Oil Painting: Susan Lichtman: The Powerful Use of Light in Oil Interiors

Oil Painting: Susan Lichtman: The Powerful Use of Light in Oil Interiors

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This Massachusetts painter uses a closely controlled palette and open painting approach to create highly evocative visions of interiors and figures.

by John A. Parks

Family at Sundown
2005, oil on linen,
48 x 72. All artwork this
article collection the artist
unless otherwise indicated.

Susan Lichtman loves the light of a strong late-afternoon sun raking through the interior of a family house, fracturing views of figures and furniture, and sparking a sense of surprise and revelation. In Family at Sundown for instance, a woman is lost in the shadows of a kitchen while a child emerges from a doorway with a hula hoop, her body split in half by a shaft of sunshine. In the foreground another child clutches a ball and a man peers at a piece of paper, perhaps a letter. Both figures have their heads shrouded in shadow. The powerful action of the light shifts our attention away from the physiognomy of the figures and onto the overall space and the indeterminate drama that seems to be taking place. It also imbues the image with a strong sense of a particular moment in time.

“I’m a terrible storyteller,” says Lichtman. “In literature I’m interested in those moments between events—the descriptions of settings and the way characters look at each other. I love those moments in film as well. Some of my paintings merely depict a particular moment in a family’s day, when everyone is doing something different in very close proximity to one another. In other pictures I have used well-known narratives or characters to guide the choices in my compositions. I recently became interested in painting different kinds of mother characters. For example, I worked with the character of Anna Karenina, a glamorous but alienated mother. Right now I’m working on drawings about house-hunters. Maybe all the news about the real-estate market has inspired this idea.” The artist’s narrative strategy, like her rendering approach, is one of hints and suggestions, rather than fully realized stories and perfectly turned forms. “I used to love Mallarmé’s quote that said you should suggest and not name, because that’s where the poetry lies,” she recalls. On the other hand, the artist does not let her paintings become too general. “I’m trying to get mystery and specificity at the same time,” she adds, “even though they seem to be quite opposite things.” The challenge of balancing the opposing forces of mystery and revelation can be seen in Woman With Overcoat Leaving, in which carefully delineated figures in the foreground share a space with more ethereal figures that inhabit the shadowy depths in the back of the painting. Even in the foreground, however, Lichtman doesn’t care to fully render form, relying instead on the power of outline and the suggestive function of thoughtfully placed flat areas of color.

Woman With Overcoat, Leaving
2006, oil on linen,
30 x 32.

For all the dramatic light in her work, Lichtman’s paintings are unified by a carefully controlled palette. “To me, close-valued color is magical,” says the artist. “It’s a way for the paint to imply the fiction of light and air. A palette of close values also gives the picture a kind of envelope into which everything is placed.” In order to achieve this end, the artist uses a very limited set of colors. “For many years I used a palette of earth red, cobalt blue, cadmium yellow, and white,” she says. “The darkest color I could mix was red and cobalt blue, so everything remained in a fairly narrow range, tonally. And because the cobalt easily gets overwhelmed by the red, the paintings tended to have a reddish tinge.” In the last few years Lichtman has added black and chromium or permanent green to her palette, increasing the range of the darks and giving a much cooler feeling to the pictures. The artist also considers the overall decorative property of a picture achieved with a limited palette. “I think my idea of beauty in painting has to do with the tension between the depiction of deep space and the properties of shape and surface,” she says. “I see that tension in interior paintings of artists I love best, from Roman wall painting to De Hooch, Vuillard, Bonnard, and Gwen John. Sunlight or lamplight juxtaposed with shadows add to the complexity of shapes. I am interested in how light can divert attention away from figures and slow down the reading of the imagery.”

Figures Beneath
a Tulip

2006, gouache on panel, 7 x 5.

Lichtman begins a picture by painting directly, with no underpainting. Generally the setting is the house in which she and her family have lived for the last 15 years. The artist does not paint from life, however, preferring to work up the picture in the studio she keeps on the property. “I can always go and check something if I need to,” she says. “But painting from memory somehow allows for a more resolved image.” The figures that the artist incorporates into her paintings are based on sketches or images she has culled from magazines and fashion photography. Often figures become hybrids as she melds images of fashion models with those of family members. The artist also uses her own photographs of light bouncing around interiors for reference.

