Artists Live On

It always sucks when bands break up and artists move on to new projects. As music fans, we find ourselves so drawn to some artists because they speak to us on such deep levels. We them as extensions of ourselves, which makes their breakups all the more palpable and disappointing.

It’s an unfortunate reality of being in the music business that I’ve experienced this more times than I care to count. Many nights a band will come on my playlist, and I’ll find myself thinking, “damn, if only they were still putting out new material.” It’s a yearning for more of something that you love, and a deep desire to see what other creative heights they’re capable of reaching.

And yet, through others, these artists live on. I went to an event tonight at my brother’s high school, and found myself talking to a couple of his friends who shared my music taste. When I asked one of them if she’d ever heard of a few particular bands, she told me no, but that she’d be interested in hearing them. Later, after I got home, I had my brother send her a link to this band’s music video from a few years ago. According to my brother, she loves it and is asking how she can get her hands on the full album.

Things like that remind me every day why I continue to do this, even when some of my favorite artists break up and move on to new things. There is always a new audience, up and coming, curious and hungry for something they’ve never heard before. That sort of curiosity and enthusiasm is one of the reasons I love this industry so much. This music never dies. It continues to play and reach new people every day, who are eager to hear it, and pass it on. Introducing someone to something they’ve never experienced before, and see their eager grasp for it—there’s no thrill like that. Man, what a rush.

Rediscovered Appreciations

I went to see my brother’s semester high school play tonight. The performance was a mix of musical theater numbers and spoken word pieces spanning a number of genres. With only about 12 students participating, I was impressed and intrigued by the amount of work each student had to put in to cover multiple characters.

Yet as I sat in the dark theater, what really started occurring to me between numbers from Rent and Fiddler on the Roof was just how much I knew about the musical theater pieces; and how much I didn’t know.

Though I’ve always loved creative sorts of things, I was never much one for musical theater. I never hated it—but I never loved it. I was always somewhat ambivalent, happy to enjoy the music I liked, and dismiss the parts that bored me. Tonight, however, some of those same pieces that I may have dismissed years earlier came back to me in a different light. And even ones I’d liked before—somehow I found myself rediscovering an appreciation that seems to have been dormant for some time.

I suppose that we never know what exactly we like and don’t like because those things can change so drastically and so rapidly. Appreciation for something is a process just as much as is the production of it. Sometimes—as with that production—that appreciation can take years to develop and catalyze in a way that becomes concretely apparent to us. In that time, many times we pay it no heed. But at the moment that it becomes clear in an instant, it seems to have come out of nowhere. Perhaps it’s not that it came out of nowhere, but that it took more time to realize something’s potential and worth.

When Your Fingers Bleed

I’m not a particularly amazing guitarist. I’m not horrible, but I was never going to be a virtuoso. But that never stopped me from shredding until my fingers bled.

I’ve picked up and put down numerous guitars over the years, and even a bass guitar every now and then. I knew I was never going to be the next Eddie Van Halen or Slash, but I still loved the feeling of a guitar slung over my shoulder. Just an artist’s comfort zone, I suppose.

I’ve indeed had nights where I play a riff over and over until I can’t feel my fingers anymore—just the tingle of what it feels like when you can feel the numbness coming on. Many days I’d find the tops of my strumming-hand fingers rubbed raw from hitting the strings on the downstroke. Some nights the skin was so raw and red that they bled a bit.

Perhaps some could say that my technique is faulty and that I’m doing myself a disservice, but in the end I love the feeling of that tingle when I put the guitar down. I love the struggle—the battle—to come out on top, even if I take some hits along the way. In some pseudo-masochistic way, I consider those raw fingers and numb hands the cost of being a part of the music fold. That’s the cost of being so drawn to something, you couldn’t walk away if you wanted to. Like a moth to a flame, those little cuts are the burnt edges of my wings.

I love the feeling of the calluses and the slightly metallic scent on my fingers after. Sometimes it’s not the worst thing in the world when your fingers bleed. On some nights, after you’ve struggled and fought through a song until you hear it right, it just feels right.

