Ellida at the Sea

Ellida at the Sea
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Saturday, December 16, 2017

Edgar Payne and the Double Image

This wonderful piece by American painter, Edgar Payne, uses the technique of the "double image" to demonstrate man's relationship to nature. Two Indians ride on horseback through a desert canyon. The giant rock walls take on the form of architectural motifs, suggesting ancient temples or monumental sculptures. Payne uses this double image to impress the human imagination onto the rugged stone, as though to say that the cliff sides hold within them the potential for these shapes, which will only be released by the human mind. This theme is emphasized by the careful use of lighting, wherin the sunlight and cast shadows describe the path of the riders such that as they wander through it, they "illuminate" nature's potential.

"Indians on Horseback, Canyon de Chelley, Monument Valley, Arizona" 25 x 30 inches, oil on canvas

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Pilgrim's Hands

While making this painting I was haunted by the line from Shakespeare: Saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch/ And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss. This line provided the title for the painting and served as a kind of mantra, summing up the design strand of the choreography of hands. The pilgrim's hands were one of the most carefully designed aspects of the work, and each took as long to create as the entire figure. Awestruck by the vision of the sculpture, the boy reaches out to the handrail for support. The trees flanking the staircase also reach out, but towards the monument, as though lifting laurels to an emperor, palms outstretched. The sculpture itself is centrally defined by the the gesture of its hands, the depicted hero reaching up toward a vision of his own.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

John Keats: When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be

I produced a video essay on John Keats' poem When I have fears that I may cease to be. I discuss the poem's theme, Keats' poetic means and the characteristics that make this a Romantic poem.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


"Design-theme" is a concept originated by Tore Boeckmann, and which he derived from the concept "plot-theme," an aspect of literature first identified by Ayn Rand, and which she defined as:

The link between the theme and the events of a novel. . . It is the first step of the translation of an abstract theme into a story, without which the construction of a plot would be impossible. A “plot-theme” is the central conflict or “situation” of a story—a conflict in terms of action, corresponding to the theme and complex enough to create a purposeful progression of events.1

Similarly, a design-theme is the link between the abstract meaning of a painting and the arrangement of the composition. In his essay, "Caspar David Friedrich and Visual Romanticism," Mr. Boeckmann defines it as: "a unity of representational content and design means that isolates thematic meaning and that can be structurally expanded."In other words, it is the central principle of arrangement for the content of a painting. But it is not a principle in the ordinary sense of the term. The content of a painting is some concrete subject matter, and so the principle of arrangement cannot be an abstraction, but must be some specific arrangement of content. This central arrangement, or "core-combination," as Tore Boeckmann calls it, must be specific enough to instantiate the theme in the body of the artwork, but generalized enough that it can to be expanded upon into all the details that make up a finished composition.  The design-theme thus serves as a standard of selection for the subsequent elements of the work; their integration or harmony with the design-theme is the primary basis for their inclusion in the work.
    Tore Boeckmann's identification of this concept is an important advance in the field of visual aesthetics, and provides art viewers with a means of deeper understanding. Let's see how the concept allows us to analyze the paintings of two artists of the Romantic school with very different sensibilities. 

Arnold Böcklin's Spring Evening

Böcklin's thematic concern in this painting is the difference between the sexes. Specifically, he conceives of man as an earthly, natural, sensual being and of woman as spiritual, mysterious, otherworldly. He embodies this conceptual division with the compositional division of woman on the left, man on the right. On the right is Pan, the satyr-like god of nature and rustic music, on the left are two Dryads, or tree nymphs, who are wooed by his music.  The mythological subject matter might be obscure to the modern viewer, but it's really only an incidental context-setter, and the meaning can be inferred even without a knowledge of pagan iconography.

