The Simple (Still) Life

Still Life Afternoon - Curtis Green
Still Life Afternoon

Here is a painting that relies heavily on the compositional arrangement of the objects.   I was doing some research into academic painting and the arrangement here was developed from some simple studies in formal composition.  I set up the objects according to some of the basic principles suggested from my readings. This included a backdrop and a steady source of light from a large window.

The process was different from “direct painting” where the rendering of the objects is created by directly applying paint onto the canvas and resolving the image without drawing or preparation of underpainting.  Instead, this one was “brought up” with a charcoal drawing and fixed in place with a fixative.  A thin under painting was made with a light raw umber to describe the basic lights and darks and to put a first layer of paint onto the canvas.  Over the course of a few days, color was added layer by layer in what is considered and older or more “academic” method of working, until the last thicker highlights were placed.

Afterword, I found that the formal compositional strength appears to play against the airiness of the diffused light as it is softly rendered.  So it seems, that one of the nice aspects of painting in this very “traditional” manner is its ability to allow the most subtle notes to harmonize and have a particular loveliness, particularly in a serene arrangement such as a still life.

Note:  Tap or zoom into the image to get a good view of the subtleties. This painting belongs to a private collection.


Incompletely Done

Still Life with Oranges - Henri Matisse
Still Life with Oranges – Henri Matisse c. 1899

So, when I was at a major museum a few years ago, looking at a travelling exhibition, I saw “Still Life with Oranges” by Henri Matisse c. 1899.   Standing next to me, also looking at the painting, was a truly delightful and elderly gentleman.  His wife was wondering around looking at other pieces.  It was just a silent moment, when he suddenly started speaking to me.

“Why on earth would anybody want to look at this?”, he asked. He went on to say that the painting was childish, anybody could accidently do it, and why is it worth anything?  He also noted and pointed out that it clearly wasn’t even finished!

I stood there, befuddled for a moment, as if someone told me to freeze because a bear was right behind me.  This is a Matisse, I thought to myself, one of the world’s most favorite artists.  How do I respond?

We chatted for a little bit before I invited him to consider looking at the painting not as a representation exactly of the objects depicted, but rather as  an arrangement of shapes and masses.  Consider, that the artist is living in a time period where he is an adventurer, discovering ways to compose fields of color in just such a way that it causes us to respond to its proportions like tones do in music.  I asked him to step back from the painting and not see the table and fruit, but see the center of the canvas and it edges all relating to each other.  The unfinished part, I asked him; how would it look if were finished?  Could he see that perhaps the incomplete parts made the complete parts emerge as whole composition of background and foreground and we lose our notion about the subject of fruit and tableware, per se?

More silence.  Uh oh, I thought.  His finger went to his lips as he shook his head.  I started to feel deflated as I awaited his response.  “No.”, he said, “I couldn’t see it.”  He paused, “But I can now!”  Relief exited my lungs, and we smiled and looked at it again.  “Thank you young man, wait until I show my wife!”  He looked around, hoping to explain his new insight of the painting to her now.  “She was around here somewhere”, he said, looking back and forth, while wandering off to find her.


An Arbitrary Study of Beets

Study with Beets and Squash - Curtis Green
Study with Beets and Squash

The other day, the radio was playing a music piece by Brahms.  The announcer said that the composer worked on it for a time and then abandoned the work for something else.  Yet the ideas from that work may have found its way into a finished work made later on in his career.   Two days later I heard Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony”, another work abandoned by the composer.  So, I was detecting a theme!

One thing I enjoy most about looking at art is finding the areas where the artist was “working it out” or perhaps even letting an idea be cast off into where-ever it goes.  Perhaps we’ve all been present when a musician is playing something to our enjoyment and delight, then suddenly stops, laughs it off and says he was just “playing around”!    By definition, a study would not be a work of art fully resolved.  Rather, it’s a meandering of sorts, specific in certain areas while the other parts are dismissed.  Here in this painting,  the idea was to make a study of some arbitrary objects, arrange them and see what happens.  The beets were resolved to the point that I almost feel the weight of them.  Yet their leaves, rendered specifically, are languid and laying back.  The squash gives a good shot of color, while the tea pot stands in good support of the rest.  This triad works together, unified and confident, though the arrangement is set on an undetermined background.

At some point I decided to leave the painting as is without  attention to anything else other than the primary objects.  There are compositional  and painterly elements that  intrigue me, and so for the  sake of enjoying the work as it is right now, (and the beets) I stopped, … so I could just look at it.   I needed to remind myself, it is a study, after all!



Notes on the Persistent Genre of Still Life

Still Life with Orange Peels - Curtis Green
Still Life with Orange Peels

From ancient times to the present, the genre of the still life has been a staple of artistic expression.  Examples are found throughout the ancient ruins of Egypt, Crete, Pompeii for example.

The still life was a devout study for the northern Europeans during the 15th – 18th centuries.   Then the still life took on a whole new meaning during the years Cezanne and the Fauves were painting.  Picasso and Braque moved the still life into an entirely new purpose with their advent of Cubism, which led to the modernists’ search for form and the abstract work the expressionists.

Here is a fresh still life that was painted directly in oil, without any drawing done beforehand.  This is the first one in what I hope will be more to come.  The image is probably more formal in composition than it is in execution,  which lends itself,  perhaps more toward contemplation over literal examination.

Translating Flowers into a Painting

Flowers are an attractive subject, but they are also one of the most difficult for a painter.  Why?  One reason is in translating flowers into a painting.  There are so many ways to approach an arrangement of flowers.  The attraction may be the variety of color, the “prettiness” of the subject, maybe the challenge of so much detail of every leaf and petal.  Often the intention at the beginning of the painting turns into something very different as the process goes on.  

Continue reading “Translating Flowers into a Painting”