matter if you lived in the city or the country: everyone who takes a daily walk notices the littlest changes.

As Jared said, it would get us into the habit of picking up the pencil even if we didn't want to.

Cecelia said...

Very interesting site. The exercise reminded me a bit of what Virginia Vaughan has been doing in recording her last year on their family farm, including some 24 paintings in 24 hours. Also Myrna Wacknov has been doing some small portraits of one person on a large sheet of paper. The same person done many ways. One of her self portraits in painted in this manner was in the March Artist's magazine.
I've been using a light table to redraw one painting, then painting it different ways.
I really like the idea of recording the daily walk, especially now that spring is here.
Really enjoyed your site!

MaryAnn Cleary said...

Very interesting and I do enjoy your blog and the wealth of info that you share. This is something that I definitely will try.