Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fever Blue

Well, I promised you I would explain why the Picasso portrait and my painting of Theresa have similarities of color and contrast. Let's look at them again:

You may notice there is something odd about the color in both paintings: it seems slightly too vivid. There is a sort of insistence on the part of the darks around the nose and cheekbones. Light leaps forward, and shadow leaps right after. How did this happen?

Because both paintings are painted over a layer of blue paint. I can't be sure about the Picasso, because I've never seen it in person. But don't be fooled by the green in the background. The central area is almost certainly coated in blue, or bluish-grey, or bluish-black, beneath the colors that you see.

Oil paints are not completely opaque. Many of the nifty effects you can get from paint derive from the interaction of translucent or transparent surface layers with the deeper layers. When the deeper layer is blue, as in the instances above, certain distinctive qualities emerge. The yellows, reds, pinks, and oranges distinctive to caucasian flesh do not sit comfortably on blue. They recoil from it, and become livid. Picasso is working in a more saturated warm spectrum than I am, but in both cases, the color has become too intense, and at the same time, too chalky. This results from the darkness of the blue penetrating the apparent warm color and charring it.

It is impossible to paint a perfectly natural-looking portrait in warm flesh tones over a blue underpainting. Why? Two reasons. The first is this recoil of color, a physical phenomenon owing to the unmixed overlap of the blue and the warm color.

The other reason has to do with the comparison the mind makes between the painting and nature. The degree of blue that elbows its way into your perception of the painting occurs in nature only under dim blue light. But flesh does not assume the full warm spectrum under such lighting. It looks cool and dark. So the very premise of these paintings is anti-natural.

Why do it at all then? Because the tension that is produced, both in the perceived color, and in the anti-naturalism of the color, has a uniquely feverish effect. Note the composition Picasso has chosen for his use of the technique: he stares intensely at you, as if he had been waiting for you in the dark, and you had suddenly turned a flashlight on him. The operatic quality of the night permeates this self-dramatizing painting. In my own use of the technique, I have chosen to portray a sense of shock, even entrapment - when I get done with the entire painting, I'll post it so you can see the full effect.

I have been wanting to do something with a blue underpainting for years, but I wasn't good enough to pull it off until fairly recently. I tried once in 2006, and it was such a disaster I gave up on the painting. Remember - all your colors come out either too saturated, or chalky. They look weird. You have to anticipate and utilize this effect, and never depend on a sense of naturalism.

You know where I first learned to integrate the emotional impact of the blue into the design of the painting? Gustav Klimt. Specifically, this portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. I'm cropping the image to just the face, because that's the important part here:

I first saw this painting in person in Los Angeles in 2005, I think, after its many lawsuit-related travels (the Nazis stole it, and the Bauer family got it back only a few years ago; it showed in LA for a little while, and finally landed at the Neue Gallerie in New York). I didn't recognize the technique then, but when I saw it again in New York, after my blue-underpainting-related catastrophe, I recognized the technique: there is a light bluish-grey under the flesh. Klimt let it dry, then painted his warm flesh tones in tiny little brushstrokes. You see how the warm color rebels - it splotches white, it turns harshly red in the cheeks. Klimt really liked this technique, and used it repeatedly:

Amalie Zuckerkandl

Die Hoffnung (detail)

Why does Klimt lean on this so heavily? Because the emotional implication of the technique is consonant with his goals: he wants to paint a state of light fever, of heightened intensity. The blue helps him get there.

This technique is rarely used in painting, and it is fairly difficult to unify your aesthetics with it (unless your name is Pablo Picasso, who painted that self-portrait when he was, you know, 19). But if you want to explore an interiorized state of emotional intensity, it is well worth considering it.

Q: If I paint the overlying yellows and oranges when the underlying blue is still wet, won't they just mix and turn green or gray or something?

A: Well, sure, if you're an ass about it.

Don't keep on blending until you run into that problem.

No worries, though. I'm guessing Picasso, not exactly Mr. Patience, painted his portrait wet-into-wet, and he avoided excessive mixing by loading his brush much more thickly for the overlying layers than he did when he laid down his blue. For my part, my undercoat was a very thin french ultramarine blue, and I had no trouble with my much thinner-than-Picasso application of the overlying warm colors. You really have to try to get the colors to mix if you want them to turn into crap. But if you don't want to take any chances, go the Klimt route - his undercoat was dry when he started putting in his flesh tones. You can tell by looking at it (where the application of warm colors dies off in midtones and shadows, they remain completely distinct from the blue, which would not happen if the blue were wet).

One last thing - this incidence of "you can tell by looking at it."

I've learned most of what I know about the techniques of painting from a) painful practice and failure and b) going to museums and looking at paintings. When you go and look at a painting, you'll learn the lessons you're ready to receive. You won't learn everything - you'll only learn what you need to know next. I didn't notice the blue underpainting the first time I saw the Adele in person, because I wasn't ready to understand blue underpainting. But it was clear as day the second time I saw it, because it was time for me to understand the practice and aesthetics of the technique.


  1. "Because the emotional implication of the technique is consonant with his goals: he wants to paint a state of light fever, of heightened intensity."

    Well yes. But that's the rated PG version. Specifically, Klimt had in mind heightened *female sexual* intensity, which is the main reason why his paintings have endured: burning sexual desire inside these pallid, sickly looking women.

    Notice how his ouvre lacks a large number of half-naked, rosy cheeked men looking into the distance as if they had just picked up an additional chromosome. Then there's, of course, The Seduction of Danae. And for Exhibit C, I point to Water Serpents II, a position for the female which all fans of the genre of pornography called POV will immediately recognize.

  2. Chris -

    You make a good point about my comment having been the PG version. Apart from the fact that this is a family-friendly blog (well, not really), there is another issue at play: I had simply forgotten! Remember - I mostly paint female nudes myself. I forget that an element of sexuality and sexual desire is always present, because it's become like background noise for me. Moreover, I've been looking at Klimt so long that other aspects of his work come to mind when I think about him than the female sexual intensity that is, in fact, a key foreground theme. But yes, of course, he does depict the themes you describe, and he partakes of the fin-de-siecle fright and obsession with female sexuality and the femme fatale, although I would argue he does so with much more love and sympathy than most of his contemporaries. But the aspect completely slipped my mind - I had been thinking of comparing his depicting of fever with Mann's description of the state of mind of poor Hans Castorp whisked away to the Alps, but I thought that might come off as citation for the sake of citation.

    Klimt's ouvre does include men in the throes of desire, but to a far lesser extent than does Schiele. In this, as in so many ways, Klimt and Schiele complement each other, with Schiele exploring the masculine half of the single equation of arousal and desire around which both men revolve.

    As for this POV pornography you mention, I know little of it, but I can guess. The argument about the distinction between art and porn is too long to have now, but perhaps I will treat it some time in the virtual pages of this blog. Stay tuned!