     The rustic and earthy looking Pan luxuriates on a rock in the vivid sunlight. His hairy body is rendered with a high degree of realistic detail, integrating him with the same realism used in the rocks and flowers around him. On the left the two dryads are framed by a grove of trees, the shade of which creates an artificial night. The dryads are wooed by the piping of Pan's flute, but in different ways. One, lost in the reverie of the music, dissolves into the shade of the trees; the other, seduced by the sensuous sound, steps forward into the light, removing the "purple veil of night" and exposing her flesh to the sun.
      The design-theme can be stated as: The music of an earthy, sunlit Pan seduces a "shaded" otherworldly Dryad into the sensuous reality of the sunlight.  Using this central combination of elements, which implicitly embodies the theme, Böcklin could expand his idea into the vivid reality of his picture, every element of which grows out of the design-theme and is therefore expressive of his theme. As Tore Boeckmann puts it, the artist "is not merely 'filling in' details. He is expanding the design-theme unity of representational content and design means."
       In order to fully express his idea of sexual seduction, Böcklin used the background Dryad as a foil to the fore. By pushing her back into the shade, wrapping her in a golden veil, and placing her hands on her chest in a gesture of reverie, Böcklin makes her expressive of otherworldly spiritualism. Conversely, the Dryad who steps forward into the light removes her veil to expose her fleshy body. She looks not into the heavens but down at the earth, and by leaning lazily onto the tree trunk, she begins to echo the posture of Pan's body. All of these elements combine to produce the image of a surrender, not just sexually, but a surrender to the natural, the worldly, the masculine.
     Having established this shape in the Dryad's body, Böcklin can echo it with the tree trunks that also stretch out into the sunlight and are more realistically rendered than those in the shade.
     This contrast of realism vs. unrealism is a crucial structural element in the composition. The contrast is present in more than just the division of the left scene from the right. Notice how Böcklin uses it even in his depiction of the sunlit landscape. The  abbreviated details of the hills, the choppy brushstrokes of the sky, and the unnatural ice-blue color of both might be regarded as fantastical or unrealistic. In the context of this scene, however, they are used as a foil to the intensely detailed and naturalistically colored foreground. Böcklin uses the unrealistic background to push forward and visually isolate the hyper-realism of the foreground, giving Pan a stressed 3-dimensionality and intensely physicalized presence. 

Caspar David Friedrich's Great Enclosure

The great master of design-theme integration is Caspar David Friedrich. The sophistication of Friedrich's design-themes are a reflection of his intellectual concerns, which are much more deeply philosophical than those of Böcklin.

       In The Great Enclosure near Dresden the clouds stretch out across the sky just as the inlets of the river stretch out across the floodplain. Together they become like two great hands reaching out, trying to hold this fleeting moment in place. But the intensely colorful sky is too ethereal and the pale earth is too solidly material for these two to echo each other.  As the sense of similarity dissolves, the sky becomes something distant and unreachable, like the sun that will soon slip away.
       This complex visual device—the clouds and river stretching out like open hands, echoing each other in shape but failing to echo each other in color and materiality—this is the central element of the design-theme. The theme that it embodies is: The radical division between this world and the next. More specifically, the predicament of man's consciousness, trapped between this world,which is vividly real but palely colored, and the other world which, though vividly colored in our imagination, is distant and indistinct.
         The similarity of the clouds and river to the shape of hands is an instance of what can be called a "double image." The doubling of images is a central feature Friedrich's style and usually constitutes an adjunct strand of the design-theme. Take a very close look at the thin wispy clouds that jut forward out of the orange aureole of the sun into the blue sky above. As they project forward, the thin strands expand into flowery spikes, and suggest the shape of stalks of grain. In one context these clouds had been ethereal and withered; in this new context they are remarkably corporeal, an effect that Friedrich stressed by painting them with an impasto application of opaque paint.
        Double images are used in the foreground as well. The rivulets and mud islands exhibit, at several different scales, the shapes of outstretched wings, suggesting a heavenly ascent. Through this series of double images, Friedrich communicates the idea that heaven and earth are in some kind of cosmic communication with each other. And while the theme initially suggests a dichotomy between body and soul—earth and sky—this strand of double images is Friedrich's means of insisting on their unity. What does this unity consist in? Friedrich doesn't have a clear answer in this painting, only an emotional certainty.

