Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Colorful works by this semester’s Oil Painting class were installed in McCabe last week, completely filling the first floor foyer. Paintings range from intensely vibrant to pastel, dreamy to vivid. The works employ light and color with a nuance visible even in the dungeon-esque library. They drew a crowd last Thursday at the opening gallery reception.
The students, taught by Assistant Professor of Studio Art Logan Grider, are displaying selected works from their semester behind the canvas. “The core of class is about how to structure a painting and see value in color, [and] color in light,” Grider said. “[They] learned a lot about structure.”
Most of the class’s assignments have focused on representing color and space in a painting and have challenged the students to think about painting in new ways. One project involved taking an object smaller than the artist’s hand and painting it on a canvas larger than the artist. For Eric Chang ’13, who painted a can opener taller than himself, the assignment was “like pulling teeth,” he said jokingly. Chang said he usually works small and that he enjoyed rendering the details larger than life.
Another project involved painting “light” using no white paint and “dark” with no black. Those pieces helped Wani Qiu ’16 “to try to see colors and light without actually using those colors,” she said. “Those were pretty helpful.”
“The philosophical context” behind the class, Grider said, “is that we’re limited with the way we access color and other visuals. We grossly generalize the color ‘green,’ but multiple differences exist [that] we can’t classify because we don’t have the language, so [in the class we] talk about how to access those and see the complicated nature of color and how it behaves.”
The class also focused on representing pictorial space, or “how a painting is composed,” Grider said. The class took the students beyond visual analysis to the other side of the canvas. He exposed students to the idea that it is their pictorial representations that the viewer will be looking at and analyzing. “How do you navigate a painting as a viewer?” Grider asked. “It’s subconscious, like how you read image.”
When talking about the difficulty of teaching such a subjective concept, Grider said that there are certain aspects of color, for instance, that are simply not teachable. “There’s no guaranteed way I can tell you we’re seeing this the same way,” he said, pointing to (what I would call) a bright red magazine on the table. “What’s teachable is the attitude. [Color is] very deceptive and reliant on everything else around it. You have to have a keen sensibility, be willing to really pay attention to it. That’s one thing the whole class probably got.”
Qiu said she came into the class paying a lot of attention to detail. In middle school, Qiu moved from China to Canada for three years, where she lived with her art teacher and learned the ins and outs of oil painting. “She literally taught me everything about painting,” Qiu said. “Before that I had no experience with painting at all.” This is Qiu’s first serious foray back to the medium.
“At the beginning of the semester I was intent on finishing every last detail,” Qiu said, “painting really realistically.” She said her style changed over the course of the semester. “Later on I was trying to be more open and more free with the paintbrush.”
Qiu’s favorite piece is her painting of the live model, which is also the piece she took the least time to paint. In the painting, the model’s bright blond hair jumps out from the background and her sweater, with each detail stark and visible. For Qiu, that piece, and the semester as a whole, were about becoming more open as a painter. “I finished in one class session and just painted what I saw and didn’t process it through my brain, without saying ‘hair is supposed to look like this,” she said.
“[Grider] thinks that the amount of time you put into painting is not correlated with how good it is […] We shouldn’t try to necessarily ‘finish’ a piece,” Qiu said, using air quotes. “Sometimes pieces are better when they’re more open.”
Chang came to the class with a completely different perspective. Most of his background had been in drawing and pencil work, he said, and this was the first painting class he has taken. “Color is another dimension,” he said. “Just color itself is challenging. I wanted to see how I would fare.”
“It was a good learning experience to use color rather than value,” Chang said. “Not only black and white, but also blues and greens.” Chang said that after his first painting, a still life of stacked chairs and a red cloth, he avoided using red for the rest of the semester. “When trying to get bright red, I had to realize I can’t put white, but at the same time had to figure out how to indicate the light was hitting the cloth without washing it,” he said. Over the course of the semester, Chang was inspired to “emphasize light and sacrifice details.”
Though the assignments were all the same, no two painters displayed in McCabe are remotely alike in style. As you face the main staircase, the right-hand pillar hosts Chang’s soft and dreamy rendition of a life model, her leg resting on a pile of books. Below it is Qiu’s painting of a shoe in a cup – each color pops out in stark relief, the borders between colors sharply defined. On the left side of the staircase hangs sophomore Julia Carleton’s figure drawing, with multiple figures represented in the same painting. The solid colors are perfectly smooth and seem to suck the viewer into the painting.
The paintings as a whole showcase an amazing variety of perspective on the ideas of color and space. “There are thick painters and thin painters and I don’t think you can teach that,” Grider said. “I didn’t force anybody’s hand.” Grider said that throughout the semester, each student has retained their own sensibility as a painter even as they have grown as artists. “That’s what’s rewarding about it,” he said. “They all learned, all retained what makes an individual. It doesn’t feel like one painter.”
There are no identifications on the paintings – so the viewer must take it all in as a whole and appreciate the anonymous individuality. According to Carleton, the students hung one another’s paintings, not wanting to take the best spots in the improvised gallery for themselves.
“They curated it, they installed it, we just gave them the key,” says Visual Resources and Initiatives Librarian Susan Dreher. “With [Grider], he knows how […] It’s been really successful, everyone loves it.”
Though the space doesn’t have the technical features of The Lang Performing Art Center’s List Gallery or the student-run Kitao Gallery, McCabe has something to offer in its flexibility as a display space, Dreher said. “We’re not an art gallery so we’re not that worried about having the appearance of a typical art show. We want to be a space that people can use to display or present what they’re working on.”
According to Dreher, McCabe is usually booked a year in advance (whereas the List gallery is taken a few years ahead of time). She said she wants the library to remain a space where students and the campus community can showcase their work. Even if the main floor is taken, there is a space on the second floor where work is sometimes displayed. This more frequently available space is currently displaying senior and A. Edward Newton Student Book Collection Competition winner Ben Goossen’s book collection.
How long the works will stay up in McCabe depends on whether another class will display and how many students (especially seniors) want to take down their pieces before leaving. The class’s works could be up as late as August.
“I think this class really influenced me,” Qiu said. “After this class I can see colors more clearly. Even when you’re outside walking on campus and you see a building, a flower, you can see all the different colors in the object, which is really amazing.”
Photos by Elena Ruyter/The Daily Gazette