Thursday, December 5, 2013

It's a Man's World

Portrait of a woman attributed to Ghirlandaio.

In case you’re thinking that Florence sounds like a good first stop when you build that time machine, consider that it was strictly a man’s world during the early Renaissance. Florentine women were not afforded anything like the freedoms that men enjoyed. As evidenced in the tightly framed and compact portraits of buttoned and bodiced women of the time (above), they suffered under the yoke of the ‘fallen Eve’ archetype. Considered untrustworthy creatures, they were deemed better off indoors. In 1610 a French traveler commented after a visit to Florence that "women are more enclosed [here] than in any other part of Italy; they see the world only from the small openings in their windows." You'd never accuse Ghirlandaio's woman of looking happy.

Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, "Chaste Women in a Landscape," 1480s

These "chaste" women do look a little surprised to find themselves wandering about outside. No wonder they're in battle formation. One of the most highly regarded humanist scholars of the age, Marsilio Ficino, uttered the shocking revelation that, "women should be used like chamber pots: hidden away once a man has pissed in them." The exchange of women was a conversation between men. As Florence prospered, a bride offered in matrimony had to convey increasingly exorbitant sums as a dowry upon the groom: everybody knew that men, as the true source of value, were worth more. In exchange, grooms would offer their new bride some jewelry or fancy clothing (preferably something with lots of buttons to assuage their untrustworthiness), or perhaps a pin with his family crest so that everyone would know that she literally belonged to him now. Trussed up in corsets to temper their “irritating volubility,” they were nevertheless prized in the way of a peacock. 

Lorenzo Lotto (b. Venice, ca. 1480-d. Loreto, 1556), Venus and Cupid, late 1520s
"The male gaze" anyone? The great painter Taddeo Gaddi, oblivious to his own idiocy, paid dubious compliment when he said: “I do not think Giotto or any other painter could color better than [Florentine women] do; even a face which is out of proportion and has goggle eyes, they will correct with eye’s like to a falcon’s. If they have jaws like a donkey, they will correct them.” [“The Living Age,” Volume 197, Eliakim and Robert S. Littell, Littell & Co. (1893) page 265]

“Those poor Florentine mothers had to be contented with such humble activity as the tyranny of their husbands permitted to them, and to live, or rather drag out, their lives in those gloomy squalid houses, taking care of the children.” [“Private Life of Renaissance Florentines,” Dr. Guido Biagi, R. Bemporad & Sons (1895)]

If it seems as though not much has changed between then and now, at least consider infant mortality: 75% of children did not live to see their sixteenth birthday, and if your dad died you were as likely as not shipped off to your paternal grandparents, watching as your mother was sent packing back to hers, never to be seen again. To have twenty or more children was quite normal. Female children who lost their mothers might receive a knitting needle or doll of hers to remember her by, but everything of monetary value went straight to the men.

Portrait of an African Slave Woman is attributed to Annibale Carraccicirca 1580s

Not to mention that the slave trade between East and West was already a thriving business by the fourteenth century in Florence. A little-spoken-of stain on the proud name of the morally haughty Florentines, there is ample evidence of its existence. The distinguished Florentine painter, Alessio Baldovinetti, who belonged to a wealthy family of good standing in the community (and was said to have been a pupil of Paolo Uccello), kept a memorandum containing entries for three slave girls that he bought including one, ‘“Veronica, sixteen years old, whom [he] bought almost naked from Bonaroti [sic], son of Simon de Bonaroti.” That is to say, an ancestor of Michelangelo himself.” [Quoted in “Blackwood’s Magazine,” Volume 153, page 333 (1893)]

Monday, October 28, 2013

For the Love of Books

The shelves over at Surface Fragments.
Hey readers, I sent out a request on my Facebook page for people to send me photos of their shelves and guess what: it appears we have some avid book collectors out there. Here is a glimpse at the shelves of some of them. I've tried to link to each of the titles, but I couldn't possibly link to them all, as I do occasionally have other stuff to do. 

