Along with a weekly theme, the Slamseys Creative Summer Challenge has provided a selection of prompts and suggestions to help the artistic process along. You can find this week's ones here. The idea that germinated for me this week was Anne's suggestion, to 'view a scene made famous by an artist and interpret it in your own way'. Possibilities there, definitely. But what type of scene? Which artist? How could I go about the interpreting bit? In the end I applied the 'same time, same place' idea not just to the subject of a well-known painting, but also to some of the themes and methodology I've been used in recent weeks which seemed a nice way to gather up the threads of the challenge as it came to its conclusion.
I chose two paintings as starting points, partly because I couldn't decide which to go with and partly because I quite like working on several fronts at the same time - allows room for one idea to stall, while the other develops and vice versa.
The two paintings I chose were Vincent Van Gogh's 'Starry Night'
and a still-life by Cézanne, entitled 'Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier'.
Both are very well known paintings, although very different from one another. I thought I might revisit my stitched landscape postcard idea and do a stitched collage version of the Van Gogh landscape and then make a larger scale, painted / printed paper collage of the still-life, using some of the scrap painted and printed paper I had accumulated over recent weeks.
So far, so good. I printed off images of each painting and did some initial sketches on scrap paper.
My printer played up and printed the colours rather badly, not to say surreally, which I realise has had a bit of an effect ultimately on my colour-matching efforts but I tell myself, that I was never after a slavish copy anyway. I propped the copies and sketches up in the kitchen and thought about them, while making bread and washing the tiles.
The Van Gogh landscape is an interesting painting. It was painted in June 1889 and shows the view from the window of the artist's room in l'Abbaye de St Paul-de-Mausole in St Rémy-de-Provence, where he spent a year receiving therapeutic treatment for his deteriorating mental health and shows the landscape just before dawn.
The Alpilles rise to the right of the painting, their slopes a shadowy violet in the early light. In the foreground, a handful of characteristic Provençal cypress trees stand dark and silent, and between the trees and the mountains, Van Gogh has painted a village, nestling in the hollow. Above the trees and roof-tops, a dramatic dawn sky is spread out with a large crescent moon, radiating brightness well beyond it's slim shape and stars dot the lightening sky in luminous spots of light. One star, in particular, is bigger than the others, (the one to the right of the cypress trees) - this is Venus, the Morning Star, herself. It glows like a miniature sun in the blue heavens. It looks disproportionately large but, in fact, research has shown that, in that year, Venus was unusually bright and glowed especially large in the sky. The moon however, Van Gogh has used a bit of artistic licence on - it wasn't a crescent in exactly that form, apparently, in June 1889. He also used artistic licence by including the village - you can't see the village from the window of his room. I was pleased about that as I thought including the village would make the scene too complicated to piece together in fabric and I'd already decided to replace it with a few more cypress trees. What was sauce for the artist, was sauce for the plagiarist, I felt!
The arresting sky in the painting owes a lot to the dramatic swirl of highlighted cloud that rolls across it, the visible brush-strokes giving a sense of movement and life to the whole scene. The question of how to evoke that effect in fabric exercised me somewhat. In the end I decided to experiment with a bit of free-form machine embroidery which was completely new territory for me. I googled a few videos demonstrating how to do it, dug out my unused, free-form embroidery sewing-machine foot and some variegated thread, dropped the sewing-machine's feed-dog and had a go. The results were not promising to begin with - the needle seemed wildly out of control (it was wildly out of control) and great tiger's teeth stitches leapt forth in a manner that would have been comic, had I not been too busy concentrating on not sewing my fingers instead of the fabric, to be amused. Eventually, I worked out that you have to run the machine fast and move the fabric relatively slowly, to get a much greater concentration of smaller stitches. It still wasn't too controlled but I felt I was getting somewhere. I decided a scrap sample was both desirable and necessary to avoid ruining the 'postcard'.
I'm quite pleased with the end result although it's very far from perfect. To be on the safe side, I stitched an outline for the cloud swirl using the sewing-machine in the ordinary manner, within which I could go free-form so long as I didn't stray outside the stitched boundary and that helped a lot.
The stars were particularly tricky as I had to move the fabric in tiny circles with the machine running very fast to get the concentration of colour. Rather stressful as it's absolutely impossible to unpick this kind of stitching, if it goes irretrievably wrong. The rest of the collage was fairly straightforward by comparison, following on from my stitched landscape postcards of last week.
Van Gogh, it is not, but un hommage, may be? I hope so. St Rémy-de-Provence is one of my favourite places and revisiting it in this way was rather special.
The still-life collage, which I thought would be the easier of the two projects, was the reverse. It turned out, in fact, to be a curious combination of random, but happy, accident and deliberate, rather painful, artistic struggle!
Cézanne was one of the most gifted late 19th C impressionist painters and this particular still-life was, at one stage, the most expensive still-life ever purchased, fetching $60,502,500 at Sothebys in New York, in 1999. Cézanne was interested in (and masterful at) executing perspective which, in this painting, he manages to evoke from two separate angles. Let's just be clear from the outset, I wasn't even going to try to replicate that! The shapes however, are clear and defined and I felt would lend themselves well to being represented in a collaged medium. Cézanne painted these particular objects quite often; not exactly the same fruit of course, but the water-jug, the bowl and the curtain all appear in his work several times, along with various items of fresh fruit. While the tones of the inanimate objects are very nuanced and subtle, the fruit is painted in a simpler style - there is some variation of tone but not much.
