Odilon Redon is probably not the most well known of European artists. He was/is grouped with the Symbolists who practiced art around the turn of the century.
To put them into art history context they were a reaction against the Impressionists ideals and possibly laid down the blueprint for any succeeding movement that explored more abstract and spiritual concepts.
The Sleeping Medusa Fernand Khnopff
They rejected the ethos of keeping it real. Despite the art world embracing en plein air painting or capturing the salt of the earth types in society, the Symbolists were into the surreal and metaphorical imagery. Everything in their paintings had meaning, but what that meaning was could be illusive to the viewer.
For instance, unlike past art movements where a skull always symbolised the impermaneance of life or it was bog standard that a lamb represented Jesus Christ, the Symobilists were more personal in their intrepretation and took inspiration from their subconscious. The settings were always dream-like, seemingly familiar but also disturbingly unreal. They were never fluffy or whimsical but unsettling, macabre or mystical.
Redon, however, was probably one of the more optimistic of the Symbolists with regard to subject matter and execution. His colours are lighter and brighter, there’s warmth and sensitivity to his work. Even those that are a little nightmarish seem more like a child’s bad dream than having subliminal psychotic tendencies.
The 1900s saw much more distinctive styles amongst artists rather than the usual conglomerate group championing a common art principle. Whether it was his Greek myth narratives, metaphysical landscapes or still life paintings Redon’s work was and still is unique.
One aspect of his work that makes it visually different is the contrast between the forground and background. The focal point is detailed and full of various shapes, sizes, colours and brushstrokes – its visually symphonic. Whereas the background is muted, tonally similar and almost lacking anything of a figurative nature. But they’re not dull or seamless colour blends –they’re organic and instinctive.
It was this particular approach to floral still lifes that I felt would be good inspiration for my next exercise.
Prior that week I visited my accountant and found I actually earnt more money than I thought! So I treated myself to not only a set of Albrecht Durer pencils but some flowers to draw from (though they were cheapies from Woolworths – that goodness it wasn’t Mother’s or Valentine’s Day!
Drawing from life is necessary if you want to improve. Although drawing from a photo is practical and in some cases cheaper, it dictates too much over what you see and create. By this I mean too many artistic decisions are already decided wgen they should be made from your own observations.
For example, a photo could accidentally dictate the composition of your art – its very natural to redraw your picture with the same framing shape as your photo instead of considering what would work best to communicate your idea. The angle has also been decided – drawing from life is a 360˚ experience and being able to move around your subject seeing it from different angles can inspire better ideas.
Most importantly lighting – drawing something, particularly in natural light that constantly shifts does make it challenging, but you appreciate how integral it is not only to your picture but your development as an artist. Photos can also be quite flat, a lot of depth and volume can be lost for reasons I don’t understand.
I had enough flowers for two arrangements which was preferrable over one that was densely packed as what I like about Redon’s work is the feeling of space and lightness.
To add another element to explore I set up one several feet away from my drawing table to see if that would have any bearing on my work. Also keeping in mind that there would be a lot of “drying time” between each new layer I set up different paper sizes to work on simultaneously with one being on tonal paper.
The one on brown paper
This wasn’t very successful. Due to my pig ignorance of paper stock this paper didn’t respond well to water treatment but it also didn’t seem to break down the pigment much either. I guess this paper is really only meant for drawing with certain colours not taking to the paper at all. I had to work really hard to get any kind of definition and gave up in the end. The jug is nice.
The small square one
In my brutal handling of the flowers there were a few casulaties where some flowers were accidentally beheaded. Not wanting to waste them I set up a smaller drawing containing them as well as other offcuts.
The base was created with lots of squiggly textures and I was hoping to remove a lot of the blue in the centre leaving a subtle tint. Apart from that I had no game plan on this one. Unfortunately the blue refused to budge and was a lot darker than I would have liked. To some extent I was stillling finding my feet with this medium and part of the process is debunking my own perception of what watercolour pencils can do.
The only thing I really like about this are the carnation buds and petals, which was basically only wetting the edges rather than the entire drawing. This is something I’ll have to be more disciplined about – just because they’re watercolour pencils doesn’t mean I have to wet the entire paper. Simple enough logic but hard to initiate when you just want to see the magic happen!! Although a small aspect of the picture it was a big moment for me.
The big yellow one
I started off using a diagonal cross-hatching style for the backgroud and dry brushed it with a square brush. This one I was really focussed on emulating Redon’s work especially the foreground/background balances. Another characteristic I love about Redon wass the atmosphere he created. Despite the ambiguity of the settings I still found them comforting or nurturing. There’s a lightness of touch to his work that I wanted to create that with mine.
As I was building up the background I noticed some pencil shavings had fallen on my paper towel that was wet. The effect was really cool as it left the shavings intact but the pigment bled out from them. So I turned this happy accident into a positive and threw a bunch of colour shavings on my picture, then got out a little spray bottle and pumped water on to it. Apart from being a lot of fun it defintely added life to my picture.
Once I began working on the flower arrangement I was very conscientous of not overcrowding the flowers or executing them in all the same way, that is I wanted to draw some delicately,some expressively, some with detail, others less and so on.
This was one of those pictures where I didn’t know when it was finished and was so scared of overworking it. I really wanted more vibrant colours but perhaps I was expecting too much from watercolour pencils. My favourite parts are the areas where I removed the colour in big washes like the daffidols and the glass reflection.
Overall I’m pretty happy with this. There’s a nice airy, flowing feel to it and these little pockets of interesting make you want to delve deeper.
The other one
After having made few breakthroughs I wanted to do another one. I also felt a bit more confident and was possibly a bit too careful with the other three so wanted to go for it with this next one.
This picture has a lot more intensity to it although I still couldn’t pull out as much colour as I liked. Maybe I need to do it straight away while it’s still wet. Though it worked really well with the daffodils and the jar reflection. There were also sections where I scratched out lines with my fingernail that help create texture.
All in all, a very fulfilling day!
The Creative Plan – Day 2 Watercolour Pencil