Inevitably of course, there are a lot of Amazon links. Do make sure to support your local bookstore, however. A lot of these titles can be found there. I've picked up many of the titles on display here by visiting second-hand bookstores wherever I go. My favorite site for buying books is Go there first, plug in the title, and browse from second-hand sellers across the country. Often, I've grabbed titles for as little as $0.01 and simply had to pay for shipping. Happy browsing, people!

[By the way, I did an entire post on artist and author Pierre Finkelstein's bookshelves, which can be found here.]

Situated in the heart of the ancient city of Florence, is a studio school specializing in the finest artisan creations and teaching students traditional Italian decorative arts. The shelves are predictably bursting with mouth-watering Italian titles.

Top shelf:
Abruzzo, pub. Gruppomontepaschi
Bottom shelf:
Fasto di Corte (mural decorations of the Medici residence)
Mille Mobili Veneti (Venetian furniture from XV - XIX Century)

Sharon Leichsenring
Sharon Leichsenring has got some real classics of the decorative arts on her shelves, each one of them a great reference for the working decorative artist. 

Theresa Cheek
Theresa Cheek, of art's the answer blog, has a massive collection of books and as you can tell from this small photo, she actually uses them!

Demeures Peintes, by Pascal Amblard (Pascal's shelves appear below)
Décors Peints et Trompe-l'oeil, by Jean Sablé (a great book by a master of the craft)
Santa Maria Novella (Home of Massaccio's Trinity among other spectacular murals)
Steve Shriver
Anyone who doesn't know the awesome Steve Shriver (aka art + works) should do themselves a favor and like his Facebook page, and don't forget to dig through all his Flickr sets too. His generosity with knowledge is inspirational, and he's the source of many fantastic reference photos. Not surprisingly, he's got more than a few good reads on his shelves.

In Stabiano, Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite 
Art and Illusion, the classic tome by Ernst Gombrich
The Sense of Order, E. H. Gombrich, another fascinating read by Gombrich.

Fred Cox
Fred Cox is a great mural artist, blog reader and an avid book collector based in Atlanta. His collection of large format antique decorative folios is stellar, but you won't find them on Amazon. Here is a glimpse of some of his more terrestrial titles that you will find interesting.

Drawings of the Masters, French Drawings (15th C. through Gericault)

Fred Cox
Fred Cox
Pascal Amblard
Pascal Amblard is a world-renowned artist, teacher and author. Basically, he's really really good, and you should know his work. What inspires an artist like Pascal? An eclectic mix for sure...

Fragonard, one of Pascal's favorite artists, makes an immediate appearance.
Followed by the irrepressible Veronese, Henry Francis du Pont's Winterthur Museuem.
and Betty Edwards' perennial favorite, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Pierre Finkelstein wrote pretty much the best book out there on decorative painting; The Art of Faux. It's on everybody's shelves, or at least it should be.
I don't have this one, but the Amazon description makes me very curious: The Fabric of Vision by Anne Hollander. 
Splash 2: Watercolor Breakthroughs (Wolf): The Splash series focuses on artists working in watercolor, highlighting their technique. Pascal's use of casein can be seen to have technical parallels in gouache and watercolor, so it's no surprise that he'd be curious about this material. 
Pascal Amblard
Espace d'Art - Arts d'Espace
Les Enduits Decoratifs
Stolar, Tabureiter & Fatoljer [I've linked to the English Ed. of thiis fantastic book by Lars & Ursula Sjoberg]
Classical Painting Atelier, Aristides {get this, and her other books - indispensible]
Chateaux de Famille
Anders Zorn
The Library of Congress, Art & Architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building
Roomscapes {Hopefully you picked up a copy of this when it was cheap]
Garden Ornament [Great black and white reference photos for murals]
Du Maroc Aux Indes [I linked to books on Orientalist painting, as the French edition is $$$$]
The Most Beautiful Villages of Tuscany
Les Plus Belles Demeures d'Italie
Roma/ Villa Medici, pub. FMR
Alberto Pinto, Classics
Images de Venice
Classical Architecture, pub. Porphyrios
La Grande Decorazione a Genova
Jean-Loup Daraux
Charles Bargue

Pascal Amblard

Noel Donnellan
Decorative artist Noel Donnellan sent some fantastic shots of his collection. Here are just a couple with links to titles that caught my eye.

