Copy, cover, afterimage

Almost exactly one year ago I paid a vis­it to Amsterdam, tak­ing the oppor­tun­ity while still liv­ing a stone­’s throw from the Netherlands, and just before mov­ing to faraway Leipzig. A work­ing trip, as usu­al, ded­ic­at­ing to check­ing out all the Rembrandts and Vincents. Of course I had planned to write extens­ive blo­g­posts at the time; of course I failed to, amidst all the adven­tures of moving.

Of all the hun­dreds of paint­ings I had seen on my Dutch trip there was one that inter­ested me in a par­tic­u­lar way. Not that it would have been the most fas­cin­at­ing per se – how could it, with such for­mid­able com­pet­i­tion around! –, but it struck me as poten­tially the most inter­est­ing too copy: A Landscape with Stone Bridge by Rembrandt.

The most dif­fi­cult thing about attempt­ing any copy is for me to find time to do a copy at all instead of all the innu­mer­able ori­gin­al works wait­ing to be executed. Fortunately there came a time, around May and June, when I was expli­citly encour­aged to prac­tic­ally con­sult my role mod­els – my prof sug­ges­ted a copy exer­cise –, and promptly I went back to the stone bridge.

What about it? First, it’s done in a rather par­tic­u­lar tech­nique, rep­res­ent­at­ive for a way of think­ing I’m fond of any­way. Second, it’s not too com­plex to repro­duce rel­at­ively quickly.

Strip away all the romantic mood, the fever­ish, elec­tric light of the last sun­beams beneath heavy clouds of a sum­mer storm just about to break loose, look at the bare col­our, and you’ll find there’s almost noth­ing of it. Look at the orange, brown and black areas: All that is the under­paint­ing that con­tains no inform­a­tion but bright­ness (and a gen­er­ous lot of graph­ic­al struc­tures). In accord with the ori­gin­al I’ve used a wood pan­el covered in chalk ground, a hard primer easy to pol­ish, yield­ing a sur­face as smooth as plastic. Having done a very quick char­coal sketch I applied a thin imprim­at­ura in burnt siena. All the brush marks enliven­ing the cloud sur­face in the upper right have zero relief, the paint there was as liquid as ink when fresh. Now the black parts would have been added, still as dilute as pos­sible – the step tak­ing longest and most work. Afterwards I’m there with a fully fleshed-out mono­chrome ver­sion as I’ve described it so often.

The unusu­al idea now is how much of it to leave open. Usually I’d glaze over the dark parts and high­light the light­er ones with opaque and more sat­ur­ated col­ours. Here, almost the entire pic­ture is left in its under­paint­ing stage, save for the few high­lights in the trees, the grassy slope seen through the bridge, fences and rooves and the reced­ing open sky. Altogether, scarce more than a quarter of the total area gets “prop­er” execution.

The fin­ished paint­ing works nev­er­the­less: The areas of sheer under­paint­ing com­pletely ful­fil their func­tion and need no col­our­a­tion. In fact, they dis­tract less from the high­lights that here draw much more ini­tial atten­tion than in a hypo­thet­ic­al full-col­our ver­sion. This tech­nique isn’t restric­ted to land­scape, no, Rembrandt (the old more than the young­er) and oth­ers give us plenty of examples in all sorts of genres.

Rembrandt: Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, oil/canvas, 64x75cm, 1661. — Notice eye sock­ets and hair­line, temple and oth­er shad­owy areas, they’re all just expos­ing the under­paint­ing and have the same col­our­a­tion as the background.

The stone bridge was­n’t the only res­ult of that copy exer­cise. Actually, call­ing it that is a bit mis­lead­ing. The term that our pro­fess­or Ernert coined for those things he likes to do is “Nachbilder”, “after­im­ages”, as opposed to “Vorbilder”, “(role) mod­els” or “pro­to­types”.

How should [the expres­sion „after­im­ages“] be under­stood? In per­cep­tu­al psy­cho­logy the phantom images still per­ceived when the ori­gin­al light stim­u­la­tion of the eye­’s ret­ina has sub­sided are known as after­im­ages. Transferred to the case of paint­er Jörg Ernert, we could say that the after­im­ages are traces of his own view­ing as he takes a look around in recent and more dis­tant art his­tory. This is about a bal­ance of per­son­al visu­al exper­i­ences, really.

— Jan Nicolaisen in the cata­logue “Nachbilder”, Leipzig 2017, transl. Dr. Lucinda Rennison

I ended up really lik­ing the term – the idea behind it is of course noth­ing ori­gin­al, it’s exactly what paint­ers have been doing for the entire his­tory of paint­ing. But “after­im­age” nails it, gives it a notion like “cov­er” in music, per­haps. There’s the close copy – see above –, often for a tech­nic­al motiv­a­tion, for sheer reverse engin­eer­ing; and there’s adapt­a­tions of a cer­tain com­pos­i­tion done in a dif­fer­ent per­son­al style (see Ernert, here or there).

My after­im­age to Grützke’s “Nobles”, oil/canvas, 48x64cm

Having star­ted to do any after­im­ages, nat­ur­ally at some point I had to pay homage to my hero Grützke, for which I star­ted with a litho­graph, Bei den Edlen (“With the Noblemen”), and simply replaced his like­nesses with mine.

Generally, paint­ing what was ori­gin­ally a black/white print or draw­ing is a won­der­ful exer­cise. Of course there’s Ernert examples, and there’s examples in any peri­od of art his­tory where prin­ted repro­duc­tions were abund­ant while ori­gin­al paint­ings were dif­fi­cult to vis­it (prime examples are Titian and Rubens, both of which com­manded a huge pub­lish­ing busi­ness to widely dis­sem­in­ate wood­cuts and engrav­ings of their paint­ings). Rembrandt tried to outdo Rubens, espe­cially as Rubens was the then-cur­rent cham­pi­on in painting.

Finally, like some of the most fam­ous cov­ers in music, an after­im­age could con­cern itself with just one par­tic­u­lar aspect of its fore­bear. This is some­thing I and so many oth­ers do all the time, often so that it’s scarce worth any­more to declare it an after­im­age. Here fol­low two examples which at least star­ted with the clear determ­in­a­tion to quote a Vorbild.

First, a view in a man­ner of Schiele. As with Rembrandt’s Stone Bridge, see­ing Schiele’s Small Town V in per­son, I was cap­tiv­ated by a par­tic­u­lar tech­nic­al aspect. How to cre­ate these black out­lines bleed­ing into their sur­round­ings? In the end, the solu­tion turned out to be a choice of mater­i­al, provided in a cata­logue’s small print. I suc­ces­fully rep­lic­ated tech­nique and look, but with a draw­ing com­pletely of my own, of a place Schiele had noth­ing to do with.

My “Golden Town”, oil/canvas, 90x90cm, 2019 – after a draw­ing I had made in Ptuj
My copy of Whistler’s San Marco view, oil/paper, 21x30cm, 2019

Second, a scene in a man­ner of Whistler. Like Schiele, Whistler had not his one style, but a lot of very dif­fer­ent means at his dis­pos­al – one fea­ture, though, that occurs repeatedly in his works is what I’d describe as an imbal­ance in the col­our spec­trum, provid­ing one very strong cue of col­our not with a coun­ter­weight of equally strong sat­ur­a­tion, but fram­ing it with vast greys. Something sim­il­ar I did after anoth­er draw­ing by me, though oth­er than with Schiele here at least I used a view Whistler will have been famil­i­ar with: The bell­tower of the church of Santo Stefano in Venice.

Dead End, oil/canvas, 80x200cm, 2019

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