The picturesque comes to America, and George Washington gets in on the act

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, c. 1750, oil on canvas, 69.8 x 119.4 cm (The National Gallery, London).
George Washington arrives home to Mount Vernon, Virginia.

Despite overthrowing the British Government in the Revolutionary War, early settlers such as George Washington were keenly aware of the British aristocracy and the trappings of their elegant lifestyle. Among these were lush gardens where one could stroll around “the grounds” taking in the fresh air and sounds of nature. Whereas English landscape painting tended to emphasize the aristocracy as portraiture-note the scale of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews in the Thomas Gainsborough painting compared to that of George Washington which shows him engulfed in his vast property, almost as an afterthought-American painters sought to celebrate the land itself: natural, unspoiled, and vast. Acres of raw land complete with huge trees and rolling hills suggesting miles of open space dominate the picture plane as much as Mr. And Mrs. Andrews dominate their landscape.

Autumn, River Road, Topsfield (2018). Mixed media painting, Collection: Town of Topsfield

Celebrating vast landscapes is one of my favorite subjects to explore in my own work. For the commission I completed for the Topsfield Town Hall, the viewer is encouraged to step into the composition walk down the road, rest at one of the fences or sit on the rock wall for a spell and enjoy the view.  And in the spirit of including a small subject engulfed in a vast landscape, I included my self-portrait to the painting leaning against the white fence waving back out at the viewer. To order a large (12 x 25 inch) print, click here. To order a small print, 11 x 20 inch print, click here.

Finished-Resilience, (2020), 40 x 40 x 4 inches. Mixed media painting.

Resilience, (2020). 40 x 40 x4 inches.

I named this painting Resilience to emphasize the metaphors I see within the subject of rocks and water. The rocks demonstrate resilience as they stand up to the pressures of the crashing waves. The waves in turn are resilient against the steadiness of the rocks which appear to resist their constant force and unending pressure. This, for me, is the metaphor for life, and the reason I have chosen to illustrate this subject so often in my artwork. The subject of ocean waves and crashing seascapes mesmerizes us and has filled our imaginations with awe and wonder for as far back as artists have sought to capture this subject. But, the same beauty of the seashore presents a danger-get too close and one is bound to stumble and fall. And as one who has slipped on these rocks more than once, I can testify to how much it huts. But, stay too far away from the surface, and life becomes mundane, boring, no risk, no glory. To purchase this painting, or to order prints, click on the enclosed links.

Office interior lobby . Blank wall for copy space, lots of light, sunlight scene. Black leather sofa. gray floor tiles. daylight scene. designer copy space background

Ha-ha! The picturesque movement enters the 18th century.

By the 18th century, the picturesque movement had taken hold in England and Germany as people grew weary of the more rational ideas associated with the enlightenment. Picturesque inspired paintings, sculpture, and landscape design featured asymmetrical compositions, twisting pathways, groves of trees, and clusters of wildflowers that appeared unspoiled by modern technology. The idea of the nature hike, a foray into an unspoiled landscape where discovery of nature’s bounty large and small was available to the courageous wanderer became a popular pastime.

Of course, as with most things “natural and unspoiled,” a lot of planning was involved. The great landscape architecture movement was born at this time with able gardeners such as William Kent (1685-1748) and Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716-83) forever changing the English landscape. With their keen eyes and intuition for design, Brown and Kent set out to alter the English landscape creating the famous garden culture it is today. One of their most famous features was to include a “ha-ha” into their designs. A ha-ha is a ditch dug into the border of the property so that cows could graze freely without wandering off into the neighbor’s fields, and without the disruption of an unsightly fence to hold them in. When viewed from a distance a person would exclaim, “why don’t those cows wander off?” Upon closer inspection (remember that nature hike), one would come upon the ditch, at which time they would exclaim ha-ha!

Chirk Castle in Wrexham has a ‘sunk fence’ or ha-ha. Credit: National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus.

Bart Simpson, ha-ha!

My own photograph of cows grazing near the lake at Stourhead, Wiltshire England. They are hemmed in by a ha-ha, inviable from this angle.

Garden Path, after the garden in XX . Order a limited edition print available XX

The Picturesque Movement gets its start with Ursula and 11,000 of her closest friends.

Claude Lorrain (1641).  Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula. Oil 
On canvas, National Gallery, London. 

