Daily Painting Challenge, January 2015, Day 18

January 21, 2015

 

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Two seashells

oil on canvas panel, 6×6″

In his section on Ideas for Independent Study, Arthur Stern includes some examples under the title of “Paint Challenging Surfaces. They include a painting by Richard Gleason of a very large conch shell. While this is a essay in tackling surfaces which are shiny, iridescent and sometimes translucent, it’s also about rendering magical inner light causing the subject to glow.

One commentator mentions the interest by Dutch 17th-century still life painters in shells being allied to an interest in that new-fangled thing, Chinese porcelain.

My study attempts the exact opposite of what Balthasar Van der Ast was achieving with his paintings of sea shells, back in the 1640s in his hometown of Middelburg, one of the six Dutch cities associated with the VOC, the Dutch East India Company. While he went for detail, extreme botanical accuracy, I am working at the absence of detail, aided by the palette knife. How much detail is required? Can I make the shell “readable” without its surface variegation – in this case lots of brown dots?

Fuchs’ discussion of still life painting raises lots of questions and issues for today’s painters – about what they paint, whether the subject matter is consciously different or the same as historic precedents, symbols then and symbols now. Do we introduce magic realism: subjects which are “unreal” (Bosschaert’s flowers couldn’t have bloomed all at the same time)?; the staged juxtaposition of ‘dead’ objects (sea shells) and imagined ‘live’ subjects (butterflies and caterpillars).

In painting daily, there is an implicit link to painting the everyday. We pursue the stillness that Vermeer captured so well. Is painting today a vehicle for quietude and stillness? For our own quiet or the quiet sought by our viewers? Do we paint objects from our own daily lives, like table settings (see Pieter Claesz and Floris Van Dyck) or do we engage with exotic? The Orient was foreign and exotic for the 17th-century Dutch; what is foreign and exotic today? What about the subtext of colonialism then and post-colonialism today? In acknowledge something like luxury and the magnificence which attracted Kalf (gold, china, lobsters and tropical fruit), what are we saying about the economics of contemporary life?

 

References

Fuchs, R.H. Dutch Painting. London, Thames & Hudson, 1978.

Stern, Arthur. How to see color and paint it: a series of projects designed to open your eyes to colors you never saw before. Watson-Guptill, 1984.

 

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