a bit of tonic

Cup of Tea, 1905
Bonne Fille, 1906
Helen Carte, 1885

Les Petites Belges (Young Belgian Women), 1907
La Hollandaise, c. 1906
Mornington Crescent nude, contre jour, 1907
 2 versions of Ennui, c. 1914
La Giuseppina, 1903-1904
Still thinking about color after attending APHA's all-day color conference. 
An encore post with updates:
A painter I've always liked from afar is Walter Sickert
. I say from afar because I never sought out a biography or treatise on him, it was simply that each time I came across one of his works I took note. I am always drawn to his colors: smokey, tenebrous, sharp, acidic. In my mental storehouse of mood and color, however, his choices were always relegated to the appealing but problematic section. His subjects lay in the working classes, the music hall stage, the decadent and alien exoticism of Venice, and most notoriously, in the seamy bed-sit flats of Camden Town in North London and the prostitutes who toiled in them. The moods he captured ranged from the cheerfully tawdry to quiet grimness to the palpably brooding. It wasnt his subject choice that I found problematic, it was something about the atmosphere he conjured up—insistently and consistently—in each work. Is it the sense of remove? Is it the voyeurism? Airlessness? A bit of Sickert is tonic, dwell too long in those visual spaces and one feels a creeping discomfort.

Sickert was born in Munich to a Danish father and an English mother, but grew up in England. After a brief career on the stage, he became an assistant to James MacNeill Whistler. After 1890 he went to Paris and studied with Degas. Sickert's return to London in 1905 was followed up with a series of nudes that have become inextricably linked with the Camden Town Murder mystery. These paintings and Sickert's perverse sense of self-promotion (calling, for instance, a very equivocal scene of a weary clothed man and sleeping(?) naked woman alternately "What shall we do for the rent?" and "Camden Town Murder") ultimately led to the preposterous theorizing of author Patricia Cornwall that Sickert was Jack the Ripper.

Recently I read a brief but brilliantly written essay about Sickert by Max Kozloff*. In it is one of the most expertly evocative descriptions of color:

...It would be hard to imagine a more distraught monochrome a more neurasthenic sobriety. Whether in its resiny or vaporous distillation, the paint molds into umber purple, degraded violets, emaciated brownish greens, diseased oranges, prussic, somewhat mildewed blues, the whole occasionally enlivened with little splutters of toned-down white, cream or mustard.
I find the mental image of that entire palette—degraded violets!— incredibly enticing. Perhaps this speaks to my fascination with Farrow and Ball color charts and my longstanding wish to be paid to research and name colors. How wonderful it would be to have (house) paint charts based on ones favorite painters. Sickert for neurasthenic aesthetes, Milton Avery’s sober olives and grays pierced with oranges, mauves and royal blues for liberal intellectuals with expressionist leanings, Fragonard's nubile pinks and celestial blues for those whose tastes run to more... cheerful titillation. Benjamin Moore take note/

*  I should note that this essay is in an obscure and out of print book, The Grand Eccentrics (From Medieval to Contemporary: the eccentric in painting, sculpture and architecture). Many thanks to Malcolm Enright who pointed me to this fascinating collection of essays. An uneven, and in some ways flawed, book it is never the less a terrific storehouse of some great writing and invaluable facts about some of the most riveting figures in art. The book deserves its own post.


The Tiny Universe of Dot Screens

all images from John Hilgart's 4CP blog  
Last post I noted the upcoming American Printing History Association annual conference on color. I'm looking forward to seeing Dr. Sarah Lowengard who will present “Why Color? On the Uses, (Misuses) and Meanings of Color in Printing”. From what I know of her she's smart and brings a multidisciplinary philosophical/critical eye to a seemingly narrow subject. I wrote about her, and her fascinating thesis project on color in the 18th century, in an earlier post, Arsenic, Sheep's Dung and a Yellow called Pink.

Another talk that stood out in the APHA roster is Gabriella Miyares' “Worlds, Dot by Dot: 4-Color Process* in the Age of Pulp Comics.” The look of classic pulp comics— cheap paper, ragged printing, colors made up from overlaid fields of dot screens and a welter of misalignments and fortuitous mishaps— is something that resonates in the collective pop cultural consciousness. From Roy Lichtenstein to designers today who ironically try imitating that haphazard mechanical look with the intensive digital precision of Photoshop filters.

