Through the years when I have taught drawing classes my students often finish the class saying that they see the world around them differently than they used to. They notice things they never even realized were there before, whether an actual object, or part of a landscape, or sometimes simply a shadow that is cast. We are often in such a hurry as we go about our business that we rush right past the world around us, and never notice the beauty that lies right in front of us every day. I suppose as artists we have more of a tendency to notice things. We also tend to find beauty in things that others may consider useless or ugly. Since my recent work is focusing more in finding beauty in these overlooked, or discarded places and objects, I have been researching artists who do the same like Rackstraw Downes and Josephine Halvorson.
Interestingly enough, both Downes and Halvorson work plein-air which means that they actually work outside and from life as opposed to using photographs as reference. My schedule has never really permitted me the time to do this, but the more research I do, the more I realize that a lot of the work I admire has in fact been created using this method. One of the primary differences between the approaches of these two artists is that Downes will revisit a location every day for months to complete a single painting, whereas Halvorson sets out early in the morning and typically completes her work in a single day regardless of how long it takes. I can see how setting those parameters to essentially, "not leave until it's finished," can help you to focus and complete a painting, but there always seem to be interruptions. Until I can with certainty set aside an entire day to paint, I will refrain from imposing those parameters on myself. I would however love to work plein-air at some point and see what approach works for me.
Although both Downes and Halvorson work from life, they each have a way of "cropping" a snippet of the world around them to create an interesting composition in their work. Downes tends to focus on a broader subject. He typically creates desolate landscapes and street scenes: sometimes urban, sometimes rural. His work often includes abandoned buildings, or the underside of overpasses and bridges which add visual interest to his work. His intricately detailed compositions seem to compose the elements of everyday life in a way that makes the viewer sit up an notice the beauty in the overlooked. It may be the starkness of an empty building in a field in the middle of nowhere, or how the curve of an overpass frames a busy street below, but Downes seems to be able to make the viewer more keenly aware of the environment around them.
Like Downes, Halvorson works with both rural and urban subjects capturing the essence of her subject. While Downes' focus is on a broader scale, Halvorson hones in on her subject, braking it down almost to the point of abstraction. She will find a small portion of her subject that captures her interest and leave the rest to the imagination. Both artists work in fine detail, but while Downes captures a scene, Halvorson crops her image down to a small detail that she enlarges to the point that is becomes simply a collection of colors and shapes. I relate to her work on many levels.
One of the projects I often included in my drawing classes was trip to a scenic area on the Savannah River in Columbia County, GA. My students would arrive with feelings of being both excited and overwhelmed. We would usually plan these trips on a beautiful day in either the spring or fall, so everyone was eager to sit outside and work rather than sitting in the classroom working from a still life. Upon arrival though, they were often overwhelmed but the vastness of the landscape. I would then direct them to notice those odd little things like a drain pipe with an awesome shadow, or a particular rock with multi textured plants growing around it, etc. that they never really considered when they were engrossed in the vast scene before them. Both points of view are of the same subject, but focus on something very different to create beautiful compositions. This is how I feel about the work of Rackstraw Downes and Josephine Halvorson. Both work with over-looked subjects using a detailed painting approach but focus on different views of their subject.
I feel that my work fits in between these artists somewhere. I am exploring similar subjects as both: the over-looked, alleyways, abandoned deteriorating buildings, places that don't necessarily seem pretty at first sight, and may even be uncomfortable if you were actually there. But I paint them in a way that makes you reconsider their aesthetic significance. I am not painting as broad an area as Downes, but I do find myself drawn to a lot of the same intimate details of subjects that Halvorson seems to focus on. When I paint on a grid of canvases and later break the image down I am honing in as close or closer to my subject as Halvorson which really emphasizes the textures and colors that compose that detail of the subject that seems so rich. Using the grid seems to allow me to create the whole image, but then later select smaller abstractions the seem to interact with each other in a way that I may not have noticed while I was working on the whole. Seeing other artists that work in a more realistic technique and using similar subject matter to what I am currently focusing on, inspires me to continue exploring where this line of inquiry may lead.