Updated September 1, 2020.
My favorite artist I Whistler. I have loved him since high school. I’ve read many biographies of him and a few years ago I realized just how much I love him. It’s also made me realize how, decades after I first saw them, his paintings delight me.
It’s also made me realize why I have rarely used him as an influence in my needlepoint. I always thought I had to embrace all of Whistler and he is a prickly fellow indeed. But I don’t have to do that. As with any artist you love, there are characteristics you can isolate and adapt to your work.
I’m going to embark on a process to try this, the picture above was my first attempt. Some things I know I can do, others I don’t know I they can be done. But we’ll see.
The first step is to tease out what you want to do. For Whistler there are five characteristics. My plan is to find one or two canvases in my stash to try each of these ideas to see if I can get them to work in needlepoint. You could also do this with other artists you know and love.
The Nocturne Effect
Whistler called many of his twilight and night scenes, usually of the Thames, nocturnes, largely because he wanted people to see them as combinations of color, not as particular scenes. After his portrait of his mother, they are what most people think of as “typical” Whistler.
His method of getting the backgrounds that are not quite a single color, but don’t really have several colors was to use washes, many transparent layers of paint. With washes you dilute the paint until it is a hint of color in something transparent. As you build layers of color, each color might show through a bit.
I’ve thought about this for years, and finally I have a couple ideas on how to do this in needlepoint.
In both the nocturnes and in many of his portraits, the important things emerge out of the background. My favorite example of this is this portrait of a violinist in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. Dressed in a tuxedo, your eyes immediately go to the most color in the piece — the hands holding the violin. The hands and his face emerge from the black suit and background to be a compelling focal point. Whistler uses this idea often, though not always as startlingly.
As stitchers we avoid emergence, we see matching background and figure as a flaw — but can we embrace it effectively? We’ll see.
Japanese art was a huge influence on Western art in the last half of the Nineteenth Century. Whistler embraced it more thoroughly than most. There have even been exhibits comparing his work with matching Japanese pieces.
One aspect he incorporated into almost every work, from very early in his career is asymmetry. His pieces are not balanced. Often the focal point is off-center. Or the background is unbalanced.
We tend to find symmetry more compelling than asymmetry, but how can we incorporate this better in our work?
A painting is not a photograph. When you paint you simplify and leave out things, big or small, the camera would pick up. This is done deliberately in artworks to put emphasis on what is most important.
Most of the time our work as stitchers is already simplified for us, but not always. How can I do this better?
Whistler tended to use a very narrow range of colors in most of his paintings. Although there are some exceptions, a work with shades of one or two colors is more usual.
Although there are plenty of folks who would accuse me of being a queen of subtle palettes, this is usually in my geometric pieces. In realistic things, I go for many colors.
But what if I didn’t? What if I took a canvas and did it in a Whistler palette? Would it work?