Rather than plan out her compositions, Lichtman allows them to evolve through a kind of discovery process. “I started working in a new and kind of crazy way a few years ago,” she explains. “I work from the specific to the general. On a large canvas I might start by painting something very small—a vase of flowers for example. Next, I will add something to it—the arm of a figure behind it, perhaps. I keep adding to the first parts bit by bit, so that the painting grows organically from that first seed. Some of the parts are painted from life, and some from memory or photos.” Eventually, when the artist has covered most of the canvas, she finds that she has to start moving things around, adding or subtracting. “I wouldn’t recommend this method for everyone,” the artist admits, “but for me it helps me to knit together every part of the picture. And I like the fact that I have no idea what the final composition will look like when I start.” The artist also reports that this way of painting fits with her busy life of teaching and looking after her family, which makes long stretches of uninterrupted studio time a rarity. The approach is further aided by her adherence to a limited palette, ensuring that when she returns to a painting she is readily able to keep the color consistent throughout the work.

Yellow Purse
2006, oil on linen, 42 x 48.
Private collection.

Lichtman applies her paint broadly and directly, using bristle brushes to apply bold color to her surfaces. “I paint on linen,” she says. “I used to use a very good paint, which I then mixed with marble dust and wax in order to make a dry, matte, and almost cementlike paint. Recently I have discovered Maroger medium. It’s a gel that is made from mixing together several ingredients, and it radically transforms the consistency of the oil paint. Some people call it the “secret of the Old Masters”; other people say it is risky to use. I’ve been using it for five years and I am a total fan—I would hate to give it up. The new artificial Maroger mediums are not the same.” The artist acknowledges that varnish and oil mixtures such as Maroger carry with them a risk of cracking and darkening, but like many other painters Lichtman is willing to take that risk in exchange for the superior control and handling that the mixture offers. The artist is also a believer in the virtues of lead white paint in spite of its toxicity.

As well as her large paintings on linen, Lichtman has produced many small works on panels using casein and gouache. On a smaller scale the artist’s touch and brushwork is much more evident. In Family Dog, for instance, the broken brushwork gives an all-over, almost carpetlike feel to the image, breaking up figures and props in an intriguingly deep space. “I used to use the casein in tubes,” says the artist, “but then I had a mural project at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center, in Waltham, Massachusetts, and I ordered theatrical casein. I’ve been using that for some of the small pieces.” Changing to a small scale also brings about changes in compositional possibilities. In several pictures, such as Figures Beneath Tulip and Light Tulip, the artist experimented with a very large close-up element in the foreground and figures diminished by perspective in the distance. “It’s something that I would never do in a big painting,” she says. “I just don’t think it would work on a much larger scale.”

Light Tulip
2006, gouache on panel, 7 x 5.

Lichtman’s journey as an artist began in high school when she drew from the model and studied perspective. “Although art was my consuming interest I wanted to go to a liberal-arts university where I could study literature and art history and science,” she says. “I come from a family of scientists, and I loved Constable’s idea that landscape painting could be considered a branch of the natural sciences.” Lichtman studied at Brown University, in Providence, and then attended the Yale University School of Art, in New Haven, Connecticut, where she worked with William Bailey, Bernard Chaet, Gretna Campbell, and Andrew Forge. “Bailey’s figure-painting class was wonderful for me,” she says. “Although he gave a lot of particular information—and for me, it was remedial training since I did not go to art school—he never taught us to paint in a particular way. He simply encouraged the making of pictures as a form of expression.”

Lichtman talks about the future of her work with considerable ambition. “I’d like the paintings to be more formally succinct,” she says, “while also conveying human figures that are more psychologically and visually believable.” A longtime teacher at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, the artist reflects on the advice that she gives to young people considering a career in art. “I advise them to pursue their passions, even if it means worrying their parents and giving up a more lucrative and stable career option,” she says. “I assure them they will have a wonderful life if they love their work. A life spent in the studio is full of wonder and revelation.”

Night Mother
2006, casein and gouache
on panel, 9 x 12.
Private collection.

About the Artist
Susan Lichtman studied at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Yale University School of Art, in New Haven, Connecticut. For the last 25 years she has taught at Brandeis University, in Waltham, Massachusetts, where she supervises undergraduate students. She shows her work at the Lenore Gray Gallery, in Providence. She recently participated in “Rooms and Voices,” an exhibition at the Gross McCleaf Gallery, in Philadelphia, devoted to the theme of interiors. Lichtman makes her home with her husband and two teenage children in Rehoboth, Massachusetts.

John A. Parks is an artist who is represented by Allan Stone Gallery, in New York City. He is also a teacher at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City, and is a frequent contributor to American Artist, Drawing, Watercolor, and Workshop magazines.

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