After John Singer Sargent and Gustave Caillebotte… People’s Choice Award!

Unlikely Dance: Green Skirt - 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
“The Rude and Bold Committee would like to congratulate People’s Choice Award Winner Glenda Blake, for her painting Green Skirt. Congratulations to a phenomenal Rude and Bold Woman!” Green Skirt – 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

Wow — I won the People’s Choice Award at Binghamton’s Rude and Bold Women show last week! It was a strong and beautiful show, and I’m so honored. My artist-friend and sometime painting student Rae Doyle-Freeman was a runner-up with her powerful sculptural papier-mâché piece, “On Her Aching Bones, Did Empires Rise.”

Rae Doyle-Freeman: On Her Aching Bones Did Empires Rise
Rae Doyle-Freeman: On Her Aching Bones Did Empires Rise (photo: Carla Bruce)

The People’s Choice is the only award of the show, determined by votes cast by attendees.

The Tuesday before, I got up at ugly-o’clock in the morning to board a 6:10 a.m. Megabus to NYC with artist-friend Harriet and her friend Jo from farther upstate (also an artist), to see Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fabulous time — took the bus four hours to the Port Authority bus terminal, and then we took more than an hour to to get to the MMA on foot and by city bus, but what a stunner of a show.  I knew many of the works from books — had seen one or two in person before — but there is NOTHING like coming face to face with the actual piece.

The Pailleron Children (detail)
The Pailleron Children (detail), by John Singer Sargent: the piece I most wanted to see!

Gradually we took in and discussed, piece by piece, most of the show (gathering a small, attentive audience as we moved along!), took a lunch break when we were exhausted, then — like kids back to the pool — went back for more Sargent. Harriet and I lost Jo in the Post-Impressionist galleries, but I was glad to be forced through them in our search for her. I could live in the MMA. Another long trip back to another long bus-ride… so-o-o tired! But so worth it to experience great art, especially with friends who experience it in the same way.

In His Limbs and Joints, in its new home in Annapolis
In His Limbs and Joints, center, in its new home in Annapolis (photo: Michael Dufton)

The week before that, after seeing my painting, In His Limbs and Joints, installed in my cousin’s lovely home in Annapolis (such a thrill to see it hanging in their amazing art collection!) I got a look at the show, Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye, at the National Gallery of Art, while sweetie and I were in the DC area. Caillebotte wasn’t a name I was familiar with — he was contemporary with Degas, and although more conservative, was equally experimental in his less flamboyant way — but I did know some of the work. And it was sublime. I’m slowly working my way through the show catalog, which we bought on the way out. (I neglected to obtain the Sargent catalog — the photography was such a disappointment after seeing all of the actual pieces — but I hope to soon.)

Caillebotte - Paris Street, Rainy Day
Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street, Rainy Day, 1877, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester Collection

Down to the wire with Unlikely Dance

Unlikely Dance: Confluence, 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas
Unlikely Dance: Confluence, 30 x 48 in., oils on canvas

My Unlikely Dance grant period is over on November 1; today is October 2, and I have one more painting to do. Yes — it’s deadline time again. In fact, I have a solo show of the completed grant-funded Unlikely Dance series OPENING on November 1 (details on that to come). That means I really have to have this last painting finished by the 24th so it’s dry when I hang the show on the 29th and 30th. Yikes. Work steadily, and hope that everything comes together well — that’s my plan.

It’s the second part of that plan that didn’t work on the piece I just finished (above), and I blame the Pre-Raphaelites. You know the Pre-Raphaelites, that super-sincere, uber-romantic, technically amazing group of 19th century English artists? I’ve loved them since my college days, when my second-generation abstract expressionist instructors were horrified by that forbidden love. I wrote papers on the Pre-Raphs. I collected books on them. I hung prints of their works on my walls. Meanwhile, over the last 15 or 20 years, they’ve become enormously popular in the mainstream. Oh, it’s gorgeous, schlocky stuff, and I still love it. But it’s not where I’m going with my own work. What happened was, after I’d done the underpainting of Unlikely Dance #5 – Confluence – I was unsure of how to proceed with the foliage of the tree, both on the trunk and over the figures. So I pulled an art book from the shelf to consult… a book called “The English Dreamers,” a collection of Pre-Raph and related works.

I’m so easily unconsciously influenced by others’ work I love — it amazes me sometimes. It just happens, somehow — images come off the ends of my brushes, with no conscious thought of the original on my part, that reflect some art I’ve recently seen. (Take for example the Della Francesca-looking face, far right, in Unlikely Dance: Golden Clouds, which appeared just after I’d seen “Piero Della Francesca in America” at the Frick.) So Confluence turned itself into a Pre-Raph imitation: pretty, detailed, and without visual impact of any kind. I loved it — until I suddenly hated it.

I despaired. I combed the internet for clues. I discussed on Facebook. But in the end, I went back to Degas, and then, for some reason, to John Singer Sargent. I own books on Degas, but not on Sargent, so I went to the public library and borrowed a couple. I’ve seen and admired more of his work recently, thanks to a Facebook page called I Require Art, but knew little about him except that he was American, turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th), and had painted Portrait of Madame X, that wonderful profile portrait we had to learn in art history. He was a master of “bravado brushwork,” (his idol, Diego Velazquez, was, as well) and that’s what I was after. Degas was never as consistent as Sargent, so I spent a couple of days perusing Sargent… and it worked. As I posted on my professional page on FB, “Confluence 18 – finished at last! John Singer Sargent certainly had a thing or two to teach me, this time around. Clarified the light source, punched up the contrast, simplified many elements, changed a head. I could go on…”

So now I’ll go on. Here’s what got straightened around:

1. In the first place, I’d made a composition with four equal figures, and that’s a no-no. Three, yes. Five, yes. Not four. I realized that in my previous paintings of four figures, I’d singled out one in some way, so it read as three plus one, rather than four. How to do that here?

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent 1882
The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent 1882

After a couple of days with my library books, I turned back to Sargent’s portrait of four young girls — The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit — and noted how he’d not only singled out the sitting figure for that necessary “three-plus-one” compositional effect, but also set them in varying degrees of light , with one girl barely visible in the shadows.

2. I’d gotten far too detailed and democratic with the tree on the left, and it was a distraction. So I painted a dark glaze, made with a brownish “mother grey,*” over the tree trunk, and then over the foremost figure, which overlapped the tree. This solved the problem of visual clutter, of singling out one of the four figures, AND of the next —

3. My light source wasn’t clearly defined. I had light falling on the back of the left-most figure (#1), on the backs of the two right-most figures (#3 and #4), and on the face of the second-from left figure (#2). The face of figure #4 was also in multi-directional light, and I had dappled light falling through the foliage onto the grass.

My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna
My current palette, clockwise from left: titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt violet, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian, sap green, burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna. *Mother grey is made up of all of these colors mixed together. This preserves and promotes color harmony within the painting.

With the dark glaze on the figure #1 and the tree, one of my light sources went away. With a change of head on figure #4 and a diminution of highlights in the figures’ black dresses, the light became more defined and less ambiguous. And with a slight shading of figure #2’s face, that ambiguity gave way. I also gave the piece more contrast, mostly by making the darks darker — divisions between rocks, the underside of the waterway under the bridge, and the barely-visible rocks under the water on the right.

And I think it all worked. I have impact. I have definition. And I have two weeks left to paint Unlikely Dance: Velveteen! I can do it.

The “Unlikely Dance” project was made possible by a grant from the Artists Fund of the Community Foundation for South Central New York
To follow my progress in Unlikely Dance, just click on the “Unlikely Dance” link under TOPICS, on the left of any page in this blog.