Blogging: One Month In—A Retrospective

Today marks one month since I started blogging every day, and man has it been a long month. Though long doesn’t necessarily mean bad, and in the last few weeks I’ve found myself able to talk about a number of topics that might not have occurred to me otherwise. True, a lot of my posts have been on topics like music and tech that I continually follow, but the desire to write every day has enabled me to streamline my thoughts into a more digestible format.

In the last month, I’ve discussed numerous things in the music and tech space, including:

Yet I’ve found myself able to write about things that otherwise would seem unimportant, had I not had a goal to write every day. I’m not sure writing posts on writer’s block, on singing, art, and on concepts of passion would ever have occurred to me without the goal to produce new material:

Perhaps the most intriguing thing that’s happened though is how my desire to write has only become more engrained in me. I’ve always been a writer—essays, journalism, poetry, and research papers always came fairly easily to me, and even provided a sense of enjoyment most times. But now my writing has taken on a whole new dynamic in my life.

In fact, it mirrors what artists tell me when I ask why they choose the tough path of day jobs and long nights on the road: “I do it because just like I wake up every morning and need to breathe, I need to play music.” And that’s how writing is to me now. I wake up ever morning and need to breathe, and then I need to write.

Passion Isn’t Exhausting—It’s Invigorating

A couple days ago, I wrote a post about how when things get tough in my line of work, it’s always best to go back to the artists. The artists are where I find my love rekindled again and again, and where I’ve made some of my best friends.

I think, though, that one of the best things I experience in talking to artists every day is the sheer passion that spills through their emails and calls. They are so passionate about their work and the work of their peers that, most days, they can barely contain themselves. Sometimes our conversations consist of us (me and an artist) interrupting each other to ask the other if they’ve heard the latest release from a group we both love.

While some might take this as daunting and exhausting after a certain period of time, the truth is that it never really gets old. It gets old hearing someone blather on about something when their heart really isn’t in it; you can tell. But when someone is so incredibly passionate about something that it jumbles the words falling out of their mouth—that’s not exhausting at all; it’s reinvigorating.

That’s something I would wish on anyone having a discussion in their professional field. That’s what makes this feel like play-time when it really is work. It’s what enables me to send out stacks of emails (does that metaphor make sense?) without losing a bit of my drive for the day. And what’s more, it’s incredibly infectious. This is why I do what I do, and love it every day.

I Miss the Amorphous Power of Poetry

I haven’t written poetry in months. Probably somewhere near half a year at this point. For me that’s like an eternity.

Poetry used to be one of my most expressive forms of communication. I used to write so much that it became necessary to start dividing the pieces into separate collections. As of yet, most of those collections haven’t been finished to the point which I would like.

Yet what I miss most isn’t writing a poem per se, but what writing a poem allowed me to do. It allowed me to write something that could be left set in stone. It did not need to be researched, backed up, sourced, or set up as the solution to or for an argument. A poem could exist in and of itself; its value existed simply because it did.

In many ways writing poetry is easier because it allows me to just write, and look for patterns and meaning in what I write after I write it. I don’t need to start with a central thought and build out an argument around it. In many ways, it’s the same dynamic as I enjoy with blogging.

Poetry is so powerful precisely because of its ambiguous nature. The amorphous power that resides in a poem, terse or epic, is innate to its nature as a piece of writing that is purposely enigmatic. Every syllable could mean something—or it might not. Regardless of what your high school English teacher might have forced on your thought process, poetry isn’t about finding the “right meaning” that’s hidden between the words. It’s about finding the right meaning for you, something which could be very different from the meaning for the person sitting next to you.

This is what I miss most about writing poetry. Its sprightly chirping of words that could mean something, or nothing—words that could have been carefully chosen, or words that were just thrown onto a page and never wiped off. In the end, it’s irrelevant. Poetry is about the search, not the find; that’s why it intrigues me so much. I will have to write more in the coming months.

