Cezanne once said, “We live in a rainbow of chaos.” Perhaps he meant we’re surrounded by colors, in various and sundry shades, and through art, we try to find some order to this chaos, even if our resulting work seems outwardly disorderly. In his own lifetime, Cezanne was accused of being a madman, “afflicted while painting with delirium tremens.” His response was to shrug off the guardians of the Academy: “With an apple I want to astonish Paris.” He worked in isolation for a very long time, only gaining financial success in the last ten years of his life.
Another artist who broke ground is Jackson Pollock. When we view a Pollock action painting, we realize there’s actually an order to this chaos. The drips and pours are more like calligraphy and live in tension with one another. They vary in color, size, and energy, not unlike a song. The action paintings are not just “drip paintings,” but energies expressing emotions by means of fluid dynamics. This is why we don’t say, “My grandkid could do this.” People try to forge Pollocks and fail. Even Pollock had difficulty creating these unique works, the best of which belong primarily to a two year period when he refrained from his alcohol habit, which affected his depressive disorder.
As compositions, each of Pollock’s drip pictures simultaneously dissolves into a chaotic jumble of individual lines, while also coming together as a structurally uniform, whole field. We’re mostly used to works best viewed from a single fixed point, such as a High Renaissance painting. Instead, to view a Pollock, we must move across the whole surface, and look deep into the layers. His works draw their audience in to inspect the details closely, passage by passage, and at the same time overwhelm the viewer with their monumental size. Their coloristic and textural richness emphasizes the expansive surface, yet the elaborate and totally visible overlay of multiple layers of paint (and sand, cigarette butts, glass, and other materials) create a very real depth and space. It’s definitely not your grandchild’s artwork.
Hans Hofmann, a 20th C American abstract expressionist, once said, “Colors must fit together as pieces in a puzzle or cogs in a wheel.” Often we use the colors straight out of the tube, or we flail around trying to figure out which yellow and which blue will give us the shade of green we want to use. Experience is the best teacher, for learning how to see the colors of life is like solving a puzzle that doesn’t have a photo for a guide. Once we begin to recognize their composite colors, we begin to see the order in the midst of chaos. Then we have the cogs to the wheel and it will turn the next wheel in good order. Experience becomes our Rosetta Stone for decoding the other mysterious languages of color we hear around us every day.
One of the cues we’ve come to recognize in our painting class is the color of our brush wash water. If it’s a lovely neutral gray, like the center circle in the wheel above, we’ve balanced the warm and cool colors on our canvas. Most of our group in attendance chose colors from this wheel.
We saw a number of color theory examples from history, including Paul Klee’s geometric watercolors, which vary from color blocks, landscapes, and written images.
A little known colorist is the Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint, who was one of the earliest abstract painters. She developed a language, or visual imagery, to share the spiritual experiences she received during her participation in automatic drawing. As with many others of her era at the turn of the 20th century, she and her friends, in the group called The Five, mixed elements of traditional Christianity with seances and beliefs in a mystical guiding higher spirit. If she lived today, we’d likely call her beliefs “new age.” She also incorporated new advances in science for her time in her explorations.
Her work for The Temple was heroic in size, with each of the 193 paintings measuring about 7 x 9 feet.These were completed between 1906 and 1915. The whole sequence can perhaps be understood as af Klint’s pursuit of an original “oneness,”or the basic unity which she believed existed at the world’s creation. She believed this integrity had since been lost, giving way instead to a world of polarities: good and evil, woman and man, matter and spirit. In her work after 1912, af Klint seemed to move stylistically away from techniques related to spirit channeling, such as the fluid lines of The Five’s automatic drawings. Her use of Christian iconography and geometric forms increased. By 1917, af Klint stopped producing art through a spirit altogether. Her 2,000 plus works are owned and administered by The Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden.
Dusty used a plastic plate to draw his circle. This plate served a secondary purpose as well: it was also his palette to mix his colors. “Art imitates life, even in abstraction.” He used the ruler to measure out equal pie shaped segments, and divided the background planes. I almost stopped him in the midst of his planning, but I wasn’t about to stop that train of thought. I could only admire it for its balance and symmetry. He mixed the shades of the colors, and filled in the spaces. Then he added a few “motion” marks to indicate the movement of the disc in the atmosphere.
Gail pulled a plastic French curve drawing shape out of her toolbox to make the unique shapes in her painting. The blue and green curves are the waves of the sea and the central oranges of the resulting negative shape is the sun above the water. I always appreciate her paintings, which connect to her love of nature and have a sense of order to them.
I think I have this painting right side up. I followed the path of the brush strokes. Lauralei wins the prize for most different number of colors mixed on the palette. So often we get accustomed to using the same familiar colors over and over. Everyone had a café au lait colored interior two decades ago, then we all went white, and gray predominated for a while. Maybe soon we’ll paint our homes actual colors instead of following the crowd.
Mike had this idea percolating in his mind before he came to class, but didn’t have time to work on it at home. As soon as he saw our inspiration works, he decided to follow his inner guide, which had opened this image to him. He took the ruler to mark off some guide lines, then focused on bringing this idea to life. The radiating energy bolts of dynamic rainbow colors coming from the cross remind us of God’s love in Jesus Christ for all things and all people. We’re also one in Christ and belong to the one family of God, no matter how we worship, or what our understanding of God is.
I began my little painting as a homage to Klee, but I didn’t get far in the 90 minutes we have for painting. I attempted to leave the negative space for the letters, but my brush was either too large or my painting surface was too small for the text I chose. I brought it home and worked another six or seven hours on it in the following week.
In the quiet of my studio, I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the emotions of the words, but only to the technical aspects of mixing the colors. I reread again my text from Luke 1:78-79:
“By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
At this time, I saw the upper half needed to be light, while the lower part of the painting needed to be in darkness, since the two verses broke in this direction. This also gave my painting a landscape feel, as if the dark earth hadn’t yet seen the dawn of God’s light. As I painted, I began to lose the sense of the letters and the words, and the patches of color became more important than trying to keep the sentence legible.
I’m very impressed with this group, who’ve taken to heart my teaching mantra: Everyone will find their own voice if they engage in creative thinking and do the work. In the spiritual life, we’re saved by faith, but in art, we do find “works righteousness.” Amazingly, we get better the more we practice, especially if we have positive critiques and goal oriented lessons designed to help us grow. This provides fertile ground to awaken the spirit living within each of us, so that we can become co-creators in God’s renewal of the world. Maybe Hilma af Klimt was on to something special after all.
Our next class will be The City. We can either treat this as a lesson in perspective, poster design, abstraction, or a close up view of a building. Vacation photos are a good resource to bring, if you have a special place you want to remember. Antique photos are good too. Till next time, keep your hearts full of
Joy and Peace,
The Fascinating Physics of Jackson Pollock’s “Drip” Paintings
Jackson Pollock’s Paintings: Characteristics of Drip Painting Technique
Paintings for the Temple | The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation
Hilma af Klint The Paintings for the Temple 1906–1915 ARTBOOK | D.A.P. 2021 Catalog Bokförlaget Stolpe 9789189069114