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Contemplating the Past, Paintings the Present
Pauline Roche’s figure paintings capture contemporary viewers mesmerized by the genius of Old Master work. By James A Mecalfe
Some of Tucson, Arizona, artist Pauline Roche’s fondest memories are of visiting her favorite art museums and staring endlessly at the work of such masters as Rembrandt, Sargent, Degas, Manet, and Rodin. It is not surprising then, that many of her paintings are set in museums and focus on other people’s reactions to great works of art. “Capturing that feeling of quiet contemplation as an individual stands transfixed before a magnificent painting or sculpture has been a great source of inspiration for me,” the artist reveals. Although some might find painting museum interiors that feature Old Masters work challenging, Roche delights in the process and views it as a way to pay homage to the artists of the past that continue to influence her work today.
In these figure paintings, Roche searches for connections between museum visitors and the art they view as a way to add an element of poetry to her work. Occasionally, the gesture or stance of an individual might reflect the same gesture or stance depicted in a painting on the wall or a sculpture on display, or it might be something in the individual’s clothing or hairstyle that reminds Roche of a work from the past. Roche captured one such instance in Woman in Yellow Coat, wherein the folds of the voluminous coat and hair of the viewer lit by strong light from one side somewhat reflect that in the dancer’s dress in Sargent’s El Jaleo. Roche remembers many visits to that particular vantage point of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston. “I would sit on the stone steps just staring at that painting in awe,” she remembers. “I loved watching people’s reactions and hearing their comments as they stepped into that space for the first time and were awestruck themselves by the scene. As I studied Sargent’s wonderful treatment of his gypsy dancer’s dress in stage light, I enjoyed painting my own model’s yellow coat brightly lit with the strong shaft of light from the museum doorway.”
Commenting on another of her paintings influenced by Sargent, Roche says, “I was always attracted to Sargent’s Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver because it seems so quickly and effortlessly painted, and yet so powerful, with simplicity and energy. In my painting Leaning Toward The Sargent, I like the way my model is largely silhouetted with dark clothes against the lighter walls, somewhat reflecting the black-and-white pattern of the painting she is viewing. I found that the little curves and curls in the model’s hair reflected the curves in the rows of musicians in Sargent’s orchestra painting. I’m always looking for such links, as it helps the viewer make the connection between the artwork of the past and the person viewing it in the present.”
Sometimes a person’s quiet contemplative stance is enough for Roche to show the connection between the viewer and the work he or she is admiring. In The Drawing Class, for example, the ponytails and hair ribbons on Roche’s figures link with the way the hair appears in Degas’ Little Dancer sculpture. For this painting, Roche sketched people as they moved through a gallery and developed ideas about peoples’ positions and poses, then used models in the studio to paint the foreground figures from life. The artist’s aim in this painting was to convey the concentration and connection that the main figure had with the sculpture. “I deliberately painted the model with ribbon in her hair to reflect the Little Dancer.” She explains, “and had the model tilt her head up so that her chin is high and the light hits her cheek just as it does on the cheek of the Degas sculpture.”
In another work set in a gallery, Discussing the Old Masters, Roche’s goal was “to capture the atmosphere of people in rapt attention, in the process of learning, in a unique setting among the Old Masters paintings on the wall,” she says. The artists painted the group of people largely as a single mass at first, joined with the similarly dark value of the floor of the gallery. Gradually, she refined the overall shape to give the distinct contour of their silhouette as a group and to indicate their positions and attributes. “I didn’t develop too much detail on the figures, as I hoped the viewer’s eye would move past them and enjoy the featured art on the wall – the subject of the group’s discussion,” she explains. “The warm golden glow of the strongly lit gallery wall in this case added something interesting and reminded me of the candle-lit drama in the classical painting on the wall, The Procuress, by Dirck van Baburen.”
For most of her paintings, Roche uses neutral, midvalue paint-such as thinned raw umber-at the onset to establish a simple statement and then adds soft-edged, generalized masses for the shadows and shapes of darker areas. Working as quickly as possible, she covers the canvas, leaving the white showing for the lighter areas. “I keep my eyes squinted during this stage so I see only broad, simple areas,” explains the artist. “I will often go about this stage adding paint to the canvas and using a rag to wipe out as well, establishing a basic pattern and suggestion of the shapes that represent the subject.”
Once Roche has made an initial statement on the canvas, she commits to darker darks and begins firming the shapes. “I make adjustments by adding less-diluted paint to build the darks and establish lighter parts by wiping out areas with a rag, which allows the white canvas to show through,” the artist describes. “This stage often feels rather like ‘sculpting’ the form on the canvas. The result is a kind of black–and-white, unfocussed image that contains a soft preview of the painting. From this point, I have a rough map from which to move forward.” Roche then begins using color and develops greater contrasts and clearer edges wherever needed. “During the final stages, I selected which parts of the painting I wish to emphasize by pulling them into focus and creating a higher degree of finish to them.
“The approach of softly developing areas of midvalue paint on the canvas, to me, is a much more manageable task than attempting to create a complete, accurate drawing from the beginning.” Roche admits. “By gently and softly massing in the simplified image, reducing all its complexity to a few monochromatic values, I can, in a way, sneak up on the accuracy as I go. Establishing these masses and keeping the edges soft with shadows connected together allows me to achieve a feeling of space and atmosphere from the beginning. It is a way of having things emerge on the canvas as part of a whole, rather than as individual items side by side.
Aside from the Museum setting, Roche also enjoys painting people involved with performing arts-especially those in music and dance-and often likes to tell a story within these types of paintings. In Before the Performance, Roche portrays the patient anticipation of dancers waiting for their turn on stage. “The painting contains a great deal of dark-the mystery of the back-stage behind the girls as well as the darkness of the audience area.” She explains. “The strong light from the stage provided a dramatic effect and lit the costumes beautifully. When a painting contains so much dark, I sometimes prefer to develop the initial impression with more of a wiping-out approach. I still, however, begin by developing a soft monochromatic impression of the main shapes and values.
In The Ensamble, Roche captures a group of musicians she happened upon in the Piazza San Marco, in Venice, Italy. “They were busily creating music while crammed together in this wonderful setting almost silhouetted against the brightly lit square behind them,” the artist remembers. “the challenge was to provide just enough information to show that they were musicians at work while maintaining that sense of stark contrast between their shaded spot and the glaring sunlight of the piazza. I also wanted to indicate the architectural features of the buildings on the far side as well as the feeling of movement within that space. I used a very tight value range to maintain that sense of contrast and distance.”
Whether she is painting figures in museum settings or in the performing arts, Roche aims for her work to appear natural from a distance, while up close showing looser brushstrokes with simple patterns of tone and color. “ I love to convey the nature of the oil painting with the surface appearing as though it is wet, juicy, and buttery” she says. With her paintings often containing areas of deep shadow while her subject is illuminated in soft light and finished in more detail, she hopes her work will “draw the viewer to follow the path, attaching various elements in the composition but coming to rest in the main point of interest.”
Demonstration: Leaning Toward the Sargent
Step 1 Roche began this work by using diluted raw umber to establish a basic pattern of shapes that identified the subject. Keeping the paint thin and loose and squinting to see values clearly, she worked fast and didn’t yet commit to hard edges or sharp contrasts.
Step 2 Next the artist added darker colors and strengthened the statement of the major shapes. Working all over the canvas, she began wiping out certain areas as she measured and adjusted the placement of her values.
Step 3 As she continued defining forms more clearly, Roche further developed the colors of the painting and established greater areas of contrast and sharper edges. At this stage, Roche squinted les often to see the most amount of detail and decide which areas she wante