Developing a Narrative Theme for an Oil Painting

29 Mar 2011

Sketch for Leaves of Grass, an oil painting by Patricia Watwood
Sketch for Leaves of Grass, an oil painting in progress by Patricia Watwood.

For a while now, I have been exploring narrative themes. This is what R. H. Ives Gammell called “poetical pictures.”  In the 19th century, this was commonly referred to as “history painting”, but by history they did not just mean world events as we define the term.

“Poetical pictures” are paintings that draw on a narrative story, whether a literary source, or simple metaphor, or allegory.  So, the paintings have a “subject,” in addition to being visual compositions or records of visual experience.  (This may seem obvious, but after 100 years of breaking down narrative painting, nothing can be assumed!)

So, I think a lot about what would be a good “subject”  for a picture. Recently I have been very inspired by Walt Whitman and “Leaves of Grass.”  Like me, Whitman lived in Brooklyn, and I have walked on sidewalks and looked at the view of the harbor from the waterfront, knowing that he most likely passed by the same spot. Whitman was a man ahead of his time.  He had a sensibility about the body, the unity of the body and soul, and of our spiritual self that 150 years later still seems progressive. He celebrates what I think of as “the holiness of sensuality.”  In "Song of Myself", he writes,

    I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,

    And what I assume you shall assume,

    For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

    I loafe and invite my soul,

    I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.


After reading those lines I thought, what a lovely sentiment on which to base a painting. Whitman is not traditional source material for narrative figure painting, in that the reference is not very overt or obvious. But he is well known enough that a person seeing the painting may have enough of a sense of his work to understand the theme of the painting. I was inspired to create a figure painting of a woman on a hillside overlooking the Brooklyn waterfront, reading “Leaves of Grass.”  This unites Whitman’s poem and sense of the body with my own visual language of the feminine form, to represent a wholeness of body, mind and spirit. Here's my sketch of the work. I'm still working out all the details but having the figure reclining on the ground lends a sensuality and tranquility to the scene. The fact that she is reading Whitman brings the idea full circle--the poetry is being acted out, and it is being acted out as the figure reads Whitman's work.

Next time I'll share how I developed the painting. Until then!

--Patricia

For more painting instruction from Patricia, check out her latest DVD, Figure Painting: Realistic Skin Tone.


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Comments

Kisu wrote
on 30 Mar 2011 8:16 AM

Thanks, Patricia, this will be interesting to see as it develops.  Is that sketch on paper or on an unstretched piece of canvas or linen?  It's hard to tell from the photo.  

k.gray wrote
on 3 Apr 2011 8:29 AM

Having had the pleasure of listening to you speak at the Dahesh.....it's a DELIGHT to discover your column here at AD.  Looking beyond the canvas and connecting with moments of contemplative stillness is a worthy subject is this hectic world....and a pursuit we share.   Looking forward to watching this work grow!

on 4 Apr 2011 9:33 AM

The drawing above is done in pencil heightened with pastel and white chalk, on a paper that I hand toned with water color.  The paper was did not have a water color size, so has an irregular toning.  (I'm always messing around with new papers!)

kylevthomas wrote
on 4 Apr 2011 11:23 AM

Patricia,

Thank you for sharing this. I've been really interested, lately, in narrrative and metaphor for my own work. This helps me understand how to bring that into the work.

I love this idea of "the holiness of sensuality" It's spot on. It really describes the unity between the spirit and the flesh, the immortal with the temporal.

on 4 Apr 2011 3:13 PM

Of course Whitman was talking about direct experience, not allegory, metaphor or book learning. The idea seems to me to be at the heart of the Realist vs. Classicist argument in the 19th Century and today. The Classicists respected the old hierarchies, along with the political institutions that supported them, and the Realists preferred to turn the old hierarchies on their ear in favor of a democratizing valorization of direct apprehension.

Alex Tyng wrote
on 12 Apr 2011 9:29 PM

Thanks, Patricia, for letting us into your thought process and painting process. I know it will be an interesting journey as I like seeing how other artists approach their work, especially figurative painting. You say Whitman is not traditional source material, but if we give ourselves the freedom to choose non-traditional sources we can expand the possibilities and essentially create a new idea of tradition. Looking forward to the next installment!

Alex Tyng wrote
on 12 Apr 2011 9:30 PM

Thanks, Patricia, for letting us into your thought process and painting process. I know it will be an interesting journey as I like seeing how other artists approach their work, especially figurative painting. You say Whitman is not traditional source material, but if we give ourselves the freedom to choose non-traditional sources we can expand the possibilities and essentially create a new idea of tradition. Looking forward to the next installment!

on 2 May 2012 7:14 PM

Sometimes in making a small study for a larger oil painting, an artist will sketch in certain areas very loosely. It's almost as if she says to herself, "and there's some other stuff that fills in this area of the composition, but I'll