What can you learn from a pumpkin?

The inner self emerges, despite our best efforts to keep it stuffed down.

Pumpkins by Maggie Daigle.

If the weather holds today, I’ll be painting with my pal Ken DeWaard. We don’t worry about painting the same subject. He doesn’t want to paint like me, and—because he won’t let me copy off his paper—I don’t paint like him.

This week I assigned my Zoom classes to paint pumpkins. They’re in season, after all. After I’d had that brilliant idea, I had to figure out something interesting to say on the subject. That was harder, but I eventually managed to marry pumpkins to a Big Idea in Painting.

Pumpkins by Mary Silver.

Color temperature is especially complicated on an orange (or blue) object, because they’re at the outside edges of that useful artistic convention we call “warm and cool.” If you’re managing the color of light by simply modulating all your colors with the same tinted white pigment, it’s no great problem. But if, like the Impressionists, you’re dialing around the color wheel to control the color of light, you run into a problem. There’s simply nowhere warmer than orange or cooler than ultramarine blue. That gave me a subject to talk about regarding pumpkins.

My students then proceeded to paint. And that’s where the real learning started… for me.

A leaning tower of pumpkins by Kathy Mannix (unfinished).

I wasn’t optimistic about the results. After all, how interesting could two dozen still-life paintings of pumpkins be? It’s not as if the gourds were out in the field waiting to be gathered up, on plants, buried in leaves, or stacked in innovative ways. Shorn of context, they would be plopped on tables from Maine to Texas. I expected to harvest a crop of very similar paintings.

Instead, there was as much variety as there would have been if I’d suggested self-portraits.

Pumpkins by Patricia Mabie.

Kathy Mannix stacked hers in a leaning tower. Samantha East added a large squash to break up the composition. Lorraine Nichols laid her gourds out on a textile printed with pumpkins; Maggie Daigle and Patricia Mabie played the stripes of their gourds against the stripes of textiles. Carrie O’Brien’s pumpkins were reflected in the bowl of a silver spoon. Somehow, each painting was reflective of each artist, “warts and all,” as Lori Galan joked about her own painting.

Pumpkins by Yvonne Bailey.

The arts are the voice of our inner self, but painting is uniquely self-expressive. It’s influenced fairly equally by both our conscious and subconscious minds. Contrary to what you might think, our subconscious expression gets stronger the more we gain technical skill. When our process runs quietly in the background, there’s space and time for our souls to start speaking.

For example, it’s impossible to mistake a Caravaggio for an Artemisia Gentileschi, even though both painted Biblical subjects, belong to the same general broad movement in art and underwent similar training. It’s not just the lighting or drafting that immediately tell us which is which, either. The very personality of their work is different.

One very warty pumpkin by Lori Capron Galan (unfinished).

There are many reasons for a teacher to avoid trying to create mini-me painters in the studio, but it’s a pointless exercise anyway. The inner self emerges despite our best efforts to keep it stuffed down.

I’m also reminded—again—that there’s little point in trying to predict the outcome of my ideas. Sometimes I’ll put something out that I think is dreck, and it catches the public imagination. Sometimes, I’ll labor long and hard on something I think is brilliant, but nobody else much cares. I’ve learned to just cast my bread upon the waters and let the results take care of themselves.

Symbol and subconscious

Leonardo da Vinci painted two Madonnas set in caves. Why?

Madonna of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1483-86, courtesy of the Louvre.

We moderns are very good at seeing subconscious imagery in everything. In contrast, our ancestors communicated with universally-understood symbols. These represented an idea, a person, or even a relationship. Earlier this week, I came across a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci’snotebook, in which the distinction between symbol and subconscious gets a little fuzzy:

 â€śHaving wandered some distance among gloomy rocks, I came to the mouth of a great cavern, in front of which I stood some time, astonished,” he recalled. “Bending back and forth, I tried to see whether I could discover anything inside, but the darkness within prevented that. Suddenly there arose in me two contrary emotions, fear and desire—fear of the threatening dark cave, desire to see whether there were any marvelous thing within.”
Madonna of the Rocks, c. 1503-06, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy National Gallery
Leonardo painted two versions of The Madonna of the Rocks, twenty years apart. These are based on a legend of the time. The Holy Family, on the flight to Egypt, encounters a toddler John the Baptist, who then worships (adores) his savior cousin.
Artists before and after Leonardo regularly placed nativities in caves. This made historical sense, as Jesus’ birthplace was assumed to be the grotto under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. (Natural caves were used as homes and barns in Bible-era Israel.)

Leonardo also painted St. Jerome in a cave, but everyone did that. Jerome translated his Bible into Latin in the cave where Jesus was born.

St Jerome, c. 1480, unfinished, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy the Vatican
But Leonardo stepped out into new territory when he painted his adoration scene. What did he mean by painting what is essentially an idyll framed by something he found terrifying?
Back to his own narrative. Desire won out over fear, and Leonardo entered the cave. He found a great, fossilized whale. “O mighty and once living instrument of formative nature. Incapable of availing thyself of thy vast strength thou hast to abandon a life of stillness and to obey the law which God and time gave to procreative nature…
“You lashed with swift, branching fins and forked tail, creating in the sea sudden tempests that buffeted and submerged ships. Now destroyed by time thou liest patiently in this confined space with bones stripped and bare; serving as a support and prop for the superimposed mountain.”
Madonna of the Carnation, 1478, Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy Alte Pinakothek. Isn’t this just a more stylized version of the same traps and dark passages as in the cave paintings?
There are those who assume his maudlin meanderings are metaphorical, a sort of picture of what lies before us all. But Leonardo was more an earnest student of nature than a poet, and whale fossils are indeed found in Tuscany. Real or imagined, he read a lot into the experience.
Apocalyptic scenes from da Vinci’s notebooks, c. 1517-18, Royal Collection Trust
Leonardo went on to describe the end of existence as we know it. “The rivers will be deprived of their waters, the earth will no longer put forth her greenery; the fields will no more be decked with waving corn; all the animals, finding no fresh grass for pasture, will die. In this way the fertile and fruitful earth will be forced to end with the element of fire; and then its surface will be left burnt up to cinder and this will be the end of all earthly nature.” He went on to illustrate these dark, apocalyptic scenes.
Biographer Walter Isaacson described these pages as a sort of existential crisis. That’s a very modern mindset. I’d first be inclined to look for religious imagery—leviathan, Jonah and the whale, Resurrection, Revelation. Was he was setting the Adoration of the Christ Child against his own deepest fears, or those of the culture in which he lived?