Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Georgia O'Keeffe month: Two white irises (and three buds)

Two white irises (and three buds)
10" x 8", coloured pencils on Saunders Waterford HP paper

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

[UPDATE Tuesday 6.30pm: I've been most remiss in forgetting to invite people to join in with Georgia O'Keefe month. As with previous months, if you'd like to have a go at studying O'Keeffe with me and then producing some art as a result then just leave a comment to this effect and I'll know to come and look at your blog. I know Maggie Stiefvater and Rose Welty are both hoping to get involved. Maggie is busy with fairs this month and told me to write down all I know - hence the length of this post!]

As you know I've been hunting down useful books for my Georgia O'Keeffe month. On Friday, I bought "Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Collections (Volume 2)" by Barbara Buhler Lynes at Kew Gardens. (I gritted my teeth and said nothing when I saw the discount that Amazon is offering - and then felt better when I saw the delay in receiving a copy!)

Some conclusions....
Having now had a chance to look through this book - which is the right way to describe a book which is mainly full page plates of colour images of her work - I've come to a few conclusions. These are offered here by way of guidance to anybody who wants to participate in the project this month. My conclusions are the bullet points - and the implications for how I'm working are indicated in italics)
  • The flowers have the same sculptural form as her paintings of landscapes. Stylistically similar - I think both emerge from the elements which preoccupied her. It's easier to understand and appreciate her very many flower paintings when looking at them in the context of all her work.
  • The objects in her paintings are frequently isolated from their environmental context - enabling her to create simple images of monumental forms. She seems to be exploring the world within an object - while the object itself may in some way have represented the place from which it came. (As a result I now think of flowers as having 'interior landscapes' - although that doesn't seem to have been a term used by O'Keeffe - so maybe I'll use it to describe mine!)
  • O'Keeffe was very much drawn to the abstract - and abstracting aspects of the flowers. She explores the elements of colour, shape and texture of the objects she paints. Which of these is most dominant seems to depend on the individual flower. (I find it easier to develop my flowers if I stop trying to do an exact 'copy' and to focus more on one or more of the elemental aspects of the images)
  • O'Keeffe was very much preoccupied with simple forms from the very beginning and her earliest flower paintings. The forms of her flowers in her mature art are also very much simplified - much in the same way she works when painting any other subject. (I'm very much reminded of the notion - when I used to write reports - that the short/summary version will take longer. Producing clean, simple lines and a simplified object is much the same - it needs much more skill than copying. I'm definitely finding the simplification aspect the most difficult of all.)
  • Creation seems to be a process of elimination. Forms are frequently simplified, can seem stark at times, tend to be precise with an emphasis on edges and sometimes texture.
  • Colour is often bold, frequently carefully modulated but tends to come across as somewhat 'flat'. (There seems to be no effort to employ optical mixing at a micro level - which is what I enjoy doing. Her optical mixes are at the macro level)
  • Her drawings are accurate and monochromatic using graphite or charcoal. They are dispassionate observations. It's as if she explored the flower in recording it accurately - and was then able to find the aspects she wanted to use and develop in her paintings. She particularly seems to use the drawings to explore the impact of tone on the representation of shapes and forms.
  • Her paintings were done in oil or pastels. A number are very large - but not all.
  • She seems to have liked particular flowers - the calla lily, poppy, canna, iris, petunia, jimson weed. I'd characterise these as mostly being somewhat sculptural in form - which is maybe what attracted her to them.
  • Her flower paintings focused on the centre of flowers - and she continued making them for decades.
  • She says that some of her paintings were done to explore people's reactions to a flower eg some people hated and some people loved calla lilies.
  • Latterly she used to like to mix flowers with other elements - and has a whole series of paintings of skulls with one or two flowers in the same picture.
  • People often misinterpreted her paintings - in relation to their conceptual basis and meaning - finding meaning where none was intended. For example, her flowers were often seen as referring to her own sexuality - as opposed to the sexual anatomy of a flower.
"Well I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flowers and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower - and I don't." (Georgia O'Keeffe in Ernest W. Watson "Georgia O'Keeffe" American Artist June 1943)
Cropping and composition
This needs a post to itself - or maybe more than one. It's difficult to see how she arrived at her crops - and I need to study this some more. The dominant influences on her crops and compositions seem to be two-fold:
  • The thinking of Arthur Wesley Dow - who himself was very much influenced by the concept of Notan and Asian art.
Notan is a Japanese word that means "lightness-darkness." It represents one of the basic principles that help compositions stick to the wall. Notan has nothing to do with local or chosen colour. It's the ability to see things in terms of black and white, and to consequently build strength in imagery. When compositions work in black and white--they work. (Robert Genn 'Notan' and clickback responses)
  • Her exposure to advanced photographic techniques - her husband Stieglitz was a famous photographer.
  • It seems likely that she worked from monochromatic to colour and employed the concept of notan - which makes her work very powerful and enables it to read well.
  • (I'm finding that using a three value thumbnail is vital for seeing whether a crop of a macro image is likely to work. It makes the difference between something that is 'pretty' in colour terms and something that works from a distance.)
Two white irises (and three buds)
I like the fact that Georgia O'Keeffe's way of naming her flower paintings is the one that feels more comfortable to me. I've always envied people who come up with stunning titles. Mine start factual at the WIP stage and tend to stay factual!

