Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Web of Influences

Let me flash back to my art school experience for a second - and by art school, I mean the cafe seating area of the Borders Books and Music at 3rd and La Cienega in Los Angeles. Between 2001 and 2006, I spent a lot of evenings there. Once each evening, there would be a car crash right outside the window, owing to the bizarrely poor design of the left turn off La Cienega toward the entrance of the Borders parking lot. Eventually somebody thought to install a traffic light.

I was looking at art books and figurative painting magazines, primarily American Artist (an outfit I blog for now, actually). What I was doing was emotionally extricating myself from my indoctrination in abstraction. It was a tremendous help to find that some contemporary artists were painting the figure, which was all I ever really wanted to do. Over time, I identified and began to follow a constellation of painters. One of them was Patricia Watwood.

Brooklyn Self Portrait, oil on canvas, 24"x20", 2003

Watwood's work was not flashy. Rather, like Truffaut as a filmmaker, she was quiet and gentle in her methods. Like Truffaut, she seemed interested in reaching a clear and sympathetic understanding of her people. The muted quality of her work seemed to me both introverted and generous, like a shy person who observes those around her with deep focus.

Flora, oil on canvas, 44"x26", 2000

I never hung out with artists in Los Angeles - I hung out with models. The models have their own cohesive social scene there, which exists partly independently of the artists they work with.

Later, I moved to New York and started hanging out with artists. Among the artists I eventually met was Patricia Watwood. I don't know her well, but I know her well enough to greet her at openings, and to have told her how much her work helped me when I was becoming self-aware as a serious figurative painter.

Quite independently from that, I began painting a model, Leah, who is really an amazing model.

Day, oil on canvas, 60"x40", 2009

Leah's skilled modeling, in combination with her curvy build, made me think that Patricia might find her inspiring - I had noticed that Patricia liked to paint curvy women. So I recommended them to one another, and it turned out to be a good match.

I was eager to see the work. I like to recommend models I work with to other painters. I'm crazy about my models, and I'm crazy about other painters. I want to share them with each other - I want to see what things they can give each other, that are different from the things the models and I can give one another. I want to see those marvelous paintings...

So I looked forward to Patricia's work with Leah. As we've discussed, I'm a form painter. Patricia's a color painter. To make flesh fleshy, she carefully mixes and juxtaposes colors. It's all Greek to me, but we happened to be working on profiles of Leah at about the same time. Here's mine:

Leah, oil on canvas, 24"x20", 2010

Here's hers:

Faith in the Wilderness, oil on canvas, 16"x20" oval, 2011

I liked Patricia's better. I have wanted to do a good profile of Leah for a long time, but I thought mine looked a little awkward. Only once I was done, and looked at Patricia's piece, did I realize what the problem was. There is a particular drama to Leah's profile, but the drama manifests best when the viewer is slightly below her. My viewpoint was slightly above her, giving the portrait a static quality I wasn't going for. It's a nice portrait, but there was something specific I wanted that isn't in it, and that exact thing was in Patricia's painting.

I'm not above a little theft. I flashed back to Picasso and Matisse riffing on one another's work all the time:

As I said, I don't have any sort of close relationship with Patricia, as Picasso and Matisse had with one another. But I didn't see any reason I couldn't paint a response to her painting. So source #1 for my next Leah painting was Patricia's Leah painting.

Here's my response - I finished this a couple weeks ago:

Blue Leah #1, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

This painting started with Patricia's painting, but it didn't end there. Most of my paintings are a tangle of thoughts, inspirations, responses, and influences. This one is too. Here's source #2 for the painting - a portrait by John Singer Sargent which hangs on the wall of my office and which we've previously discussed here:

A Spanish Woman, oil on canvas, 22"x18", 1879-80

I can't get away from the eye that disappears into darkness.

But that's not all - I realized, not long after I figured out the pose for this painting, that I was unconsciously replicating a pose from one of my favorite paintings. Here's source #3 for the Leah painting:

This is Study Head of a Woman by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). It hangs to the right in the first room past the doors on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City - the room with the big painting of Antoine and Marie-Anne Lavoisier facing you when you come in. When I first saw the Study Head, with its vivid expression and vigorous swirls of thick paint on the cheek, I got very excited to have discovered Greuze. A little research sadly revealed that this was basically the best thing the man ever painted. He mostly did treacly domestic scenes which appealed to the nauseating sentimentality of the pre-revolutionary French bourgeoisie. After the Revolution, if I'm remembering my Schama correctly, he painted treacly domestic scenes which appealed to the nauseating sentimentality of the revolutionary French bourgeoisie. So if I've got it right, one of his major accomplishments as a painter was knowing which way the wind was blowing. This makes him kind of like David, but without the fawning portraits of Napoleon.

Be that as it may, this one Greuze is deeply embedded in my pantheon of paintings, and obviously, on some level I had noted Leah's resemblance to Greuze's young woman, and mimicked his composition.

But there's still another influence to unravel from this painting - and that's the cover of a book of writings by Degas:

I've had this book around for quite a long time, without having gotten around to reading much of it. However, I am very taken with the cover. I really like those pinks and blues, and I have sometimes thought, "I'd like to make a painting in this spectrum."

The Leah painting depends almost entirely on white, pink, grey, blue, and black. Only one or two sessions in did I look at it and realize that I had finally gotten around to painting in that marvelous set of Degas colors I had so long admired.

And one last dual influence - Stephen Wright and Alyssa Monks. What?! say you. How? Well, look, sometimes people say that I am writing as if I'm teaching. If this is true, then I'm mostly teaching myself. I have all kinds of ideas juddering around my head, half-formed. When I write them out, I see what they are. And then I can learn from them. I've been considering Steve's and Ms. Monks's big heads for a while. This led me to want to experiment with the premise of a big head painting. Leah's head is not so big in this painting - but it's big for me, and it's bigger than her actual head. Here, this will give you a sense of the scale:

I kind of like how it all turned out.

So those are the influences. Let me recap them for you:

Patricia Watwood, via Borders Books and Music, 2006:

Creation, oil on canvas, 36"x28", 2006

Spain, 1880:

France, 18th century:

Steve Wright, LC With Silver Cross, The Valley, 2007 or so:

Alyssa Monks, Laughing Girl, New York, 2009:

Patricia Watwood, New York, 2011:

All coming together for me in Brooklyn, July 2011:

Of all the many people in this web of influences, I most owe thanks to Leah, for letting me study her, and to Patricia, for silently, generously, continuing to help show me how.


  1. Daniel, I think you've painted my favorite one of yours yet! Bravo!

  2. Kevin - wow! Thank you very much!

  3. Fascinating, Daniel, thanks so much for this. Your painting Blue Leah#1 is astonishing.

  4. Blue Leah #1 is pretty amazing. You're right about the low angle. Also, it seems like it was painted during the Renaissance. Great job.

  5. Jean - thank you very much! It was great seeing you today, too. Did you know Patricia's work before?

    Chris - thank you too. And thanks for that amazing comment on the other post; it'll take me a little longer to get to writing a substantive response to that.