Ask the Expert…Jean Cauthen

Question:  How to gain inspiration from another artist and then create work that is truly your own?

Taking Inspiration From The Past

Jean Cauthen, Because it was Grassier
Jean Cauthen, Because it was Grassier

Like many, I have happily, messily, cobbled together an arts education that consisted of university study, workshops, generous teachers, fellow painters, insightful blogs (thank you, Kelley) and the requisite “miles of canvas.”

 

 

Hyacnithe Rigaud, Louix XI
Hyacnithe Rigaud, Louix XI

But most consistently, I find myself looking backward toward those wonderful painters came before. I come by this honestly; as an Art History professor nudging students awake from trance states with an exaggerated tale of a scandal (don’t judge. It’s hard to keep an 18 year old interested), or shock them into alertness with the Baroque violence in a Caravaggio painting (did you know blood could spurt like that when a main artery is severed?)

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets
Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets

But while projecting these images in a dark room (you remember that class from college, don’t you?) I find I easily lapse back into the role of student. Often finding a nuance I had never noticed before. The thoughtful consideration of an admired painter can become the first step in a self-guided ‘course of study’ for any artist, any level.

I’d like to suggest a simple 2–step curriculum for improving skill and finding your own ‘voice’ as a painter.

 

1. Review and practice the basics by copying a painting. Not slavishly. Think of it as’collaboration’ with a famous person.

Copy paintings
Copy paintings
  •  Find a painting or even just an aspect of a painting you want to challenge yourself with. (Is it the value shifts in a Manet portrait? Arriving at the color fabric of Louis XIV’s mantle?)
  • Get out of your comfort zone. If you are a landscape painter, try a figure painting. If you are a painter, recreate in collage.

    Copy Paintings
    Copy Paintings

 

 

  • Have fun. Consider working on paper and creating an interesting underpainting or even collage. In my case, I added some found poetry.
  • Use shortcuts so that you can just concentrate on the challenge you chose for yourself (trace, grid, etc.)

2. Finding Your Voice: Make an “Art Buddy” of a past painter to bring you closer to your own voice.

Edwin Dickinson, title unknown
Edwin Dickinson, title unknown

This sounds counterintuitive. But consider looking at art as a way to expand your own visual vocabulary to create something fresh. Actively engage with a painting. That is, look at paintings with specific questions in mind. Try to identify what it is that resonates with you. Your goal is not to imitate, but to inform your own aesthetic. Below are some examples of the types of questions to pose.

 

Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape #1
Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape #1
  • Does an Edgar Degas or an Edwin Dickinson painting capture an essence and mood you could see yourself strive for? If so, is it the limited palette, or the minimal detail that speaks to you?

 

Julia Beatrice How, Feeding Time
Julia Beatrice How, Feeding Time

 

  • Do the solid, soft forms and subtle design of Julia Beatrice How resonate? Could you paint in a high value key?
Degas, Woman at a Window
Edgar Degas, Woman at a Window
Egon Schiele, Old Houses in Krumau
Egon Schiele, Old Houses in Krumau

 

Fairfield Porter, The Driveway
Fairfield Porter, The Driveway
  • Could you see your world with the geometry of Richard Diebenkorn or the expressive calligraphy of Egon Schiele? Or perhaps the abstraction of a Fairfield Porter? Or does the quiet mystery of George Inness speak louder?

 

 

In my case, I needed a nudge to“Break a Rule”.  For me, it was Gustave Klimt’s Birch Forest that validated my impulse to paint woods interiors with thousands of small shapes in obsessive repetition. (This from the teacher who quarantines little brushes from students).

Gustave Klimt, Birch Trees
Gustave Klimt, Birch Trees

I recognized that a large part of me was drawn to small, patterned shapes in an abstracted format. I had also been looking at the optical color mixing of Seurat’s pointillism.

Jean Cauthen, I Doubted if I Would Ever Return, 5'x4'
I Doubted if I Would Ever Return, 5’x4′
Jean Cauthen, Road Not Taken, 36x36
Road Not Taken, 5’x5′

Later, a viewing of Klimt’s “Pear Tree” provoked a series of paintings in which I sought to use some of the bones of his orchard, but in my own palette. In one, I included my good dog, Blue.

Klimt and Cauthen
Klimt and Cauthen
Into the Yellow Wood, 36x36
Into the Yellow Wood, 36×36

Everything evolves. My first “Klimt-inspired” canvases would transform in palette with simpler shapes as in “Into a Yellow Wood”. Other influences are present in this series, including my work in the Healing Arts in which I recognized the comfort patients found in making or even viewing repeated, similar shapes.

 

But for their contributions to my education, I send out humble ‘thank you’ to Manet,Van Gogh, Morandi, Thiebaud,Porter, Klimt, Seurat……

Who are you looking at?

Click here to learn more about Jean and her work.

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One thought on “Ask the Expert…Jean Cauthen

  1. Pingback: Ask the Expert…A New Addition | Experts Answer Your Questions

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