Wednesday, February 5, 2020

James Tissot at the Legion of Honor

I went to see the Tissot exhibit at the Legion of Honor. I learned a few things.

Whenever I see old masters' work I'm always struck by the drama and the contrast; how dark the work is. With Tissot, I feel like I learned something about light, especially when I saw the later works. I don't know if his eyesight was going, but in the second Prodigal Son series he seemed to be concentrating much more on light and other aspects, rather than the obsessive focus on fabric that he had in the earlier pieces.

And I guess everyone else has known this, but it's finally sunk in. I've seen in many paintings over the years from Rembrandt or whomever.
So where the light is hitting is where the detail of lace or texture goes. Intense color near it. All else can be sort of dull in intensity. Highlights can be their own thing.

And I've always had trouble with this concept. I tend to see local color more than light. What I mean by local color is I'm sitting here looking at my fire extinguisher which it is a dark red overall, and yes, it has some shadows on it and some highlights, but generally I think of it as a red fire extinguisher.

When I took photography classes I remember how startled I was with how my prints and negatives turned out… So different than how I was seeing it.

I went to art school but I'm pretty much self-taught. I learned most of my technical stuff from looking at the old masters in museums, book and in art history classes. I don't remember my painting teachers talking a lot about color in painting. Maybe I wasn't listening. I do know color theory. I focus more on composition. I've studied how to mix my paints and how to desaturate them. I have a few tricks of my own for color.

But when I paint I render an object. I find it upsetting when I can't see all sides of the object. Always an irritant when landscape painting when one might be too far away to get a good look, so that you understand what you are painting.

After I render the object with drawing and flat color, and then I start looking around for shadows and reflected light and highlights. I add layers on top.

That's a different way of working. The masters compose the picture around the light and then everything else takes care of itself.

However in modern life, since we don't live with candlelight anymore, the light does seem to be a little more even than in those old paintings. And perhaps they were all just using a convention.

Tissot did some interesting violent cropping such as this piece with some horse heads barely in the frame on the top right (a detail here)—which seemed very modern. I like to do some violent cropping myself. The best part of this piece is the lovely lighting on the floor with the ribbons and the rug stuck in the doorway.

I wish that museums prohibited phones and cameras. I found myself waiting while people carefully framed their photo (which is going to come out with too much glare on it anyway). I had to wait because everyone had to take the stupid photos and barely glanced at the piece. That's my pet peeve, because when you look at art you need to allow for an honest physical response from the art. If you're listening to an audio device or taking photos you'll get a different experience.
(I took a photo too.)


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