Musings on Writer’s Block

Some days, the words flow onto the page very easily, and some day’s they don’t. Today is one of the latter. That said though, even writer’s block itself can be a constructive lesson in writing. It teaches you that even the most adept writer struggles sometimes to come up with a thought process worth putting down for others to read.

But that actually begs a few question about the thought processes we as writers discard as “not good enough.” Are they really not up to par, or is it simply our nature as writers and creators to deride ourselves until we come up with something truly “worth writing?” Just today I’ve discarded numerous ideas for posts because they didn’t seem to be “enough” for me to put out to a readership.

But perhaps that sort of self-critical thought process is in fact too self-critical. Self-criticism is part of the creative process—it’s what we as creators feel helps us push forward to our greatest productions. So perhaps the whole writer’s block demon is indeed a blessing in disguise. Irritating though it might be, it nonetheless helps us to distinguish our sub-par thoughts from the truly remarkable ones. For me, I’ll try to keep a more open mind when it comes to the writer’s block I know will inevitably come back around.

An Artistic Analysis of Four Tech Investors

Seeing the World Through Artistic Eyes

Part of being an art student is that you inevitably see art everywhere, whether it’s meant to be noticed as art or not. This goes for anything—drawings, graffiti, cars, apps—and most recently for me, Twitter profile avatars.

Twitter avatar profile pictures of Fred Wilson (top left), Brad Feld (top right), Hunter Walk (bottom left), and Marc Andreessen (bottom right)

Twitter avatar profile pictures of Fred Wilson (top left), Brad Feld (top right), Hunter Walk (bottom left), and Marc Andreessen (bottom right)

As I was scrolling through my feed the other day, I saw a number of avatars go by, and my resulting thought process surprised even me—I thought wouldn’t it be cool to analyze those the way I used to analyze art pieces for my art history classes (well, cool is relative I suppose, but I’m an art nerd, so there). So that’s what today’s post is about: no talk of music, apps, or any major tech trends. Just an artistic analysis of the profile avatars of four tech investors. I wasn’t sure exactly how to order these, but I decided it would interesting to go according to an art history timeline, rather than simply by alphabetical order. Let the analyzing begin.

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson‘s Twitter avatar is one of my favorites from an artistic perspective because of its striking power. I look at Wilson’s picture, which sets a large facial portrait against a lime-green background, and think immediately of the work of modern Austrian painter Egon Schiele (something which I’ve tweeted about numerous times). For those unfamiliar with Schiele’s work, he redefined the concept of portraiture in the early 20th century by daring to accentuate bodily features way outside their normal proportions. Some common aspects of Schiele’s work are overly-large eyes, and a strong, set jawline, usually defined by a sharp contour, which can clearly be seen in his pieces “Self Portrait” (1910) and “Self Portrait with Physalis” (1912).

Egon Schiele; left:

Egon Schiele; left: “Self Portrait” (1910); right: Self Portrait with Physalis” (1912)

Looking at Wilson’s picture, the enlarged eyes and clearly defined jawline fit the mold of Expressionism which Schiele helped to pioneer. The eyes are deep-set—almost sunken—but with a gleam that seems to burst from the canvas, made even brighter by the bold green that encapsulates the pupils. The cut jawline is mirrored at the top of the piece by raw, almost rugged strokes of brown making up Wilson’s hair. Yet while the zig-zag strokes chisel the top of the portrait in an almost sculpted way, the slight waviness of the hair on either side of Wilson’s heads help to capture a curved smoothness which bleeds out into the dynamism of the green background.

Fred Wilson Twitter avatar

Fred Wilson Twitter avatar

The life of the piece, though, is centered in the eyes, and the cheeks. The eyes swirl knowingly—disjointed only by the large space between them. The cheeks meanwhile, glow warmly with the only hot colors on the canvas: a roughly hewn pink which darkens towards the face’s edges. Even the the portions of the piece where the paint seems too thin are almost indicative of Schiele’s practice of leaving paintings unfinished. Collectively, Wilson’s avatar contains deep traces of Expressionism roots, though nodding to a lighter palette than was typically used in Europe at the time.

