Drawings and paintings in varying states of completion by Thomas Torak with comments, observations and musings by the artist.
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Monday, December 29, 2014
Winter, Gibbous Moon
16 x 16 Oil on Panel
A new year is about to begin. Over the course of the past year I have been thinking about beginnings and the original beginning, creation. Being raised a Catholic my conception of creation comes from the bible. I've mused on the similarities of creating a work of art and the creation story in Genesis. In the beginning, says the bible, there was a void, and God separated the heavens and the earth. My empty canvas is also a void and I decide what will reside in that void and what will not. Next God separated the darkness and the light. I also create lights and darks to illuminate the middle toned void on my canvas. Then God separated the land from the sea and created plants and animals to inhabit them. As I compose my paintings I also decide what plants and animals will inhabit them. Finally God creates man by taking dirt from the earth and breathing life into it. When an artist paints he takes dirt from the earth, mixed with linseed oil, and breathes life into it on the canvas. On the seventh day God rested. That's the hardest part for the mortal artist, there is so much to be painted and so little time.....
Variations on Cezanne's Still Life with a Plaster Cast
30 x 24 Oil on Linen
The idea of variations on a theme has always fascinated me.
In music there are variations on an original theme like Bach's Goldberg
Variations. There are also variations on a theme by another composer like
Rachmaninoff's variation on a theme by Paganinni or Beethoven's variations on
Mozart's duet from Don Giovanni "là ci darem la mano." These
variations generally begin with simple changes in key or tempo and then go off
into marvelous and ingeniously complex manipulations of the original theme. In
painting there is a tradition of one artist copying another's work like Rubens'
copies of works by Titian or Picasso's interpretations of paintings by
Velazquez. But these are wholesale reinventions not variations. So I assigned
myself the task of doing multiple variations within a single work by another
artist. A theme by Cezanne seemed like a good choice, I chose his Still Life
with a Plaster Cast (now in the Courtauld Institute of Art, London). I could
have approached the problem by playing with technical elements such as color
and composition but instead decided that my variations would be stylistic. The
plaster cast, for example, is a more classical rendering than Cezanne's
version. The blue draped chair on the left (part of a painting in Cezanne's
version but a real object in mine) is painted the way Matisse might have
handled it and the floor is reminiscent of Van Gogh's approach. The deep
shadows in the upper left hand corner are rendered with multiple glazes à la Titian. The apples on the table
represent various artistic styles while the onions return to the way Cezanne
himself rendered them. For the paintings stacked on the floor I've introduced
cubist, abstract expressionist and religious themes. All of these variations
are held together by my own artistic hand and philosophy. I've never seen a
painting approached this way before, perhaps I've invented a whole new genre of
The reason I prefer to create plein air oil studies rather than work from photographs is this: the oil studies, no matter how unfinished they may be, are a richer, fuller interpretation of the landscape before me. Photographs are like simple, unadorned declarative sentences. No adjectives, no adverbs, just a record of what fit within the parameters of the lens. When I'm standing outside painting, however, I can express what is going on outside the parameters of my canvas. I can see the clouds moving into my painting and feel the breeze on my face. I am aware of the moisture in the air, the birds singing and the joy of seeing the clearing in the distance. I am not just painting the scene before me but painting the experience of being in that place at that time. Monet's paintings of his gardens are great paintings, not because they accurately describe his garden but because they make you feel as if you are actually experiencing what it was like to be in those gardens. Rembrandt’s portraits are masterpieces, not because he can paint a better likeness than anyone else, but because you feel like you could speak to the sitter. Rembrandt recreates the experience of being in the same space as the sitter. Photography is very good at recording what is in front of you, but painting is able to express the experience of being there. Photography speaks, a painting sings. A good plein air oil study can take me right back to the place I was standing when I did the sketch, I can hear the birds and feel the breeze.....
I create my paintings from nature and observation, memory and imagination. Early on in my painting career I took a 6 week painting trip to England, staying a fortnight each in the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and Northumbria. Hoping to bring home a large number of paintings I spent no more than one sitting on each oil study. I was a bit fearful though that I might not have enough information to either finish those studies or create larger works from them so at the end of each session I took a photograph of the scene I had painted. This was before the age of digital photography so when I returned home I took my film to be developed. When I picked up my photographs I was shocked and horrified to find they bore no relation to what I was painting. They were, in fact, records of the scenes I had painted, but were a universe away from what I observed and felt and wanted to express in my painting. They might have been useful to recall a detail of the scene but I knew the more I looked at them the more they would become my memory of each scene. So I threw them all in the trash and decided to trust my oil studies and my memories. Over the years I've painted larger works from those studies and finished others that I thought worked better as small paintings. I've recently reworked one of the larger pieces and am now considering completing the study for that painting from memory, nearly 30 years after it was begun.....