          Though the design-theme can be stated in words, words are not enough to be used by the artist as a standard. A painting is a visual product and the groundwork on which it is built—the design-theme—must be retained in the artist's mind as a visual image.  The Great Enclosure is an excellent object of study in this regard because it is one of the few paintings of Friedrich's for which we have still have the color study.
        This sketch is a simplified statement of the design-theme and the elements suggested here would have served as Friedrich's standard for the innumerable choices he had to make in the finished painting. We can see very vividly the early idea of the rivulets stretching out like fingers of a hand.
        Interestingly, at this early stage Friedrich suggested the idea of the sun slipping away via the red band of light at the edge of the horizon. He would later develop the much more sophisticated device of the sun resting on the upper edge of the lowest cloud, creating yet another double image of the sun as an eye, with the clouds as eyelids closing over it. This is a perfect example of the idea of the structural expansion of a design-theme. Since the device of double images is part of the design-theme standard, by developing another one—out of elements he is already using—Friedrich is allowing his design standard to unfold and develop into a new aspect of the composition.

* * * *

I must mention as an aside that Böcklin creates his own double image in Spring evening. The long shaft of the stone can be viewed as a phallus, while the V-shape opening of the trees can be viewed as a vulva or womb. This is a somewhat obscure symbolic element that I think is lost on modern viewers, though it would have been more readily recognized in the "Symbolist" era in which Böcklin worked. 

* * * *

1    Rand, Ayn. "Basic Principles of Literature." The Romantic Manifesto, 1971

2    Boeckmann, Tore. "Caspar David Friedrich and Visual Romanticism." printed in the Spring 2008       issue of The Objective Standard.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Caspar David Friedrich's Unity of Thought and Vision

Looking at Caspar David Friedrich's paintings I am awed by his ability to embody abstract thought in a visual expression.

In The Stages of Life Friedrich contemplates how human beings can mentally project the course of our lives in the form of the concepts of "future" and "distance." In order to embody these concepts visually, he integrates them with the physical attributes of distance: the diminution of size and fading away of detail.

In contrast to the detailed description and dark tonality of the foreground, Friedrich's ships sink away into a dreamy atmosphere of orange and blue. To integrate his projection of distance with its thematic meaning, Friedrich devised the method of echoing the arc created by the overall grouping of the ship's masts with the arced shape of the group of figures in the foreground. By presenting these characters at different ages Friedrich is telling the viewer outright that his projection of ships into the distance is a metaphor for the course of a man's life.  The flash of brilliant blue across the water and the yellow fire of the fading sunset suggest that the future can be an exciting destination.

By integrating visual attributes with a conceptual meaning Friedrich has created a unique, never-before-seen stylization of our sense of sight. As Ayn Rand writes in The Romantic Manifesto:
The sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult does not consist of mere sense data (as it did in his infancy), but of automatized integrations that combine sense data with a vast context of conceptual knowledge. The visual arts refine and direct the sensory elements of these integrations. By means of selectivity, of emphasis and omission, these arts lead man’s sight to the conceptual context intended by the artist. They teach man to see more precisely and to find deeper meaning in the field of his vision.
Friedrich has certainly lived up to Ayn Rand's statement. He has taught us how to use our eyes to project the future as a glowing blue dream.

* * *
An interesting aside about the title: "The Stages of Life" is a common iconography in the history of art (usually presented with a skull signifying death).

Friday, August 11, 2017

Also, this

This is a composition I am working on. Most of this was done digitally, though this is a plan for an oil painting. As is clear from the image, I am working on an irregularly shaped canvas. I am experimenting with several things stylistically, and this is quite an unusual composition for me. I have never presented the natural world as being so forceful and violent, but the the painting is intended as a depiction of courage and so I want the environment to be as formidable as the woman. All of my paintings are centered around the "heroic human figure," but I don't think I have ever come this far before in depicting the strength of a character.

On a Sailing Ship by Caspar David Friedrich

I would like to write about a painting that I have been contemplating, Caspar David Friedrich's On a Sailing Ship.

