A Witness to a Painting

“So, you see why I like the history of art. It’s the study of how to observe life with complete attention. It’s the history of love.”

 Aidan Chambers

The man looks forward, gaze directed toward the viewer, his torso balanced between profile and three-quarters. He appears, at this point, just past middle-age. There is no indication of location, of place, of what he is seated upon, stool or chair. Except for his hands and face, the predominant color scheme throughout is burnt umber, dark and earthy green, lighter in the upper left corner, shading into darker hues, almost black in the lower right corner.

For students enrolled in my academic classes, this is the point in the semester when their written assignment comes due. It’s a fairly straight forward task: visit a museum, select a piece of artwork, and write an essay that describes the work. No research or analysis, only writing objectively about what they see in front of them.

The figure takes up most of the space, a reversed “L” shape, slightly off-center to the right, his hands clasped in his lap. A soft large beret, perhaps wool, pillows his head, with a beaded circle of gold between the narrow brim and the top of the cap. Softly curling grey hair peeks out below the cap, shorter in the front of the ears, and collar length behind.

I tell them to imagine they are talking on the phone to someone who doesn’t have access to internet or an art encyclopedia. The only way that person can “see” the artwork is by their description. Some of them begin to feel challenged and fall back on “research” instead, their favorite source: Wikipedia.

His coat collar is upturned, covering most of the jaw line on the right side of his face, chin nestled between the u-shape lapels. A shawl is just visible on the left side of the collar. The pattern indistinct and colors muted, it emerges on a diagonal from the right shoulder, just past the bent arm, its progress arrested at the hands, hands which are painted with soft broad strokes and bordered by the sienna tinged furred cuffs of the brown coat. 

To really look at a painting or a still life, or even the face of the beloved, requires attention and concentration. Trying to describe without metaphor or simile is not easy; to analyze objectively and not emotionally takes practice. Doing so makes you a witness to the painting itself. As Joe Friday use to advise–just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

Softly lit from above, with slight shadows cast from the cap, brow and nose, a great luminosity emanates from the face. Thick impasto brush strokes define deep-set eyes (green? brown?) and a bulbous nose; the small narrow mouth is surrounded by a mustard-grey sparse mustache and goatee. The paint sculpts deep furrows between the brows and lines in the forehead, grooves from the side of the nose to the lips form soft folds on the cheeks. Warm ochres and reds, carmine and vermillion, are the dominant colors, in places a peachy hue. Grey, mauve, and hints of green, are seen in the shadows and flecks of highlights, almost pure white, are on the tip of the nose, left cheek and top of the forehead under the cap.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669 ), Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 – 1669 ), Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

The next time you visit a museum or gallery exhibit, find a piece of artwork that engages you and give this exercise a try. Not visiting a museum? Try it with the work from an artist friend, or even your own. You may be surprised at your observation abilities and your skills as a witness.

In the plain background, just left of the man’s cheek, easily overlooked because of size and subtlety of color, is the name Rembrandt and the date, 1659.

And here’s the artist himself, in a self-portrait from 1659. How did I do with my eye-witness account?



This Week in the Studio

Spent most of the studio hours working on my next piece, finishing up the underpainting for the five small rondos. Wondering, might I need just one more rondo??

Have you guessed who is the influence behind this work? Not telling yet!

Fibonacci in progress

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