Sunday, January 25, 2009

Thoughts On/From Famous Artists , No. 1

For various reasons I haven't been able to do much artwork so far in 2009. But I have been reading. Often I incorporate what I've been reading into my posts about work that I'm doing. But the quotes don't always fit in and I sometimes tend to forget them.

So this is the first of what will probably be a series on thoughts from and about artists. I've been rereading George Miksch Sutton's "To a Young Bird Artist: Letters from Louis Agassiz Fuertes to George Miksch Sutton." The section that seems worth quoting concerns values, and colors.

On page 25 Fuertes says in a letter: "We are naturally blind to all but the most blatant & contrasting values, & even great painters -- especially of the earlier schools & periods never did get discriminating in this essential matter....Many old school painters understood contrast thoroughly, & played it like the masters that they were....Color subtlety is simplicity itself compared to value subtlety, which includes every possible element of color variation as thoroughly as does white light itself. Great pictures are full of ingenious tricks of color to overcome the failure of the painter to achieve his values."

Fuertes' point here was to show Sutton how to actually see the color of the birds that he painted. So for instance the bright red of a cardinal does not actually look red when it is in shadow. But I was more struck by the last line about 'ingenious tricks of color to overcome the failure of the painter to achieve his values.'

As I read this I couldn't help but think about art I like the best. Like many artists I like many types of art so it's hard to generalize. But if I try to generalize about what I like the BEST, I think it often includes rich tonal variety, almost an orchestration of value. Even more I wondered if it helped to explain how I've chosen color, especially in my abstract work.

The accompanying photos are of a wholly non-objective painting that I did in Kentucky in the early 1980s. I chose it because I think it really is more about color and shape than anything else. The brushwork is simple. There's no recognizable subject. I think that when I did it I really was just concerned with color and shape. But artists are rarely all that self-conscious about what they do. I didn't think about color and shape as I did the painting. But something guided me in my choice of color and shape.

After reading this quote from Fuertes I had to wonder if what guided my choice of color was really a search for an orchestration of values. It really sounded right to me as I read that passage. So I Photoshopped the color version of this painting into a black and white version.

I'm of course not an objective viewer of my own work. But it does seem to me that there is a rich variety of tone in the black and white version. I'm happy with it and for me at least it has a singing tonal quality. I think I'd say this if the work wasn't mine as well. I could be wrong.

In either case I think that Fuertes was right in his way. I never consciously think about value in my work, neither 25 years ago when I painted this, nor now. But subconsciously I think that I was choosing my colors based on a bright orchestration of values.

I remember when I first started studying art, both on my own and in school. There were those horribly dull charts of black, white and every shade of gray in between. Dullsville! But many years later it's hard for me to think of anything that makes a painting, or drawing, more vibrant and exciting than a good use of values.


Pam Johnson Brickell said...

What a great phrase "orchestration of values" is. This will help keep a constant goal when creating a piece.

Ken Januski said...

Hi Pam,

I'm happy that the phrase strikes you and that you find it useful. My guess is that like good drawing it's something that just never goes out of style. I've spent much of my life as an abstract artist. But even during my most abstract days good draftsmanship has always struck me, and I think a good use of values as well.

It's also something I need to keep as a constant goal!

Vickie said...

Hi Ken,
Glad you stopped by my site so I could find you! I so agree with your comment about values. Its the value differences that help lead our eye through the painting and to the focus. I love to do that with color too, but the paintings I enjoy the most do both.

Enjoyed my visit.

Ken Januski said...

Hi Vickie,

Thanks for stopping by.

I'm happy to see that I'm starting to see some goldfinches here that are changing colors as well (it was my wife who first spotted this the same day that you posted about seeing the color change). It sure seems early but who can argue with the signs of spring!?