A man and woman sit aboard a boat in a dark ocean headed toward land. The porcelain colored city in the distance is bathed in a soft light. It is close enough to be real to them, but distant enough for the atmosphere to make it dreamy and insubstantial. 
        Look at how the man's jacket ripples as though he were a continuation of the sea. To his darkness (tonally and metaphorically), the woman is the light. He is one with the dark forbidding sea; she, her dress the color of clay, represents land and home and safety on a solid earth.  She is perched up hopefully. The man, with slumped but straightening shoulders, looks up at land with similar longing, but as though as at a hope that is less real to him. This dynamic between the characters tells us that she is the greater moral strength between the two. The fact that she is in the light while the man is in shadow tells us that her strength has some connection to the illumination in the sky. 
         The light in the clouds sits somewhere between the boat and the city.  Many artists have used sunlight as a symbol for hope and the dawning future, but Friedrich uses it in a special way. A typical artist might have placed it directly behind the city, connoting a glowing evanescent heaven. By putting the light between the foreground and background, Friedrich suggests that this light is moving ahead of the ship and pulling it along. Friedrich, himself a deeply religious man, might have considered this the light of God reigning over the sea and land, lending a beacon to those who venture too boldly into his creation. Abstracting from the specifically Christian interpretation of this element, we can view it as a kind of will, or living intelligence inherent in nature. A will which precedes and guides our own. 
          Friedrich communicates a tremendous wealth of information through this composition—much more than I have mentioned here—and everything he says is in the concretes of the painting. This is not an illustration of something we already knew, it does not require previous knowledge or even an explanation. We see the lesson that the artist is teaching us. We see it in those attributes that he has isolated in his portrayal, and these attributes are stressed by the absence of all the thousands of attributes a scene such as this might possess in real life, but which Friedrich has chosen to omit. As Ayn Rand said in "Art and Sense of Life," 
[An artist] selects those aspects of existence which he regards as metaphysically significant—and by isolating and stressing them, by omitting the insignificant and accidental, he presents his view of existence. His concepts are not divorced from the facts of reality—they are concepts which integrate the facts and his metaphysical evaluation of the facts. His selection constitutes his evaluation. . .
         There have been very few artists in history who live up to the role that Ayn Rand was describing in this quote, very few men who relied on nothing but the picture they created to communicate that picture's meaning. This principle, which Ayn Rand did not identify until the 20th Century, was a central aspect of an art movement  that was born at the end of the 18th. The school was Romanticism, and Friedrich was among its most towering figures.

          I would like to add as a purely personal note that I love this painting. I don't agree with its religious premise, but as an integration of thought and image, it is just simply a marvel to behold. Its colors and brushstrokes especially are a feast for the eyes. Notice how the blues and greens of the sea seem to "float" on the underpainting of brown. See the almost melodic harmony of the brown, gold and green in the mast and sail, and how the sequence of vertical lines that compose these objects provide a rhythm that send your eye flying into the sky. The brushstrokes of the sky are each a distinct mark and they radiate out in a concentric ripple. The texture created here is unusual, and resembles the inconsistent nap of a carpet. This gives the spread of clouds a realness, a stressed physicalness that unites them with the sea below and further concretizes Friedrich's metaphysics—specifically his feeling that all of the world is an integrated unity, that spirit and nature are one. True, Friedrich believed in God, but a God that is in Nature, not beyond it. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Trumpet Tree

Oil on paper, 5" x 7." This painting is based on some watercolor sketches I made of trumpet trees in Sarasota, Florida.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Coloring Pages

I decided to try my hand at designing a coloring page. Adult coloring books have become a sensation, and my curiosity is piqued. I designed this print by hand, and colored it digitally.

Coloring book enthusiasts click here if you would like to purchase a digital download of this design. 

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Figure Drawings

I made these in a figure drawing class in 2012. Graphite on paper.

The assignment I gave myself was to express as much as possible in the most elemental terms, using only the bare line and minimal shading. This type of exercise is a valuable lesson in economy of means; it helps me orient myself away from naturalistic clutter and towards an essentialized view.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

How to Paint a Landscape in Oil

This is a landscape painted with oil on paper. It was painted from a photograph and the subject is a pond in Central Park. The visual theme is "distance" and all of my choices were made in order to communicate and stress the illusion of space. 
The painting was made in four layers, with a few days between each one to allow the paint to dry. I am going to describe the process of each layer.


