Most of the time I focus on colorful landscapes and seascapes, but this post is a change of theme. I will be taking a closer look at some of the most dramatic paintings I have come across.
These paintings demonstrate just how powerful art can be and how much emotion we are able to depict as artists. Even if you prefer to paint colorful and pleasant scenes like me, there is still much to learn from the techniques used in these dramatic paintings. Just think about how you can use these techniques to depict happiness, joy or whatever other emotions you are trying to promote in your paintings.
Warning: This post is not for the faint-hearted. Some of these paintings are very confronting.
Andrew Wyeth, Christina's World, 1948
This dramatic painting by Andrew Wyeth depicts the lonely and challenging nature of "Christina's world". Christina is a young girl who appears to be stranded in the middle of a field, looking up at a house in the distance. It is believed she suffered from a neuromuscular disease preventing her from walking.
Wyeth painted with a high level of detail and a dull palette of colors. Many have referred to this style of painting as "magic realism".
Claude Monet, Camille on Her Deathbed, 1879
Claude Monet's painting above is in stark contrast to the colorful and energetic landscapes which we are more familiar with. It captures the last moments of his wife on her deathbed. She died at the young age of 32, after suffering various medical conditions.
Monet said to a friend about this painting...
"You cannot know... the obsession, the joy, the torment of my days… I was at the deathbed of a lady who had been, and still was very dear to me…I found myself staring at [her] tragic countenance, automatically trying to identify things like the proportions of light".
He painted in his usual style - broken color to capture the fleeting nature of life. There appears to be an open window illuminating his wife from one side. The colors are all muted, with there being mostly grays, dull blues and yellows. To me, her face appears calm, whilst the rest of the painting appears tormented.
Edgar Degas, L’Absinthe, 1875-1876
This is such a powerful painting by Edgar Degas. It depicts a disconnected and sad couple. The woman has a pale green drink in front of her, being absinthe. The two subjects were actually friends of Degas. Ellen André was an actress and an artist’s model and Marcellin Desboutin was an artist and engraver. Both their careers took a hit as a result of this painting and Degas had to publicly announce that the two were not actually alcoholics.
There is a lot going on in the painting, yet there is such a feeling of emptiness. I like how Degas used black to outline key parts of the painting - like the woman's blouse, her shoes and the tables. This adds an interesting stylistic effect to the painting. I also like the strong use of shape in the painting.
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child (Det Syke Barn), 1885
Edvard Munch is famous for his dramatic and evocative paintings. Most people will be familiar with his painting, "The Scream". But to me, the above painting is much more dramatic.
It features a "sick child" with a parent, family member or close friend. The sick child is actually Munch’s sister, who died from tuberculosis. She is depicted as frail and weak, probably in her last moments.
The brushwork is chaotic and the subjects are distorted. The colors appear muddy and the perspective appears awkward, but this seems to be intentional. It creates a sense of unease in the painting.
Key takeaway: Sometimes it is more effective to paint inaccurately to help render the subject.
Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927
This painting is similar to the earlier painting by Degas in that it features an isolated woman with a gazeless stare. In this case, the woman is sitting alone in an automat. Hopper was depicting the general loneliness and isolation of the individual within the urban society at the time.
An automat is a restaurant where simple food and drink are served by vending machines. This is important as it reiterates the isolation of the subject - she can eat out without having any interaction with other people.
The subject has one glove removed to hold her coffee. This indicates she only intended on a brief stop before she ventured back outside.
Hopper's wife is thought to have posed as the subject for this painting, but Hopper painted her with younger features.
Francis Bacon, Businessman I, 1952 or Man’s Head, 1952
This confronting painting depicts a subject who is going crazy with the thought of remaining a put-together businessman. This painting is kind of how I felt whilst I was working as an accountant... (kidding, but not really).
The "businessman" looks to be trapped in a glass box, indicating his isolation. He seems horrified by the life he must live, yet stuck within that life.
His face is distorted and the colors are nothing but grays and dull blues. This is not a technical masterpiece, but it is certainly powerful.
Frederick McCubbin, Pioneer, 1904
I remember doing an art assignment on the above painting during high school. The painting is by the talented Australian artist named Frederick McCubbin. He made interesting use of 3 separate panels (known as a triptych) to show the passage of time.
The first panel features a pioneering young couple in the Australian bush. The man is building a fire in the background whilst the woman ponders in the foreground.
The second panel features the couple with a newborn. There is more light showing through the trees in the background and a small house has been built.
The final panel features a male subject who is at a grave. It is uncertain if the subject is the pioneer from the earlier sections, the son of the couple or a stranger passing by. The bush in the background has been cleared and a city is emerging.
Pablo Picasso, Old Guitarist, 1903
This is one of Pablo Picasso's paintings from his "blue period", which lasted from 1901 to 1904. The painting seems to be influenced by the Expressionist art movement, his involvement with the poor, his own struggles and the suicide of close friend Carlos Casagemas.
As with most of the paintings created by Picasso during the "blue period", there is a frail subject rendered with dull blues. The subject is skinny and has elongated features.
He grasps the guitar, which is painted in a dull orange and represents the only significant color shift in the painting. The guitar seems to represent the subject's only source of living.
Interesting fact: Examinations by curators revealed at least two other paintings underneath the Old Guitarist. Below is an image of one of the subjects in these paintings.
Ilya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan, 1885
The painting above by Ilya Repin depicts a horrific scene with Ivan the Terrible holding his mortally wounded son, Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich. It is believed that Ivan the Terrible made the fatal wound. Repin certainly captured the grief-stricken gaze of Ivan the Terrible.
There is a clever contrast between the vivid reds in the foreground and on the subject and the dull and dark greens in the background. The level of detail also focuses your attention on the two subjects.
This is one of Russia's most famous and controversial paintings. It has been vandalized twice due to its controversy, once in 1913 and once in 2018.
Vincent van Gogh, Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate), 1890
This painting by Vincent van Gogh features a "sorrowing old man" who appears to be at the end of his road. The painting was completed during a health relapse some two months prior to van Gogh's death.
It was based on a lithograph and several drawings which he created earlier. He said of the drawings:
"Today and yesterday I drew two figures of an old man with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. I did it of Schuitemaker once and always kept the drawing, because I wanted to do it better another time. Perhaps I’ll also do a lithograph of it. What a fine sight an old working man makes, in his patched bombazine suit with his bald head."
What I find interesting about this painting is that it is done with high-key colors. Most of the other dramatic paintings in this post feature dull and dark colors. In true van Gogh style, he went against the grain and painted this dramatic subject with a relatively colorful palette.
Here are some of the key takeaways from this post:
- As artists, we are not only trying to paint what is in front of us, but also what is inside us. How does the subject make you feel? What do you want people to feel when they look at your painting? The paintings in this post demonstrate how much emotion you can depict. Obviously, you do not need to paint with such drama. You could simply paint the joy which a landscape makes you feel.
- Color is one of the most effective tools we have as artists for painting emotion.
- Sometimes, it pays to paint inaccurately in order to get your message across. For example, distorting the subject, painting with odd perspective or using muddy colors.
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It goes into much more detail on the fundamentals of art.)