Literate Landscapes: David Ligare’s Ancient Greco-Roman Oil Paintings

Engaged in his own version of time travel, David Ligare, with his confessed obsession with ancient Greco-Roman culture, creates his exquisite paintings in a search for primal unity. Read the accompanying step-by-step demo, here.

“Literate Landscapes” by Richard Stull first appeared in The Artist’s Magazine (May 2013). Subscribe for 10 full issues of instruction, interviews, product reviews, and more!

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“I wanted to show drapery in a new way rather than as a cloth settled on a table or wrapped around a person,” says Ligare. “I found the reflections and translucency of the fabric especially pleasurable to paint in Symi (Thrown Drapery) (oil, 60×56).”

All photography in this article © David Kingsbury; images courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York

The paintings of David Ligare fall roughly into three categories: historical narrative, landscape and still life. These categories are useful to a point; however, they only begin to inform the viewer of the impulses, interests and deeper purpose behind each painting. And purpose there is, one that informs Ligare’s paintings, his writings about them and a fair amount of what he thinks and talks about.

Ligare surely would agree that having some understanding of his purpose, or, as he refers to it, his “project,” can only enhance an appreciation of his work. And that’s as it should be, at least with artists of a certain ilk.

Lest the reader begin to flinch at this point, it should be explained that Ligare’s project is not of the proselytizing sort. Rather, it’s a program that he set for himself years ago, one that he’s delineated cogently in his essay “On Originalities”: “When I began my project to make historical narrative paintings more than 30 years ago, I had accepted that there was a tremendous diversity in contemporary art-making and that virtually anything could now be considered as art. I decided that I would simply set aside that book without complaint and do something that no one—or almost no one—else was doing, that is, make narrative paintings based on Greco-Roman culture … What I wanted more than anything was to search for the center or the source of Western art.”

A fairly daunting undertaking to be sure, but one that Ligare, now 30 years on, hasn’t shied away from. Of course, anyone with a fondness for the various permutations of the conceptual art of the 20th century will be attracted to such conscious intellectual underpinnings. Those who resist the notion of such an approach must at least admit that Ligare’s decision necessarily adjusts one’s response to his art.

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“Painting Achilles and the Body of Patroclus, (oil, 60×78) was particularly appealing to me because that scene represents a pivotal passage from Homer’s Iliad, which is arguably the most important Greek text,” says Ligare, “but I was unprepared for how difficult it would be to reinvent historical narrative in a painting. Finishing the work required several years of trial and error. I’d been advised that I should dress my figures in contemporary clothing, but I liked the challenge of keeping the dress historical.”

Thrown Drapery Beginnings

So how and when did this project begin? According to Ligare, it had its origins in the mid-1970s when the artist took a group of photographs of a white cloth that a friend repeatedly tossed in the air along the California coast. Ligare then used the photographs as the basis for a series he called the Thrown Drapery paintings. Each work is named after a Greek island and tacitly alludes to the ancient sculptures that were once scattered about the Greek landscape, the heads and arms of which had been knocked off by vandals or shot off by soldiers using them as target practice. The word Drapery in the titles refers to the sculpted drapery of the damaged and vandalized statues. (See Symi, [Thrown Drapery].)

While contemplating the paintings, Ligare had a sort of revelation: Why not clarify or expand upon the idea behind the imagery? Among the fruits of this decision are his historical narrative paintings.

Historical Narratives

Ligare freely expresses his love for the art of Nicolas Poussin. This is nowhere more evident than in the two paintings Achilles and the Body of Patroclus and Hercules Protecting the Balance Between Pleasure and Virtue. Both exhibit the clarity of composition, the linear division of the background, the complicated tension among figures, the precise modeling of the figures, the bizarrely contrasting softness of the surrounding landscape, and a color scheme that one associates with the 17th-century French master.

Once Ligare decides on a particular topic or theme for a painting, he makes a number of small drawings. He also takes photographs of different elements that he’ll work into the painting. These may include landscapes, isolated objects within the landscape, and the human figures/models.

Ligare often conducts his photography sessions with models along the Pacific coast in the very late afternoon. The light and the angle of the sun allow him to capture a dramatic contrast between light and shadow. Using photographs helps Ligare create the crisp, modern clarity that he’s after, which he prefers to a Rembrandt-ish or natural coloring.

After assembling his reference material, the next step is to make a small study, usually in oil on a wood panel. Then Ligare begins his preliminary drawing on a double oil-primed linen canvas. For his initial drawings, he uses charcoal because of the ease with which it can be changed or corrected. Once satisfied with the charcoal drawing, Ligare goes over the lines in pencil and then wipes off the charcoal. It’s time to paint.

Though Ligare once made full tonal underpaintings at this point, he’s since dispensed with this practice. Instead he begins filling in the composition, working area by area, usually starting with a dark mass such as a clump of trees or a landform in deep shadow. Once all of the elements have been completed, he begins what he refers to as “editing”—adjusting hue and value.

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Hercules Protecting the Balance Between Pleasure and Virtue (oil, 60×56) is indebted to Albrecht Dürer’s circa-1498 engraving popularly known as both Hercules at the Crossroads and Hercules Choosing Between Virtue and Vice (for a link to an image of the engraving, go to www.artistsnetwork.com/learnmore2013). “I’ve painted a number of versions of this subject, which has been so important in Greek philosophy,” says Ligare. “For this version I used different models in three different locations, but because I always take photos with the sun in the same position, I could easily fit passages from the reference photos together.”

