Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Head Study

Here's a study for a larger work. "Head," oil on panel, 8x6. $75

Monday, February 20, 2006

A Visit to the Museo del Prado

Someone on one of the online art forums I frequent mentioned that he would like to see more about museums I've visited over the years. I'm not a big fan of the kind of museum writing I've seen in the past, but I do have some favorite museums and art works, so herewith is a first entry about one of my favorites, the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

I first visited the Prado in the early 1970s. I was in Madrid temporarily owing to military duty and had been reading Michener's massive nonfiction work, "Iberia," so I decided to visit the museum. The nucleus of the museum is the royal collections of paintings amassed by several Spanish kings, including Felipe II and Felipe IV (who was Velazquez' patron).

The museum was and is located near the old city on a pleasant boulevard of sycamores. In those days you entered on the end of the long axis, rather than in the middle of the long side (the way one does at say, the Met in NYC). Ascending the stone staircase, I turned right, into one of the side galleries, and there it was: "The Descent from the Cross" by Rogier van der Weyden. I was stupefied. I knew this painting! Unlike people who grow up in metropolitan and cosmopolitan places, I had never seen this caliber of work, until that moment. And even more fascinating was that I had studied this painting as an undergraduate. Here it was, larger than I had expected, brighter in color, too. Here was van der Weyden's clever and emotional composition, with the dreadfully sorrowful, fainting Virgin echoing the posture of her dead son as his body is being brought down from the cross and the awkwardly but perfectly posed mourning woman on the far right echoing both of them. I stood there, truly stunned, for a long long while. It still amazes me how something produced so long ago can speak to me across the gulf of centuries. That communication, that connection, is one of the essential experiences in art. And it happened to me that day. Long I stood and marvelled.

When I finally went farther into the museum, I found Heironymus Bosch's famous triptych "The Garden of Earthly Delights," painted in the 16th century and a bit farther on the pair "Adam" and "Eve" by Albrecht Durer. All in the space of perhaps two galleries or three at most. Not far from the two figures was the penetrating self-portrait by Durer as well; all three were painted around the same time as the Bosch. Five masterpieces in only a few minutes, and I hadn't even seen a Goya or Velazquez yet! And make no mistake, I was there for Velazquez.

The Prado has Velazquez' works in profusion, of course, from early pieces like the "Forge of Vulcan" to his late masterpiece, "Las Meninas." I spent a lot of time with that Baroque master during my first visit, as I have every visit since. The best of Velazquez is here: portraits of kings, queens, royal children, nobles and commoners, studies of dwarves, wonderful genre works. Works like "Las Hilanderas" (The Spinners) and "Los Borrachos" (The Drunks or The Topers), and "Las Lanzas," which is also known as "The Surrender at Breda," show us Velazquez as the acute observer of humanity and history. These three and several others of similar type hang still in the same large gallery. The first time one enters a gallery of that size in a museum like this one is magical, but to see only paintings by Velazquez crowding all four walls was stupendous. One could spend the entire day in that single room. Velazquez was quite simply a genius and a true master.

But even in the profusion of masterworks in the Prado, one Velazquez that deserves special mention: "Las Meninas." Long regarded as Velazquez' crowning achievement, it was at that time I first saw it hanging in a small, separate gallery just off the main axis of the museum, facing a mirror of the same size. In those days, before the crush of tourists descended on Madrid (Franco was still in power), the museum was much less crowded. Today "Las Meninas" is mobbed and has been moved into one of the main galleries. Back then I had this luscious work all to myself.

"Las Meninas" has had other names. It was once called “La familia del SeƱor Rey Felipe Quarto” but after it came to the Prado it was catalogued as “Las Meninas”, which is actually a Portuguese word meaning Maids of Honour. But it's not really about portraiture. "Las Meninas" is a very large painting, perhaps ten feet vertically. As you stand looking into the painting you see Velazquez himself at the easel, facing you, working on a very big painting. To the right are little girls, one of whom is the Infanta (the princess daughter of the King and Queen), plus a couple of dwarves (Felipe had a number of them in his court; Velazquez painted several), and a dog drowsing at their feet. Behind is a nun and another courtier and behind those people a very large room falls away into dimness. Deeper in the huge room we make out very large paintings on the walls, peering out of the semi-gloom, hanging as high as the high ceilings. Even farther away is a light-filled doorway leading to a stair. A male courtier is just departing but has turned to look back at us. Next to the doorway, there is the faint reflection of the subjects who are posing for the painting that Velazquez is working on. And at that moment you realize his genius: the subjects are the King and Queen themselves, and we are standing in their place. The sudden recognition that we are the King and Queen, having our portraits painted, was a delightful shock that added much to the charm of the picture when I first saw it.

