A Defense of Subtlety by Miles Mathis

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A DefenseofSubtlety

(of pastels and paper)



by Miles Mathis

 


Nietzsche told us, in 1888, that "it is easier to be gigantic than to be beautiful."And Van Gogh added, only a year later, "better a little wisdom than a lot of energetic zeal."These are not very modern sentiments from two of the (supposed) fathers of modernity.With giant canvases and much critical zeal Modernism has conducted an all out war on subtlety for almost a hundred years. Traditional art has suffered perhaps the worst fallout from this century of battles.All of its virtues have been redefined, as with one large brush, as faults.But subtlety was once considered an aesthetic fundament: Leonardo's chiaroscuro was the technical pursuit of tonal and psychological subtlety; Rembrandt's subdued lighting and choice of subject matter conveyed a sensitivity to shades of meaning that has perhaps never been matched; Chardin's muted tones and simple compositions subtly expressed the emotions of a family man; and artists as recent as Whistler and Puvis de Chavannes all but defined their work by the subtle and elevated moods it created.Even Picasso, before he became the Crown Prince of Modernism, created paintings of astonishing nuance and passion—his work before 1906 is, by itself, worth the entire 20th century in terms of subtlety.

 

In this article I want to suggest, contra the cries of the litterateurs and non-artist intellectuals who have controlled recent debates, that subtlety, like beauty, is not necessarily passť.Even at this late a date it is still possible to believe that there are ways of expressing oneself which remain quite powerful despite being neither direct nor confrontational nor analytic.Since I am addressing fellow artists, it seems to me the best way to prove the continued existence, and aesthetic relevance, of subtlety is by discussing various ways of actually achieving subtlety in a work of art.What I mean to share with you here is not a technical blueprint for capturing depth in a work (which would be absurd) but the various personal discoveries I have made which help me to avoid overworking or overthinking a painting or drawing.This understanding—that beauty is the reward, not of persistence or reason, but of sincere feeling—is the basis for artistic subtlety.

 

Of course, beauty is also the reward of informed technique: visual art is the expression of the abstract in the concrete, and no amount of zealous energy, or even sincere feeling, can get one past the necessity of material mastery.With this in mind, let us proceed from a discussion of subtlety as it relates to Art (as a category) to subtlety as it relates to art (as the work at hand), beginning with a few material considerations.

 

First of all, let us consider choice of paper (to simplify, I'll limit myself here to drawing, but most of what I say translates fairly obviously to other media).Much contemporary pastel work is done on sandpaper, some of it subtly.But I find that sandpaper discourages me from blending with my fingers (I begin to lose skin after awhile); and this "smudging," done correctly, can create a beautifully subtle effect.I believe it allows me to get in my drawing, to finally close that gap that always seems to be filled by something—a brush, a stomp, or a stick of chalk.When I blend with my fingers, I feel that drawing becomes almost sculptural: my hand finally makes contact with the support.As when working with clay, I must get my hands dirty to make the proper connections.The dust on my fingers, once it creates a layer, begins to act as a middle tone, pulling my color harmonies together and acting as a blended grey, like the mixed grey made from the colors on my palette when I am painting.To be more specific: if I am using oranges and reds in the skin tones and greens in the background, the "mud" deposited on my hands from both colors will mix into the perfect middle grey—a grey that will pull the drawing together, harmonizing the already complementary reds and greens (because it contains them), and keeping any bright highlights from appearing too harsh.

 

I don't smudge everything (the highlights and other final remarks are left alone), but I believe that those who would legislate against any blending or smudging have become slaves to their methods—forgetting that, to the artist, everything is allowed.I know that this will come as a shock to those taught never to blend or smudge and to keep all their colors clean and bright.If the effect you want is cleanliness and brightness, this is fine.But for me, such effects can be antiseptic.Human emotions are rarely clean and bright.Life is messy, and a drawing that is too perfect—that has every mark in place, every color undiluted, and every compositional device in balance—will have failed to capture the truth.Put simply, if you over-refine your work you will likely distill all the emotion out of it, and be left with a technically flawless drawing that is nevertheless uninteresting.

