Museum Sketchbook: Bouguereau

bouguereaustudies Several weeks ago I had a free afternoon, so I went to the MFAH to wander around their European art collection. I hadn't visited this part of the museum in over a year. They have two paintings by Bouguereau (deux Bouguereaux?). Bouguereau never fails to inspire me, and at the same time makes me feel as clumsy as a child daubing in finger-paints.

One can learn a lot by looking at a work of art in person. The colors and texture never truly translate in a print. But Bouguereau's brushwork is so smooth I have to get creepy-close to the canvas before I can see his layers of paint. I'm sure I make the guards nervous whenever I put my nose too near a priceless work of art. (Last year I got told off for putting my finger too close to a Sargent watercolor. No, I wasn't trying to touch it! I was pointing out some details to my father.)


Note: this is not an accurate representation of the size of these paintings. 'The Elder Sister' is about 4' tall, and I estimate that 'Our Lady of the Angels' is over 10' tall.

Both pieces have clouds in the background, and as I sketched the cloud-shapes, I noticed something. Something I would never have realized if I had not been trying to make my pencil follow Bouguereau's shapes and composition, because he does it so subtly and naturally:


He uses the shape of the clouds to guide the viewer's eye where he wants them to focus: right in the center, on the Most Important Object. James Gurney has written numerous posts on composition on his blog, and my other teachers have tried to drill this "guiding the eye" into my head. I know the theory, but my own attempts feel like I'm hanging blinking neon signs shouting "LOOK HERE! LOOK HERE!" And I still don't do it quite right.

Bouguereau does it so subtly, so gently, that your eyes follow his guidance without ever knowing they are being led.

This is why master copies are important. Some things you can only learn by following in the footsteps of those who knew the dance best.

IMC 2013 - Day Six

I didn't get much painting done today. I started Loki's hair and face, but I want to do a few quick studies of his back and robes before I paint them. Anna Mohrbacher was kind enough to take a photo of me while I was working.


And here's a really dim photo of the piece in progress. (It's gloomy outside. I think it rained nearly every day this week.)


The students and faculty, photographed by David Palumbo:


Yes, that IS a mammoth! Amherst College has an amazing natural history museum with dinosaur skeletons, footprints, and crazy minerals.

The college also has an art museum with a Bouguereau. A BOUGUEREAU. Here. In Massachusetts. Just up the hill from the IMC studios. I'm still in shock.


Cupid pours thoughts of love into a young girl's ear, distract her from her work. I stared at this painting for a long time, hoping to absorb some of his genius by osmosis.

IMC 2013 - Day Two

Most of today was spent taking reference photos for our paintings.  Yesterday in my critique group, Julie Bell told me that I needed to stop making thumbnails (since I had a good one) and go straight to the photoshoot, because I had a complicated pose that couldn't really be conceptualized without reference photos. The students and faculty here are wonderful about posing for references.   I posed for three valkyries, two Daeneryses, and one Titania.  (Norse stuff, Game of Thrones, and A Midsummer Night's Dream are all among this year's illustration assignments.)

I found two amazing models for Thor and Loki! We shot the photos outside because the sky was nicely overcast, what Dan Dos Santos called "perfect Bouguereau lighting," which is exactly what I want for this painting.

I associate Bouguereau with soft, graceful paintings of angels, children, and Madonnas.  However, on a Google search for more of his art, I found this:


Look at the muscles! This is a scene from Dante's Inferno.  Dante and Virgil are standing in the background, watching.

Now that I have my photo references, back to sketching.