Whistler and The Art of The Barely Visible

posted in: Painting | 10

In late fall of 1879, after financially ruining himself in a lawsuit against the critic John Ruskin, Whistler appears in Venice.  He has brought with him some copper etching plates, some sheets of brown paper for pastels and a minimum of supplies.  He traveled on a small advance from the Society of Fine Arts in London. Their commission was small, for a few etchings and drawings. They expected him back in London in a couple of months.  But, this was Whistler. He would scrounge, borrow from chamber maids, borrow from shop keepers and artists . He would stay over a year.  The Fine Arts Society would be howl  for their commission.  He ignored them all to rediscover and invent himself in Venice with mostly pastels, but with etchings and a few oils as well.  Whistler’s minimalist tack on painting depended upon the viewer  looking into the vague and vaporous suggestions of his paint to discover space, mood, and motion.  He was not a topographer. He was a poet of the soft light of twilight, dusk and predawn.

Whistler used the brown paper  of his chalk pastels as Constable used a burnt Siena  underpainting,  as a foil to lighter complementary colors placed on top. The brown  served as a unifier. The light scratches of pastel or the vague smears of  oil paint laid on top of the brown evoked a sense of mysterious space, a space to be conjured,  manufactured  in mind of the viewer.  Consider example 1. which Whistler called a  “Nocturne” of a view of San Giorgio.  We know he would sit and contemplate the vista then turn his back on it to see what effects he might discover in pastel, watercolor or an oil sketch. He truly followed the paint.  Even his title let you know he was pursuing an effect, an artistic effect, not a piece of  topography.   He didn’t bother to draw his  Venetian etchings in reverse by looking at a mirror  (as others did) so that they would be properly reversed in their printing on the press because, information about the place was not his motivation. Anyone who thought otherwise he called a “damned fool”. This Nocturne example  suggests with a pale blue chalk, the complement of the brown paper. The reference to the gondolas is made through sketchy suggestion as well.  The gondolas are lined up like the regular diagonal recessional lines in a perspective diagram of the 15th century. His design is subtle, simple, and strong.

Example 1. Nocturne , San Giorgio. March11,13,whistler, nocturne,san giorgio, pastel on brown paper,1881_edited-1

In example 2, a Little Canal, (this may be a honorific to  Canaletto whose name translates to “Little Canal”)Whistler again relies on the under color of the paper to provide atmospheric unity, with just  few rubbings and linear gestures he evokes a setting, a mood. He again relies on  a vortex of linear perspective to guide the viewer simply into the moody space.  In example 3, an interior, Whistler constructs the sparest and simplest  rectangular linear perspective space then, dissolves  some of the edges, the recessional lines and allows us to move quietly to the soft light emanating from the window in deepest space. This hallway was probably in the Ca Rezzonico, the location of his and other artists’ ( months later, John Singer Sargent’s ) studio.  I have visited and discovered this location myself. These drawings are small, pensive, evocative, and  because of their size easily created while Whistler wandered about his Venetian neighborhoods.

Example 2. Little Canal.march11,13,whistler,little canal, venice, pastel on brown paper_edited-1

Example  3. Palace Interior.march11,13,whistler, the palace in rags,venice, 1881,pastel on brown paper_edited-1

Let’s consider  Whistler’s paintings.  They are even more emotional tone pieces than  the pastels.  Again, Whistler uses the dark brown underpainting  which he paints thinly over with complementary colors. In example 4. (an oil, Nocturne in Blue and Silver) Whistler uses a large brush, a house painter’s brush he named “Mathew” to cover the surface with what he called one of his sauces, a semi translucent color which allowed the brown undertone to affect the applied  surface color. The effect  stimulates a sensation of space, atmosphere, and time of day….the very end or earliest beginning of day.  Complementary notes of yellowish light  can be scattered to suggest a structure or location of a form.  It’s the arrangement of the these lights and a few more definite ( though still vague)  darks that create an organizing design. The horizontal bands are strategically spaced ( non symmetrically)  to encourage a feeling of deep ambiguous space.