 

The Old Masters understood this use of greys and browns as a unifying device.Tintoretto and the other Venetian masters were experts at mixing the perfect middle-tones, and they were not afraid to leave vast areas of unworked (toned) canvas or paper showing between their figures.The "tonalists" in the 19th century also knew the value of grey and brown. Whistler called his painting medium "soup"—a grey-brown mess that he was able to manipulate into the subtlest of effects.And Degas layered his colors over and into sublayers of much more muted shades.It is proper to beware of muddying your work (mainly through overworking it, so that the middletones invade the highlights).But you must realize that brown or grey may be used effectively, not to obscure, but to harmonize.

 

Like the middle-grey dust on my hands, the color of my paper also helps me pull my drawing together.Generally, in drawing with pastels, I use one of two papers: Fabriano Ingres or Ingres Antique.*Both have a lovely surface with enough tooth to hold the charcoal

 

*I get them from Daniel Smith, in Seattle. I highly recommend Ingres Antique camel, a warm brown paper.

 

or pastel but not so much that the laid pattern becomes aggressive.About 90% of my drawings are made on grey or light brown paper.These colors reflect my predominant moods, I suppose.The paper color also serves as a suggested aura of the model's mood.Grey suggests an aloofness, perhaps.Brown is also introspective but conveys more warmth.Depending on the light falling on my model, these colored papers also work as middle fleshtones, allowing me to elide from the darks to the lights without actually having to draw all the tones in between.For example, if I am drawing under a cool north light, my model's skintones will include much grey in the middle colors, and if I draw on a grey paper I can leave parts of the face (around the eyes and mouth, or on the throat, for instance) just suggested or smudged without creating a full layer of pastel.You can see this effect in my drawing Monique Bleu.Or in the detail of Girl with Balalaika you can clearly see the brown paper showing through in many parts of the drawing, and only a few areas are worked heavily.This is not just a time saving device: I do not want to work all the parts of a drawing equally.A drawing with the same amount of finish everywhere tires the eye and has no focus no matter what other tricks one may use to draw attention.

  

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This brings us to the next important aspect in creating a drawing of subtle emotion: light.For me, the best way to light a subject for an interesting psychological rendering is with window light.To bring out the three-dimensionality of a face or figure, and thereby its personality, requires shadows.And the most natural shadows are created by natural light, of course.Outdoor light, at dawn or dusk, can be very expressive (as most photographers know), but it cannot give you the dark shadows that window light does.Edge lighting, back lighting, and half and three-quarter lighting help me to evoke a variety of emotions, and I recommend such experimentation to anyone interested in using light to create a mood.In Red-haired Girl I used edge lighting on the model's profile to accentuate her striking nose and long neck.The fact that most of her head is in shadow, while only her left shoulder is brightly lit, leaves much of the drawing a mystery—as indeed it must if it is to have any interest.

 

For me, the best pose, like the best light, is natural.As far as possible, I let my model alone, so that she is not posing so much as just being still.I sometimesmake suggestions, but I try to watch rather than direct.In this way I discover how my model expresses herself.A body does not communicate by striking preconceived poses.It communicates by making the movements that come natural to it, that are part of its nature.Rodin, describing this process in his method, was chided for being passive.Wasn't he, the critic asked, taking directions from his models, and so giving up his claim as creator?"No," answered Rodin."I do not take directions from them.I take directions only from Nature."

 

In composing the drawing Waiting, I simply asked my model to look out the window.I did not create the pose; I discovered it.I waited for it.When I saw the composition fall into place, I knew I had found what I was looking for.

 

 

Since the composition in Waiting is central to its effect, let me discuss for a moment composing a picture for an emotional response.The emotion depicted here, it seems to me, is isolation married to a sort of expectancy.The model's head going one way and her knees going the other creates a tension, and the white light from the window falling directly only on her face heightens the tenor of the emotion.Cutting the drawing off below the model's knees brings her closer to the plane of the picture, and therefore to the viewer, also adding to the intimacy.

 

This analysis I can give you after the fact, but I cannot tell you that the drawing was consciously planned this way.For me, it is counterproductive to orchestrate a drawing, to know what it will be before it is.I don't even try.Obviously, some part of me knows what I am doing, but it seems to me that my artistic choices are never rational.I don't think; I desire. My left-brain, my Ego, is off; and my Id is free to do whatever it wants.Some technique has been sublimated, so that it can be used by my passions, but it is never analyzed.†† I never do anything because; I just do it.

 

I mention this because I feel it is very important.There is nothing wrong with talking about technique or with learning from others; but one must understand that the impetus for art is never technical or rational—it is personal and emotional.If you are an artist, you draw because you feel like making a drawing, not because you want to work out some technical problem.Allowing your left-brain, your scientific side, to start meddling in your creation is like letting the fox in the henhouse, and your inspiration will be lost in a cloud of feathers.

 

What this means, specifically, for the creative process, is that the time for me to analyze my work, the time for me to learn from myself, is after I've done it, not before.I try to follow my heart, my intuition, into a drawing, and let it happen.I don't feel like I have to work everyday.I wait for the inspiration: wait until I can say "that's it, that's what I was looking for."And then I go, and it never feels like work.Only after much time have I begun to understand my inspiration, to find it where I look for it.It cannot be forced: the Muse was not made to be forced.I think if you try too hard you destroy your inspiration, muddying the waters and discouraging yourself with bad work.††††

 

One more thing needs to be said about composition in this context, and that is that when I have been the most impressed by a drawing's ability to pull the eye in, past the surface and into the emotion or meaning or content of the work (which is the most straightforward description of depth that I can think of), I have found that the artist has achieved this depth, in part, by keeping the composition simple.He has avoided any extraneous elements, any clutter.Every great work that I can think of that expresses a subtle, singular emotion has a strong primary focus (often only a primary focus).Every other thing in the painting—every object, every background line, every strong color—supports the primary focus.If it does not it disturbs the eye and inhibits the emotions.††

 

When artists treat the figure as a decorative device they can afford to have a more complex composition—creating, as it were, a still life in which the human body is one of the objets.But when they are concerned more with the individual mood that the model suggests, not just physically, but psychologically, they purposely limit the composition—they create a stillness in which the viewer can travel that distance from the subject's face or body to his or her passions.Think of Picasso's Old Guitarist, a painting in which every line is expressive of the mood.Or think of Degas' Woman Drying Herself (any one of them): the composition is simple, straightforward, and elegant.Even Van Gogh, who was not interested in subtle colors or lines or passions, kept his compositions simple and focused, for this reason.His color and brushwork and swirling backgrounds, though often violent, are never gratuitous: they all combine to express the psychological state of his subject (or himself), and, no matter how manic or overwrought, always center on that window of the soul, the eye.

 

Finally, it almost goes without saying that when one wants to create a subtle effect, one uses subtle colors.This is not to say that every psychological effect one might want to depict will be a subtle one.Van Gogh's colors and effects were anything but subtle, and yet his paintings are incredibly powerful.But other emotions, though less spectacular, are no less powerful, and cannot be depicted with glaring colors.Van Gogh's idol, Millet, knew this, as did Corot and many other pre-Modern masters.The point is to choose colors carefully, being fully aware of their impact.One must be sincere.And honest.The true artist does not use bright colors because they are fashionable, because they meretriciously draw the eye, making it easier to attract attention to the work.He will leave these tricks to Hollywood and the Moderns, where subtlety is a non-issue.If a brown or grey expresses what he want to express, the artist will use it, letting the yawns of the glitterati wash over him like the brown waters of the Ganges, leaving him only holier.


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