It’s also worth noting, however, that Schiele is not the only art master represented. Henri Matisse seems to make an appearance as well, mostly in the nose-area. While the nose seems almost too large for the face surrounding it, it nonetheless conjures up images of Matisse’s “Portrait of Madame Matisse (The green line)” (1905), or even his “Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (1906). Intentional or not, I nonetheless look at Wilson’s picture and see Schiele’s Expressionism and Matisse’s Fauvism and Modernism.

Henri Matisse; left:

Henri Matisse; left: “Portrait of Madame Matisse (The green line)” (1905); right: “Self-Portrait in a Striped T-shirt” (1906)

Brad Feld

Brad Feld‘s picture is similar to Wilson’s in that it’s a painted portrait. That, however, is where the artistic similarities end. Whereas Wilson’s piece drips of early 20th century Expressionism and Fauvism, Feld’s portrait exhibits a more mid-century style. The thinner mouth and quirky glasses add a Pop Art flavor to the portrait, a fact that’s exacerbated by the bright greens and purples that play through both the back and foreground.

Brad Feld Twitter avatar

Brad Feld Twitter avatar

While still set amid deeply defined contours, Feld’s jawline is nonetheless more curved and flowing than Wilson’s, and with the light stream of pink that follows the chin-line, Feld’s smile is captured perfectly. The curvature of the lower half of the portrait plays on the wavy strands of hair which sit at the top, floating in a controlled messiness which adds a sense of jubilance to the work.

The most striking feature, though, is Feld’s eyeline. Encased in straight-edged square glasses, the eyeline cleanly divides the portrait into two halves, thereby introducing a sense of order into an otherwise happy-go-lucky piece. The Andy Warhol-esque psychedelic color-scheme in the background is indicative of mid-’60s Pop, as is Feld’s mauve shirt collar. Seemingly taking direction from color-schemes like that in Warhol’s “Marilyn Monroe” (1962), Feld’s avatar bleeds with a real ’60s flavor.

Andy Warhol;

Andy Warhol; “Marilyn Monroe” (1962)

Of particular note, though, is Feld’s smile, which reminds me of pieces by a famous Pop artist, though not one the mainstream is too familiar with. James Rosenquist emerged separately from Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, but is notable for his use of “the grin,” which can be clearly seen in the baby portion of “F-111” (1964-65) and in President Kennedy’s smile in “President Elect” (1960-61). The grin which plays through Rosenquist’s pieces finds a home in Feld’s piece as well, framing the portrait in visions of Pop from all styles of the decade.

James Rosenquist; top:

James Rosenquist; top: “President Elect” (1960-61); bottom: “F-111” (1964-65)

Hunter Walk

Hunter Walk‘s Twitter avatar isn’t hard to place; one look at it and the first thing any art student or aficionado would think is Roy Lichtenstein. The cartoonish quality of Walk’s picture is not only evident, but is the main focus of the piece itself. Whereas the previous pictures exhibited more subtle elements of the art movements which seem to be at play in them, here there is no question. The animated nature of the piece has a disarming effect on the viewer, making Walk’s smile seem all the more friendly.

Hunter Walk Twitter avatar

Hunter Walk Twitter avatar

Much like Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl” (1963), Hunter Walk is portrayed in a series of curves and flowing lines. Though obviously different subject matter than the aforementioned painting, there is nonetheless a similar ebb and flow that connects the two. Walk’s hairline is jagged only in certain spots, leaving the rest to create a circular movement around his head. The dynamism that this movement contributes to the piece cannot be understated because it is precisely mirrored by his shoulders and neck tilt.

