Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Beguiled and Scarred

Just north of the I-94 bridge crossing at Hudson, Wisconsin, on the Minnesota side of the St. Croix river, there is a dry run angling northwest out of the main part of the valley. There is an open bluff side there, with a couple of signs indicating a prairie restoration project. The east and south slopes of the bluff are tall grass and other prairie plants. The crown and adjacent wooded hillsides have red oak, burr oak, aspen, red cedar, cottonwood and other species typical of this area. I don’t know if the restoration is a public or private enterprise. It doesn’t have the usual indicators of a state project. There is a railroad line on the southwest side of the draw, and the west face of the northeast bluff was a sand pit once upon a time, and not so long ago; the scars are barely grown over with grasses, and lumps of concrete and asphalt spot the unnaturally flat bottom of the draw. I’ve painted at this location numerous times over the past several years. Beguiled by the autumn colors, I did four paintings there in the last part of October 2017.

Beguiled, infatuated, taken in – terms and phrases that apply aptly to both amorous misadventures and plein air painters in search of fall colors. One’s better judgment can be, and frequently is, dazzled by the fall foliage. I think it was John Carlson who advised that when in search of a subject, the artist is well served to commit to the first thing that looks promising. The idea is to not chase will ‘o’ the wisps into some bog where trolls will seize you. Also, recall that everything in nature looks great until you put a frame around it – that is, until your motif with its various elements is enclosed within the vertical and horizontal boundaries and proportions of your picture plane, to which the elements must harmoniously relate.

I was beguiled in two of my attempts. In one, the curve of a large yellow cottonwood dominates the composition beyond its ability to hold the viewers interest – the main element is out of proportion to the format. It is overly large, and yellow to boot. Yeah, there it is. In the other, a backlit red oak is over-engulfed by the visual clutter all around it. Neither painting is beyond repair. I can go back next season and take another shot at each subject, if I’m inclined; however, experience shows that I will likely be interested in some fresh pursuit when that time of season comes around, and I won’t get back.
Red Gap
oil on panel, 14 x 11
Copyright Peter Bougie 2017

Of the other two, Red Gap is my favorite. There is a sense of looking across a broad space at an opposite hillside, one that is not too far distant, but separated from the viewer by steep terrain. The featured gap of the title was spotted on site and very near the golden mean; the viewers eye releases through it into the uphill but less steep space beyond, occupied by trees mostly denuded already of their foliage. And there is a naked cottonwood just to the right of center, offsetting the gap, and enclosed and subdued by the grouping of red oaks, shorn of its yellow show; although if not, I think the thing would still work. Perhaps even better. 

Red Gap, detail
Copyright Peter Bougie 2017

Over the horizon only a few miles away are the eastern suburbs of St. Paul, in all their unholy commercial sprawl. I don’t claim to be holier than thou and never go there; only that in a better world, it wouldn’t be so. Nor am I advocating for some utopia, for they are not possible; their advocates must always resort to violence. The place where I stood is a commercial/industrial scar, partially healed over. Sounds of traffic from the highway and the airways overhead is, like hubris, ever present. In the contemplation of the healing is silence, and the subduction of the outsized ego.  

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Prime Directive

Mary the Mother of Jesus
oil on canvas, 14 x 11
Copyright Peter Bougie, 2017
There is another artwork for the head of Mary associated with Luke 2:19. My original intention was that it be a color study to use in producing the final work, and it served that purpose. However, after finishing Luke, I got a notion to work out some visual ideas in the study and turn it into a small work of its own. I titled it identical to the charcoal drawing: Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

