Monday, May 20, 2013

The Powers of Observation

Through the Looking Glass / Art Deco Mirror Self Portrait

For as much time as I love spending time at my easel, I equally love spending time looking at other artists' work. This weekend while teaching in Atlanta with Binders Art Supply and School, I had the pleasure of taking in the High Museum of Art. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the Art Deco and Art Nouveau furniture, vases, and silver coffee/tea services. This is my favorite era of art history, so I lingered on this floor more than any other. Having recently cut my hair short and taken in the film "The Great Gatsby" with all the wonderful 1920's clothing and fashion, I really could see myself having tea at one of these grand table and chairs. 

I was happy to be able to experience two of Maxfield Parrish works, as well as Norman Rockwell. These artists in my eyes were fine artists, but considered illustrators. What's the difference? An illustration is made for mass consumption. Illustrators create art is specifically for magazines, books, and other publications. 

Two pieces in the museum made me stop and linger for a long time. First was Robert Henri's Lady in Black Velvet. I often talk about the lost edges in a painting with my students. This weekend in Atlanta I tried to encourage and remind students that it's ok to not be able to discern where the subject ends and the shadow begins, as long as you have sharp edges in the light areas. One of the best examples of this was the Lady in Black Velvet, how lovely the bottom of her cloak was that it totally melted into the background, yet her face was so crisp in the light!

Robert Henri, Lady in Black Velvet

For as long as I lingered with the Lady in Black Velvet, I spent double that amount of time with The Blue Mandarin Coat. How DeCamp captured the light in this painting on her face and shoulder is so incredibly lovely! and her deep blue coat then disappears into the darkness. I spent a lot of time up close, looking into the flesh tones of her face. DeCamp has blues and violets painted under the flesh tone, which peek through here and there, making such a beautiful vibration of color. I was about an inch from this piece for a long time just trying to technically dissect it. 

Joseph Rodefer DeCamp, The Blue Mandarin Coat

In my work, my lost edges are typically in darkness or shadow, but rather in an area where the background bleeds into the foreground subject, and the edge is blurred as a result. 

Here Boy! collage on birch panel / 24x20 / click to enlarge

You can see in the bottom of this dog that the green drips of the field behind him have seeped through his fur, and then everything fades out to natural wood. For as sharp as the top of his head is agains the sky, his edges start to get lost just below his ears. I love this effect as I feel it connects him to his background. I want to experiment more with it. After this weekend's visit, perhaps I need to try some darkness too. 

But remember, dark is not always black, it's deep sea blue, royal purple, alligator green, rich burgundy, woody brown...

Viewing art in galleries and museums has always been a passion for me since my first trip to Europe as a high school senior when I found myself standing in front of Picasso's Guernica in Madrid, Spain long after everyone else in my group had moved on. Never before had I seen artwork so powerful, on such a large scale, with an entire room dedicated to just this one piece. I am very lucky to be able to visit art museums and galleries in most of the major cities I travel to teach these days. 

Thanks for being a part of my art journey. 


  1. This is so informative Elizabeth. Thank you. You are so fortunate to be able to visit galleries. There is a major gallery an hour from me and then the next 'big' gallery would be in Sydney which is about an 11 hour drive. We do have smaller local galleries but they tend to have the work of local artists - which is lovely but it would be wonderful to have easier access to some of the masters and to greater variety.

  2. sandy, I am very lucky. I always make a point of finding art when I visit a new city (or in this case, an old city because I lived here once upon a time) 11-hours is a long drive. what about galleries? sometimes new and current work is the best inspiration.

  3. I really appreciate the discussion of lost edges. Especially with the comparison of the museum artworks and your own piece. There is so much to learn from careful observation and thoughtful reflexion. Thank you!

  4. I appreciate the discussion of lost edges. Especially the comparison between the museum artworks and your own work. There is so much to learn from careful observation and thoughtful reflection.

  5. Terry, you said it perfectly, there is SO MUCH to learn from careful observation and thoughtful reflection. Thank you for commenting!


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