Roy Lichtenstein;

Roy Lichtenstein; “Drowning Girl” (1963)

Rather than appearing stilted and set, Walk seems to lean into the movement, adding to its run through the picture. Even the shadowing of his beard and smile accentuate the flow of the centripetal movement. The darker shade of gray used for the beard moves along the face smoothly in some areas, and yet is cut sharply in others, much like the movement of waves splashing up against a cliff. The smile, meanwhile, is simple, but creates an eddie around which the flowing contours of the beard and facial lines must move.

Perhaps most interesting of all, though, is the way in which Walk’s beard in the piece seems to harken back to Lichtenstein’s common use of pointillism. While clearly one solid color throughout, Walk’s beard is nonetheless styled and colored in such as way as to appear to be more individualized than it really is. When compared to Lichtenstein’s oil piece “I Can see the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It!” (1963), Walk’s avatar seems to take on a different sense of shadow. As the man in Lichtenstein’s painting is lightly shadowed along his face to create a deeper perspective, so too does Walk’s beard in his avatar create for him.

Roy Lichtenstein;

Roy Lichtenstein; “I Can See the Whole Room…and There’s Nobody in It!” (1963)

Marc Andreessen

Perhaps the most post-modern piece of the four is Marc Andreessen‘s avatar, done in a way which most would describe as “South Park-ish” owing to its cut-and-paste style. While this is actually a good description based on South Park popularizing the cut-and-paste style in the last couple decades, it begs the question of what does that mean artistically? Is it just a cartoon? If so, why doesn’t it look like Hunter Walk’s Twitter avatar, which also exhibits a clear, cartoonish quality?

Andreessen’s avatar is a mix of post-modern, cut-and-paste qualities, but it also employs a sense of Pop which is prevalent in the other avatars. The sharp, clean lines cast the picture in brisk light, asserting that it’s so simple, there must not be anything under the surface. But there is.

Marc Andreessen Twitter avatar

Marc Andreessen Twitter avatar

The cartoonish Pop quality hides the other influences which dance through the piece. The basic oval-shaped hands, straight-line eyebrows and simple circular head harken back to the bare-bones approach towards geometry of Cubism, while the flat, cut-and-paste quality is indicative of the Superflat movement. As Cubists like Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris attempted to unravel the notions of geometry in art, so too did post-modern artists like Takashi Murakami desire to understand depth in a different way.

Right: Pablo Picasso;

Right: Pablo Picasso; “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932); left: Juan Gris; “Harlequin with Guitar” (1919)

The simple, circular curvature of Andreessen’s head in the avatar seem to mirror the circular head of the girl in Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932), while his egg-shaped eyes mirror those of the man in the Juan Gris painting, “Harlequin with Guitar” (1919). The flat quality of the avatar, however, jumps almost a hundred years forward, to the Superflat movement of the 2000s, pioneered by Murakami. As Murakami explored the flatness that depth could have in pieces like 2001’s “Tan Tan Bo,” so too does Andreessen’s avatar explore concepts of flatness and depth (perhaps without even knowing it). In its exploration of depth and geometry, Andreessen’s avatar is thus more artistic than it initially appears.

Takashi Murakami;

Takashi Murakami; “Tan Tan Bo” (2001)

Art and Tech Intertwined

Though these are just four analyses of four Twitter avatar’s it’s become clear that art and tech are more closely intertwined than perhaps initially thought. This might explain why I see pieces by Basquiat and other artists come up so often in the tech industry. But it may be even simpler than that—it may simply be that art resonates with people in the tech industry precisely because they are also in the business of creating as much as painters and sculptors are. Or maybe they just like how it looks, that’s a valid point too. In the end what matters is what you see when you look at pieces and avatars like this. For me, I see art that is deeper than what’s on the surface. What do you see?

(Almost) Every Rock Poster, Sticker, Reference, and List in “School of Rock”

School of Rock promotional poster

School of Rock promotional poster

School of Rock (2003) is one of my favorite music movies, and was on my previously published list of 30 Music Movies You Need to See Right Now. It contains a staggering amount of references to well-known rock bands through the decades. But it also contains a surprising amount of small nods to lesser known artists—the kind you would only catch if you already loved those bands. So I did my best to catalogue what we have going on in the movie. Most of the references have some pretty interesting explanations, and the stickers that show up throughout the film span now only the decades, but numerous genres as well.