The first step is to block in the large shapes. This is a means of mapping out the composition, choosing which objects will be included and which omitted. The exact tones used at this stage are not absolutely critical but are an approximation of the target colors. Since they will serve as a substrate for subsequent layers, I mixed them lighter and duller than my target colors. That way they won't dominate subsequent layers by showing through and altering the color of those layers—at least no more than I want them to.


The next layer of paint is primarily concerned with shadow tones. I chose the tones of green that would serve as shadows for each area of the composition and roughed them in with a stippling brushstroke. Stippling is when you pat the brush rapidly against the canvas at a 90º angle. I then lightly swept the surface with a fan brush to further scatter the color and to level out any heavy blobs of paint. Since the shadow colors are customized for each separate patch of foliage, this layer progresses the differentiation of one object from another and allows for more refined compositional decisions to be made. 
          Speaking personally, this is the most painful layer. Having just finished a beautiful underpainting, I now have to obscure those carefully chosen colors with a rash of messy brush strokes. As painful as it might be, an artist has to steel himself against being pristine at this stage. This isn't where you find gold; you're just loosening the soil to begin digging.


The next layer is all about light. I carefully chose the greens for each group of leaves. The basis for the choices was mimesis of the actual landscape, but I augmented them to accentuate the differentiation of each tree from the next and to exaggerate the atmospheric perspective. I activated the middle-ground behind the trees with bright patches of light and I obscured the background trees with a scumbled layer of white. (Scumbling is the semi-transparent application of a light color over a darker color. The effect is a bluish-gray haze.) 
             The most important and time consuming element of this stage was the leaf grouping. I had to apply the paint rather slowly, and to carefully control how each patch of light green is connected to or distinguished from its neighbors. These choices heavily influenced the final stage where I could cash in on them with the most complex stylistic effects of the painting.


The last layer is about refinement. The main choices have been made, and they now need to be edited and polished. 
          I added shadow details with dark glazes and edited the profile of the trees against the sky with light scumbles. The patch of sand in the hollow behind the trees is now a patch of sunlit grass, establishing a sense of distance from the brighter patch of sunlight closer to the foreground. I painted in some abbreviated shapes in the water to finish the illusion of reflection and added the flourish of ripples in the water to transition the ground separation of foreground to background refections. 
          The bulk of the work was in bringing up the highlights in the leaves. Working over the shapes established in the previous layer I found shapes and patterns that could be accentuated with a series of small dabbed highlights. By selecting which areas will receive this layer of refinement I could choose which would be the areas of primary focus. By selectively refining some leaves and leaving others rough, I direct the viewer's gaze to the mid-ground trees as the primary point of focus, with the willow branches in the foreground and haze of trees in the background as the secondary focuses.
           The differentiation between these three grounds is what carries the visual theme of distance. They are like the "plot" of the painting, with the more limited ground separation in the hollow behind the trees serving as the sub-plot. Looking back at the underpainting, you can already see this"plot" in its essentialized form. This is the value of following a rigorously methodical approach. By establishing the basic compositional design early on, I was free to focus on narrower aspects of the painting and could rely on the foundations I had laid to implicitly keep me directed to the theme, without having to consciously focus on it.
*The method I have described can be used in any type of painting, not just landscapes, and with many different paint media. The procedure will be essentially the same if you are using acrylic or digital media. If you are using watercolors, keep your underpainting very light, and fine details and corrections can be made with opaque colors, such as gouache or acrylic. And remember, this is a "how to," not a "must do." Think of this method as a template on which to build your own approach. Technique is the material implementation of style, so as your unique style develops, your technique should become more personalized.

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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Good Night Bather

I recently rephotographed this painting after having varnished it. The colors in this image are much closer to the real effect of the painting than I had achieved in earlier photographs.

This is my favorite of all the paintings I have made. It is the most effective combination of the elements that are most personally important to me stylistically: brilliant colors, an integrated tonal key that allows for glittering highlights, extreme selectivity, and self-assertively solid, 3-dimensional objects.
Apart from stylistic approach, it is also my favorite as a subject for two reasons: It presents a strong female character, which I love in all art, from Antigone to Dominique Francon, and it uses an iconography that goes way back in world art. The subject of the "bather" goes as far back as civilization itself, and I love works of art that take known forms like this one and do something new to them to give them a new expressive purpose.