No matter what creative art form you choose, that mystical process in your head will be exploring the question of what subject to paint, photograph, or write about.
Technique is your calling card, but subject is the soul of an artist. Why you choose what you choose as the central focus of a painting, a novel or short story, a film or a photograph, and even a song, delves deep into the gray matter that makes each artist unique. It’s where you tap into the full blueprint of your experience via your individual emotional wiring to deliver your personal statement to the world.
Andy Warhole chose soupcans and moviestars, while Degas chose ballerinas. Van Gogh had his haystacks, Monet his cathedrals and waterlilies, Gaughin his tropical paradise, and Rubens his voluptuous women. Why did they find these things interesting enough to paint again and again? It’s the same question you would apply to your own work: what interests you enough that you would spend weeks, months, or even years writing/painting/singing about it? And how do you reach your subject through your art?
Iconic painter Andrew Wyeth died earlier this year at the age of 91, leaving behind a huge legacy of work exploring the notion of subject. “The object is the art,” he said, many times. “I feel the subjects I paint are far bigger than I am.” He couldn’t have been more wrong, since his mark is all over every subject he ever chose. Each tempera demonstrated painstaking detail given to the most ordinary of subjects: a field of grass, the worn wood panels of a barn door, rusty buckets dimly reflecting late afternoon sun. And it is just this choice of simple subjects from everyday life that have teased people’s imaginations since the hauntingly odd Christina’s World in 1948.
His approach to his work and his life offers lessons to artists of all kinds:
Find Your Muse(s)…But Listen to Your Own Creative Heart
Andrew Wyeth was raised in a culturally and artistically rich environment, surrounded by some of the most famous and talented artists and writers of the day. His burly and overbearing father, N.C. Wyeth, was one of the most popular American illustrators of all time, known for his illustrations the classic Scribner books, Robin Hood, The Last of the Mohicans, The Yearling, and Treasure Island, as well as hundreds of magazine covers. N.C. was a controlling man who directed all of his children’s art careers and personal lives, and his youngest, Andrew, was under his thumb throughout his childhood. Due to illness, Andrew was homeschooled, which meant under the constant tutelage of his famous father, a man he revered and feared at the same time. Andrew launched into an early successful career painting vibrant (and sometimes violent) watercolors and by the age of 25, Andrew made the cover of American Artist Magazine.
Andrew would probably have followed his father into a disappointingly careful commercial career guided by the need for financial security had he not already met Betsy James, a local girl in Chadds Ford, a few years earlier. N.C. discouraged Andrew from getting too serious, as he considered marriage the ruin of a painter’s career, but Andrew married her two years later. N.C. kept them close by offering them housing on his property, where they were also under his supervision, but his influence was waning. At 18, Betsy lived for her husband’s art, and encouraged him to take risks to do paint what he felt inside. It wasn’t about success anymore. With his new wife by his side, it was about art. She saw everything he did, asked questions that led him to think about what he intended, and she commented honestly on what she saw. He felt his early married years pushed him to reveal an honesty his work had never demonstrated before.
Choose Your Palette—The colors and tone that you view your world through
Just as deliberate as his choice of subject was his choice of medium. At the urging of his intelligent and strong-willed bride, Betsy, Wyeth decided to abandon color in a search for the honesty of his subjects. And so, after an initially successful career in watercolors, he switched abruptly around 1940 to tempera to exploit detail without the distraction of color.
Tempera is an egg-based medium that captures a remarkable range of muted golds, yellows, browns, and soft whites, while also muting reds, blues and greens. The colors are washed and faded compared to the vibrance of oils or watercolors, a look that was exactly what he was seeking.
Do Your Own Thing
Andrew’s famous father, most of his artistic family (with the exception of Betsy), and his art associates actively discouraged his shift to tempera that would produce a large body of his most expressive and important works. “I’d made my name with watercolors and a great fluency,” Richard Meryman reported in Andrew Wyeth, A Secret Life, “and they thought I was retreating into stupidity by wanting to do every feather on a buzzard’s wing.” (Wyeth is referring to the painting, Soaring, which he abandoned after his father’s criticism, and many years later, when he finished it, sold it quickly for a large sum). Wyeth later rejected Betsy’s influence as well, hiding a series of 240 pieces from her over a 15-year period.
Examine the Small Things
It was this magnificent capacity for separating detail without the romantic veil of color that appealed to him, and he never tired of it. Over the next six decades, although he sometimes drifted back to the excitement of his early watercolors, the majority of his paintings were carefully layered tempera depictions of local people he knew in the simple, harsh country settings of Cushing, Maine, and Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Wyeth was fascinated with texture, particularly wood. He often captured the sides of barns, the heavy, foot-worn boards of farmhouse floors, weather-beaten window ledges, small wooden boats, the wrinkles of weather-worn faces, or the ripple of a lace curtin as breeze blows through it. These simple elements defined him as an artist as much as he defined them in the paintings.