As it’s called the School of Rock, I only put time into doing my best to catalogue the rock artists and references, though during the “backboard scene,” labels like “R&B,” “Blues,” and “Hip-Hop” are clearly visible. I highly recommend checking out some (all) of these artists. I might be slightly obsessive, but I just like to think of myself as a music addict ;D I wanted to include as many pictures as I could, but since there are so many, I had to choose just a few. I left out album covers since those are easily recognizable, but grabbed a few screenshots of the awesome blackboard tree and a bunch of the stickers. Enjoy!

Posters:

Poster Collage

Posters from Dewey’s room; clockwise: Sex Pistols, The Who, Ramones

 

Stickers:

sticker collage

Stickers from Dewey’s room and public telephone; clockwise: (First panel) AC/DC, Lunachicks, Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, White Zombie, Voivod, Red Hot Cili Peppers, L.A. Guns; (Second panel) Ratt, Fugazi, Cannibal Corpse, The Chemical Brothers; (Third panel) Godflesh, M.O.D.

Albums:

References:

  • Jimi Hendrix – (when Dewey is trying to sell his guitar)
  • Led Zeppelin – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • Black Sabbath – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • AC/DC – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • Motörhead – (when Dewey references bands that rock!)
  • Spice Girls – (Dewey refers to Katie as “Posh Spice” when assigning band positions)
  • Blondie – (Dewey refers to blonde girl Marta as Blondie when assigning band positions)
  • Neil Peart (Rush – drummer) – (Dewey refers to Peart when handing Freddie the album 2112)
  • The White Stripes/Meg White – (Freddie refers to White when discussing “great chick drummers”)
  • Glam rock/metal – (Billy refers to glam fashion when making the band’s costumes)
  • Kurt Cobain (Nirvana – vocalist/guitarist) – (Dewey calls Zack Kurt Cobain when asking to hear the song he wrote)
  • “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” by AC/DC – (lyrics recited by Dewey in his speech to class the night before the Battle of the Bands performance
  • AC/DC – (No Vacancy bassist’s shirt during Battle of the Bands)
  • Angus Young (AC/DC – lead guitarist) – (Dewey’s schoolboy uniform during the final Battle of the Bands performance is a direct reference to the schoolboy uniform Young is famous for wearing onstage; his burgundy Gibson SG model guitar is also the same model as Young plays)
  • Sex Pistols – (referenced by Freddie when he notes “Sex Pistols never won anything” after the Battle of the Bands show)
  • Ramones – (Zack wears a Ramones shirt during the credits scene)
  • Green Day – (Freddie wears a Warning shirt during the credits scene)
  • “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” by Pink Floyd (lyrics referenced on video/DVD release cover)
  • “Cum on Feel the Noize” by Quiet Riot (covering Slade) (lyrics referenced on video/DVD release cover)

Video:

Video collage; clockwise: Pete Townshend (The Who), Angus Young (AC/DC), Jimi Hendrix

Video collage; clockwise: Pete Townshend (The Who), Angus Young (AC/DC), Jimi Hendrix

Slideshow:

Slideshow of artists; clockwise: Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), The Clash

Slideshow of artists; clockwise: Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), The Clash

Riffs Played by Students:

  • “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (played by Zack on guitar)
  • “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple (played by Zack on guitar)
  • “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC (played by Zack on guitar)
  • “Tough Me” by The Doors (played by Lawrence on keyboard)

Blackboard:

 

Collage of artists and music movements, part 1

Collage of artists and music movements, part 1

Collage of artists and music movements, part 2

Collage of artists and music movements, part 2

Soundtrack (songs from well-known artists, not songs only in the movie):

