Master Copies with Crayola Crayon

Master Copies with Crayola Crayon

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.

Painting at the start of the 20th century

One of the things I love most about painting is also the thing that overwhelms me about it – the are so many different ways to paint. There are so many different things to paint, too. Plenty of people absolutely adore painting landscapes. That’s not quite my jam, but I can certainly appreciate a beautifully painted landscape. Some people paint hyper-realistic fruit. That’s also not quite my thing, but again, I sure can appreciate the effort and time it takes to glaze layer after layer to achieve realistic transparently glowing grapes.

I enjoy really passionate art, no matter what the style. I tend towards somewhat intense art as well, which many people do not. That’s the thing about art – it serves different functions for different people. For example, this is one of my most favorite paintings ever created, and it sure isn’t for everyone.

My Nocturnal Self
“My Nocturnal Visage” by Ludwig Meidner

 

This painting is by a fellow named Ludwig Meidner, born in Poland in 1884, he died in Germany in 1966. He lived and painted during the second wave of expressionism and this piece was made in 1913. He is most famous for his Apocalyptic Landscapes, which are amazing as well, but I love his portraits so much – probably because I prefer portraits. Expressionism is most assuredly my greatest influence, and the art happening at around 1913 is my favorite period in art history. These paintings and the style and the brush strokes and the colors chosen just hit me so hard in the feels I have a hard time expressing it in words.  This is where the passion and greatness of painting comes from for me. It’s antiquated at this point most certainly, and it’s safe to say most abstract expressionism doesn’t do it for me. Some have, but most don’t. Many would view this painting as overwhelmingly disturbing and creepy, and try to not think about it too much. That’s totally fine. I find it completely visceral and raw and honest beyond comfort. This is one of the greatest roles art can function in. There is a time and a place for beautiful things to put over the couch, but there is also this ability for art to serve as a force to humanize. There is a space for art to connect, de-alienate and to allow us to not all feel so alone. This painting does that for me. This painting lets me into the world of an artist who is long dead, and allows me to see him as he saw himself in his most private moments, and he is HONEST. So honest, the vulnerability of the piece is a corkscrew to the heart. I get to share in his humanity because he shares this intimate self view. We are capable of so many terrible things, we commit such atrocious acts. Alice Walkers’ words pop into my mind whenever I see a painting like this. “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?”

Here is one more, this time of a house located in Dresden.

Meidner_TheCornerHouse
“The Corner House” 1913 Ludwig Meidner

It’s a house, sure. But the energy and movement makes it seem alive, and even threatening. The perspective conveys a great deal about the subject. How he chose to handle the planes, even in the sky, all make this painting convey tension.

I have copied several paintings at this point, and I recommend you do the same if you are learning and have never done so. Reproducing another artists work will teach you invaluable lessons in color, brush strokes and more. I’ve reproduced Joan Brown’s Self Portrait with Fur Hat (this paintings is SO great), Van Gogh’s Postmaster taught me about the color blue, and Carlo Carra taught me about adding orange when mixing, and I have a side project (which I need to get back to) where I enjoy copying master portraits with Crayola crayon. Maybe more on that later. For now, here’s another of my favorites, Carlo Carra’s Penelope, which I reproduced at twice the size of the original, because hey, why not. It was a challenge, and I didn’t know how to blend yet, so I’ll show the original painting he made. This is the best photo I could find.

penelope
“Penelope” Carlo Carra

Carlo Carra was an Italian Futurist and coincidentally, this painting was made right at the same time Meidner was working. This painting is from 1914, and it probably reminds you of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Futurism was a combination of Cubism and mechanical imagery. There are a lot of things about this piece that make my heart thump. The way he chose to break the shapes of a body into planes of metallic material make her very robotic, but very human at the same time. The braid going down her back floors me, and so do the folds of the dress. Mixing the colors to reproduce this piece took me up to 45 minutes sometimes before the actual painting could start. Some of them were quite tricky to figure out. It was a great experience though, and again I recommend you pick a wonderful and complicated painting to learn from.

I have a total love/hate relationship with painting. Sometimes the painting is so difficult I’m hurling obscenities and about to just give up and set the thing on fire. Sometimes I really enjoy the challenge and sometimes I can really settle in and relax and just paint. But it’s very often a struggle, and I can’t imagine making these paintings were easy. To be a fly on the wall when these paintings were created! I make it difficult on myself as well – I choose difficult subjects, or fabrics or whatever because I like challenging myself and I want to learn how to paint better. Each piece is about expanding my proficiency. I may curse and mutter during the process, but eventually I’ll manage to push through the problem and eventually I’ll be satisfied enough to stop. There is an element of masochism to this, I admit, but it’s for the greater good at the end. I am positive most artists feel this way often. It’s an obsessive drive that moves us to create, and painting is truly about problem solving. I keep coming back for more, and after all of the trouble and growing pains I have a serious accomplishment (usually, sometimes I don’t!) and I’m ready for the next.

That was an aside, that little rant, so here’s one more from my favorite time in painting and then I am done for now. Here’s a painting I discovered in a museum in Houston and I stared at it for a long time. Then I tried to look at some other art. I was pulled immediately back to this painting. It has a power to it, the green of the wallpaper in stark contrast to the blue black of his shirt, the sitting position, as if he is contemplating something quite secret… It’s a very powerful painting to me, and it’s a contrast to the Meidner above. This painting is by a French fellow named Georges Daniel de Monfried.

de monfreid
Georges Daniel de Monfreid 1905

This post is getting pretty long, so I am not going to indulge in too much of a rant about self portraits, though maybe by now you can tell I adore them. It’s been said that every painting a painter makes is a self portrait, regardless of the subject. It’s also often noticed that people learning to draw may tend to even portray their sitters with a bit of their own features, that it is a subconscious tendency. de Monfreid in this painting is not quite inviting us in, he seems a bit on guard in fact. It makes me feel like he is trying to decide how much to reveal, and this feels like the truth of this piece. He is posturing and that tells us a great deal. The paint handling of the hands here makes me love it even more so then the well described beard. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these paintings!