I had a number of discarded gelli print papers that I thought might find new life through becoming collage components - the colours of the water-jug in particular seemed very similar to the backgrounds I had printed for my prints of reflections in water and the table is made up of a sun-bleached grass 'discard' that was too uniform for my shoe prints. The other components needed some fabrication to get the right colours so I spent a happy time blending appropriate colours of acrylic paint for the fruit, plate, tablecloth and curtain on the gelli plate and using a brayer to apply them directly to pieces of cartridge paper which, as you can see, I laid out on the floor to dry.
The background I blended in the same way but applied directly onto a gessoed page in my art journal. Some of the papers looked vaguely promising, others less so, but when I laid the simple fruit stencils I'd drawn, based on the shapes in the painting, on the papers, the potential leaped to life. And yes, I know Cézanne had oranges and no plums on his compotier. I have swapped out some of Cézanne's fruit salad for my own mix here!
The colour variations in my fruit pieces were quite subtle and pleasingly naturalistic, more so than in the original painting really - the apples looked good enough to tempt Snow White; the plums had that characteristic, dusty, blue bloom; the pears, enhanced rather than damaged by a slightly too heavy-handed slurp of brown paint mixed with the yellows, looked more pear-like than ever - as though they were heading to that stage of buttery ripeness that indicates if you don't eat them straightaway they will veer to juice and woolly flesh; the lemons were flecked with green streaks from a felicitous previous paint layering and, with a little mottling on their rinds, they looked as if they had fallen straight from an Italian tree. I'd been fairly cavalier in mixing my paint blends - time had been short and I was in a hurry to get them painted and dry. How lucky a strike was this?!
But then I came to assembling the collage and that was more complicated. Particularly the tablecloth. That tablecloth caused me more trouble than the whole of the rest of the collage put together. The painted cartridge paper piece looked right colour-wise - it had, I thought, the right tones of muted green and blue shadows on a pale, grey-white background. I made a template and cut out the shape I wanted and it looked the right shape and size. But placed in position, it looked alien and monstrous. The fruit placed on it looked uncomfortable, the bowl teetered horribly above it as though it did not want to sully itself by touching it and I wondered if I could deploy a further bit of artistic licence and omit the cloth completely. But of course, it plays a vital part in the whole painting - it links the elements together; in the original it's the layout of the tablecloth and the fruit that gives not just a single viewpoint, but the two possible perspectives; it allows the fruit to nestle realistically on the table instead of looking as though someone has shoved a load of marbles onto the canvas. It had to be there. I made another template and cut a fresh piece of less thickly painted paper. I added some shadows and it looked less like a tablecloth and more like a piece of mouldy blue cheese, waiting to go in the food bin.
In desperation, I went back to the original piece, cut an extra bit which I stuck on rather randomly to make it bigger and stuck my fruit down on top anyway. I then took some water-soluble wax crayons (Caran d'Ache Neo Color II like these ones) and added creases and shadows in the appropriate colours as best I could, painting them with a wet brush to soften them and incorporate them. The result might well make Cézanne, master of perspective and with his fine understanding of drawing and structure, wince but, in the end, I am not unhappy with it. The wretched tablecloth no longer looks like a piece of mouldy, blue cheese and I have learned a lot about shadows and how vital they are. It's funny - you think a shadow is ephemeral and unimportant but actually a shadow is often what brings things to life and makes them seem real as opposed to artificial; it gives an extra dimensionality, without which things appear lifeless and cold. May be that is true in a figurative sense too about the shadows in life we encounter.
Be that as it may, the shadows have the last word - on the cloth, the water-jug, the table, the fruit itself. With them, the gathered objects glow and sing; without them they looked flat and lifeless. Looking at it now, I wonder even if I have not gone far enough with adding them. I'll leave it for now, I think, and come back to it and see whether perhaps some of them could be deepened to advantage, or whether leaving well alone is indicated.
I have so enjoyed this four week challenge - it's just been the best thing for me this summer. The posts are all on the Slamseys website (link above) so if you want to give it a go retrospectively, you still can. I've never kept an art journal before and reaching the end of the challenge and looking back, it surprises me with the story it tells about the way artistic ideas develop; about the way one thing can lead unexpectedly to another; about the threads of interconnectedness that run subconciously beneath the surface of the artistic imagination; it highlights what can sometimes be difficult to identify as one's own voice or style in a way that encourages and affirms the instinct to create, to experiment, to make mistakes and above all to enjoy the process.
I shall miss what has become an eagerly anticipated Monday morning ritual of looking to see what this week's theme and prompts are. But my journal is now almost full so may be that's just as well. Unless, of course I now move on to volume two ... which I just may have to do!
Thank you for reading these posts and for commenting, if you have. My normal, more sporadic, blogging service will probably be resumed from now on!