It’s been 4 years since I’ve completed one, but the Crayola bug has bit me once again! I recently was fortunate enough to be able to make it over to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston to see the van Gogh exhibit there – it was wonderful, and really, really packed for a Tuesday. I shudder to think what it was like to visit it on a weekend. There were several pieces I’d never seen before and some sketches as well. Seeing these paintings in person is sort of like hitting a ‘reset’ button for me. The daily monotony of working and then painting is pretty tiring sometimes, and seeing others’ art refreshes the well! It’s ecstasy to drink in these pieces in person! The MFAH has an incredible permanent collection as well, and it’s always a treat to visit with some of my favorite paintings in that collection. Last time I was there I was taken in by Georges Daniel de Monfreid’s self portrait, and it was so lovely to be able to visit it again. Another piece that captured me on this visit was František Kupka’s “The Yellow Scale”.
The first is my photo at the museum. In the second, sadly, much of the pinks are washed out.
Sometimes you see a piece of art that simply floors you, that sucks the air right out of your lungs and everything else in the room ceases to exist. You make a beeline for it, as if magnetized. This painting did that to me. Kupka eventually went on to make abstracts, and this self portrait makes me a little sad about that, even though it makes sense as he was primarily interested in color theory. This study of yellow is a commanding portrait. An artist friend of mine said “The sheer arrogance of it almost knocks you over.” It’s well said. You can’t help but to wonder as to what this artist was like in person and what he was thinking as he posed for himself for this piece. It strikes at the heart of what is so compelling about self portraiture – how intimate the self portrait is. While I believe that in its way, every piece of art made is a self portrait of the artist, literal self portraits are brazen and boldly open, honest and revealing. They are exciting and fearless, as personal and daring as an artist can get. To make one and then to share it, to remain in the world past your years as a picture on a wall for countless strangers to connect with you is a compelling act. This painting in particular, with Kupka presenting himself in his robe, holding out his cigarette, staring at you as if to dare you to look at him – this is pure gold, pure connection, an intimate stare into the human condition. He challenges you to accept or deny him, to really see him if you are willing to look. This is why when I copy master paintings, an invaluable tool for learning from those before you, I prefer them to be self portraits. I prefer to spend time with the artist, this allows me to converse with them in a more personal manner, going deeper then their composition, color choices and brushstrokes.
Georges Daniel de Monfreid “Self Portrait” 1905 and Henri Mattise “Self Portrait in a Striped T-Shirt” 1906 (See my earlier post “Painting at the start of the 20th Century” for more on that topic.)
My choice to do the majority of my master copies with crayon is also a deeply personal choice. It’s a challenging medium, an unforgiving medium. It’s hard on my hands, too. Every single one I have done harbors mistakes that can not be covered or hidden from view. They do not aim to create a copy that is indistinguishable – they celebrate their mistakes and differences. I enjoy the challenge of translating the medium, even when thick impasto brushwork must be sacrificed. Color correctness must also be sacrificed, the range of crayola colors is limited and requires extra thought into layering to achieve something that’s sort of similar. I could buy a wide range of fancy, adult artist crayons, ones with more pigment and colors with familiar names, but there is something soothing and reminiscent of the pureness of drawing as a child that I enjoy, the olfaction is a large part of it. The act of drawing with crayons keeps alive that sheer joy of just sitting and exploring with waxy color. Applying the drawing skills I have as an adult to the medium of early childhood is something deeply satisfying, it feels like coming full circle as a celebration.
My aim, over time, is to complete a series of 20 self portrait master copy drawings. On my list for the next drawings are Ludwig Meidner (second attempt), Gwen John, van Gogh (of course), and if I’m feeling extra fancy, Kahlo and Lucien Freud.