This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
I got lost in the National Gallery of Scotland a couple of weeks ago, and thereby realised just how familiar I had become with my new local permanent collection. Between visits, the gallery had acquired some new works on loan which had precipitated a rehang. I used my usual navigation techniques but key images had been replaced and so expected signals did not come on cue and I lapped the building several times before I understood what was happening. Prior to moving to Edinburgh my local collection was a handful of workaday landscapes and portraits occasionally on display at the local museum. Even so, it had provided something I could go and look at and think about my own art work in relationship to, coming after a lifetime’s relationship with the National Gallery in London that I had built up since childhood and which is still very important to me.
Visiting a national or significant collection as a practising artist or art student is a very great pleasure. There is a level of engagement which can feel at times almost like a private conversation with the exhibited artists across the decades or centuries. The better student learning logs are always those that recognise this reflexivity and engage with the work as an artist as well as spectator.
A positive of getting lost and the subsequent efforts at getting back on track was that I saw work that I hadn’t seen before or hadn’t seen for a while. This included a couple of small Fantin Latour’s which I wanted to blog about for students on the painting degree, especially level one.
Henri Fantin Latour was a 19th century painter (and lithographer) who is famous for his paintings of flowers and people. His paintings demand to be seen in person as they reveal an entirely different nature to that implied in books or online. From a distance, or in print, his work seems finely detailed and carefully crafted. This is true – but that does not translate to a flat fine surface. The two little flower studies at Edinburgh look for all the world as if they have been constructed from rice pudding and raspberry sauce. The surface has lumps the size of rice grains, and much of the colour is created by an on canvas swirling of two contrasting colours to get an optical mid point.
These paintings are careful and well constructed, but the care is in the looking, and the sensitivity to the materials and the subject, it doesn’t necessarily need to translate literally to a pace of attack or type of mark making. The breadth of marks at Fantin Latour’s disposal and his familiarity with paint is inspirational. For OCA students, those early mark making exercises at level one should be the first steps in a lifelong journey to understanding what you want to do with paint and regular gallery visits will open your mind to paint’s potential. I would encourage all level one students of painting to attend whatever art gallery that you can, and be selfish. How was it made, why was it made, how can it help you, how is it similar / different to your own work? Active looking will reap rewards.