I recently wrote a reading list called On my Bookshelf for the Art Students League's online journal Linea. There are books on drawing and painting and technique as well as monographs on some of my favorite artists. The final book is a novel, The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary
...about Gulley Jimson, an artist who will do anything to keep a brush in his hand. Lying, cheating, and stealing are all acceptable behaviors for Gulley so long as they lead to a good piece of canvas to work on. The story is told from Gulley’s point of view, and we read in delightful detail about what inspires him, how he thinks about his subjects and attacks the canvas, and how he deals with friends and foes who help or hinder his efforts to paint. As the novel progresses, his ideas become grander and more complex until it becomes difficult to even find a wall big enough to hold them, and as his vision grows so does his desperation to get it down. The novel has a rather wacky plot, and those who are not artists might find Gulley an unsympathetic, reprehensible character. But to those of us who understand his passion, it is a wonderful journey of survival in a hostile world. Cary, who did some painting in his youth, does a marvelous job capturing what it is like to be an artist and astutely expresses the torment of bringing one’s vision to life on a canvas. “I didn’t know whether I’d be able to live through the night without my picture,” Gulley says. “I’m never really comfortable without a picture; and when I’ve got one on hand, life isn’t worth living”.....
In Genesis we read that God created man in his own image and likeness. Man, therefore, by design, by nature, like God, is creative. It didn't take very long for man to start expressing that creativity as we can see from cave paintings. In addition to painting I suspect the cavemen and women also sang, and danced, and told stories. With every blank canvas or piece of paper, on every empty stage, we repeat the creation story by bringing paintings, and music, and stories and plays to life.....
Sometimes, in the heart of a Vermont winter, when the temperatures struggle to get above zero, I like to hang up a sunny landscape and meditate on the joys of summer. Breathe in warm air, breathe out cold air. Breathe in sunshine, breathe out snowstorms. Breathe in shorts and sandals, breathe out sweaters and boots. Breathe in gardening, breathe out shoveling snow. Breathe in dewy grass, breathe out icy windshields. Breathe in rustling leaves, breathe out barren branches. Breathe in long hot days, breathe out long cold nights. Breathe in warm, breathe out cold, breathe in warm, breathe out cold.....
The Painting of the Month is a special offer to my blog readers (click on the image for a larger view). This month Tinmouth Farmhouse, which retails for $2200, is being made available for $1600 (includes shipping, VT residents add 6% sales tax). To purchase this piece contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Payment is by check only please, no credit cards. If you prefer you may make 3 monthly payments. This offer is available for 30 days from the date of this post.
I was lying awake in
bed last night thinking about how to teach my students to create atmosphere in a painting. Painting something you can't see is much more difficult than
painting the observed physical forms in front of you. Perhaps if I presented it
as painting a concept, as opposed to an object, I might be able to break
through. I went to the computer to see what I could find about conceptual art,
hoping to find something useful for my lesson. The definition of
conceptual art is a rather free floating concept itself but basically any work
of art where the original idea, the concept, is more important than the actual
work qualifies. Then I went to my website and reread my artist's statement, I
use still lifes and landscapes and figures to explore the possibilities of
light and space and mystery in a painting it said. I clicked on the image of my
Bread and Eggs painting which is not
at all about bread and eggs and fruit but rather is about luminosity and
atmosphere, design and color. That sounds like conceptual art to me I thought so I went to see the exhibit at the Tate, a comprehensive history of
conceptual art starting with what they call preconceptual art, Turner's late
seascapes and Whistler's arrangements and symphonies, and then moves on to
classic conceptual pieces like Duchamp's urinal/fountain, and there are
installations of course, one with a room full of people seated quietly in the
middle of the room examining their reactions as lights of varying color and
intensity and duration flashed around them, and another where everyone walked
through a collection of objects from the life of the artist, again in silence, installations almost always require silence, and observed their
feelings about those objects and then discussed those feelings in front of a video camera as they emerged on the far side of the room, thus participating in and becoming a part of the work, then postconceptual work like
Damian Hirst's bisected and dissected animals in formaldehyde and Tracy Emin's
bed and the last room labeled neo-postconceptual art is filled with my
paintings and there is Damian Hirst standing in front of my Bread and Eggs saying "I don't get
this stuff", paintings do not require silence, and Tracy Emin bent over reading the curator's text on the
wall trying to find out why this is important since has nothing to do with her life or who she has slept with and then I hear
music, a Beethoven string quartet, one of his
Razumovsky quartets, and I think what an interesting choice of music
for this exhibit, then realize it is my alarm clock, set on the radio mode. I got
up and showered and headed out to catch the train to the NY, to try to explain
to my students how to create atmosphere in a painting.....
I was looking through a catalog* of Constable's paintings recently and came across the following passage, which I offer as a consolation to any artist who has ever entered a painting in a juried competition. In 1830 the Royal Academy Council, of which Constable was a member, met to consider entries for the annual Exhibition. An eyewitness reported the following occurence:
a small landscape was brought to judgement; it was not received with favor. The first judge said "That's a poor thing"; the next muttered "It's very green"; in short, the picture had to stand the fire of animadversion from everybody but Constable, the last remark being "It's devilish bad - cross it". Constable rose, took a couple of steps in front, turned round, and faced the Council. "That picture," said he, "was painted by me. I had a notion that some of you didn't like my work, and this is a pretty convincing proof. I am very much obliged to you", making a low bow. "Dear, dear!" said the President [Martin Archer Shee]..., "how came that picture amongst the outsiders? Bring it back; it must be admitted, of course." "No! it must not" said Constable; "out it goes!" and, in spite of apology and entreaty, out it went..... * John Constable by Conal Shields and Leslie Parris. Published by Tate Gallery Publications, 1985