In celebration of the above-mentioned little-known international movement, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s doors were open to the public until 9 pm today. It was the last chance to see the show “Cézanne and the Modern”, and non-beachgoers came in droves. Those who didn’t will mourn their loss.
I went for some final drawing. I’d already worked with most of the pieces I had my eye on. The selection process of what to work from is a bit of a puzzle: I’m working on a small scale, pencil on paper, from paintings of varying scale. So, if I had the whole wide world of art from which to choose, and tried to work from one of Rothko’s colour field paintings, I’d be setting myself up failure and very likely insanity. Paintings with some presence of line in them make better objects of study, though it is a still a rough translation.
Today I drew from a small Cézanne watercolour of a skull. His watercolours are fascinating; the forms are indicated, then obscured, then found again, then rethought, until the whole scene shimmers with vitality and colour. The skull, of the many watercolours on display, had a comparatively limited pallet: some pencil marks, earth tones and blacks, and the main subject of the picture, the skull itself, was barely sketched in at all. That’s the thing about watercolour that’s always tripped me up: you don’t use white, you use the white of the page. So the skull was created out of all the shapes that surrounded and penetrated it. There was one magnificent line, over the arc of the cranium, that I haven’t done justice to at all. It was infinitely intricate, allowing the viewer’s eye to move from skull to background without feeling those two things were disconnected. To make too harsh a line can be death to a picture. It stops all energy from moving across it, and deadens the composition. To keep a line alive is a truly great thing.
So there’s another thing: pencil doesn’t work like colour. It doesn’t mimic a brushstroke, or move from a warm to a cool tone. What it does give you is darkness and lightness, a sharp line versus a soft one, and variation in the line, since the point wears down each time it strikes the page, the line becomes duller and thicker as you work. All these things can be used to your advantage, but they ain’t paint. No matter what, you are still translating one language into another.
This was never more clear than in the drawing I did from Van Gogh’s Painting of the Tarascon Coach (I told you it was a good show! Bet you’re kicking yourself right now if you didn’t see it…). Though he spent the first year or so of his art career refusing paint, working almost exclusively on line and drawing, this guy understood colour like no one I’ve ever seen. Once he took up the brush, he oozed a kaleidoscope of hues wherever he went. The Tarascon Coach picture is one of the quintessential Studio of the South pictures. The provençal sun not only lights these pictures, but penetrates the subject matter until the objects themselves glow with its warmth. (For the layperson, this was not too long before the breakdown and ear-cutting episode. His usual exuberance was escalating nearly by the hour.) More than a third of the painting is the foreground, a baking yellow-grey clay. I found myself unable to render it at all in pencil, and yet it sets up the colour relationships for the whole painting, by leading the viewer to these dramatic lemon wheels which dominate the composition. A shadow beneath the carriage is painted in cool mauve: it’s a shadow, yes, but no less brilliant in its colouring that the lighted parts. I stared at that mauve for ages. I wanted to dip my feet into it.
And now it is 9.30 pm on International Museum Day, and the Modernists are packing up their wagons and departing the Greater Vancouver area. What a show.