Cecelia posed 4 sessions for the color study. I painted it directly from life onto the canvas, rather than transferring an outline using a tracing made from the charcoal drawing, etc. Working that way, it took me all four sessions from life to get the painting to a point where I was satisfied with the color notes. At that stage, however, the drawing of Cecelia’s features in the painting – the ‘likeness’ to nature- was off. The angle of the nose was wrong, both along the ridge of the nose and underneath, above the upper lip; the eye was too low, and the chin was too small. You portrait painters can all relate, I’m sure. Still, being pressed for time, I decided that since the color in the study was decent, and since I had an accurate charcoal and chalk drawing, I would proceed by using the drawing as my main reference for the head of Mary in Luke, and the painting as a reference for color. That’s a bit of a tricky process that I don’t recommend as a general procedure, although neither do I say “never”. I expected I would encounter a certain difficulty, and I did.  As I was looking at the color study for the color notes I needed, I tended to want to reproduce it’s drawing inaccuracies in the larger painting, and I had to resist the inclination to do so. A sort of prime directive I recieved as a student was to "make it like" - like nature, like what I saw. Instructions delivered and received repeatedly become habits, and so I always want to "make it like". I had to consciously contrive a tactic employing mental discipline, to look each time at the drawing for shape after checking the color against the painting. And when I had the color where I wanted it, I put the color study aside and used the drawing alone as my reference.

After Luke was finished, I developed the color study in variation to the finished painting. Again I used the charcoal and chalk drawing as a reference for the likeness of the features. This time, however, the head in profile with its red veil was the sole focal point, instead of being part of the main focal point, highlighted by the surrounding halo and subdued flat color value of the background. The theme is entirely focused on Mary’s contemplation. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Mary, the Mother of Jesus

The next stage of the work was to produce a study for the head of Mary. Cecelia D., then a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin River Falls, modeled for this work.

Six sittings of two hours each was the total work from life for this drawing. In addition, I also worked on the drawing for one to two hours each session after Cece left; and it took a few hours to draw the drapery of the veil and the halo. As in The Infant Jesus the halo is worked with high keyed pastels of varying warm and cool tints. The paper of course is toned. The advantage of toned paper is that the tone of the paper acts as a kind of general half tone (or half-light, depending on the darkness of the tone of the paper) which does not need to be applied and modeled but which is modeled around, so to speak. The shadow tones are applied with charcoal as are a few of the darker modeled tones in the light areas, and the lights are applied sparingly using chalk or white pastel. When the work period is done, you set everything down and walk away – no brushes to clean!

Mary, the Mother of Jesus
14 x 12 1/2 charcoal and chalk on paper
private collection
Copyright Peter Bougie 2017
There are many reasons to respect and venerate Mary. All the obvious attributes of motherhood apply to her, as well as the singular virtue of her fiat, saying yes to God at the moment of the Annunciation. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception applies to her as well; this refers to her conception, not the conception of Jesus, and is another singular condition and a gift of God. She is free of original sin from the moment of her conception, but retains her own free will the same as any other person. Therefore, her freely given consent at the Annunciation is the counter to the disobedience of Eve – her “no”, her declining to obey in the garden. It is humanity’s second chance.

One of the last things Jesus did while he was dying on the cross was to entrust Mary to the care of the apostle John, and to give John to Mary as her adopted son. “When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own.”

Remember, this was one of the last things Jesus did before he died. Do you suppose it was a sentimental moment? Jesus was dying a horrific death, and had been tortured for hours before being crucified. Part of the nature of the torture of the crucifixion was that it slowly asphyxiated its victims. To breath, he would have to push against the nails in his feet to raise his torso up. To talk, he must breathe a little more than if he does not talk. So, to speak was to increase his own suffering. Do you suppose Jesus spoke because he suddenly recalled, as he was dying, that he had neglected to make arrangements for his mother? As if he would have forgotten, and as if John or the others would not have cared for her otherwise. And if he is just making arrangements for the future security of his mother, why does he instruct Mary to “behold thy son” and John to “behold thy mother”? The Catholic teaching is that in this act Jesus is not just giving instructions to John and Mary about how they are to relate to each other, but that he is giving all of humanity to Mary as her adopted children, and asking all of humanity to adopt Mary as their spiritual mother. Jesus was teaching to the last, even from the cross. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) He considers us as his own, and so he strives to teach us.

Scripture quotations from Douay Rheims