Monthly Archives: April 2013

Will Barnet’s Shapes

           “One painting can have over one hundred drawings for it.”   Will Barnet

Will Barnet, Mother and Child


Comments from Peggy and Diane on my last post about Will Barnet got me thinking about how deeply ingrained some things are within each of us. I was so envious when Peggy said that her dad showed her books of Russian Icons when she was a little girl and that those paintings continue to influence her current work. As a little girl, I believed that good drawing meant accurate drawing and coloring within the lines. Consequently it has taken me many years to get past that kind of thinking and to understand that a drawing doesn’t have to explain a subject, it can also be a spontaneous and imaginative response to a subject.  

These days my creative process still begins with an accurate drawing. That step satisfies the part of me that still holds the belief that a drawing’s quality depends largely on how accurately a subject is rendered. But then I go one step further and put a sheet of tracing paper over my initial drawing and work hard to stylize and personalize the shapes in that drawing. I keep doing tracing on top of tracing until I find the kind of creative and imaginative shapes that I’m looking for. Many tracings are usually generated before I feel ready to begin my painting.      

Will Barnet, Study for Mother and Child

One of the things that fascinated me about Will Barnet was discovering that in preparation for his painting, Mother and Child (a painting of his wife and daughter,shown above), he generated over a hundred drawings over the course of an entire year before he began his painting. In early drawings, he concentrated on abstracting the shapes of the figures into “angular components within a design.” In a second group of drawings, he eliminated much of the environment surrounding the figures and concentrated on softening shapes and finding more fluidity in the compositions. Later drawings in the series are so abstract that no longer do we recognize any reference to the two figures. And I was most fascinated to discover that these drawings were done on tracing paper! And, like me – he did tracing over tracing until he found the drawing that satisfied him (three of those tracings are shown above). I love discovering personal connections like this to my favorite artists!

Happy Painting!

Will Barnet, A Man of Ideas

“My figurative work is basically abstract in thinking.”    Will Barnet

Will Barnet

Will Barnet, one of my heroes and all-time favorite artists, passed away last November at the age of 101. 

A painter and teacher, he had a passion for composition, art history, and the anatomy of the picture surface. Believing that contemporary art should be linked with great paintings from various periods of art, he urged his students to see the abstract ideas that run throughout art history. 

I had my first encounter with Will Barnet’s stunning figure paintings many years ago. Before I had a computer and access to the Internet, I discovered his painting, Mother and Child, on the cover of a trade paperback. There was no indication of who the artist was, but the painting blew me away and became one of my favorites even though I didn’t know who painted it. 

Will Barnet, Mother and Child

In the late 1990’s, I made a decision to move away from descriptive realism and into the territory of more creative and expressive painting. Looking to redefine my artistic direction, I delved into Modernism and the art periods that came after -searching for inspiration, fresh ideas, and a new visual language. I came upon Mother and Child again, along with Will Barnet’s other paintings and writings, and discovered that he was a living, breathing American artist who was still working daily. 

Berlinghiero, Madonna and Child

Digging into his writings, I was amazed to find that it wasn’t the Modern School of Paris that influenced his abstract figure paintings like Mother and Child, it was pre-Rennaissance, Byzantine art. He said that paintings like Berlinghiero’s Madonna and Child, painted in 1228, taught him about the flat picture surface and what kind of language to use to put together a painting. He talked about the painting’s simplicity, pointing out that it is really a flat painting with no real modeling, no real attempt to create any illusion, and how the flat surface has its own space; it doesn’t come forward or fall back – the space is compressed. 

I had never been particularly attracted to pre-Renaissance or Renaissance art before, but reading Will Barnet’s words changed my thinking and my vision, helping me to understand how important it is to connect our work to art history and how much we can learn from our artistic ancestors. And his concepts of space, his idea of reinterpreting nature in painting terms, his idea that flat forms and their interactions can function as substitutes or equivalents for ideas and emotions, his idea of abstract thinking as a new visual language – were ideas that opened my eyes and helped me learn how to see subject matter and the flat picture surface in new and exciting ways. 

Will Barnet held that great art was simple, dignified, and profound. His art is all of that and more. And from everything I’ve read about him, I think I can safely say that the same thing can be said for the man himself. Although I never met him, I feel I know him through his beautiful paintings and because he so generously shared his thoughts, feelings, and ideas with the world. 

Happy Painting!