Rising to the Top

I first saw Thomas Nelson’s Still Life With Blue Cup when I judged the still life category of this magazine’s competition in 1998. I remember thinking it was good, and wished I could give out more awards. Now, as then, I’m struck by Nelson’s vigorous, confident brushstrokes where the paint appears almost buttered onto the canvas. Nelson painted this still life after he became interested in Paul Cezanne’s art, keeping in mind Cezanne’s belief that the aim of a painting is to make the viewer aware of the picture surface as well as the subject of the painting. Nelson is very successful in this respect. But it takes more than confident brushstrokes and impasto techniques to create winning art. Here are a few things Nelson can consider as he paints future works:

Being consistent with space. In Cezanne’s view, both aerial and linear perspective should be subordinate to the two-dimensional unity of the canvas. So to achieve the illusion of depth, Cezanne overlapped one object in front of another, giving the appearance that each element is receding farther into the distance. Likewise, in Nelson’s painting each object is placed so that it slightly overlaps the one behind it. Although he’s somewhat successful in achieving a feeling of depth in his painting, the cup and the pear appear to invade each other’s space and the bowl is positioned perilously near the edge of the table. This may have been a deliberate attempt to heighten the two-dimensional aspect of the canvas or to purposely create tension. If this was intentional, then he can leave it as is. But if Nelson didn’t intend for his still life objects to seem to occupy the same space, he needs to “draw through” his objects, letting the lines outlining the object follow around the back and the sides of the object enough so you can tell it occupies its own space. Take a look at my example on the next page.

Adjusting color and composition. I believe that for the most part Nelson is successful in focusing the viewer’s attention on the canvas itself. But there’s a basic compositional flaw that leaves the viewer wanting something more: The left side of the canvas looks unfinished and seems to be an uncertain addition. The eye is drawn to the round orange in the bowl near the center of the picture area, but then once there, the viewer is left dangling in a large unexplained area before moving out of the picture altogether. Remember that the eye shouldn’t be led to where there’s nothing to see. It’s important to plan the entire picture area in advance because it can be dangerously easy to become so engrossed in the painting process that the original concept is blurred.

A simple solution to improving the composition might be to break up the area on the left into two shapes of unequal size. For instance, the rest of the composition is dominated by curved shapes, so Nelson could add a horizontal rectangular form of some sort to that area. Another solution could be to repeat some color from the right side of the painting to unite the area on the left with the rest of the piece. Or, he could darken the value of the top left corner of the composition to keep the viewer’s eye from escaping the picture area altogether. Still another way to improve the composition is to focus on the important pictorial elements and crop out some of the background area to the left and top, as I did (Closing in on a Subject). You’ll notice that the unexplained area is diminished and the important shapes come into better focus. Minding the details. Finally, there are a few shapes that need some clarification: Does the line around the bowl outline the bowl itself or is it meant to suggest a drape hanging over its edge? And the bottle in the background doesn’t appear to be a solid form. Perhaps Nelson meant for these things to appear this way and that’s fine, but to make sure his future paintings don’t have compositional mistakes, he should make sure he first takes these thoughts into consideration. Lessons Learned Robert Henri must have been thinking of artists like Nelson when he wrote: “A work of art which inspires us comes from no quibbling or uncertain man. It’s the manifest of a very positive nature in great enjoyment, and at the moment the work was done.” The strength and passion obvious in Nelson’s brushstrokes are in surprising contrast to the timid lines used to outline the edges of the objects in Still Life With Blue Cup. I question their worth, and suggest that Nelson find a bolder solution more in keeping with his vigorous brush style. And by paying more attention to his use of overlapping shapes for depth, overall composition and details, he’ll rise above finalist status in future juried art shows and competitions.

Everett Raymond Kinstler began his career at age 16 drawing comic books—such as Zorro and Hawkman—and creating scores of action comic strips. He later studied at The Art Students’ League of New York, returning there as an instructor from 1969 to 1974. Kinstler ultimately made the transition to portraitist and soon established himself as one of America’s leading artists in the genre. Kinstler’s more than 500 portraits include those of such well-known personalities as Tony Bennett, Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Gregory Peck and John Wayne. He’s also painted five U.S. Presidents—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton—and more than 50 cabinet officers. His work can be found in a number of important museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which owns 50 of his portraits. Kinstler is a member of the National Arts Club, The National Academy, the American Watercolor Society and the Pastel Society of America.

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