Monday, July 3, 2023

Andrew Wyeth: Unlimited

     This quarterly column is about studying the work of master artists and extracting useful lessons for my own art practice.  For today's piece, while I try to bring some order to a chaotic art studio bursting at the seams with every art supply I have persuaded myself I desperately need, I turn to American painter, Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009).  Although he was a contemporary of so many avant-garde, modernist painters, Wyeth steadily - some said stubbornly - worked in a realist mode.  His subjects were his family, his neighbors, the pastoral landscapes that surrounded him at his home in Pennsylvania, and his summer home in Maine.  His paintings share a quiet, almost elegaic mood, painstaking attention to detail, and a very limited, neutral palette.  You won't find splashy rainbow hues in his paintings; on the contrary, the subtle and restrained chromatic range allows the painting to put all its weight into tonal contrast - the stark whites of bedspreads, curtains, lobster buoys, and the deep grays and blacks of crow feathers, pump handles, rocks.  In between hover the browns, grays, ochres, and sages.  Say what you like about primary and complementary color schemes and so on - keeping it neutral evokes a hush.

Wind from the Sea, 1947

Spring-Fed, 1967

Tomorrow the Outer Shoals, 1954
Pentecost, 1989

     You do occasionally find a bit of blue sky in a Wyeth painting, or some grass that's lush spring green rather than end-of-summer gold, but if you do a Google image search for his work this is the palette you will see.  It is very restrained. 

     Struggling with an overabundance of art supplies as I am, I found the thought of working with a limited palette very challenging.  My first thought was - why limit when there are so many colors?  What if I want to Use All The Things?! Then I began to imagine what his painting kit must have looked like.  How many blobs of paint did he have on his palette, I wonder? As few as six, maybe?  Five?  Talk about traveling light!  In my last column I confronted another type of self-restraint - the simple composition repeated over many years by Adolph Gottlieb - and as I did then, I now found that the limit the artist imposed on himself urged me to look closer, ask more questions.  In my opinion, this strict, self-imposed limit demands more from the viewer than something that is easy to like at first glance and then pass by.  Although the subject matter was realistically rendered, Wyeth himself felt that he was painting something abstract.  "My people, my objects breathe in a different way: there's another core - an excitement that's definitely abstract.  My God, when you really begin to peer into something, a simple object, and realize the profound meaning of that thing - if you have an emotion about it, there's no end."  The limited palette may have been a way to portray things stripped of their superficial qualities in order to illuminate their essence.

   So I had to give it a go, although without much expectation of reaching any profound meanings.   I've been working on portraits lately, and I decided to explore what it would be like to do a portrait with a very limited palette - no fair having access to the whole box of paints.  If I have too many options I'm likely to make a muddle of it, anyway.   I chose Pam Carriker's Her Story face stencil from Stencil Club November 2018 for the project and set to work.

    On the left of this spread you see three swatches of acrylic paint- titanium white, quinacridone nickel azo gold, and burnt umber light.  I used some text paper, some black Stabilo All pencil, and some white gesso, and set up the ground for my portrait.  That's six art supplies.  Six!  Okay, to be strictly honest, I also used a white gel pen and a black Uniball pen on the finished spread, but you get the point.  They aren't additional colors.  To help give movement to the piece I used the small stencil from Mary Beth Shaw's Private Collection 17.1 January 2017 club set, and one of my favorites stencils, Flock, by Cat Kerr (S854).  I'm happy with the result.


      There are many more lessons to be learned by studying Andrew Wyeth's work, but I can say for sure that the lesson of the limited palette is one I hope I keep firmly in the front of my mind.   If someone came to my house and stole all of my art supplies, I hope that I would recognize the value of restraint before starting to replace them - today one tube of paint, tomorrow one pencil.  It's not the quantity or even the quality of the tools and supplies we use that makes good work, but the vision we bring to the endeavor.  That can be unlimited.


Stencils used in this project:

Stencil Club November 2018, Pam Carriker

Stencil Club January 2017, Mary Beth Shaw

Flock, Cat Kerr S854

1 comment:

  1. I love your posts about artists and the ways they inspire you. It's fascinating to see the lesson you choose from each painting and the experimenting you do to apply the lesson to your own work. You don't merely copy an artist's style - you apply a concept to create your own art, and the results are inspiring. Thank you!


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