Blog / 2009 / Learning from the Masters

June 2, 2009

As a kid, I learned to draw by copying illustrations from my favorite story books, and as I got older I started looking at other artists’s work for inspiration.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh Starry Night 1889

When I was fourteen, I reproduced this famous Van Gogh painting for a school project.

copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night by a high schooler
Gwenn Seemel
My Starry Night
1995
acrylic on panel
18 x 22 inches

For my Van Gogh fake, I was using acrylics for the first time ever—the only paints I’d worked with up to this point were gouache and watercolor. I was trying to mimic Van Gogh’s manner of painting in relief with separate brushstrokes that didn’t seem to need any re-working.

This initial exposure to acrylics through Van Gogh’s style meant that I used thick paint and textures for some time. It wasn’t until a few years later that I started to use acrylics in a more watered-down and layered way.

Pyke Koch’s Large Contortionist
Pyke Koch Large Contortionist 1957

By 2004, when I happened on the Large Contortionist, I had stopped reproducing other artists’ works in their entirety. Instead, I was noting what stood out most about the paintings I encountered and then using those devices in my own work.

painted portrait of a man with gender symbols and question marks in the background
Gwenn Seemel
Kiss It!
2004
acrylic on canvas
24 x 24 inches

At that time, I was already thinking of this painting, but I hadn’t made any palette decisions. I was so enamored with Koch’s pink and white-green combination that I decided to try it myself.

Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus
Sandro Botticelli Birth of Venus 1485

By 2006, I was starting to quote masterworks by reproducing elements that would hopefully remain recognizable in my work. When one of my subjects revealed that he loved The Birth Of Venus, I knew I had to find a way to incorporate something of this painting in my own.

Richard Speer, author and artist painted by Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Richard Speer
2006
acrylic on canvas
34 x 28 inches

That’s how the roses made their way into this portrait.

Marc Chagall’s I and the Village
Marc Chagall I and the Village 1911

I found that the quoting and re-working process was as educational as creating a full copy, though maybe in a different way.

Marc Chagall I and the Village remake with an astronaut
Gwenn Seemel
I and Cosmonaut Neil Armstrong (Russian-American, Alex)
2008
acrylic on canvas
42 x 42 inches

Referencing requires a careful study of the masterwork. My paintings with visual quotes inspire me to look into another artist’s work with more depth, which is exactly what happened with this iconic work by Chagall.

Michael Brophy’s Wooden Rome
Michael Brophy Wooden Rome 2002

More recently, I’ve been looking at masterworks to help me to compose my more adventurous paintings. Brophy’s work helped me to lay out my totem pole portrait.

Indian-American man as a totem pole with Indian imagery
Gwenn Seemel
Indian (Indian-American, Amal)
2008
acrylic on canvas
48 x 48 inches

Before discovering Wooden Rome, I had a hard time imagining how I would paint my Indian-Indian mash-up for Apple Pie in anything but a very vertical composition.

Georgia O’Keefe’s The Shelton with Sunspots
Georgia O’Keefe The Shelton with Sunspots 1926

Similarly, I had no idea how to paint a tall building until I stumbled across this image by O’Keefe.

a female Paul Bunyan who plants trees instead of cutting them down
Gwenn Seemel
Paula Bunyan’s Pine Nut Planting Pouch (Austrian-American, Renate)
2008
acrylic on an oversized canvas pouch
34 x 23 x 10 inches

The shimmery feel of O’Keefe’s structure evoked towering heights, and, as soon as I saw it, I knew that it would help me make this piece work.

Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna with Trees
Giovanni Bellini Madonna with Trees 1487

And, as I begin to work on compositions with more than one figure, I’ve found it especially useful to look at how that’s been done in the past.

a woman with a Brittany Spaniel on her lap
Gwenn Seemel
Mother
2009
acrylic on canvas
36 x 36 inches

When I sat down to paint this ode to my Maman, I wasn’t sure how to frame the subjects until I’d looked at a number of mother and child paintings. Observation of the painted world is as important to making art as observation of the real world!


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