The Landscapes

The English painter John Constable once said of Claude Lorrain’s landscapes, “All is amenity and repose.” Certainly a similar claim may be made for many of Ligare’s landscapes. Bathed in spectacular sunlight, the hills of Landscape With a Red Pony unfold peacefully to the ocean, a calm horizontal presence in the distance. A similar, almost breathless pastoral world is depicted in Broad Landscape With a River and in Georgic Landscape. Not a mall or parking lot in sight.

It’s difficult to say enough about the light in these landscapes or, for that matter, in all of Ligare’s paintings. Exquisite and flawless, it bathes everything in its path while playing with the shadows. Contemplating this light is one of the great pleasures of viewing Ligare’s work.

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“Landscape With a Red Pony (oil, 32×48),” says Ligare, “depicts an area of California where I live that the writer John Steinbeck called ‘The Pastures of Heaven’ in his short story cycle of the same name. I further referenced Steinbeck by adding a red pony, the subject of his novella The Red Pony.”

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“Although Broad Landscape With a River (oil, 80×116) depicts the Salinas River in California, I intended for the painting to be iconic of all rivers,” says Ligare. “It’s important to me that my landscapes reach to the farthest horizon rather than be closed in by hills. By extending the horizon, I have a foreground, a middle ground and a distant background.”

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“Most of my landscapes are pastoral,” says Ligare, “but for a still life exhibition in London, I painted Georgic Landscape (oil, 26×32), which is about the growing of fruits and vegetables.” The painting’s name alludes to The Georgics, an instruction book about agriculture written by the Roman poet Virgil in 29 B.C.

The Aparchai

Ligare calls a series of recent still life paintings Aparchai, a Greek term that means roughly “beginnings taken from the whole.” The imagery of the paintings and the subtitle they share are the result of an investigation Ligare made several years ago of still life paintings found in the Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Among these paintings are many showing items of food presumably given by hosts to their houseguests. These are commonly referred to as xenia. But other paintings seemed not to depict items that a gracious host would give a guest for a meal.

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“I painted Still Life With Olives and Wheat (Aparchai) (oil, 20×24) in 2011, but it was in 1987 that I’d built the enclosure for my still lifes in order to show objects in the late sunlight and to include their shadows,” says Ligare. “About 10 years ago, I discovered there was a category of still lifes in ancient Greece called aparchai. These images of fruits and other foodstuffs were created as thanks to the gods for a successful harvest.”

After a study of Greek religious practices, Ligare began to believe that the items in these other paintings represented symbolic, ritualistic offerings to the gods. Apparently, the ancients made offerings to their gods of the first foods (aparchai) that had been procured by hunting, fishing, gathering or farming. These offerings could have included shafts of wheat, unripe peaches and the like. Ligare believes that the paintings of such objects might have been displayed in homes to express the owners’ piety.

The ritualistic purpose of the ancient models may explain the regularity of composition and of size in Ligare’s still lifes. In these paintings, Ligare’s interest in the balance of opposites is also at work, evidenced by the play of object and shadow as well as the contrast of the near foreground and objects with the extreme distance in the background. (See Still Life With Olives and Wheat [Aparchai], and Still Life With Plums and Goldfinch [Aparchai].)

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“Many of the aparchai paintings found in Pompeii and Herculanium feature birds on the altars, eating the votive fruits, as suggested in Still Life With Plums and Goldfinch (Aparchai), (oil, 20×24),” says Ligare.

These paintings, like the historical narratives and the landscapes, form yet another significant piece of David Ligare’s complex exploration of Greco-Roman antiquity, a time he believes to be of upmost importance to our own. His immersion in this distant past is his way of clearly seeing and understanding the present.

Materials and Tools
By David Ligare

Surface: Fredrix double oil-primed linen canvas on Craft-Cut Products heavy-duty stretcher bars
Paint: Winsor & Newton oils
Medium: Winsor & Newton Liquin (for overpainting, corrections and glazes)
Brushes: Princeton Art & Brush Co. bristle flats and rounds in larger sizes for broad areas of color; Winsor & Newton Sceptre Gold II brushes in all shapes for finer work—I use blender brushes to blend areas of gradation, like skies, and small, mainly chisel brushes for details. I learned in college to wash my brushes every night with soap and water after cleaning them well with turpentine or paint thinner. This keeps my brushes precise and useful and has saved me thousands of dollars over the years.
Photographs: I do use photographs (slides) for nearly all my paintings as they allow me to capture the late afternoon light, but I don’t recommend that students use photographs until they can draw perfectly without them. Drawing skills also help painters understand how to set up photographs that contain the exact information needed.
When painting, I tape a slide to a magnifier, which I then hang on a string around my neck. I constantly refer to the slide held against the light. It’s the next best thing to having the setup in front of me.

Meet David Ligare

tam_may13_ligare09At the age of 5, David Ligare moved with his family from Oak Park, Illinois, to the California coast. As a young man, he studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Youthful peregrinations followed, both in Europe (he actually walked up to and knocked on the front door of Salvador Dalí’s home in Port Lligat on the Costa Brava in Spain and spent the afternoon chatting with the aristocratic surrealist in the artist’s studio) and in the United States, especially in New York City. He eventually settled in Monterey County on the California coast. The surrounding dramatic coastal lands serve as subjects and backgrounds for many of his paintings. He’s represented by Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York City and Winfield Gallery in Carmel, California. Learn more about Ligare at www.davidligare.com.


Richard Stull lives, writes and works from a cottage in the Catskill Mountains, which he shares with his partner, Karen Cissel, and their beagle, Jack Sprat.

 

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