The Quality of Light

“Michelle in incandescent light,” 36X24, oil on canvas.
(Photo credit, Brad Van Auken)

Last week I went to a figure group which used incandescent spots and Odalisque poses. Here I never set up with either, and haven’t since I studied with Cornelia Foss. When I returned to my studio after my trip, I was wondering whether I was missing anything, so yesterday I decided to set up with a spotlight.

Students like spotlights because at the beginning painting with them seems easier. Most of the major color and value decisions are made before one ever picks up a brush. There are only two fundamental colors to worry about—the color of the light and the color of the shadow, since all of the natural, accidental, reflected tones are blown away by the color of the spot.
The problem is that one can go a certain distance quickly, but then can go no farther. I painted the above in three hours. It was impossible to find any real color range. Gone were the delicate blues and greys and olives of Michelle’s skin; she was rather like one of those Thomas Kinkade lighthousesthat are apparently on fire from within. To be honest, I cheated with the warm midtones—they didn’t even exist. As I said to Michelle, “I am painting what I want to be true, not what is actually here.”
With incandescent spots, the pattern of darks and lights is spelled out by the lighting itself, and one need not work for it. That seems easier at the beginning, but it makes new discovery next to impossible. This is especially true in all the variations of the Odalisque pose.
Make no mistake: the history of the Odalisque is erotic. The word comes from the Turkish ‘odaliq’, or chambermaid, which in the west was understood to mean a harem concubine, and to refer to the whole sensualized artistic genre in which the model lies on her side on display. (If you doubt this, just do a Google search of Odalisque and imagine the models writhing.)
The art world has historically been deeply misogynistic. Art has been made by some very competent women— Artemisia Gentileschi, Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, Judith Leijster, Käthe Kollwitz, Gabriele Münter, and so many others—but art is generally made by men and purchased by men. The Odalisque is sexual objectification, but a higher-rent version of it than the porn available on the internet. Sometimes it is done brilliantly, but it’s certainly nothing I’m interested in perpetrating (and I wonder sometimes why so many women are acolytes at the feet of its proponents).
For the next three weeks we will be working on one long pose, and I have set high-school student MB the task of creating the pose, having assigned her five artists to study: Goya, Manet, Degas, Modigliani, and Freud. That will give us nine hours to paint in this pose, and that’s an opportunity not to be missed. I should note that the times are slightly changed to accommodate MB’s schedule.
Friday, December 7, 2012: 3-6 PM
Thursday, December 13, 2012: 3-6 PM
Friday, December 21, 2012: 3-6 PM