Noel Donnellan
Hugh Alan Luck
Thanks, Hugh, for the lovely clear shot of some excellent titles, including the newly released Rufus Porter Murals. Folks, you're just going to have to dig for yourselves for these. I have to go back to work. There's enough here for any book lover to have palpitations running up the credit card bill. 

A huge thank you to everyone who sent in photos. I feel as though I've left a couple of people out, including Lynne Rutter of The Ornamentalist blog. But Lynne, in true bibliophile mode, has compiled all her titles on Library Thing for easy browsing. Be sure to check it out.

Mark Ruffner, of "All Things Ruffnerian" blog

Jeff Huckaby

Jeff Huckaby

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Story of Red Ochre

Alan Friedman's stunning sun photography

There's an alchemy that happens in painting, but it's the exact opposite of what you might think. Accept for one moment that the vast majority of paintings in the world are absolute shite. There are exceptions, but I know I've yet to paint one. Every time I load up my brush with pigments forged in the belly of dying stars a bazillion light years away from Earth, and then go on to paint some stupid pet portrait, I wake up screaming and think of Dryden's "all this is monstrous; 'tis out of nature, 'tis an excrescence."

Sometimes the night sky is just a bunch of dots to me, but if for a moment I forget that I'm a cynical old bastard and remember gazing up as a kid, I think of Hamlet. His old chestnut about the sky being a "brave o'erhanging firmament," a "majestical roof fretted with golden fire" starts making sense and reminds me that as a painter I'm making something mundane from something magical, and not the other way around. 

Mars way back when [source]
The Story of Red Earth: Echoes from Outer Space

Take red oxide, or ocher, (or ochre as I grew up spelling it) for example. A pretty common pigment if ever there was one. Yes, I know it was sacred to primitive peoples, but these days it's as common as dirt. The thing is: there wouldn't be a single iron molecule on this earth if it wasn't shot here billenia ago on some cosmic dust storm. Mars is riddled with the stuff, and shoots a kilo of it to us every single day. The likes of the Willamette meteorite deposited 15 tons in one go. The hearts of dying stars are the only furnaces hot enough to create heavy elements like iron. "During a supernova, when a massive star explodes at the end of its life, the resulting high energy environment enables the creation of some of the heaviest elements including iron." [source]

Mining red oxide [source]

Those elements got blasted all the way across interstellar space and helped form Earth. Every heavy element did, past about Number 26 on the Periodic table (you remember chemistry don't you?). There are carbon molecules in your breath that were breathed in by dinosaurs, and some of those same molecules as you exhale will be breathed back in by your great, great, great grandchildren. All of them came from stars. 

Flinders Petrie living the dream. If your dream is to live in a tomb, that is.

In Siberia, falling meteorites were tracked across the sky by locals who followed them and mined them for their black shiny space rock. They weren't the first ones to do it though [paint grinding equipment has been found up to 400,000 years old]. 5,000 years ago, Egyptians wore jewelry made out of lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and iron beads from meteoric rock most likely from Mars. 

Flinders Petrie was an Egyptologist of the Indiana Jones mold, who enjoyed sleeping in rock tombs on cliff faces whilst surveying pyramids. Despite ridicule by old guard archeologists for his unconventional ways, his discovery of these extra-terrestrial iron artefacts whilst excavating Egyptian tombs a hundred years ago is his lasting legacy. Poor old Petrie met an ignominious end however, his severed head stuffed in a jar and left on a shelf, like so many of his museum specimens. Believing in his own genius [he once "built a camera out of biscuit tins and in order to save time drew his findings with both hands at the same time, wielding a pencil in each"], he bequeathed his head to future generations for study, but sadly it ended up being forgotten in a college basement where the label eventually fell off the jar. I guess they stored it next to the Octabong.

