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Art of Winter

December 5, 2014

Inspiration in soft pastel after JMW Turner: Snow Storm – Steam-boat off a Harbour’s Mouth 1842

Winter has always bitten into the body, mind and soul of man.  These were my thoughts as I set about planning a practical art course with winter at its heart, to be held at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead, Berkshire.  The aim was to help participants explore the theme of winter as seen by other artists, and to draw inspiration and a greater knowledge of techniques from them. Twelve artists of very different experience joined the group and were encouraged to make their own versions or work in the style of some of the world’s greatest artists.

Media used were soft and oil pastel, watercolour and gouache.
All illustrations in this post are by course participants who wish to remain anonymous.

Pastel paintings of streets in Leeds 4 and the River Thames at Maidenhead

The first artist referenced was Pieter Bruegel the Elder and we discovered the leaden skies and invented landscape of ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ 1565.  Here the physicality of winter dominated; the green-gray sky reflectd in icy water of the same hue and tone; the hunters returning with only one fox; and the figures and trees sillouetted against the snow covered countryside.  A great imagination was afoot here as Bruegel had indeed travelled over the Alps and into Italy, but the buildings in this work are all of his native Netherlands, with a backdrop of mountainous terrain.

We looked at three further works by Bruegel all set in the snow;

Firstly ‘The Census at Bethlehem’1566.  In place of the biblical inn, Bruegel depicts a local tavern where crowds of people are paying taxes levied by King Philip of Spain and destined for Madrid. A heavily pregnant Mary is seated on an ass as Joseph leads her unnoticed by everyone, toward the inn.

Secondly, ‘The Adoration of the Kings in the Snow’ 1667, where instead of the event taking centre stage, it is pushed to the far left bottom corner while the snow falls and the villagers go about their daily round.

Thirdly ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’1566, which parodied Herod’s brutal death sentence for all new born male infants at the time of the birth of Jesus.  In Bruegel’s picture the infants are being brought out of the village houses and killed by Spanish soldiers on the authority of the Duke of Alba.  At this time the Spanish persecuted any who would not convert to the catholic faith. Bruegel’s ‘Innocents’ are those who refused. The message of this painting was revolutionary and must have been very clear to his fellow countrymen whose country was soon to be split apart, the Catholic South becoming Belgium, and the protestant north, present day Holland.  Bruegel clearly links the harsh physicality of winter with the violent times in which he lived.

This artist made her own version of one work of most of the reference artists for the course, also adding some of her own compositions.  It was the first time she had worked in gouache or pastel which I found inspirational.

We then turned our attention to two works by Caspar David Friedrich. Two of his works were exhibited at Weimar in 1811, both entitled Landscape in the Snow.  In the first a cripple leans on his crutches between two trees which twist diagonally away from him.  The rest of the forest has been hewn down and only short trunks penetrate from the snowy ground.  It is a picture of complete desolation.  In the second, which hangs in the National Gallery, the same cripple has abandoned his crutches, is seated against a rock and looking up at a crucifix which appears among a group of green and flourishing fir trees.  It is not clear whether he is physically cured but his hands are lifted in praise and it is clear that he has been rescued from the winter of his soul.  This is reinforced by the Gothic church looming out of the mist in the distance and echoing the shape of the conifers.

The impressionists were much more concerned with the light and how surfaces reflect the colours of the sky.  For this reason Renoir reputedly believed that snow could never be white and that you could tell the time of day by the colours it reflected.  We noted how in ‘Snowy Landscape’ about 1875,  his brushstrokes of complementary colours were built up in layers so that the whole became a woven texture of colour.

Unlike Monet he did not relish the colder months and this work is one of only a handful that feature wintry landscapes.  Some of the most wonderful winter landscapes were made by Monet in the winter following the death of Camille.  When the thaw eventually began he painted 13 studies of the break up of the ice at Vethueil.  The varying colours of these are fascinating.

This pastel work was inspired by the colours in the break up of the ice near Vetheuil, as in one of the studies painted by Monet in January 1880

 

Pastel after Monet: Route de Giverny en Hiver 1885

 

Pastel works inspired by Camille Pissaro ‘Rue de la Citadelle, Pontoise,1873 (left) and Albert Charles Lebourg (right)

From the impressionists to L. S. Lowry is a huge leap.  Lowry’s sparse palette,mainly of white, grey, black and blue-grey factories belching smoke, warmed only a little by the red/pink of terraced houses and the odd tiny splashes of colourful garments where he does give us flashes of bright red, always seem to reflect a vision of northern winter.  His figures are most likely to be seen in warm clothing and walking on a white ground or pavement, and where trees are included they are leafless.  So why does his work seem so animated?  Like Bruegel he gives us the cold of winter but with the activity of many figures.  Like Bruegel’s figures they are never still but playing, walking dogs or prams, or trudging to work in the industrial cities. They are on a stage set by Lowry and the diminishing size of the figures and buildings gives a wonderful illusion of pictorial space. As with Bruegel, Lowry’s cityscapes are inventions of his imagination made up from the motifs that were so familiar to him..  He is reported to have said that he did not know, when he started ‘The Pond’ 1950 how it would develop.  One ‘development’ was that Harold Wilson chose it for his official Christmas card!

Inspired by L S Lowry; works in watercolour (left) and Pastel (right)

Moving forward to the late 60’s we reviewed mountains painted by Gerhardt Richter which faithfully copied monochrome photographs of the Himalayas and Alps.  This was a direct rebellion against abstract expressionism.  For our studies it provided an excellent way to realize how forms can be depicted in areas of flat monochrome.  Only one of the group attempted this but with great success, painting her version of ‘Himalaya’, 1968.

At this point we went on to examine some of the imaginative and extraordinarily atmospheric works painted by the contemporary artist, Richard Cartwright.  His paintings, mainly in pastel have a magical and luminous quality which was explored by three of the artists; see below.  You may like to spot the third from the composite picture of eight works near the beginning of this post.

Inspired by Richard Cartwright

Over the five Tuesday mornings of the course, participants also developed their own ideas and ways of working, but found just scratching the surface of the art of winter, by studying a handful of artists from Bruegel to Cartwright to be an enriching experience.  It certainly was for me.

To end with here are a few more of the paintings made in pastel over the last few weeks.

 

 

In the Gallery at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead, Berkshire

 

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