  • “Substitute” by The Who
  • “Sunshine of Your Love” by Cream
  • “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin (this track is surprising since Led Zeppelin is famous for never letting any of their songs appear in film or on television)
  • “Set You Free” by The Black Keys
  • “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks
  • “My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” by Ramones
  • “Growing on Me” by The Darkness
  • “Ballrooms of Mars” by T. Rex
  • “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll) by AC/DC – (played by students at the end of the movie as the credits start)

Featured Songs Not on Soundtrack (songs from well-known artists, not songs only in the movie):

Studies on Van Gogh’s “Ravine”

The Setting

Vincent Van Gogh’s Ravine (1889) sits in the Impressionist Room of the Boston MFA, a breathtaking work of cool, subdued colors and broad-brushstroke technique. Set in a bright room under light cascading and reflecting off the other Impressionist works, Van Gogh’s Ravine is not immediately eye-catching. In contrast to the other works in the room by Signac, Renoir, and Monet, Van Gogh’s piece, though painted in the same Impressionist style, is not done in bright fluttering colors, but in cool tones of grays and blues that provide a more subtle feeling upon viewing. While the Renoir pieces to its right and left rely on heavy pinks, oranges, reds, and yellows, Van Gogh’s Ravine seems almost to hide from the eye at first, rather drawing its power from its simple and subdued cool impressions.

Van Gogh's "Ravine"; 1889; image courtesy of the MFA

Van Gogh’s “Ravine”; 1889; image courtesy of the MFA, Boston, MA

Utilizing the full spectrum of cool tones to paint the ravine walls, Van Gogh creates an undersea aura as he decorates the gray ravine walls with splashes of green, blue, and white. As the charcoal-gray tones set the backdrop for the ravine, Van Gogh’s introduction of the blues over it breathes into the work a sense of depth without which it would seem plain and flat.

A Clever Eye-Line and Clearly Cut Contours

Van Gogh illustrates for the viewer an eye-line looking directly along the ravine’s bottom, as if one were standing in the ravine itself. With his use of gray and black to sketch the cuts of the ravine walls, Van Gogh starts to depict for the viewer the illusion of a three-dimensional landscape. Yet if Van Gogh were to have used his blacks and grays exclusively, his illusion of a three-dimensional scape would not have been as effective as it is. By introducing blues and whites, Van Gogh takes his three-dimensional construction steps further. The navy coloring along the edges of the river carves out the path the flowing water takes as it winds its way through the canyon, and his use of grungier and brighter whites along the ravine walls creates for the viewer a sense of movement in the water.

Curvature of the river's cared out path

Curvature of the river’s cared out path

 

Movement Through Color

With the water movement outlined through his masterful use of blues and whites, Van Gogh then turns his brush towards giving the rushing body a depth for the viewer’s eye. Contributing sea-greens to the rushing bend of the water in the foreground of the painting, Van Gogh succeeds in creating for the viewer the illusions of depths of water flowing over one another, as the surface rushes and crash into bursts of white and light gray along the sides of the ravine. Indeed, Van Gogh uses particular colors to cut contours as well; his use of black (rather than a use of navy or gray) to cut out the small recess in the foreground of the painting makes the recess all the more stark and powerful, contributing to the overall movement-aesthetic of the work.

But perhaps Van Gogh’s greatest triumph in his color-usage in Ravine is the way he uses his colors to create movement and power in other areas besides the river. In the top recesses of the painting, Van Gogh uses lighter blues over grungier whites and splashes of navy to create the same moving sky as in many of his paintings. Indeed, the movement in the sky seems to mimic that seen in The Starry Night (1889). More than that, though, the sky seems to mimic the water of the river: the light sky-blues laid over the navy’s and whites create a rippling effect evocative of light on water.

