One of the greatest ways I’ve ever found to understand how an artist crafted a masterpiece is to try and re-create it. Think of the self-made engineers who teach themselves by disassembling and reassembling computers, radios, cars and contraptions. It is a similar process, but instead of taking apart physical objects, you are deconstructing lines, shapes, colors, negative spaces, perspective and ratios with pencil, with brushstrokes, with small studies and rough drafts, and above all, with your EYES.
This past Sunday, I attended a seven-hour painting intensive with a couple former teachers of mine over in the East Village. I started, studied, practiced, painted, repainted and finally, completed, a copy of Matisse’s “The Window” in oil, with an acrylic base layer (oil takes too long to dry for backgrounds!)
Here is the work, in all its various stages.
I took a look at it and noticed the blinding aqua background. So I mixed up some blue acrylic (UGH HOW COULD I FORGET YELLOW ACRYLIC) with some white gesso, and began to paint over the old canvas + old cityscape painting:
Upon closer examination, though, I realize that the underpainting is Umber/Orange. Not Blue! You can see it peeking out behind the black chair, behind the pattern on the floor. All over the place, is the umber underpainting. ARGH! So, over the blue we go:
While waiting for the new coat to dry, I start painting miniature studies to try and understand the layout. Where was the chair? Where was it in relation to the window? How big is that table, REALLY? What is the halfway horizontal point? The halfway vertical point? This is one of the most analytical parts of painting for me. I will actually take my pencil and measure all the major objects in the painting.
This is the part where the masters’ really show their talent: their is symmetry you cannot see or notice unless you re-create it. It comes across as a feeling when you look at a painting–but when you try and reproduce it, you see WHY the painting makes you feel good, why it draws your eye successfully: it’s because the proportions are deliberate, repeated. The horizontal distance from the right wall to the end of the right curtain? It’s the same as the width of the green scene between the curtains. Which is the same as the vertical distance between the ceiling and the first black line on the left side of the painting. Which is the same as the distance of the foot of the chair to the edge of the painting.
P.S: One thing you don’t see in photo reproductions is detail, and the true color of the painting. I had the real treat of seeing this painting in person just ONE WEEK after I’d painted it, at the Matisse show at the MOMA (GOD I LOVE LIVING IN NEW YORK!). In person, I noticed: the carpet’s color looks darker and a deeper shade of blue because he painted BLACK over the green/blue of the wall. I used a different blue. He also scratched off lots of the painting with some kind of razor. The things that are lost in pictures!
If you want to learn: Look. Then copy. Then create. Then teach it to someone else.