|Sketch for Leaves of Grass, an oil painting in progress by Patricia Watwood.
For a while now, I have been exploring narrative themes. This is what R. H. Ives Gammell called “poetical pictures.” In the 19th century, this was commonly referred to as “history painting”, but by history they did not just mean world events as we define the term.
“Poetical pictures” are paintings that draw on a narrative story, whether a literary source, or simple metaphor, or allegory. So, the paintings have a “subject,” in addition to being visual compositions or records of visual experience. (This may seem obvious, but after 100 years of breaking down narrative painting, nothing can be assumed!)
So, I think a lot about what would be a good “subject” for a picture. Recently I have been very inspired by Walt Whitman and “Leaves of Grass.” Like me, Whitman lived in Brooklyn, and I have walked on sidewalks and looked at the view of the harbor from the waterfront, knowing that he most likely passed by the same spot. Whitman was a man ahead of his time. He had a sensibility about the body, the unity of the body and soul, and of our spiritual self that 150 years later still seems progressive. He celebrates what I think of as “the holiness of sensuality.” In "Song of Myself", he writes,
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
After reading those lines I thought, what a lovely sentiment on which to base a painting. Whitman is not traditional source material for narrative figure painting, in that the reference is not very overt or obvious. But he is well known enough that a person seeing the painting may have enough of a sense of his work to understand the theme of the painting. I was inspired to create a figure painting of a woman on a hillside overlooking the Brooklyn waterfront, reading “Leaves of Grass.” This unites Whitman’s poem and sense of the body with my own visual language of the feminine form, to represent a wholeness of body, mind and spirit. Here's my sketch of the work. I'm still working out all the details but having the figure reclining on the ground lends a sensuality and tranquility to the scene. The fact that she is reading Whitman brings the idea full circle–the poetry is being acted out, and it is being acted out as the figure reads Whitman's work.
Next time I'll share how I developed the painting. Until then!
For more painting instruction from Patricia, check out her latest DVD, Figure Painting: Realistic Skin Tone.