In my last post, I took you on a virtual journey of the European Masterpieces exhibition that took place here in Brisbane, Australia. Someone commented that each painting is so beautiful it warrants individual study. I agree. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to be taking a closer look at a handful of my favorites from the exhibition.
The first: Gardanne by Paul Cézanne.
This was a quiet painting in a noisy room, but something about it caught my attention. I found it to be a joy to look at in person. I couldn’t explain why at the time, other than it simply worked. Great art doesn’t need any more justification than that, but for the purpose of our studies, let’s dive a bit deeper.
- Unfinished Appearance
- Color Theme
- Value (Grayscale and Notan)
- Great Art Gets Better With Time
- Similar Paintings
- Key Takeaways
- Additional Resources
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
The first thing you might notice about the painting is its unfinished appearance. There are several areas where the bare canvas is exposed. You can even see parts of Cézanne’s initial sketch (refer to the below closeup).
I did some searching as to whether this was by design or if Cézanne simply didn’t get around to making the finishing touches. I was unable to find anything conclusive either way, but I assume it was by design. Many of Cézanne’s paintings have a similar unfinished appearance. Plus it seems to work well with Cézanne’s brash style and the idea of weathered architecture.
The painting has a strong geometric theme, as you might expect from Cézanne. There are many overlapping buildings, windows, poles, walls, etc. Even the trees and patches of land form rough geometric shapes.
Notice how the verticle dimensions of the painting mimic the tall buildings, particularly the tallest one. Towards the end of this post, you’ll see a horizontal version of this painting. I don’t think it works as well.
There’s no strong focal point. Rather, the painting as a whole is in focus. This is typical of Impressionism. Cézanne was likely more interested in the unique arrangement of shapes and colors than the city itself.
The buildings are arranged in a rough zig-zag that helps lead our eyes through the painting. See below. It ends at the peak of the tallest building. The building at the bottom, whilst unfinished, plays an important role in starting the zig-zag motion.
In terms of the overall color theme, the main colors are orange, green, blue, and the warm-tinted color of the bare canvas. Notice how all the colors are distinct, with there being hardly any gradation or blending. This gives the painting a sharp hue contrast.
There’s hardly any saturation contrast. Most of the colors are restrained (there aren’t any vivid reds, yellows, or blues). This contributes to the painting’s pleasant, understated feel.
The warm-tinted color of the bare canvas gives the painting an overall warm presence. You can almost feel the warmth of the sunlight basking over the city and bouncing off the roofs.
(You can use this tool by Adobe to extract the color theme of a painting.)
Value (Grayscale and Notan)
Below is a grayscale of the painting, revealing how light or dark all the colors are.
Most of the colors gravitate around the middle of the value scale. There aren’t any deep shadows or brilliant highlights. It’s an understated painting in this sense. But the lack of value contrast meant Cézanne was able to inject more color into the painting. Instead of black and brown shadows, he used pale blues and greens. This might not be as striking to the eye, but it is pleasant.
I also created a notan of the painting using Photoshop. See below. This is the most basic design of lights and darks. It can often reveal interesting patterns and clues about why the painting works (or doesn’t). A strong notan design typically conveys a sense of realism despite the lack of color and detail.
In this case, the painting has a rather scattered and weak notan design. That is not a criticism of the painting itself. It merely suggests that Cézanne relied more so on saturation and hue than value to convey realism.
Great Art Gets Better With Time
The painting is starting to show its age, with many visible cracks. This seems to add to the idea of a weathered, aging city.
I remember hearing once that great architecture gets better with time. The same can be said for great art.
Of course, credit also needs to go to the beautiful frame. It complements the paintings without competing for attention, as is the purpose of a great frame. The dark colors also help accentuate the lightness of the painting. Remember, painting is all about contrast. To push the lights, surround them with darks.
Below are two similar paintings featuring Gardanne. The first is a horizontal view with richer colors and a more complete finish. The inclusion of a grassy foreground also gives it a more spacious feel.
The second is a verticle composition from a different perspective. Notice how we can see the tallest tower and two buildings on the hill in the background in all three paintings. You can use these objects as common reference points to determine where Cézanne painted from.
- Photos are great, but nothing compares to seeing paintings in person.
- You don’t need to bring every painting to a clean, refined finish. Sometimes it might be more effective to leave parts slightly unfinished, as Cézanne did.
- Can you paint the subject in a way that leads the viewer through the painting? In this case, the buildings form a rough zig-zag motion that leads you to the peak of the tallest building.
- Painting with a restrained color palette and within a compressed value range can give your painting a pleasant, understated appearance.
- Great art gets better with time.
- The frame plays an important role in providing a point of contrast and containing our attention on the painting.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.
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