To the Unknown Helper #27: reflections on Mahler


I’ll tell you how the sun rose, —
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

(Emily Dickinson)

Of course, the first applications of color are ragged, but this gives life to later modeling. The point being to avoid any part of the canvas turning opaque save perhaps the highest lights. Everything must be a “glaze” (darker transparent or translucent paint over light) or a “scumble” (lighter paint over dark, but applied drily so that the warp and weft of the canvas catches the paint only).

Which means that the painting is a memory of the clear white gesso ground which can never match its purity but tries anyway.

A painter of the Umbrian school
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptized God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned

(TS Eliot: Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service)

Up until the late 18th century, a painting was a transparent or translucent record, a “written” record, of a labour process. What you did mattered and if you messed up you had to resolve it by doing even better in the pentimento, even as the Church had confession. What people hate about Poussin is that he did stumble, whereas that psycho Caravaggio had an unerring instinct, but only within a narrow and sado-masochistic range.

But, as a Marxist would say, economic relations became ever more complex and as what Ezra Pound called “usura” entered the market the painter began to think of painting as covering up, obscuring, mystifying the base by the grand superstructure.

Fra Angelico’s paintings in egg tempera allow us to see straight through to the light of primal creation, everything is silly, saelig, holy, blessed.

Sir Joshua Reynolds painting in the last gasp of the ancien regimes piles mud, bitumen, and ground up Egyptian Mummies in an attempt to make Lady Sarah Bunbury of all people look like a mythical creature.

The time was ripe for the Impressionists to say merde, and say, what you see is what you get, and once again let the light from the canvas through.

The skin tones are going to take work to use the roughness and the redness to give life to later glazes. I started out at the top of the forehead forgetting how powerful Winsor and Newton’s “cadmium” (nonpoisonous) red is but lightened this. I can use this redness along with siena glazes, because she is brown from the sun. I see more red in her hair while keeping it blonde.

I picked up the wrong blue, a “Winsor” blue but it turned out to be perfect for the chiton-sari. I realized that the entire garment needs to be this color in reference to the Virgin Mary, rather than a multicolored sari which just seems too garish in my coloured pencil studies.

I have a jar of Winsor and Newton’s gloss medium which is good for details. The nose and face have a subtle bone architecture which needs to be brought out.

with usura

hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall
harpes et luthes
or where virgin receiveth message
and halo projects from incision,

(Ezra Pound Canto LXV)

Edward G. Nilges, “State of the Unknown Helper as of 5 Aug 2010”: Acrylic on canvas, 50*60 cm, photo taken with cheapassed digital camera and computer enhanced.

Edward G. Nilges, “Detail of State of the Unknown Helper as of 5 Aug 2010”: Acrylic on canvas, 50*60 cm, photo taken with cheapassed digital camera and computer enhanced.

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