Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Abstract and realist paintings

In an interview with American Artist magazine (En Plein Air: A Conversation With Camille Przewodek, 25 Jun 2009 by Allison), Camille Przewodek said: “under every good painting is a good abstract painting.”

At a working level, this makes total sense. In order to build a strong painting, you need to establish a strong composition based on a good mapping of tones and colours. If you work in oil or acrylic in particular, this means working out the large masses before thinking about details.

Block-in stage of my painting “3 geese”

The way we see the world to paint it is also abstract. The painter has to abstract the subject in order to see the world as a collection of colour patches of varying degrees of darkness or lightness (see my previous article “It’s a patchy world”).

It you consider the process of creating a work in oil, abstract painting appears as a natural evolution of realism rather than its opposite. In the way I paint, the underpainting is in general spontaneous, colourful and often far from the depiction of the scene. Then, the block-in stage brings some structure but is still fairly abstract. It is only late in the process that realism emerges with the addition of details.

Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway – Oil painting (35.83 × 47.95 in) by J. M. W. Turner [Source: Wikimedia]

Artists reaching their maturity often let more abstract elements into their paintings. Turner’s landscape became more and more abstract along the years. The late paintings by Monet have an abstract quality which is not only due to the deterioration of his sight.

The Japanese Footbridge by Claude Monet – Source: Wikipedia Loves Art participant "Opal_Art_Seekers_4" via Wikimedia

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Tuesday, 24 May 2011

SF mounted police

SF mounted police - Oil on canvas panel (6" x 8") by Benoit Philippe

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Trompe l’oeil paintings in Neuilly-sur-Seine

I am in Paris (France) at the moment and while walking in the nearby Neuilly-sur Seine, I stumbled across several trompe l’oeil paintings on the side of  buildings.

The whole side of one building located in the Boulevard du Général Leclerc has been painted with fake bicks and windows.

The painted door opens onto an imaginary park, as if a hidden world was inside the building.

I found another trompe l’oeil located rue Bailly. The side of the building has been populated with windows and inhabitants talking on their balconies.

At street level, there is a florist’s shop window. To enhance the illusion, the artist painted the reflection of a parked car in the window.

The nearby door on the left has a real handle affixed to it, blurring the border between reality and fantasy.

On the right side of the florist's shop, a double door opening on the countryside gives away the fact that it is a trompe l'oeil and invites viewers to escape from the city.

I carried on walking and found yet another trompe l’oeil Rue du chateau.This one is simple but works really well.

On the ground floor, the real plants growing along the wall help to blend the painted door and window into the real world.

Trompe l’œil paintings are an effective way to smuggle art into cities. They are entertaining and also have the power to make us question reality. After you spot one, you become more aware of your surrounding, wondering what is real and what is just an illusion…

Related article
Looking outside - mural

Monday, 16 May 2011

Walk in Coate Water park

Walk in Coate Water park - Oil on canvas panel (6" x 8") by Benoit Philippe

I painted this scene in Coate Water park in Swindon. A path goes around the lake and, in this area, it is shaded by old trees.

Friday, 13 May 2011

Oscar Wilde on art

At the moment, I am reading the Picture of Dorian Gray on my Amazon Kindle. If you know the story, a painting plays a central role in the plot.

When I read the Preface, I could see that Wilde’s words were speaking beyond writing and to art in general.



Three quarter length portrait of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony. Source: Library of Congress via WikiMedia

Quotes from the Preface

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.”

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.”

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

“The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.”

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.”

And Wilde closes his Preface with the following ironic statement: “All art is quite useless.”

Oscar Wilde is almost too quotable. His writings are peppered with witty comments and aphorisms that sometimes distract you from the plot of the novel. This makes reading his work both highly entertaining and irritating. It is a little bit like listening to these too clever people who always get a laugh in society…

Related resources

Biography of Oscar Wilde on Wikipedia

Picture of Dorian Gray available for free on Project Gutenberg in many electronic formats, including PDF.


If you are in the US (Amazon affiliate link):


If you are in the United Kingdom (Amazon affiliate link):



Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Are we blinded by art movements?

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – April 2011.

I often wondered if art movements labelling is helpful or a hindrance to art appreciation. We love to classify and put label on things and people, but as James Adams pointed out in his book Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas, “Stereotyping and labelling are extremely prevalent and effective perceptual blocks. The simple truth of the matter is, you cannot see clearly if you are controlled by preconceptions.”

“Impression de soleil levant” - Oil on canvas (48 × 63 cm) by Claude Monet [source: Wikimedia]

Let’s look at two movements: Impressionism and Fauvism. The word “Impressionist” was coined by Louis Leroy, an art critic who published in Le Charivari an unflattering review of an exhibition where Monet showed his painting “Impression de soleil levant”. Later, the term lost its negative connotation as Impressionist art became less controversial.

Turning now to Fauvism, we can see a similar pattern. The term “Fauve” was used by the art critic Louis Vauxcelle (in Gil Blas, 17 October 1905) as a pejorative term to describe the wild colours in paintings by Henri Matisse, André Derain and Maurice Vlaminck. Dora Pérez-Tibi, in the entry she wrote on Fauvism for the Oxford Art Online Encyclopaedia, noted: “Nevertheless, the painters to whom it was applied, not a consciously defined group but a loose association linked in certain cases by friendship, defiantly accepted the term as one appropriate to the violence with which they overturned academic conventions.”

In both instances, the “labelling” was imposed from the outside and none of these groups had any theoretical program. If you look beyond the “Impressionist” label, you see how different Renoir was from Monet and Monet from Manet. They knew each other, they worked sometimes together, but they had individual styles.