The light-blue rippling sky above the ravine

The light-blue rippling sky above the ravine

With the sky rippling above, Van Gogh sets about creating the walls of the ravine. There, sharp contours of black cut in mismatched and jagged patterns alongside gray rock-faces and navy shadows. The most striking thing about the way that Van Gogh paints the ravine walls is the strokes with which he does it; rather than straight lines intersecting at random points, Van Gogh uses swirling brushstrokes to create a flowing downward motion and feeling, opting only to create a few jagged protrusions toward the ravine’s bottom. In doing so, Van Gogh presents the walls of the ravine not as entities separate from the river and sky, but as similar parts of the same whole.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 6.50.29 PM

The flowing sea-like plants on the ravine’s wall, right side

 

The flowing sea-like plants on the ravine's wall

The flowing sea-like plants on the ravine’s wall, left side

Upon the ravine walls, Van Gogh paints flowing canyon plants in red-oranges and sea-greens, with the plants having the added effect of resembling sea anemones and underwater seaweed. By adding such unique plants to the sides of the already flowing walls of the ravine, Van Gogh completes his creation of a marine world within the walls of the ravine. As if mirroring the flowing currents of an ocean or river, the waving plants dot the upper sides of the canyon walls, creating a “pop” for the viewer with their bright colors against the backdrop of the gray-blue-white walls.

Little Eddies of Stillness

Perhaps the greatest expression of movement with color in the painting, though, is Van Gogh’s use of dark grays and white to create boulders in the bottom portions of the work. In using such colors coupled with his curved brushstrokes, Van Gogh creates portions of the painting that act as metaphorical voids of movement; these voids are perhaps the only “stable” parts of the work, and in turn starkly contrast with the portions of the painting where real movement flows. For example, the boulders in the lower left-hand corner of the painting exhibit a very different type of brushstroke than that used to depict the plants and river around them. With their curved, almost subdued brushstrokes, the boulders create a break in the movement of the brushstrokes around them. Like an eddy in a river disrupting the initial inertia of the river’s flow, the boulders serve as barriers against which the movements of Van Gogh’s other brushstrokes crash.

The boulders in the lower left corner, providing a stillness

The boulders in the lower left corner, providing a stillness

With his brushstrokes long, loose, and flowing and his paint thickly applied, Van Gogh adds to Ravine the same feeling and effect as exhibited in his more famous works such as The Starry Night and Bedroom in Arles (1888). As in his painting The Starry Night, Van Gogh utilizes the technique of dividing the painting into sections, with each ravine wall making up a triangular section and the sky completing the final area.

Black and White

Still, though, one of the most intriguing aspects of the painting is not Van Gogh’s usage of marine and tropical colors, but his use of black and white. Indeed, Van Gogh uses white as a true color rather than a place holder, making use of different shades, with bright white “popping” off the walls of the ravine and the surf in the middle of the work, and a more subdued white blending with the blues in the sky. Van Gogh addressed this notion of black and white color usage in a letter to Émile Bernard in June 1888, stating, “I am going to put the black and the white, just as the color merchant sells them to us, boldly on my palette and use them just as they are” (Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, 1968, p. 32).

Black strokes blended with the greens and blues

Black strokes blended with the greens and blues

True to his declaration in his letter, Van Gogh uses the colors black and white as real colors in the work, not simply as backdrop colors to make the other colors of the painting appear more vivid. Rather than using black simply to define the lines and contours, Van Gogh blends black strokes in the with green plants, using it to add shadow and depth to the motion and flow of the plants along the ravine walls. Similarly, rather than using white to create a simple void on the canvas where other colored paint colors do not appear, Van Gogh blends in in the with river movements and the along the lower cliff faces, creating the rush of the surf crashing along the canyon walls.

Marine World

With his usage of broad brushstrokes, thickly applied paint, subdued colors mixed with brighter “popping” ones, compartmentalization within the painting, and rippling movement, Van Gogh’s Ravine is a brilliant tapestry of masterful techniques. Creating an almost marine-like world in the middle of a ravine, Van Gogh plays with something as basic as the setting of the painting, while at the same time still delivering strong movement through broad strokes (the river and the canyon walls) around areas of rest (the boulders). In pulling all of these aspects together, Van Gogh experiments not only with the nature of flow and movement, but also with the effects of particular colors upon those very motions.