example 4. Nocturne In Blue and Silver.march11,13,whistler,nocturne in blue and silver, battersea reach 1870s_edited-2

In appropriating some of the ideas of Turner, I turned to a softer and  paler palette with indistinctness as a  valued  tool for evoking space and mood.  In my first example ( example 5), I have an early morning misty landscape. The gray is created with white, Blue and Quinacridone Fuchsia.  The complementary yellow/oranges are lightened into tints with white by degree.  The design  follows the light cascading from the top of the painting to the bottom where it is caught and suspended by  forward bowing shape.

example 5. Morning Mist.march11,13, morning diffusion,oil on anodized aluminum, 24x24_edited-3

My next examples proceed step by step.  I begin with a simple and graphic serpentine design, one familiar  to and used by  Whistler.  Like Whistler, I  also used a toned substrate, brushed gold anodized aluminum. I begin with much stronger color than Whistler but, proceed to mute that color  to create  a softer and less fractured mood, although I did enjoy the moment of more intense complementary color contrast. Example 6. is the beginning. Example 7 is the muted later state.

example 6. The beginning.march11,13, reflecting sky and mountain, step one_edited-1

example 7.  later state.march11,13, reflecting sky and mountain, oil on anodized brushed gold aluminum,24x24_edited-3

In conclusion, I am back to painting a city. This time is NYC instead of Whistler’s Venice. But, my experience of NYC in the soft wet gray weather was particularly romantic. I recall how the tops of buildings and the distance dissolve in a Whistler like haze. I also use  Whistler’s simple single point perspective design here in this last example 8. I will be taking a group of a dozen interested artists to Venice with me the last week in June. I promise to show you where and how Whistler, Sargent and Turner painted in Venice. If you would like to come with me  then call the Silvermine School of Art at 203 966 6668.

example 8.march11,13, misty NYC, oil on anodized aluminum,48x48


10 Responses

  1. Gail Ingis

    David, I read every word. How wonderful to understand Whistler’s intentions, and yours. Thank you once again. Sigh, miss those incredible classes.

  2. Don


    Your example 7 is a wonderful landscape with great skill, minimal color and detail.

    • Don

      David, the more I look at example 5 – I realize my first glance was to short.
      Nice painting and certainly makes your point.

  3. William Child

    Like Gail above, I too read every word and learned a lot about Whistler whose art I have enjoyed and with your lesson know enough to want me to look further into his life. I love “Nocturne in Blue and Silver” more than the darker but nice picture I have hanging in my shop.

    Example 8 reminds me of that study I did of the early Spring Sun warming ice and snow covered Port Jefferson Harbor on Long Island, (NY), though mine had more yellow.

    Example 7. is Beautiful and I was wondering if you used a “Matthew” to blend the colors. I use a wide painters brush for that purpose all the time and will now forever call it “Matthew” in Whistler’s honor.

    That trip to Venice to study Whistler, Sargent and Turner with YOU and your knowledge and great personable manner would be soooo amazing!! If I could I would call you immediately. Ah…. something to dream of. I will post this to see if I can get someone/s to sign up.

  4. Fredric Neuwirth

    Example #5 did you use a substrate to get the iridescence or is it created by complimemntary colors? Am I reading the gray or is it in fact violet mixed with ultramarine & fuscia? Hope you will bring it to class.

  5. Steven

    Really dig Whistler…. “He was not a topographer. He was a poet…” … just perfect.

    Thanks for sharing your insights.

  6. Kay Halcrow

    Love this new work. Would be interesting to hear your thoughts on Turner as well as Whistler in Venice.

  7. thomas worthen

    Dear David:
    Your constant reminders that the fovea alone has images in focus, while the peripheral
    vision is blurry, have liberated my landscapes from being over elaborated. I love your Whistleresque paintings; thank you for this instruction and these images.

  8. Jennifer Richard-Morrow

    Got your early DVD Painting Landscapes ( in oil) from the library. I learned from that than I did in several semesters when I was in school ( in the ’70’s). Whistler post was great.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *