The weather around here has finally decided to get itself together and act its season! Hallelujah. In honor of spring, I decided to find some still life work to critique that involved flowers. This is how I came across Carol Marine‘s paintings. I sifted through her work and chose those that involved flowers, but I should note that she has many other wonderful still life works that do not involve my chosen theme. For more, check out her website and blog!
Painterly, indeed! Marine uses large, wide brushstrokes for the most part. Visibly bold strokes compose the surface of tables, walls, fruit, and flowers, making these things appears particularly dense. The effect? More mass = more gravity. Visual gravity, that is…the kind that attracts the eye, tugs your attention.
By using large brushstrokes, Marine uses less to convey an object, making it a simplified version of reality. These forms become basic, easy-to-swallow shapes. Building blocks, if you will. In fact, some curves appear to become angled and geometric in the process (see Figure 1).
But not all the strokes are big and bold! There are surfaces that appear smooth and seamless as well (see Figure 1 again). This is one of the intriguing things about these paintings: Marine juxtaposes bold strokes and smooth surfaces in a way that does not overemphasize stylistic variation but nevertheless influences the viewer’s attention.
Marine uses bright, bold colors, but she doesn’t take them and run, either (thank goodness!). Too many saturated colors spurs too much visual stimulation, and that makes it difficult for the viewer to focus on anything. However, Marine does a fine job balancing the color intensity while still creating a very color-rich scene. Even grays are colorful! Notice that almost all the brushstrokes are varying tones of a particular hue (see Figure 2). Point to a brushstroke and it’s easy to tell which pigment color dominated its making.
She also uses complimentary colors to her advantage (see Figure 3).
color theory: when next to each other, complimentary colors seem brighter, more intense.
Marine generally uses direct light on her still-life arrangements, which typically leads to significant/sharp contrasts.
Those defined shadows make three-dimensional objects POP! when compared to areas that are not 3D. Those dark shadows are sharp, cutting the object out of space. Such prominent shadows add a new dimension and character to the painting, but it can also be an extremely dangerous game:
1. Completely surrounding the object in darkness will effectively cut it out of context. You don’t want to lose connection with the rest of the work! Why? It will feel like two incomplete paintings stuffed into one, two contrasting personalities tied together. They will fight each other, and that will be confusing and, quite frankly, annoying to the viewer.
2. The intensity of the shadow could appear to make the shadow more like an object than an effect of light which, once again, creates a separate, contrasting personality with which the viewer must contend. Take a look at how Marine handles shadows in these two paintings (Figure 4):
In one, the shadow plays a supporting role to the fruit, maintaining its dramatic effect but not overpowering the color and presence of the pears as real, 3D objects. The other painting has shadows that gain a kind of object-hood, taking a distinct personality separate from the flowers casting them. How does this happen?
A popular misconception: blurred edges does not a shadow make.
My guess is that it comes down to color. The shadows are both bluish, yes, but the first painting’s shadows are particularly vibrant; they even have flecks of bright pink! Those hues make the shadows pop forward in space.
Most of these still life scenes really don’t include many objects. They do not, however, appear sparse or boring. Color has something to do with that, yes, as do the distinct shadows (carefully painted so that they do not really appear to be objects themselves, of course!). But those dark shadows also accentuate the lines in the work. There are so many curves and horizontals, all suggesting movement, allowing the viewer’s eyes to glide easily from one side of the painting to the other. Though certainly not full of objects — and zero animate objects, for that matter–, the paintings are brimming with visual activity.
As an effect if the interesting perspective Marine often uses, many of the lines extend off the page. This makes the scene feel big, inviting the viewer to explore the intricacies of this new world, but she also manages to maintain a sense of intimacy.
I think Marine accomplishes this with what I shall henceforth dub the “spiral galaxy effect“: although there are lines that reach off the frame, the gravity (the visual pull) of other objects continue to pull the eye back into the painting. These visually-weighty objects also tend to usher the eyes in a circular path around an empty central space. (See Note)
Bright colors, dark shadows, thick brushstrokes: this “boldness” adds weight to the painting.
Most of these still life paintings involve both natural and man-made objects and are, I assume, arranged indoors. The fruit and flowers have been plucked and picked from their environment and brought indoors where, as such things do, they will eventually shrivel and die.
But look at the large brushstrokes that make up the flower petals (see Figure 5). The petals look heavy, not light and feather-thin, and the petals of some flowers fuse together into large abstract masses. These bold strokes draw the eye, adding visual gravity to these botanical subjects.
Marine paints the nature-made objects with a boldness that strengthens them. They do not appear frail and foreign but bold and luminous. These natural subjects have equal, if not more, presence than the man-made objects.
Old English beald (West Saxon), bald (Anglian) “bold, brave, confident, strong,” from Proto-Germanic *balthaz (cognates: Old High German bald “bold, swift,” in names such as Archibald, Leopold, Theobald; Gothic balþei “boldness;” Old Norse ballr “frightful, dangerous“), perhaps from PIE *bhol-to- suffixed form of *bhel- (2) “to blow, swell” (see bole). (from The Online Etymology Dictionary)
Notice the verbal implications in the etymology of this adjective: strong, swift, blow, swell. I think the style of these natural objects elicits the verb, bringing life to these things that were, indeed, alive.
In addition, Marine’s lines and strokes are not contained, so the objects themselves are not contained. This is particularly evident with the natural objects, as they are usually brightly colored with thick brushstrokes (see Figure 6). That slightly “unfinished” or “messy” look evokes energy, reminding the viewer of the action of painting.
All this gives the viewer a particularly unique experience. These are simple settings, indoors and sheltered from the elements. Stillness. Marine uses color and brushstroke to bolster the life and energy of the natural elements, capturing their vitality in the permanence of paint. There are everyday man-made objects, such as plates and vases, that offer a hearty sense of familiarity to the scene and a note of man-made durability. The viewer’s eyes roam the canvas, circling from object to object…
Here is simplicity. Here is longevity. Here is a reminder of the vibrant, peaceful life that is accessible to us every day.
*Note: spiral galaxies often have a black hole in their center, and although that isn’t quite “empty space” (quite the contrary), it appears as such to the onlooker.