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March 20, 2007

Nudes in Nature

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Just over two years ago I guest-blogged about my lousy art school training.

An event I didn't mention was an oil-painting class assignment involving a nude and the grounds of the University of Washington campus. I'm bringing it up now because it makes a nice little hook for some observations.

I just lied.

That linked article did make passing reference to the model. In introductory drawing classes we had a fifty-ish woman who stripped down to her undies to pose. When we graduated from 100 to 200 or 300-level courses requiring a live model, she went "all the way" wardrobe-wise. The other models weren't much more appealing. Until one happy day when a really fine-looking young lady showed up to pose.

Sadly, she wasn't happy with her work and managed to skip quite a few sessions. But we dabbed and smeared away regardless.

Later in the term the teacher had us go outdoors to sketch trees, bushes, grass and other springtime backdrops with the idea that the finished painting would feature the nude in a natural setting. Nearly 50 years later, I now get what he was up to. I think.

You see, nudes and nature don't easily mix. I suspect that was the Truth we were supposed to winkle out of our experience in this project.

I need to explain more fully. If you read the linked article above you'll discover that instructors at the School of Art at the University of Washington towards the end of the 1950s were extremely reluctant to teach us anything for fear that some vital creative spark or another would get extinguished. A few times we got a cursory explanation of the color wheel, but I remember hearing nothing about how to mix skin color or the colors of grass, trees, and so on. I suppose a few students had taken the initiative to buy some how-to books, but silly me assumed that teachers would be teaching us what we needed to know. So I naïvely simply squeezed out green paints from some tubes to deal with foliage.

I completed my nu dans la forêt effort and that was that. I finally threw the painting away when I stumbled across it while cleaning out my parents' house 16 years ago. I knew it wasn't very good, but wasn't sure why -- probably personal incompetence coupled with the lack of instruction. All true, but there was more to it.

One reason why nudes and nature don't easily mix is because we seldom see naked people sitting on a lawn or wandering through meadows next to a woods. Seeing that in a painting tends to bring everything to a halt while we construct a reason for what we are seeing -- a story, if you will. Classical scenes tend to reduce this mental pause because (if one has a Classical education) the viewer reads the painting's title, says "Aha!" to himself and then takes in the scene. The artist needs to deal with this story-telling factor.

Then there are technical considerations that tend to outweigh situational problems of viewers. Consider the color wheel that I noted above:

Color wheel

Caucasian flesh, not counting highlights and shade, can be represented by mixing red, yellow and a lot of white oil paint. Call it a light pinkish-orange. The color wheel shown above could use another couple of rings at the outside to depict the color I'm trying to describe, but it would be someplace along the left edge of the wheel. The colors of trees, grass and water are roughly opposite flesh color or tend from there towards the yellow a ways.

What we're dealing with are near-complementary colors and complementary colors tend to clash unless steps are taken to mute them. Think how garish red and green Christmas decorations tend to be.

A sunlit nude against a greenish natural background will usually "jump out" at the viewer. The contrast will work against the concept of "holding the picture together" because of this pulling-apart tendency. This might not bother some contemporary artists; indeed, such contrast might suit their attention-getting purposes. But this is a serious problem for painters of a more traditional bent.

Let's take a look.


The Bathers - Gustave Courbet, 1853
This is a classic case of a brightly-lit nude against a contrasting background. The earth on which the nude is standing along with the clothed figure cut down the amount of green. Nevertheless, I think Courbet could have done better.

Le dejeuner sur l'herbe - Eduard Manet, 1863
The colors in this reproduction might be a bit muted, but I think Manet's nude tends to jump out of the picture.

Biblis - William Bouguereau, c. 1886
Here the nude is better integrated because Bouguereau placed her on a large area of similar color while reducing the amount of green in the setting.

Dream - Henri Rousseau, 1910
Selt-taught Rousseau slightly retards the "jumping out" factor by scattering bits of flesh-like colors across the painting. Also, dark-light contrasts make other objects in the painting jump out, thereby reducing the nude's tendency to do so.

Blue Nude - Henri Matisse, 1907
Matisse, on the other hand, includes blue and purple background colors on the nude to help tie the picture together.

Dagmar - Anders Zorn
Zorn integrates the nude by reducing the amount of greens and greying them. Note that some of the rocks echo the skin colors, achieving further integration.

