The example of method
Post #1114 • January 23, 2008, 10:56 AM • 18 Comments
I discovered that Seurat used a ground prepared with diluted yellow ocher rather than the alla prima canvas of the Impressionists. It may not have been his reasoning, but this mid-tone allowed him to pitch his lightest colors very precisely. By doing away with the white ground, he also avoided another source of transparency and thus achieved a beautiful, soft luminosity in his painting. Furthermore, Seurat underpainted his dots or "points" with larger strokes of crosshatching, laying in the main areas. The very small scale of his pointillism was calculated to increase the interaction of color. My larger brush mark allowed me to analyze his optical mixture - the perceived blending of color as opposed to the physical mixing of pigments - back into its constitutent colors. The lightest area is the river close to the bank, in the foreground. There, a very pale blue and a contrasting yellow (degraded to an ocher and lightened with white) act against one another. Softened by pink, they give rise to a host of subtle pearly grays that establish the deepening in tone as they go. Along with these slight shifts, the movement of color crosses the expanse of the river and travels through the reflections of the jetties and the bridge, up to the bridge itself; there it regains a lighter passage below the opposite bank before climbing up into the sky. Against this delicate open orchestration of space are placed the finite forms of trees, little boats, masts, sails, figures, and the grassy bank, using deeper yellow ochers, dark and aple blue, greens, crimsons, pinks, and reds, all shifitng the basic optical mixture. In the center of the painting our eyes are seized by a few astonishingly pure yellows, pinned like some bright ornament to the pier of the bridge.
Apart from the pleasure in making my copy of Seurat's beautiful painting, I learned a great deal. I went on to make a number of paintings of my own based my understanding of his use of color. One of these, Pink Landscape, played a key role in my thinking at the time and could almost be said to have precipitated my black-and-white work, though it is in fact built on strong color contrasts. In the summer of 1959 I was traveling in Italy, visiting museums and looking at works of art. I stopped near Siena, got out of the car and stood looking out over a great plain. It was an immense arid expanse shimmering in the heat. The sheer volume of light seemed to shatter everything in sight. I wanted to make a painting showing the disintegration of this landscape under the fierce sun. A thunderstorm was advancing and had already obliterated the horizon. I made a line drawing of the general disposition of the hills across the plain, a tonal study and a color analysis. Back in London I worked on a painting that I hoped would recreate the experience outside Siena. Whent the painting was finished I was both pleased and disappointed. It was a competent application of Seurat's use of color, but the sensations of light and heat over the Sienese plain were simply not to be found in it. In trying to relaize these sensations, "la méthode" (Seurat's term) was unfortunately of no use to me. I had more to learn about method and its role. I came to see that any method, it it is too firmly formed in advance of its function, inhibits or may even block original work. At the same time, an ordering of work is unavoidable, indeed essential. But how is this to be accomplished? Method was surely relevant, but in what capacity? As a modern artist, one could not simply "find" the right method, any more than one could "find" the right criteria for one's activity. Such securities had vanished with tradition. It became clear that one's first task as an artist is simply this: to create a way of working, to discover "doing" and to establish the terms upon which a creative dialogue could be sustained. In short, to start again. From Seurat I took the example of method rather than the method itself.