The Octabong. god help us all
A friend of Petrie's, asked to identify his head, said, "I arrived armed with photographs of him. A laboratory technician brought me the head, took it out of the jar and put it on a plate in front of me. I was a bit embarrassed. I think [the technician] was a little strange because he asked me if I wanted to see the cut. We archaeologists love to see [such things] but not this type exactly. He showed it to me and opened Petrie's eyes. They were bright blue." But now I'm getting sidetracked...

'Burns Cliff' on Mars, showing groundwater-carved features
“The amazing thing is that every atom in your body came from a star that exploded. And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand. It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics: You are all stardust. You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements - the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution - weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way they could get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode. So, forget Jesus. The stars died so that you could be here today.” Lawrence M. Krauss

[Roman fresco, Boscoreale]

Dating Frescos Using Red Oxide

Waxing poetic for a moment, iron oxide communicates its cosmic origin to us quite clearly. According to Victoria Finlay, "scientists in Italy have found a new technique for dating frescos almost to the year they were painted, simply by examining the red paint.

"'Red ochre contains iron, and the iron molecules act like compass needles explained Professor Giaconio Chiari of the Department of Minerological and Petrological Sciences at the University of Turin.

"He said that in the few minutes between daubing red ochre on to wet clay, and the time it dries, the molecules realign themselves towards the direction of magnetic north.

"'And if you don't move the walls then that is how they stay/ Professor Chiari said. Magnetic north changes every year - it can fluctuate over a range of 18 degrees, so you can learn when the fresco was painted from the direction in which the red ochre is pointing. This can lead to curious artistic discoveries: at the Vatican Library, for example, there were three frescos which were believed to have been painted in 1585, 1621 and 1660. The scientists took tiny samples from the borders to see whether they could test their theory. 'We couldn't understand the results. All the ochre was pointing the same way and it wasn't in any of the ways we were expecting,' Professor Chiari said.

"And then they did more tests and realised the truth: the frescos were original, but all the borders had been repainted in 1870. Magnetic north is very erratic, though, Professor Chiari added. (So we can do it both ways: we sometimes use frescos - if we know when they were painted - to tell us where magnetic north was that year.' "

Himba women, Tony McNicol photographer
"He was not aware of the technique being used to date bodies that had been painted in red ochre - as has been a funerary custom in Australia, Africa, America and Europe for thousands of years. Partly because nobody could be sure whether the body had been moved after the ochre had dried and partly because the burials had happened too far in the past. 'You can't go too far back because we don't know so much about magnetic north thousands of years ago.'"

Vulcanologists have even reported iron-rich rocks twisting to line up their poles with our magnetic field. I love the idea of them lining up as if answering some sort of intergalactic call, facing north at the aurora that signal the portal for interstellar winds carrying plasma and particles from exploding supernovae.

Regarding the whole 'painter as alchemist' thing: Considering the galactic origins of the artist's materials and the subsequent and often excruciating "art" that comes of it, the only question is: Is it still considered alchemy if you turn gold into crap?

Friday, September 6, 2013

6 Tips on How To Avoid Work

Star Trek; the Borg
If you've regretted not starting or finishing a painting, then you've experienced resistance. We all have. Steven Pressfield says that, "most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the un-lived life within us. Between the two lies resistance." And, as the Borg in Star Trek like to remind us, "resistance is futile."

Right unicorn, wrong planet
But what if your dreams are unrealistic? My un-lived inner life was once to be a unicorn-tamer on Planet Nipple, but then I grew up and realized that that was ridiculous. Now I crush out the fire of my dreams before they have a chance to poison the monotony of my day. The truth is, painting makes me quite unhappy. It's boring and tedious for the most part, but it's all I know how to do. It's a bit of a trap, and to paraphrase Homer, my own witlessness will one day cast me aside. It's not that I want to do nothing, I just want to do other things. Sometimes I have to admit, painting your toilet-bowl to look like "pink" marble is just not that attractive to me.