Gabriella is a graphic designer based in New York City, working in stationery design but her background experience includes experimenting with letterpress, screenprinting, and intaglio. Last year she attended a course at the Rare Book School at UVa that had a mini-section on early, cheap "pulp" color printing, which got her thinking about "how superheroes, and comics, have that very specific "look" -- those ragged dots and misprintings and very specific color palettes." Gabriella shared with me some of her research for the talk: 
"Hands-down the best visual resource I found was John Hilgart's 4CP blog (http://4cp.posthaven.com/). In looking at these magnified and cropped examples it became clear that the artists were rather limited by a very imprecise printing process, but at the same time the look has become something iconic and beautiful in its own right. That I think was the germ of the idea for this talk. I wanted to explore how these comics were actually made, how much control the artists actually had, and also how emerging technology made this process/look extinct (though it is still imitated with Photoshop!)"... Another incredible visual resource in The Digital Comic Museum (http://digitalcomicmuseum.com/). This website is all volunteer-run by comics enthusiasts who... scan the comics that qualify as copyright-free and post them for anyone/everyone to enjoy. Many of the represented comics are specific genre comics (romance, sci-fi, crime, and propaganda comics) ...  I'll be covering the idea of nostalgia in my talk and I think this site is proof of nostalgia for this aesthetic. In the forums you can see a lot of people lamenting that the art of comics today just doesn't match up to the beauty of what it once was -- which on one level is very funny because back then the process was so crazy : colorists basically submitted a watercolor "guide" to a color separation house that would then do all the color, and there was usually no time/money to proof so you just had to hope they got it right...
I'm late to the party in discovering Hilgart's 4CP | Four Color Process: adventures deep inside the comic book site where he scans and artfully crops tiny sections from his seemingly vast comic collection— then blows these up to monumental proportions. His meta- musings on the worlds of dot screens on cheap paper is erudite, lyrical, singularly obsessive, and a little bit whacko. John is a former english teacher and his formidable command of language and literary references spar nicely with the simple subject at hand. His lengthy "manifesto" on "the scopophilic impulse that drives 4CP blog" and on the dot screen itself is well-worth your time and attention. A taste:
[T]he dots provide the visual experience of granular detail that the art itself cannot. Every detail is more detailed, while realism is systematically undermined. Crucially, this perforated universe and molecular level of detail are unintended and have no intrinsic relationship to the illustrative content of comic books. Four-color process delivers surplus, independent information, a kind of visual monosodium glutamate that makes the comic book panel taste deeper.
High-tail it over there.
* "Four color process" is the mechanical reproduction — or simulation—of colors created from overlaying fields of dot screens of cyan, magenta, yellow and black-- the four "process" colors. Comics were printed cheaply and fast in a particularly coarse screen (fewer dots per inch) on pulp paper that absorbed the ink. The resulting registration misalignments, ham-fisted color representation, and ink "bleeding" are what we enthusiasts find so compelling.


Seeing Color/Printing Color

APHA conference poster by Doug Clouse of The Graphics Office
Typographer Nick Sherman will speak about 19th century chromatic wood type— typefaces made up of separately registered components which were printed in two or more colors. These types were designed so that the color overlap produced a third color. Nick will focus on William Page's 1874 specimen book, a tour de force of Victorian typographic fantasy. Images by Becca Hirsbrunner
The American Printing History Association's annual conference on all aspects of color printing— antique and modern, fine and pulp comic book style, from practical technique to color theory—is coming up October 18–20. Keynote speaker is Dr. Sarah Lowengard. Her brilliantly written and richly detailed monograph, “The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe” (online here) covered "color as an idea and color as the outcome of technological processes." In other words: arcane cultural tangents and obscure chemical distillations, adroitly presented. Coincidentally I had posted about Lowengard three years ago (with lots of pix!) in a meandering commentary on color.

Dear reader, depending upon your point of view, upcoming APHA talks will either sound like parodies of eggheadedness or give you a frisson of excitement at having your esoteric niche interest celebrated thus: “American Currency: Three Hundred Years of Color Printing,” “Chromatic Type and William Page’s Magnum Opus of Multi-Color Typeface Design,” “Adding Color: The Business of the Stenciller in Twentieth-Century Publishing,” and “Worlds, Dot by Dot: Four-Color Process in the Age of Pulp Comics,” among others. This last talk, by designer Gabriella Miyares, sounded so cool it almost highjacked this post. Instead I'll give it it's own spotlight, next.


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