Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education
Today’s inspiration, In the Garden #51, currently on display in By Women, is a diptych, a single work composed of two panels. Compare the two sides–how do they relate to one another? The left panel clearly depicts a garden scene, with a stone statue reflected in a pool and surrounded by greenery. The right panel, however, if viewed independently, might be a little more difficult to discern, but when viewed side-by-side as intended, we can see how Bartlett simplified and modified the original garden scene to abstract it. There is a tendency to think of abstract art as not based in reality–the artist just painted or drew whatever they felt like! While this is sometimes the case, abstraction really exists on a continuum. Fully abstract art is known as non-objective, while works like the right half of In the Garden #51 are really only slightly abstracted. Bartlett simplified the shapes and changed some colors, and chose not to fully render the objects, but leave some blank, negative space.
Use your hand to cover up the left side of the picture and imagine you’re viewing it for the first time: would you still identify it as a landscape? I think I would! There are a few crucial elements that Bartlett chose to retain, like the horizon line and the sense of depth through her use of perspective, which prompt our brains to interpret this image as representing a physical space. This is, in fact, one concept that Bartlett explores through her work–how do we see and process images?
You probably noticed that this drawing’s title is numbered, which indicates that it is part of a series. During a year spent at a friend’s villa in Nice, France, Jennifer Bartlett created around 200 drawings of the same garden scene. She then went on to produce paintings and prints based on the drawings, all created between 1980 and 1983. When she arrived at the villa in the winter of 1979, she was initially disappointed at the grey weather and the run-down house, but decided to work with what she had: a small backyard garden with a pool, statue, and dense line of cypress trees. Like Claude Monet’s famed water lilies series of about 250 works, Bartlett drew the garden at various times of day, in different seasons, from varying points-of-view, and with all kinds of media. She also experimented with technique; many, like Garden #51, are diptychs or triptychs, with each panel employing a different style.
Why draw the same thing over and over? Well, once you’re familiar with a subject, it can become a vehicle for experimentation! Bartlett and the Impressionists before her weren’t just drawing or painting a garden, they were investigating all kinds of other ideas. Like them, we’re going to be working outside, or en plein air, with whatever surroundings we have. Step out into your backyard and find a comfy seat with a view (preferably in the shade!). Plein air drawing or painting is also a great, socially-distanced activity to do with a friend, so today I’m not drawing alone! I’m joined by our high school intern, Galeena, so you’ll see her work below too.
- Drawing paper
- Oil pastels (or really any other drawing medium you prefer)
- A board to draw on
- Pencil (optional)
First, choose your view. Working en plein air comes with its own set of practical challenges that you may want to take into consideration: Do you have a place to set your supplies? Is it sheltered from the wind? Are you in the sun (if so, do you have water and sunscreen?)?
You also, of course, have to consider the composition of your drawing. I chose this particular view because I liked the shapes and angles created by the brick pavers and the Arts United Center in the background, the corner of the hedge just visible through Cary Shafer’s Tilted Arch, and the repeating circles of the gate and manhole cover.
We’ll start with the more realistic or representational drawing so we can really get familiar with the scene. Sketch the general shapes with pencil first, if you prefer.
Next, start filling in with color! Oil pastels blend together nicely, so if you don’t have a color you need, you can layer them on top of each other, then use white to blend. Be careful though, because you can reach a point where the paper won’t take any more buildup of color. Work from larger shapes to smaller details.
Now, let’s draw it again! Take a look at your scene and at your drawing, and decide which elements you find most interesting, and which you may want to leave out of your abstracted version.
Here are a few different ways to abstract something:
- Simplify shapes. I chose to focus on the overall shape of the arch rather than trying to incorporate each individual stone, and the tree and hedge became more flat, geometric green shapes rather than something with branches and leaves.
- Exaggerate or emphasize shapes, colors, and angles. For example, I enlarged the two half-circles on the gate and exaggerated the color of the rusty metal to a much brighter red-orange.
- Change the colors to fit a color scheme of your choosing!
- Zoom in. Getting really close to something, using a perspective we’re not used to, is also a way of abstracting it (think about Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings!).
- Edit. You don’t need to include every detail, just those that you find most interesting or that serve your composition.
Here is my abstract version almost done! I decided there was just a little too much white space and wanted to clean up my lines a bit more.
Galena’s finished diptych (left) and mine! Can you tell the different ways we chose to abstract our scenes?