St. Ursula, a British princess (in yellow), who refuses to marry a pagan king, holds the flag with her emblem.  She is returning to Cologne from Rome-a replica of Bramante’s Tempietto in the left foreground suggests she is embarking from the eternal city-with her 11,000 companions who hold bows and arrows, the sign of their coming martyrdom. For her part, Ursula will be shot through the heart by her enraged fiancé. Although the legend of Ursula is not official Christian doctrine, 11,000 virgins embarking on a journey in front of a dreamy landscape made for a fantastical subject for 17th century Romantic artists. Note the golden sunrise in the distance which projects a soft glow throughout the composition. The ships whose silhouettes block the sun, suggest travel to distance lands full of adventure and suspense. Paintings like Ursula, with their glowing light and fantastic architectural renderings, are precursors to the Picturesque movement, a romantic art movement that acted to balance the more rational Age of Enlightenment. The idea of creating a mood using natural light is a feature common to the Picturesque, a Romantic art movement in which artists and landscapers delighted in the rawness of nature-unspoiled, beautiful, majestic, forbidding and wild. Within a century of Lorrain’s painting, landscape art and architecture will become a popular subject in English and American art and architecture.

Detail, Ursula in yellow.

Claude Lorrain is famous for his ability to paint natural light-fading, emerging, brilliant, and romantic. He became so well known for this “stroke of genius”, that “Claude” glass, a treated mirror contained in a box, became wildly popular as a portable drawing and painting aid in the later 18th century by amateur artists on sketching tours. The reflections in it of surrounding scenery were supposed to resemble some of the characteristics of Italian landscapes made famous by his capable hands (V&A Museum, collections).

Claude glass, collection: V&A Museum, London. c. 1775-1780.
Detailed painting of a woman holding a Claude glass. Claude glasses defused the light in the landscape, making for a soft yellow or pink glow, depending on the color of the glass. This colored glass enabled the artist to paint the subject more easily as the defused light softened details that could be more remissly read by the artist. The term “see the road through rose colored glasses originates from the popularity of Claude glasses.

The picturesque subject has inspired artists for centuries. For my own example, I visited Broughton Castle in North Oxfordshire, England. Using the photograph of the gardens shown here, I created one of my first picturesque inspired paintings, which I titled Courtyard Garden, in 2008.

Broughton Castle, North Oxfordshire, England.
My painting, Courtyard Garden, inspired by my journey to England to visit picturesque art and architecture. 30 x 26 inches. Private collection. Limited edition prints available

Rocks and Water painting: choosing the composition.

The in-progresspainting in the studio, January, 2020.
Notice how the X shape in my photograph is similar to that of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. I chose my composition based on his famous drawing. By using the X format, the viewer connects the foreground and background of the rocks, which act as the anchors for this image-much like Leonardo’s hands and feet of his Vitruvian man act as the anchor for his drawing.  By visually connecting the rocks in this X fashion, the viewer senses the hardness of the rocks against the rush of the waves in an even more energetic fashion. 

Here is a short video of me applying overeaten abaca and flax to the surface of the painting. I do not plaint with traditional media, I use beaten abaca pulp, he same medium first used to create oil on canvas paintings.

In the 17th century, Venetian artists began using the canvases of shipping vessels as surfaces to apply their paints. These canvases were made from durable fibers such as linen, flax and abaca.  It is for this reason that these now famous works have survived to us through the ages. 

Using these same fibers, I have embellished on this idea and created an actual painting method that is just as durable and permanent, and pigmented with light-fast colors to match the rich hues of nature.

My process provides a textured, almost three-dimensional quality to the painting’s surface, thus mimicking nature in all its splendor . . . from its rocky crevices along the ocean shoreline, subtle shadows in a garden path, the fullness and detail of a treed landscape, and the smooth surface of a still lake.  

Natural fibers, beaten into thick coats of pigmented pulp, provides the perfect media with which to create these modern interpretations of representational art.  

I’ll share more about this painting in my net few blog posts.

Sale of River Road Prints meets 1000.00 goal for Tri-Town Council.

Writing a check for 1000.00 to the Tri-Town Council. Photo: Jonah Rehak
A group effort to make this moment happen. Photo: Jonah Rehak
Pulling the five winners of the paper making workshop out of a hat. If your name wasn’t called, it was returned back to the bag for next year. Photo: Jonah Rehak

It was a pleasure to present a check on January 6, 2020, to members of the Tri-Town Council for 1000.00 from sales of River Road prints.

The prints are reproductions of the painting in the Topsfield Town Hall that was commissioned in 2018 by the Panella family in memory of their mother, Joan Panella. Per request of the family, proceeds from print sales benefit the work the council does on behalf of the Tri-town community. A video I created of the commission tells this story in detail.

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who purchased a print from me and supported the council. I also want to thank council members who included information about the print sale on their web site and in social media posts in a herculean effort to promote the sale. Without this team effort, it would not have been as successful.

