Thursday, April 30, 2015

Simplifying Sharaku

After Vermeer let’s go for something from the 18th century – not from Europe but from the Japanese Edo Ukiyoe – The Floating World of samurais, geishas and Noh actors.

Tôshûsai Sharaku was one of art history’s most fascinating figures and appeared on the Ukiyoe printmaking scene like an alien from outer space. He produced an astonishing body of work in a very brief ten month period in 1794-95. The number of works was also small – if each sheet produced were counted separately then the total would be 145 known individual sheets. 

Finding the real Sharaku has long been a matter of controversy and, so far, he remains unidentified. One theory that he was an Osaka based Noh actor who visited Edo (Tokyo) appears to be the most plausible. As quickly as he appeared he sank without trace. One possible explanation for this is the radical and caricature-like way in which Sharaku displayed the actors. It might have been regarded as offensive towards them and their fans. Sharaku prints were so much out of conformity that they apparently did not sell well. The public wanted idealized depictions of their favourite actors instead of exaggerated but truthful portraits. The combination of a hostile art scene, a bad commercial outcome and an artist who was not willing to make any compromises, sounds like a plausible theory for his mysterious disappearance.


Sharaku's prints were descriptive and the expressions of the actors are extremely vigorous and exaggerated - close to caricatures. The Sharaku prints seem like a snapshot catching the character, the mood and momentary emotions of the actor. The designs reflected not only what was seen on the surface but also empathized with what was being felt by both the actor as a real person and by the stage character he was performing. The most expressive of his portraits were more complex psychologically than were the portraits of his contemporaries. Remember also that the actors were all male so some of Sharaku’s women portraits, above left, are hinting at sexual duality.

We can also observe Sharaku's use of bold, thick lines for the eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, in contrast to the thin, delicate lines of the remainder of the face. So for this interpretation I have focused on the eyes and eyebrows of the Sharaku actor, above right, and his sensational profile. I was lucky too see, at the Japan Foundation in Chifley Tower, an exhibition in 2004 of works celebrating the 200th anniversary of Sharaku’s brief but explosive career. The art works were mainly by graphic designers and my interpretation of Sharaku is heavily influenced by their style. Here is my finished Homage to Sharaku measuring 20 x 30 cm.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Reworking the classics - Vermeer

"Good design is simple; that's why it's so difficult"
Paul Rand

My latest project is a reworking of some Old (and New) Masters. Having completed over 30 glass ‘drypoints’ for sale at the Paddington Art Markets I wanted to try something a little bit different.
The plan is to simplify well-known paintings by well-known artists and create the whole, or a detail, in fused or copper foiled glass. It will be a challenge to change a piece of art everyone recognizes and simplify it, using mainly straight lines, into a workable image. It will almost end up as a cartoon.

I should say at this point that while I am ‘appropriating’ all the works I will fully ‘attribute’ the artist’s original work. I am not trying to ‘copy’ anything; rather I am trying to interpret and create a ‘new’ work in the medium of glass.
Let’s remember now that I am not a trained artist let alone having any graphic design background. However, I hope my technical expertise and imagination will get me through.

Each piece will be framed and accompanied by an image of the original work, some biographical notes about the artist and some technical notes about how the pieces were made.

So, where to start? I debated whether I should begin at A and work towards Z or whether I should start with Lascaux cave paintings and move on chronologically. In the end I am going to kick off with an artist who I have long admired and who was under appreciated for 200 years. I also have a friend who can trace his family line all the way back to Vermeer in 1665 so he might even buy the piece!

The artist is Jan Vermeer, born 1632 and died 1675 in Delft, the Netherlands. He studied under Carel Fabritius (Rembrandt’s most inspired pupil) and entered the art Guild of St Luke in 1653. He was largely ignored during his life and died heavily in debt leaving a widow and 11 children. His genius was rediscovered in 1860, not least by the Impressionist dealers the Frères Goncourt, and there are now about 40 works attributed to Vermeer. Most of them are beautifully posed interiors with self-absorbed people and his handling of side light and shadows is masterful.

Having chosen Vermeer then I figured I might as well start with probably his most famous work – The Girl with the Pearl Earring - most famous because of the Colin Firth and Scarlet Johansson movie.

Vermeer was a great artist but even now some historians are critical of his work because he used a camera obscura that allowed him to project the subject image onto the painting surface. Critics say that this is ‘copying’; I think it is revolutionary innovation for his time. Vermeer’s painting techniques were to layer thin glazes of colour to build up light and shadow, broad areas of flat colour underpainting and ‘alla prima’ (a painting technique in which layers of wet paint are applied to previous layers of wet paint).

Now to the simplification and appropriation. I am looking for strong shapes that I can block out with straight lines so that it can be adapted for glass. First thing to do is to focus in on the face, turban and earring. This means losing her right eye and beautiful profile – my thinking is that to square off her face would lead to a worse compositional outcome. Then block out the main areas of colour so that it will still look like the girl and select the glass to match those colours.

I am using Bullseye glass for this piece though ordinarily I would choose Spectrum because it is smoother and easier to cut cleanly. Having cut all the pieces – just like for a stained glass window or a wooden marquetry work – they are then assembled with a layer of clear on top. 

Into the kiln for a full fuse (up to 810°C) and 24 hours later here is the finished piece before framing. It measures 210 x 210 mm square and framed it will 280 x 290 mm. I could have cut a little more precisely and taken a better photograph but the iridescent black background works really well and I am pleased with the skin tones.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Glass 'drypoint etchings'

Geisha (after Karhu)

I have been using ‘liquid glass’ paints for a while and really like their colour range and versatility. I use them to create ‘glass drypoint etchings’ where the fusible glass paint is applied as a line to resemble an etching. It’s a great way to combine fused glass with printmaking though I admit it is more of a drawing technique. My techniques are certainly not unique but I have not seen any other artist create framed glass art in exactly this way.
This is not glass painting though –it is still kiln-formed fused glass. The first glass artist to make ‘liquid glass’ was Richard la Londe who mixed glass powders into CMC (carboxy methyl cellulose) and then applied it using a small bottle or a cake-icing bag. His technique was then to fill in the outlined space with frit and powders to create a picture.
‘Glassline’ and ‘Colour Line’ paints are ready to use glass enamels where the enamel is suspended in a paste/medium that allows them to be applied as a lining and shading material for glass art. They're easy to use, can be thinned with water and come with a metal tip set, recommended for fine line drawings on glass. The colour range is impressive – over 30 colours - and because they can be blended and diluted there is a lot of room for experimentation.
They can be applied between multiple layers of glass (any COE including float glass), on the top surface for a complex dimensional look, sprayed using an airbrush kit to achieve subtle shading variations on glass, applied using a brush and in printmaking (screen and relief). If the glass has been sandblasted or engraved (say with a Dremel diamond tool) then the paints can be used just like etching inks. This is really a modified vitreograph (the artist uses 10mm thick float glass as the matrix and etches into the glass surface then prints with etching inks) where a one-off fused piece is made.
These glass ‘etchings’ were created using fusible Glassline paint and two layers of Spectrum 96 glass. The piece was full fused to 810°C and then framed in a recycled frame for display at home or work. This is a unique and affordable piece of glass art created and handmade in Australia.
If you have a photograph that you would like to have as a glass ‘etching’ then get in touch and I will happily create it for you.

Venice III - Grand Canal