I'd like to think I could've done a better paint job

It's not always easy to turn down work, but I've been known to run from it like a cockroach from sunlight. Still, there are times when you might legitimately want to say "no." I was once painting a mural in a bar in Northern Ireland and was approached by a certain Catholic paramilitary organization and asked if I wouldn't mind painting an exterior mural of the pied piper carrying an Irish flag and leading a bunch of kids out of the rubble. It was to be painted between the hours of 2-6am, but don't worry about the cops, "there'll be a lookout."

Monty Python: Michelangelo and the Pope [Video Link]

The most notorious example of reluctance on the part of a painter was a commission for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo first tried to avoid the job by repeatedly telling the pope that painting was not his artistic forte; sculpture was. When that failed, Michelangelo insisted that Raphael could execute a finer fresco.  Yet, as Vasari tells the story, "The more he refused, the more the impetuous pope insisted."

 When that too failed, (according to Ascanio Condivi in his biography The Life of Michelangelo), "When [Michelangelo] had completed the picture of The Flood, it began to mildew so that the figures could barely be distinguished. Therefore, Michelangelo reckoning that this must be a sufficient excuse for him to escape such a burden, went to the Pope and said to him, "Indeed I told your Holmess that this was not my art; what I have done is spoiled, and if you do not believe it, send someone to see." The Pope sent San Gallo, who when he saw it, realized that Michelangelo had applied the plaster too wet and consequently the dampness coming through produced that effect; and, when Michelangelo had been advised of this, he was forced to continue, and no excuse served."

Pope Julius II ordering Michelangelo, Bramante and Raphael to build St. Peter's, 1827, by Horace Vernet
This sort of arm-twisting took its toll on Michelangelo, who once confided his resentment toward the pope in a melodramatic letter to a friend: "Here I am, having lost my whole youth chained to this tomb [the church] . . . and my excessive loyalty which is unrecognized is my ruin. Such is my fate. I see many people with an income of two or three thousand scudi [an Italian coin] remain in bed, and I, with the greatest labor, toil at impoverishing myself." No doubt followed by him crying into his lacy sleeves and quaffing cheap hooch from a goblet. Damn papal commissions always getting in the way of a good snooze.

Michelangelo was, I suspect, like the rest of us. It's not that he didn't like painting, it's just that he didn't like it all the time. And he knew when to spot a shitty client when he saw one walk through the door with a papal entourage. Here are some great tips on spotting and avoiding problem clients, which is really the point of this whole post. It's not about procrastination, or unrealistic dreams of becoming a professional frisbee player. It's about taking the good jobs, trusting that others will come, and leaving time for the fun stuff in between.

1. Have a Little Faith.
Trust that as a freelancer, the phone is going to ring and that next job will always come in. You don't have to accept every job that comes along.

2. Get a Little Bit Bitchy.
Nothing works better with particularly nasty clients than a little push-back. Tell them that you don't like to be treated badly, and be prepared to walk away no matter what the cost.

3. Raise Your Price.
A good friend once advised me to pick my highest price, and then double it. Send them the estimate, or tell them the price in person, then say nothing. Keeping your mouth shut right here is the best strategy. If they want you, they'll still hire you, and that added profit margin may make their bullshit acceptable.

4. Leave a Paper Trail.
For God's sake, stick to this if there's even a whiff of nastiness coming off the client. Set up a payment plan, and stick to it. Demand a hefty 50% deposit payment up front. I have friends who've started jobs without even the deposit payment, worked their asses off, then had the client change her mind about the color. My friend got not one penny, and was stuck for some major payroll expenses.

5. Be Specific About Money.
Spell out what is and particularly what is not included in the scope of work. Add a clause saying that any additional work will be charged at $X per hour/square foot. Write in the estimate the date you want final payment (for example: COD, or 30 days after completion of work), and schedule progress payments. Your deposit (if you followed Rule 3) should be enough to cover most, if not all, payroll and material expenses. Tell them exactly when you expect a further progress payment of 25%.