Peer Inside Your Characters (Subjects)….
One of the features that so fiercely contributes to the international fascination with Andrew Wyeth that has persisted for half a century is his unswerving look at people as they are, and his heart-stopping ability to find beauty in the worn faces and misshapen and aged bodies they inhabit. The exquisite placement of the seemingly young, beautiful girl on the field in the pretty pink dress draws us in closer to Christina’s World. If you look closely, the misshapen hand propping her up is apparent. If you want to ask the question of why she is sitting in such a twisted fashion in a field so far from the farmhouse, you can…But most of us don’t.
It is the richness of the stories of the people he painted that makes them come to life. He painted the Finn, and the innocent 15-year old Siri Erickson, his close friend, the Norwegian Walt Anderson, and of course, the most famous of his subjects, Christina Olson (whose death in 1968 was reported internationally in the news). These were the people he knew in Maine, not so much because he liked them, but more because he sat in on their lives to study and paint them.
In Chadds Ford, there were the Kuerners, a harsh older German couple who lived on a nearby farm. Karl Kuerner was an avid hunter and outdoorsman, cold, and as Wyeth described him, capable of immense cruelty. His wife, Anna, was the discheveled haus frau who had lost her sanity due to the isolation from her parents in the homeland. She looked much older than her years, and every bit the crazy woman she was. And yet he found something calm and dignified in her, and held it long enough to paint.
…But Tell Your Story
Even for these little moments, he knew his subjects well enough to tell—not their story, but his story about them. Wyeth made no claim to be a biographer. Christina’s World was as far away from an accurate depiction of the solitary, middle-aged, crippled woman who dragged herself across the dirt to get into her house from the barn as a painting could get. It was not her life, but his view of what her world could look like that made that painting so spectacular. He found beauty in the smallest moment, a respite from the terrifying harshness of life that can come in the simple breeze of a summer’s day.
In Chadds Ford, starting in 1970, he began painting in secret his most controversial series of 240 pencil studies, watercolors, and tempera paintings, known as the “Helga” paintings. The subject of these was Helga Testorf, a married local Prussian immigrant woman, who sat privately for the many artworks and later turned to art herself.
Wyeth studied many sides of Helga, clothed and nude, from age 32 to 47, and felt he reached something inside that could not be seen by others. Of the last work, Refuge, painted in 1985, he said he could feel she was “pulling away from life.” Interestingly, Helga told Richard Meryman, Wyeth’s biographer, that it was Wyeth who was pulling away. “He was so consumed in his own thoughts—so driven—he didn’t know what was going on around him….He wouldn’t talk. I kept thinking, what’s going on? I felt it the whole time.”
Clearly, the world of Andrew Wyeth is one only he could have painted.
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Perhaps we don’t all want to be consumed by our art to the degree that we sacrifice our lives to it, but we also want to feel we connected with something real and enduring, if only in small ways. That is how our personal art grows and is nourished. You have to push yourself toward your subject in ways you never thought you would, and let the answers reveal you as an artist.
The life and work of Andrew Wyeth are being celebrated through a full summer series of events at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, including lectures by Wyeth’s granddaughter, Victoria Wyeth. It’s worth a few days’ visit to go—since the Hyde sits on the edge of the Adirondacks. This region is rich with beautiful landscapes and a HUGE arts culture, which I chronicle in my other blog as Albany Public Arts Examiner.
If you’re not going to make it to upstate NY this year, then look for Wyeth exhibits at one of two websites devoted to his work by people in his close circle, his widow, Betsy, and his manager, Frank Fowler. You can also visit the Brandywine River Museum near his lifelong home in Pennsylvania, which houses not only 40 pieces of Andrew’s work, but also a catalog of paintings by his famous father, N.C. Wyeth. Guided tours of NC’s studio and home, and the Kuerner Farm and surround areas captured in Andrew’s paintings are arranged by the Museum.
A list of other museums that carry Andrew Wyeth’s work can be found here: http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/wyeth_andrew.html
REFERENCES – Excellent books I recommend:
Meryman, Richard (1996). Andrew Wyeth, A Secret Life. Harper-Collins Publishers, NY.
The Brandywine River Museum (Eds). 1971. The Brandywine Heritage. The Brandywine River Museum, Pub. Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
Wyeth, Andrew (1995). Andrew Wyeth Autobiography, with Introduction by Thomas Hoving. Little Brown Company, Boston, New York, Toronto, London.
Wyeth, Andrew (1976). Two worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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