Forget about which school an artist belongs to, what his affiliations are and in what art movements critics tried to boxed him. Look at the art for what it is: do not pre-judge it.

Related resources

If you are in the US (Amazon affiliate link): Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas

If you are in the United Kingdom (Amazon affiliate link): Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas

Monday, 9 May 2011

The buttercup meadow

The buttercup meadow - Watercolour (31 cm x 39 cm) by Benoit Philippe

I painted this watercolour on site during the Eater break we spent in the North of France. This spot is located in Vertain (France), a village not far from Valenciennes. There is a stream surrounded by meadows which offers many scenes to paint. I though I would paint the river itself with the willows but found this scene.

The buttercups were glowing in the afternoon sun and the wind, bending the grass, was making the foreground interesting.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

It’s a patchy world

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – May 2011.

John Ruskin, in his Lectures on art, wrote that: “All objects appear to the human eye simply as masses of colour of variable depth, texture, and outline.” and “Consider all nature merely as a mosaic of different colours, to be imitated one by one in simplicity.”

You can derive a useful exercise from these statements. Follow these instructions:

  • Compose a painting using a mosaic of shapes that vary in shape, size and colour.
  • Do not use any initial line drawing.
  • Use only one flat brush (this is a brush with a square end) - The larger the brush, the better.

Squint at your subject to eliminate the details. If you wear glasses, try taking them off when you look at the subject to work out the masses of colour and tones.

When you work this way, you learn to build stronger paintings.

On several occasions, when visiting art museums, I have admired paintings that looked detailed from afar and were in fact executed with bold brush strokes. This is to me the mark of true mastery. For instance, during a visit at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich (Germany), I was struck by one of Monet’s paintings titled “The bridge at Argenteuil” (1874).

La Seine à Argenteuil - Oil painting by Claude Monet (Source: Wikimedia)

This work is located near the entrance of the room and I therefore saw it close-up first. I could see the raw canvas apparent in many places: in the sky, in the foreground and in the reflection of one of the pillars of the bridge. Monet used a thin layer of paint throughout the canvas, apart from the light boat hulls in the foreground, which were painted with great vigour if not with much detail. The work is signed and dated in the lower right corner so, at least in Monet’s mind, there was no doubt it was a finished painting.

After looking at this painting for some time, I carried on with my visit around the exhibition. When I reached the opposite side of the room, I turned back and my eyes caught Monet’s painting again. From afar, not only the painting looked finished but it appeared full of details, even if I knew they were just marks on the canvas. The illusion was perfect.

Our brain is very good at filling gaps and interpreting images, even if they contain a minimal amount of details. For instance, if you use a computer to pixelize the picture of someone (i.e. to turn the picture into a collection of coloured squares) you can still make-out that it is a portrait and you may even be able to recognize the person despite the lack of detailed features.

Let’s come back to our exercise and review its benefits.

This exercise will help you to get rid of a too detailed approach. You can build a sound painting by laying the foundation with large planes of colours. Also, thinking of an image as a collection of colour patches simplifies your thinking and makes any subject, however complex, less daunting.

Working details too soon into a painting is like attempting to decorate your home before the brickwork is finished. The truth is that no amount of details will compensate for a weak composition and it is easier to establish a sound composition by building a picture and shaping it with masses of colour.

In the end, if you want, you can add telling details to suggest a fuller picture to the viewer.

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Monday, 2 May 2011

A painting is like an orchestra

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – April 2011.

An orchestra is more than a collection of soloists. In the same way, a painting is more than the collection of its parts.

Violin by DuBois – Source: morgueFile

There are a number of parameters that an artist must take into account to achieve the desired effect in a painting: tones, colours, shapes, composition, contrasts, texture, lights, shadows, etc. You can think about them as pairs (for instance light/shadow or soft edges/ hard edges) or as sliding scales between two extremes that the artist uses to fine tune the final painting.

All of these parameters are linked together. In one of his Lectures on Art, John Ruskin explained how light, shadows and colours are just different ways to describe the same thing:

“Painters who have no eye for colour have greatly confused and falsified the practice of art by the theory that shadow is an absence of colour. Shadow is, on the contrary, necessary to the full presence of colour; for every colour is a diminished quantity or energy of light; and, practically, it follows from what I have just told you - (that every light in painting is a shadow to higher lights, and every shadow a light to lower shadows) - that also every colour in painting must be a shadow to some brighter colour, and a light to some darker one.”

The task may seem daunting for any student who wants to progress. As soon as you correct one element in the painting, another parameter gets off balance. It’s like trying to learn juggling too many balls at once…

There are ways around this apparent complexity. Here are five suggestions:

1) Just paint what you see. Don’t try to analyse everything you do: just observe and paint what you see the way you see it. At the end of the session, put the painting away and, at the beginning of your next session, take a few minutes to analyze your work in progress. Shortcomings in your paintings are easier to see with a fresh eye.

2) You can draw or paint a quick tonal study before you start the actual painting. In the same way, a series of thumbnails will help you establish a good composition. These are ways to handle different parameters one after the other and get them sorted out before you start the actual painting.

3) You will find with experience that some aspects are best handled in a certain order. For instance, in oil paintings, it is easier to paint all edges as soft edges first, then to introduce hard edges where you want to draw the attention of the viewer.

4) When you study, you can isolate one particular element and concentrate on it. To use the orchestra metaphor again, it is like having all musicians rehearsing their part on their own before bringing the whole orchestra together.

5) Execute a series of small paintings with the same subject. For each painting, you can try out different effects or combinations of effects.