6. Stick To The Schedule.
If they don't make any of your scheduled payments, be prepared to stop the job until that check clears.

Also recommended:
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
The Four-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss
How to Avoid Work, by William J. Reilly

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Academic Tradition on Hockney's claims of "cheating" in Classical Painting

Bouguereau (1825-1905), The Flagellation

Everyone loves a secret, but there's more than a whiff of sour grapes to Hockney's assertions about the use of Camera Lucida among the great draughtsmen of the past. The underlying arrogance of his "if I can't do it then nobody can" premise appears to have informed his theories, and blinded him to the possibility that yes, in fact, they were just that bloody good at drawing.

Ingres, Lethier family portrait drawing

Kirk Richards in The Classical Realism Journal points out that it may just be Gladwell's "10,000 hours" theory in action among the likes of Bouguerau, Alma-Tadema, et al. No one's denying that optical aids were available (and most likely used) by artists, and yet Hockney seems to think he's pulled back the curtain to reveal the "secret." At this point Hockney's eureka revelations are old news, but it gives us the opportunity to read a quote or two that serve as a rebuttal and give insight into the meticulousness of the Academic methods of 19th century practitioners.

Chardin, the attributes of painting
"Hockney [in his New Yorker article] alludes to the probability that [Jean-Baptiste Siméon] Chardin used optical aids. Of several artists, including Chardin, he says, "Suddenly they all seem to be able to render the image, just like that, onto the canvas itself." Suddenly? Just Like that? Chardin speaks forcefully to this claim:
"They put a crayon in our hands when we are seven or eight years old. We begin to draw from models of eyes, mouths, noses, ears, then of feet and hands. For a long period our backs are bent over our portfolios in front of the Hercules or the torso, and you have not seen the tears brought on by this Satyr, this Gladiator, the Venus de Medici, this Antaeus ... After we have spent days and worked nights by lamplight before stationary and inanimate forms they confront us with life and suddenly, the labor of all the preceding years seems to count for nothing .... One must teach the eye to see nature, and how many have not seen it and never will! It is the torment of our lives. We are kept working five or six years from the living model before they turn us over to our own genius, if we have any ... He who has not realized the difficulties of this art does in it nothing worthwhile." [source]
David Hockney, camera lucida drawing of Ray Charles White
Dawn signaled the start of a long, sweaty and mostly tedious day for apprentices in Classical ateliers. Grinding pigments, mixing size, unloading heavy materials, stretching canvases. The busy work of the studio spilled out onto the streets of Florence. And that was just the beginning. It took years before an apprentice did any actual painting. As far as Cennini was concerned, thirteen years apprenticing was a necessary and reasonable tenure:

"To begin as a shop boy studying for one year, to get practice in drawing, . . . next to leam how to work at all branches which pertain to our profession... for the space of a good six years. Then to get experience in painting . . . for six more years. If you follow other systems, you need never hope that [the apprentices] will reach any high degree of perfection."

Kelly Borsheim, sight-size charcoal portrait
The traditional sight-size method (above) evidently trumps Hockney's own attempts at drawing a portrait using his own optical aid, a small spherical lens not much bigger than an eyeball attached to the end of a metal rod. Sure, you could use a lens as a short cut, but it should be evident from Hockney's drawing above that a lens is no substitute for solid drawing skills and could never, on its own, replace them.

According to Charles H. Cecil, “When properly understood, sight-size is not a mere measuring technique, but a philosophy of seeing. The method was used by many of the finest painters in oil since the seventeenth century, including Reynolds, Lawrence and Sargent.”

As Degas once said, "Make a drawing. Start all over again. Trace it. Start it and trace it again. [...] You must do over the same subject ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must appear accidental, even a movement. " He also once said that, "Painting is easy, until you learn how."