Saturday, 17 January 2009

A bit of learning: Wolf Kahn

Over the past two weeks I've been digging around some work on how to work with water reflections. Most of the digging was done on my sofa with some of the books that had been staring at me for far too long.

Inspired by Lindsay's and Vivien's excellent posts on Kurt Jackson on Watermarks and their respective blogs, I begun with KJ's Thames Project. I still haven't seen any of his paintings in live, but this book already provided a few inspired coffee rounds with M..

But I got stuck: I find his markmaking just utterly fascinating, but it's a wet media markmaking... there is no way I can splash with dry dusty pastels.

So, enter artist #2: Wolf Kahn. I had bought one of his books when Casey's Wolf Kahn project introduced me to his fantastic colourist landscapes which build up so much tension and ambiguity between abstraction and representation that I can look at them forever.

Warm Tones on the River by Wolf Kahn, 1990
Pastel, 11x14 inches
Private Collection, New Mexico

Well, having decided to explore water reflections in dry media (well: mainly pastel) for a little while longer, I've been since reading through WK, had a few email conversations with Casey and begun to find a way of exploring WK's work.

As a start today: his palette. It got me terribly excited. I loved it. And nonetheless it has been a very strange and alien one for me. Hm, I don't quite know if I get the words for it.... let me muddle around for a while on this:

It's colorist - note the omission of the -u-. It's a palette I've come across since in quite a few other Northamerican artists, notably in Tracy Helgeson's oil paintings [I am putting the link to her Sales blog in here as much of her current work involves portraits.]
I am tempted to describe it as a rather cool palette, but that is not right: there's plenty of warm tones sitting next to high chroma cooler hues; so: high chroma is maybe more fitting; it seems rich in phtalos, cobalts and cadmiums. And, other than cobalt blue, these are pigments I haven't used much myself.

Well... I think I can see the difference and particularities but it will probably need a few more iterations to speak of them.

Kahn describes his pastels as immediate responses to - or better still: part of the experiental seeing of - being in landscape (or nature?). They are characterised by marks closely associated with drawing. Rather than using sanded boards, he draws on paper - lightly toned paper.

Diane Townsend's Terrage pastels are said be to be developed with a particulay eye on WK's palette. She carries one set of twelve of WK's favourites, which are these here:

Diane Townsend Terrage Pastels: Wolf Kahn's Favourites
dioxazine purple 188
mars violet 93
red oxide 88
quinacridone magenta 182
blue-violet gray 135
gray 124
ultramarine blue 18
ultramarine blue 20
permanent green 164
cadmium red light 56
cadmium yellow 67
cadmium orange 63

I found this image in the book, it's rather different to many of the others, but it resembled most closely some of the eeriness of my recent pond reflections.

Black Pond i (study) by Wolf Kahn, 1997
Pastel 11x14 inches
Beadleston Gallery, New York

And where is all this getting me to?

A first glimpse is this:

A pastel drawing on white paper with an unfamiliar palette. Hm... Comments to follow once I've made up my mind...

Trees in lake #2
Trees in lake,
Soft pastel on paper, 30x20cm

A few related links:

  • See Diane Townsend Pastel website here
  • Casey's Wolf Kahn Project at the Colorist here
  • Wolf Kahn Pastels by Wolf Kahn. Harry Abrams Publishers, New York, here


loriann signori said...


Your Wolfie project sounds interesting. I can't wait to see your upcoming blog posts. I will check back. Wolf Kahn's work is so intriguing. His color is delicious.

Thanks for visiting my blog!

PS Just seeing those Diana Townsend Terrages made me drool. Wow! What color!!! Let me go check them out online now.

Anonymous said...