My painting instructor really should have gone into this matter and gotten us thinking about the problem of near-complementary colors and how to deal with them. Our nude-in-nature painting would have been improved and it might have led us to more serious thinking about what we were seeing.



posted by Donald at March 20, 2007


I've heard it said that Zorn used a remarkably limited palatte of colors (something like 3-4-5 total, including white and black) which might account for his success at getting everything to sit properly in space.

A question for you, Donald, and our readers: Why do you suppose that painting the nude in nature became a sort of mass artistic project during the second half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century (I'm thinking of the Fauves and German Expressionism, I suppose.) Some sort of late Romantic impulse? Some reaction to Victorian sex roles? Some reaction to industrialization and urbanization? This impulse seems pretty much spent by the 1930s. I confess I really have no idea that strikes me as terribly convincing--I'm open to suggestions!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 20, 2007 2:46 PM

Did Rubens, that great painter of the female nude, paint his nudes in natural, primarily green, settings? I'm not sure if he did. But Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto did. And their solution, if memory serves, was to play down the green (or mute the green) and play up the touches of red and yellow in the bare earth or rocks. They also threw in a bit of warm sky (blue but fired with reds and golds).

The German Expressionists often solved the problem by giving their nudes brick colored skin.

Posted by: ricpic on March 20, 2007 3:12 PM

Friedrich -- It's too late to commission a sample survey of Victorians, so speculation based on thin evidence is the order of the day.

My version of Occam's Razor has it that, aside from their wives, very serious girlfriends and Ladies of the Night, Victorian-era guys didn't get so see much in the way of nekkid wimmin.

Consider fashion. Yes necklines were sometimes low, but that was about it. Contrast this with the suggestive clothing worn when the French Revolution lost its steam and flapper garb of the 20s.

Most Victorian paintings with nudes used Classical themes to provide a fig-leaf to the genre.

The was an art show devoted to Victorians nudes not long ago and I have the book -- in Seattle, where I won't be till this weekend. I suppose conrtibuters say something about this.

Then again, plenty of nudes were painted during the Renaissance. For the same reason?

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 20, 2007 3:23 PM

Prior to moving to Chattanooga one week ago I would have said that those women were big. Now, about average.


Posted by: Don McArthur on March 20, 2007 3:26 PM

Fun eye-training, tks. Color tends to baffle me, so all help is appreciated.

As for Don's comment, he's so right. The Wife and I once visited the south (which we loved) and realized that we could put on 30 pounds and still look slim there.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 20, 2007 4:52 PM

If you want to read much more about nudes in landscape than you probably will, see if you can find Meyer Schapiro's essay "Cezanne & Apples" on the Internet

Posted by: susan on March 21, 2007 10:48 AM

While regular victorians didn't see many nudes, the artists who trained in ateliers saw them every day, for years. Its part attraction, and part habit. You'll see many vaunted realists these days who do practically the same thing. With the artists here, they can obviously make the picture artistic (for the most part). But a lot of realism is pretty mechanical, as the painters tend to be mostly trained copyists who are good at copying things.

In other words, a lot of these guys paint nudes all the time because they haven't really risen above the level of doing art school studies. They lack imagination, in my opinion. They just pass off studies as finished works these days.

Zorn is an exception to this. His compostions are wonderful, and painting top-notch. Many claimed that he used only yellow ochre, vermillion, black and white paint, but he did use others too. However, I think those four were his basic palette, that he added to as needed. I'm sure he used cobalt blue and probably a cadmium or chrome yellow in some paintings.

Most painting pre-late ninteenth century had muted colors because they only had muted pigments from which to paint! Paint chemistry advanced much in the ninteenth century, that's why we get the dazzing colors later in the century. Also, don't forget the invention of the lowly paint tube! This made carrying paints to remote locations outside the studio easy, ergo, more outside painting!

Another neglected fact--the old masters worked a lot out of their imaginations, and Ruebens was no exception. They used models, as opposed to being slaves to the model. And when you invent, you usually have to invent quite a lot, including color. Titian and the others were more faithful to the model. this process of relying more and more on the model progressed to the point where, for almost all painters today, they cannot paint a convincing picture without practically copying the model paintstroke by paintstroke. Quite a loss. Hopefully, that will change and some of the more imaginative realists will make a comeback. But a number of the paintings here are great!

Posted by: BTM on March 21, 2007 9:54 PM

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