Best of all, five people who had purchased a print this year were entered to win a paper making workshop at my studio on Saturday, February 8, 2020. I’ll be sure to post photos of the workshop in future posts so we can celebrate the creative efforts of our community members. If you would like to purchase a print, support the council, and be entered to win a slot in a paper making workshop for 2021, please click on this link. Free shipping or in-person delivery to Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield.

Thank you to all for supporting Meg Black Studios. What a great community we live in and call home.

Making the final edits to a commissioned wall relief.

This wall relief was commissioned for a private residence in Florida. The palette and composition is meant to emulate the seacoast of the south eastern United States. I am making the final edits to the work while the patron takes the video.

My visual interpretation of Henry David Thoreau: How paintings tell a story.

How Paintings tell a Story

My goal as an artist is to work with designers and architects on site specific projects; working with designers and architects presents an opportunity to interact with professionals with whom I can share my ideas and who can in turn share their visions for how they perceive the final building will engage the user.  Currently, I am working on the Care Dimensions commission for their new facility in Waltham, MA.

By creating site specific work, I can pre-determine the size, shape, palette and subject of the work.  As with all of my commissions, this one attempts to connect the mission of the patron, in this case a hospice center, with the local scenery and history, Waltham, MA., and given this location, the writings of Concord native author Henry David Thoreau whose book Walden recounts his experience of living for two years in Walden Woods near the Waltham/Concord town line.

The three paintings in this commission attempt to celebrate the beauty of Walden Woods as they simultaneously act as metaphors for the trajectory of life.

The painting on the left is meant to suggest sunrise seeping through the trees, breathing life into the foreground. The light source coming from behind and creating a shadow in the foreground mimics stage lighting, a common practice in Baroque art and one that gives the painting a theatrical quality. This sets the stage for a life to come, a promise of a future to be explored. The trees point to the right, guiding the viewer to the painting in the center.

The central painting includes a pathway in the composition. This suggests moving forward into unknown terrain, climbing up a path that is a bit crooked and uneven, but guided by the light that is now in the background.  The open space in this composition is on the right of the painting-the light blue of the sky which holds a sense of distance, a way forward, the bend of the trees guiding the wanderer up the path and into the near distance.

The painting on the right contains the body of water that one expects to find on Walden Pond: calm, cool, and a deep Prussian blue value that bespeaks a brisk New England autumn day.  In this composition, the trees shift to the left, allowing the viewer to return to the first painting and engage with all three paintings as one unit.

The trees are included in all three of the paintings to represent the rootedness of life, a visual symbol used in many cultures such as in Navajo Sand-paintings.  The water is symbolic of the ephemeral nature of life, another visual and spiritual symbol recognized in many cultures and throughout history.

As a naturalist, Thoreau understood that the path to a greater understanding of our life on earth is through an understanding of the natural world around us and of which we are part: “We can never have enough of nature”, he wrote. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” (reprinted from walden.org/thoreau).

Working on this commission for Care Dimensions has provided me with the opportunity to share my ideas with architects and designers, with the CEO of this important Hospice facility, and to channel the writings of Henry David Thoreau.  Next: the mission of Care Dimensions and symbolic in the paintings.

 

If you are interested in finding out more about how my work, please contact me to discuss your ideas.

Care Dimensions Commission: What is a Blank Canvas?

The three 62 x 31 x 3 inch panels in the studio, September 2017.

A blank canvas is many things to an artist.  It’s a challenge and an opportunity. Having ordered the three panels from my friend “Ron the framer,” I secured the base sheet of pulp to the surfaces and am ready to begin the painting (left). This is both an intimidating moment and one of pure thrill. I love the challenge of working in multiples and on a large scale with imagery that needs to work harmoniously, as one unit, in tandem with its neighboring paintings. The subject of each painting needs to flow back and forth so that one compliments the others, all the while holding its own identity. This is a far more challenging task than when working on a single image that does not need to share space with other work.

Me taking photos of the wall for which the three panels will be installed. October, 2017.

Because I work with architects and designers, the blank canvas extends to the intended space where the work will be installed. Often, this space is the construction site-full of dust and debris.  I honestly love visiting the site, donning a hard hat and photographing the soon to be completed wall.  The busy workers, noisy power tools, and smell of production are reminders for why I enjoy making site specific work.  I love the companionship of working with people who see a vision, a future space where one does not currently exist. In many ways, this is what I see as an artist looking at a blank canvas: a future space where one does not currently exist.

Next post: the beginning stage of the paintings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Leonardo da Vinci