Turning to look at the work in the mirror just across the small room, I could see the perfection of Velazquez's draftsmanship and technique. The work is utterly flawless, the perspective and sense of space as awe-inspiring in reflection as on canvas.

Over the years, I have visited that one painting more often than any other I have seen, even in this most sublime of museums. Since then I've learned much, much more about the Prado and about art history, but my memory of those paintings I first saw there is indelible.

If people enjoy reading these, I'll post about other museums, some time in the future. And if you'd like to see "Las Meninas" and read more about Velazquez, follow this link:

Saturday, February 18, 2006

"Nail Polish," oil, 8x6 on panel. $75

"Secondaries," oil, 6x8 on panel. Tubes of paint including the three secondary colors. $75
Very cold this morning--4 below zero when I got up--but bright and clear.

I've been working only sporadically the past few days. I'm going to post two or three small still life pictures this weekend. Today I'll spend on a full-size portrait of a little girl and work to photograph some more paintings for the website. I may get to a couple of new studies I have in mind, but time will tell since I also have to begin winnowing through the studio for packing and moving. The remodellers will be working outside for a few more weeks, but soon I'll have to move the studio so they can knock out walls and remake floors and windows. The only saving grace for all of that is that the studio will have more useable space. And there's no way to remodel around me. It simply wouldn't work.

I'm also posting a few still life sketches today. These aren't part of the diner paintings but simply works that I've explored for one reason or another these past few weeks.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Colder these past few days, with minor snow flurries. Nothing to cover the frozen ground, scoured by the north winds.

Luckily, it was warm in the studio today. I spent a lot of time on a portrait of a six year-old girl. It's intended as a sample of a child portrait. I plan on doing another of a boy and then work on samples of young men and women to populate a new portfolio. The current one I'm painting by using color notes from life as well as references. Ideally, portraits are painted from life. Unfortunately, in the real world, photos are critical for completion. Thank goodness for digital photography and manipulation. It makes references much easier to use. I've been taking progress photos of the current work; maybe I'll post them somewhere.

I'm also going to look hard at putting together some larger paintings of the island of Santorini or perhaps Mykonos. I've a large file of photo references and sketches I made a few years ago while we were there. More to sort through and process before I can start, though.

Soon comes studio inventory, packing, and moving. Blech.

(Note: You may have noticed some small ad links here--these links are not for my work but instead will connect you to other artist and art-related sites. If you want to purchase or commission something from me, follow the link in the sidebar to my online art gallery.)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Here's a small (8x6) portrait sketch I did as a study for a larger, more finished portrait of this child. "Lillian" is oil on gessoed panel. I find that I love this kind of painting, where the artist stays loose and painterly. This one is not for sale.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Sometimes, when I'm not painting, I wonder if I ever will again. No doubt it's common among people who do that kind of work--"creative" work--to fear losing the knack. Inertia is tough to overcome; once you do, the momentum builds and you seem to forge ahead with considerably less effort. Inertia is bad in winter.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"Two of a Kind," 6x8 oil on panel. $75 Posted by Picasa
"Closing Time," 6x8 oil on panel. $75 Posted by Picasa
"Bedtime Snack," 8x6, oil on panel. $75 Posted by Picasa
"Empty Jug," 8x5, oil on panel, $75 Posted by Picasa

"Shaker Study" is oil on panel, 6x8. $75
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A busy week is finally over. I spent quite a lot of time on several works; one of Lilly in the surf (oil, 20x16), two or three small sketches of Greek island landscapes, and a couple of small portrait sketches.

Priority for today is to photograph as much art as I can. There will be some photos posted by Monday evening, I hope. Most will be part of the Diner series I've painted off and on for the past year or so.

Studio remodelling rapidly approaches, which means that I'll be considerably busy moving out and cleaning so the workmen can come in. After that I'll be very limited in terms of space--no studio, no place else to set up an easel--so I suspect my output will be reduced for a month or so. That's likely to cut into inventory for the summer season unless I can set up elsewhere.

Only a few weeks until I travel to Phoenix for a workshop with my friend William Whitaker. Stay tuned for more detail.