Grand Via by Antonio López García, 1974-1981, oil painting, 35½ x 36¾.
I don’t give importance to technique. I condition everything so that the painting has spirit, in every way. If not, technique does not do me any good. I have done that: put in all the forms, ordered them in the best possible way, taken measurements. Everything was done correctly, but the painting ended without substance, vacant of emotion. And that, when I had that sensation, it seemed to me a complete failure, it seemed that technique wasn’t worth anything. Not that technique doesn’t have importance, but it’s like the word is the link to the ideas and nothing more. So you acquire technique, but then what do you do with it? Antonio López García
Antonio López García is a Madrid Realist, a group of painters dedicated to working from direct observation. His paintings frequently take years and even decades to complete. While technique alone can never secure the outcome of a painting, it can provide, however, one more tool in the artist’s tool box. Lopez Garcia uses two things that I think are worth exploring. This first is a plumb line — an undeviating vertical line used as a reference when determining alignment. I had heard of their use, but never seen it in action until I watched a film of López García drawing a quince tree. He tied the plumb line to a limb of the tree and used it as a reference to the edge of his canvas, keeping everything in alignment.
In the lower left of this screen capture you can see the plumb line.
In the lower left of this screen capture you can see the plumb line.Here is a clip from that film:
When López García works on a landscape he also uses a positioning and measuring device. I don’t know if it has a specific name, and artists have devised many different versions of this from using the end of a brush to using a black thread to take their measurements. I believe what López García is doing here is holding up a piece of wood that is the distance from his eye to the canvas. At the end of that piece of wood is a vertical piece of paper on which he can both mark the size of something in the landscape and also the angle of it. Notice that he presses the piece of wood into the hollow under his cheekbone. That would give him a consistent spot to position the wood. He also marks the ground where he stands. That way, each day that he returns to doing his painting he can set everything up in the same place. He is, thereby, minimizing the variables as he works on his painting over time. None-the-less, there will be many variables that he cannot control; the weather, the time of year, the light, and since he often takes years and sometime decades to finish a painting, the landscape itself can change with new buildings being built and old ones torn down.
A quarter of all of Gustav Klimt’s paintings were landscapes. When I finally saw them all at an exhibition at the Sterling Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, what struck me most was their flatness — even Bonnard’s landscapes recedes more into space. Klimt did not paint panoramas, but rather simple motifs: gardens, meadows with fruit trees, farmhouses surrounded by lush vegetation, and details of the lake and its shoreline. Perhaps it is not surprising that the landscapes appeared flat, considering the decorative nature of his other paintings, but it soon became apparent that something else was at work here. Klimt used a variety of viewfinders; initially, a simple piece of cardboard with a hole cut out of it, and later an ivory plate or an opera glass. [austria.info/uk/art-culture]
He also used a telescope. He would stand on one side of the lake and look through it to the opposite shore. The telescope made the landscape appear flat. Klimt used the pointillist’s mark to create his landscapes. However, he did not use it in the same way as the pointillists did, to optically mix colors. His landscapes were organized into blocks of colors and shapes.
Klimpt with Telescope
When you examine one of Klimt’s landscapes close up, a couple of things become apparent. First, he leaves a fair amount of the canvas showing through. And, he frequently outlines things, like the edge of flowers or leaves. I have seen Joseph Raffael do a similar thing in his watercolors. It seems that, especially with watercolors, if you let the edge of, say a leaf, just be the place where the color ends, your whole sense of the leaf as an object disappears, something seems quite off about it. Reinforcing the edge with a line helps it hold its space. This was most obvious in Klimt’s paintings of flowers.
Here is a short video of Joseph Raffael fine tuning one of his watercolors.
Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected. What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? For me, it is meeting artists in the environment in which they work, getting a sense of their connection to the place, its history, the other artists who surround them, and connecting all that to who I am as an artist, both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.
My Path to Monet and Giverny
There were ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny. When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public. But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.
It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated. It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, deKooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.
Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.
Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up. As it turns out, he was making up precious little. To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced. What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.
Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.
Before Giverny, I was making paintings based on images from Giotto,Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light. What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.
Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.
My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.
I stood immobile in the woods and listened carefully through the headphones to the two jets flying over head. For weeks we had been filming* in the most rural parts of Washington County, New York, yet every few minutes the silence was broken by another plane. If it weren’t for this 21st century intrusion, I would think I was in the 19th century or even the 15th century, as the hunters and trappers we are following with the camera walk through streams in the their boiled wool pants that sag at the knee like a figure out of Bruegel’s, “Return of the Hunters”.
Davey hit a deer and we follow the blood trail through the forest carpet of scarlet, orange and yellow leaves. Despite being a highly visual person, I see nothing: not the tiny dot of red blood on the yellow leaf, nor the small broken twigs that lead David rather quickly to his deer.
The months I have spent with Dave and Steph have completely changed my understanding of landscape. I saw the landscape as a view outside my car window, something molded and harnessed by men for their homes and farms. When I am with David, I see the fields as habitats for the deer, bear, fox, muskrats, minks, beavers, otters and wild turkeys. The roads cut through them like rivers. Dave knows how to move through this landscape. He is as comfortable in the woods as I am in my bedroom. One night, after some excessive drinking, while being followed by the cops, Dave ditched his jeep behind a barn and spent the night walking home though the woods using the light of the moon to guide his way — for all 17 miles.
Dave could read the signs of the animal scat, and broken twigs, and gnawed bark. Each day he checked his traps. It is cruel and illegal not to. Despite any love I have for animals, I admire his skill as a trapper, and the intimate connection he has to the animals. Even skinning and preparing the pelts to be sold was something he did with great care and skill.
When I watch him work, it connects me to an earlier time, when one was not quite so removed from one’s food source. Dutch paintings, in particular, come alive for me, as I watch Dave pile up the animals to be skinned. When Steph butchered a deer on the dining room table, Dave’s girlfriend’s daughter picked up the deer’s severed leg and marched it across the bare wood floor chanting, “I’m going to the castle, I’m going to the castle.” Later that night, she would be eating that deer.
The final revelation came for me when I saw Davey draw a deer on a piece of cardboard, that he and his partner would use for target practice with their compound bows. He placed a crayon at the foot of the deer and drew the deer in one line. His mark was so sure he could have been tracing his own hand. It may not have been a brilliant drawing, but it was remarkably accurate and came form a place of certain knowledge of the animal.
Davey propped the cardboard against a couple of bails of hay, and from the roof of his cabin, Steph took the first shot with his bow and put it through the heart of the deer. Davey took aim and shot the deer though the same hole — exactly, not even widening the initial hole. I felt that this must have been what went on in the caves of Lascaux: these men connecting with the animals they stalk.
* For seven years I worked as a sound person for the documentary filmmaker, Michael Marton.
American Trap 1982
60 min. WMHT Schenectady, NY and German TV
The story of two laborers in upstate New York who decide to live the life of their ancestors and become full time trappers and hunters.
(Video Center, Hamburg, Germany / Anthology Film Archives, New York)