I'm really enjoying the selection of a photo and the cropping stage. I seem to find that it works best if I choose two to three photos (eg of white irises) and then try different crops on each until I find one that works. I almost always don't crop closely enough to get a macro image in the first two or three goes. For me it works more easily if I use the slider on the PS Elements crop tool to make the area I am 'removing' completely black so that I see the final crop in its 'purity' unencumbered by shadowy surroundings. Much the same as would happen in the past if one was using mat board to create a crop.

"Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Collections (Volume 2)" by Barbara Buhler Lynes at Kew; Hardcover: 392 pages Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (1 Mar 2007)
ISBN-10: 081090957X ISBN-13: 978-0810909571



I need orange said...

I am only serendipitously playing along -- I've been taking close-up pics of flowers right along, and irises are blooming here, now. (I like my closeup from last Friday best, in a Georgia context....)

I am interested by your comment about what must be done to make a piece work at a distance.

One thing I have learned in the quilting world is that your piece needs different things, depending on the distance at which you want it to work. Some pieces really need to be in a museum setting, seen from quite a distance. Some need to be seen right close up (why do people hang these over the sofa, where no one is ever close enough to appreciate them?). I love small work, and hang it on the wall going up the stairs.....

This is a real issue, and it is important to decide where the piece will hang, most likely, and then make sure it works at that distance........

Adam Cope said...

Hello Katherine

I like your flower pencil dawings, especially 'white iris'. I feel you are right to call attention to the 'interior landscapes'of flowers (seen as if with a macro lens). I feel O'Keefe's flowers are more spartan & less details. they belong to the high-modern asethetic of 'vibrating emptiness' (not my phrase but that of Norman Bryson in his book 'Looking at the Overlooked'), of which Morandi is an arch example.

Yours also have a lovely sense of light.

Belinda Lindhardt said...

These are beautiful Katherine.

Thanks for the post its so interesting ... i am disappointed i cant join in this month .. just waay to many other commitments .. but i have learning from you as always.

Thanks again

Jo Castillo said...

Katherine, these irises are just beautiful. Enjoy reading your research and study. I have never studied art in a formal classroom and you point me in interesting directions to follow and hopefully help my painting.

I enjoy O'Keeffe's bright colors.


vivien said...

another lovely image

dispassionate is a perfect word for her work - I've always found it cool and unemotional. Beautiful but rarely with any passion.

Adam's spartan is another spot on word.

Robyn Sinclair said...

I saw your Two White Irises yesterday and was distracted from commenting by all the other goodies you keep posting! The Irises are beautiful, Katherine. They are right up there with my favourites of all your flowers. All your thoughts about Georgia O'Keeffe have been enormously educational. I found your observation about focusing on the elements rather than just copying the flower really helpful.
I've just finished my first G O'K inspired flower and am much happier than I was with previous efforts.

Casey Klahn said...

I'm looking forward to seeing your O'Keefe month. Very fascinating stuff.
I saw Sheila Evans this weekend, and she was great fun. Her work is displayed with terrific unity and she's doing "no petal" flowers, or stems, if you will.

Making A Mark said...

Thanks for all the really nice comments - much appreciated.

Interesting stuff re the stems Casey - wait until you see my cacti!

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