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Art History Talk "Painters for Painters"

by Lynn Schwebach

Instructors at the Boulder School of Fine Art say the word “squint” so many times that the students walk around with eyes barely open, an artist’s trick recently mimicked by a captive audience at the school’s art history talk “Painters for Painters” that took place April 8.

But the seated audience didn’t stumble into palettes or trays of drawing supplies as students often do when squinting and stepping back from an easel. Instead, they sat on chairs around a large screen following BSoFA Instructor Elena Cantor’s suggestion to squint hard at the paintings of Claude Monet (1840 – 1926), Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863 – 1923), Giacomo Favretto (1849 – 1887), and Antonio Mancini (1852 – 1930).

These are painters that inspire not only painters of today, but they inspired other artists who lived during their lifetimes, Cantor said.

But why squint?

Cantor explained that squinting allows for simplification, a way to capture the essence of form.

Claude Monet

For instance, squinting at “Sunrise,” one of Monet’s many fog paintings, the painter (and viewer) sees the shapes or dark forms of the boat with people in the foreground, as well as the sun. These more solid forms compose the focal point, and yet they are not painted with minute details. Here, Cantor explained, the painter takes a step back from the canvas, away from the linear, squints, and sees the delineation between lights and darks. Using simple brushstrokes, an image of nature that viewers know and recognize comes to life. And, somehow, “unbelievably, with the same feelings as if you, the viewer, are in that landscape,” Cantor added.

This method of squinting and simplification allows artists to select a focal point while the peripheral images remain out of focus, exactly as the eye sees nature.

Cantor began with Monet, because he inspired his contemporaries. “Everyone wanted to paint like Monet,” Cantor said.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida

Sorolla painted a bit tighter than Monet, Cantor said. But squinting at Sorolla’s composition of bulls, men, and a boat in the ocean, one sees the bulls as one large mass. The viewer knows these are bulls even though they are not precisely described. The painter does not have to paint the scene as a photograph, Cantor explains. These are paintings, and the viewer wants to experience them as such.

And not only does this type of simplification (squinting) make your life easier as a painter, but it makes the image more realistic because this is how people actually “see.”

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida

In the above painting by Sorolla, for example, the women in the foreground have features while those in the periphery lack any facial details. If we were observing these women in real life, this is exactly how our eyes would capture the image.

At BSoFA students undertake “academic” art training, which means learning to paint realism, or how light and shadow create form. They also learn about linearity – the quality of a line as to what makes a believable reproduction.

Academic training is very much about learning how to paint realistically, Cantor explains, who received her academic training at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy.

So, Cantor asked the audience, after viewing these works by the masters, does this mean that students still must learn the rigors of drawing, of excellent draughtsmanship?

“Yes, I strongly believe they must first learn the fundamentals,” she answered.

“What you are able to accomplish when you dominate the academic concepts is when things start to get interesting,” she said. “Once you are done with the basics then it’s about self- discovery; it’s about knowing what you want to do and how you want it to look; it’s about learning your soul and how to put it out there.”

This means that to create art at a high level, artists grab real knowledge that they studied hard for and put it together with expression, Cantor said.

Also, these artists used a lot of paint in their paintings, Cantor said. “Painters are captivated by the freedom of knowing your medium.”

When you see these paintings in person, you observe the thickness of paint on the canvas. This thickness often leads to a “painterly” style, as in the following paintings by Italian artists Giacomo Favretto, and Antonio Mancini.

Giacomo Favretto

Antonio Mancini

The second Friday of each month, BSoFA, located in Boulder, Colorado offers art history talks free and open to the public.


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