Gesa I can't think which magazine I get from the USA, buy one of them often has a particular WK painting, of trees against the sky, in his advert that I love. Very high chroma and just incredible.
I was reading recently about his deteriorating eyesight because of macular degeneration and how it affects his work. My mother has the same eye disease and I suspect he's coping a lot better than she is!
Even being familiar with his work, I am still amazed at the colours in that Diane T set of pastels - even more jewel like than I would have imagined. Aren't they just so beautiful.
I can see that the colours you've used are not your usual ones - how did it feel not to be reaching for your comfort colours? Like having one hand tied behind your back I would imagine...

Gesa said...

hi and welcome loriann - wk has been on my to do list for a long time; now it is exactly that time. it's a funny draw close/push away thing with these colours. it almost feels too precious to start unpack somebody else's art... hm, let's see where that goes. i had bought the terrage sticks in april and they had, other than on rare occasions had just limited exposure - it's not the set i got though, but individual (and some different sticks), but with the unisons/senneliers i should be able to pick 12 close by.

Hm, Cath - yes: blindfolded and hands tied behind my back. interesting though. i don't mind it - it's strangeness in presence. but it needs to sink in for a while to get an idea of what it does/did. i did a few more of these sketches, on different paper and also with coloured pencils (that's even further out of comfort). but i like the going back to more comfortable grounds with a couple more insights/something new learned. so i'm quite happy to stumble on for a bit.
Hm - on my way back after christmas we had a long drive close to sunset and there was so much sun shining through forests, dark colours and high contrast... it's a scene i love but one that also keeps evading me... maybe wk will help me along a bit.

Tracy Helgeson said...

Hi Gesa, thanks for the mention and link and nice to have it in the same place as Wolf Kahn! Although he and I go about color very differently somehow we end up in a similar place. I definitely bow to him though:)

BTW, my colors are parked on a very warm underpainting, I use no pthalos, cobalts and only cadmium yellow and occasionally a cadmium red. The other colors simply look zingy because of the underpainting. It's sort of a wacky way to get the color I see in my head, but I love the process and the challenge of glazing with such strong colors.

Anyway, good luck with your exploration, you'll find your own voice I am sure.

Gesa said...

Hi Tracy, you're very welcome; and thanks for the little info on your palette/underpainting arrangments. It's fascinating to find out more how people end up with particular ways of getting to what they see.

Brian McGurgan said...

I love Wolf Kahn's work, Gesa, and will look forward to seeing where you take this learning. I first stumbled upon Casey's blog, in fact, because I was researching Kahn's use of pastels and found Casey's posts. Your use of complementary colors is interesting in your sketch here - purple and yellow in the sky, strong orange and blues... I liked your comment on the tension and ambiguity between the abstract and representational nature of Kahn's work - this goes directly to what I find so intriguing about his art. And of course there is the richness of his color and the vigor of his pastel strokes. "Warm Tones on the River" is an excellent example - a limited palette but such a strong, dynamic sense of interaction between the warm oranges and the cool grays. I pull out Kahn's books frequently for inspiration and always find new things there to learn from and admire.

Gesa said...

Brian - thanks for this, I need to reread with a bit more time. Yes, I'm working towards a wee guest spot over at Casey's... need something to say before doing so, however... WK has some wonderful points on landscape and influences too, I think that will be next. But I'll also be trying larger pastel drawings on light printmaking paper... Already being apprehensive: what on earth to do with all that white that is staring back at me??? lol.

Casey Klahn said...

Looking forward to your post at pastelsblog.

I got a huge kick out of meeting and learning from Diane Townsend. Her art I love, and she shared some of her Wolf Kahn stories. Her pastels are stand-alone brilliant and unlike anything else we use. I also love her paper.

This study is going great, and I see your use of freedom in this sketch. Way to go, Gesa!

A couple of thoughts. When I began learning my palette and looking hard at WK's palette, I found that I had to work at keeping the warm temperatures under control. Hence the cool colors. It's part of why I'm in the studio now extending my blue series - all blue landscapes.

The other thought is that I often use Rives BFK heavyweight for a nice large white paper with pastels. You might try that.

Sai said...

Nice Blogging. Looking forward for your many more Pastel Arts.