Saturday, April 13, 2013

Meeting a New Artist

Walter Frederick Osborne 
(Irish, 1859 – 1903)

Walter Osborne is a particular favorite of mine. As is true of every artist of whom I'm aware, I don't like all his work equally. But he has a combination of craft and a particular viewpoint which I find compelling.

Those who know my working habits, in my studio practice, know that I am forever going to my art library, usually with a need to refresh my memory about some painting I only half-remember. I've found, by stuffing my head full of hundreds of images, I can usually think of some painter who's dealt with just the problem I'm now encountering. So off to my bookshelves I go, to see how this or that painter solved the issue.

I think very few artists 'consult' our shared dead comrades very often. For me they continue to be a tremendous resource. Over a long career, I've amassed hundreds of art books, mostly artists' monographs.
I can usually find some artist among them willing to help me. Of course, with the tentacles of the internet, you needn't have a huge library. You need a name + artist. Google images will find you a treasure trove. 
It's a great tool. Use it!

Anyway, here's a selection of paintings by Osborne. He covers a lot of different subjects, and several manners of painting. See if you can't find some ideas to point you in the direction of making still-better pictures.

Walter Osborne, Connemara Landscape (photo: Simon Bates)

Two small paintings, above and below, both of which convey a strongly felt sense of place. See how effectively Osborne chooses, from all the information that must have been inherent in the real scenes, just a few items that will carry his story. He entrances me, at least, with his mastery of exclusion. George Inness once famously said that, at a certain stage, he finally realized that facts did not gain him meaning. This realization, of course, was the midwife to his greatest work

Walter Osborne, Galway Market (James Adams & Sons)

Walter Osborne, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man (James Adams & Sons)
You will probably notice that there are few obvious points of convergence between Osborne's work and my own. But looks may be deceiving. You don't necessarily need to see someone's perfect rendition of the thing you're trying to paint in order to be helped. 

For me the painting above obliges me to remember the power of mere suggestion and it reminds me to think again about closely valued, narrow color-range palettes. Very often we forget to reflect on the myriad joys to be found in paint itself: ponder how this color, swaggering with self-importance, rushes up to that other hue, the timid, retiring one. Notice how meek that lavender is, and how brashy and bossy is that orange over there. They all have personalities and are ever jockeying for position. Alizarin wishes to be more fully represented, while vert lamorniere bides its time, knowing that its opacity is its great strength. Your job, of course, is to keep them all in that balance necessary to accomplish your aim. If you're inclined think about such things, Osborne's Hurdy-Gurdy Man is as valuable an aide-memoire as any other.

Walter Osborne, A Sunny Morning in the Fields, Pont Aven (James Adams & Sons)

 Jon-in-France has commented about spending many holidays in Brittany, and he wonders about painting there. The painting above is from Pont Aven, a Breton artists' colony in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Walter Osborne, Milking Time (Christie's)
This cow painting is quite amazing. The painting is very, very small.
Walter Osborne, Fields and Sky
The painting above is a great lesson in complete simplicity. With tremendous economy of marks, Osborne effectively tells the tale of a summer's day. Where we might over-elaborate the foreground, Osborne has merely suggested the grasses and flowers. I believe there's a house/farm building on the horizon, just about in the middle. The red and white marks I take to be some reclining cattle. But that's me guessing. I can't really know if that's a house, or if those marks are cattle. Osborne has managed to suggest another world up there without really telling me anything factual. 

This lesson has two parts: 1) you don't have to carefully paint the cows if your painting is not about them, and 2) a little ambiguity is a good thing. 

If you give the viewer all the facts, you leave her without a way to participate in the painting, except to praise you for your craft. If praise for your craft is your goal, however, I submit that you are chasing a false god. No matter how good your craft, there are eight more who do it better. Your only chance, in fact, is to excel in effectively presenting what you wish to to talk about with the viewer. That quality is yours alone.
Walter Osborne, Cherry Ripe
Re Cherry Ripe, the painting above, I believe "Cherry Ripe!" is the traditional call of the vendor, here with his basket of cherries.
Walter Osborne, Summertime
How vivacious and well-done is Osborne's dappling of the sunlight. This is a very difficult composition, adroitly handled. Notice how deftly, and how often, he juxtaposes lights against darks. Thus, as well as being a painting of these particular children, the canvas is also a carefully thought-out matrix of lights and darks. Something to think about.

Take these lessons to heart.


A soon-to-be first-time student has written:

In your 'preview' of the workshop you warn that, if we don't gather the 'right' information from Saturday's exercise, our Sunday follow-up efforts will be hurting. Since I've always worked either at the original scene itself or from photo's thereof, I'm wondering what exactly are the 'right' ways to collect (ther right) information for later use. You mention sketches and I've seen your black & white sketch-books and some full-color paintings made from them. Are there specific types of information I should be collecting? This whole concept is new to me.

Each person is best able to judge his own needs. If you habitually have trouble with color, then maybe you'll want to make a few color notes on a separate surface, possibly with paint. (As long as you put no other paint than burnt umber and ultramarine on your Saturday grisaille, you may mix and keep any colors you choose). If you'd prefer words, make yourself some notes, maybe on a pencil sketch of the motif. There are words that are evocative to you that would be unhelpful to me. If the color of the buttercups is the same as Aunt Ida's summer apron, then make yourself a note with "Aunt Ida's apron" reminding you. 
What ever you scribble down, or draw, will be helpful grist for Sunday. You will know immediately what things you needed but did not capture as soon as you walk into the class. There will be murmurs of "I don't know what happens to that tree in the corner!" or "Why didn't I give myself some more information about the weeds in that verge?" or "How was I supposed to know I needed the color of that mountain?"
The best way to train your memory is to find yourself without a photo as Doomsday begins. 



  1. Simplification, Suggestion, s-value compression?!

    The last chapter in Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting (one of my 'good' books) is about the need to and reasons for working from memory. Hasn't trouble me yet tho' - I'm still trying to find the "Start" button!

  2. These last words on memory really made me smile. My students this past week worked in the field for two days gathering information for the next five days in the studio. Photography was banned. Many emergency trips were made back to the field when memory failed and reference was lacking. Many discovered the power of a scribbled note to get that tape rolling in the mind's eye again. I am quite amazed at the similarity in our methods both in the studio and in teaching! With your permission, I plan to use that last sentence of your post (with attribution to you of course)!

    And the Osborne's are wonderful!