Friday, November 17, 2017

Wyeth Retrospective at SAM

11/17/17 The Hammering Man's boot at SAM
The Seattle Art Museum’s current show is Andrew Wyeth in Retrospect, which covers the span of this American painter’s remarkable 75-year career. In the two hours that I was there today, I saw only about half of it, so I’m going to go back sometime soon to see the rest. My friend Anne and I agreed that it’s an intense exhibit; you can’t breeze through because each work requires – demands – your full attention and scrutiny. And whenever you observe a detail – each hair and its shadow; a complex skintone created with egg tempera; the sharp light slanting on a building at night that must be coming from the moon – you are rewarded for your attention.

The 110 works in the show are mostly tempera and “dry brush” watercolor paintings, but several pencil drawings are also included. As always when I see an exhibit that includes studies, I was as intrigued by these preliminary works as I was by the finished paintings – perhaps more so. I love seeing the fresh, incomplete marks and wondering what the artist was thinking about as he restated a line. Of course, they hardly looked like sketches or studies to me; most were as exquisitely rendered as the finished works. Maybe it’s just that I, as a sketcher, can somewhat identify with making the drawings in a way that I can’t identify with making the paintings (which would require about 500 years of practice for me!).

And speaking of practice, here’s a thought by Wyeth about his studies that served as a reminder of why sketching and practice are important:

“I never consider these studies as drawings. All I’m doing is thinking with my pencil and brush. . . There would have been a time when I would have made hundreds of close, methodical, even oddly dull drawings of an object when I was learning to catch a subject off balance. And slowly, one learns to know anatomy, to know structure, proportion, perspective, when to modify, when not to, when to exaggerate, when to thin down. These are all things an artist should train himself to do so that at the right moment, the decisive moment, one is there to catch it, whether it’s imaginary or graphically right there in front of you.”

Having just completed 10 weeks of a graphite drawing class, I found that this quotation spoke to me of the potential expressiveness of this medium that I have only barely touched (and I imagine what I might do with 75 more years of practice): 

“To me, pencil drawing is a very emotional, very quick, very abrupt medium. . . . I will perhaps put in a terrific black and press down on the pencil so strongly that perhaps the lead will break, in order to emphasize my emotional impact with the object. . . . Sometimes my hand, almost my fingertips, begin to shiver and this affects the quality of the lead pencil on the paper. It becomes dark and light, dark and light. The thing begins to move. The drawing begins to pull itself out of the blank piece of paper. You can’t concoct that.”


  1. I think this was the same show that was in Pennsylvania earlier this year. I really wanted to get to see it but it never worked out because it was so far from me. I like how he explains why sketching is so important. It still amazes me that there are many artists who never sketch or draw. Interesting sketch of the boot!

    1. The show is apparently going to keep traveling around, so maybe it'll come to NY somewhere that you'll be able to catch it. . . hope so!


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