Monday, May 28, 2012

Adrift Color Theories -or- A Salute to Mr. Letness

I made a sympathy card today.

But this story actually begins elsewhere, for you see, in the lobby of the theater I work at there are 3 paintings. They're of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Clark Gable. They were painted by a man named George Letness. And sadly Mr. Letness passed away this past Thursday.

While those paintings might just seem like a bit of decoration to most people, I've been working at this theater for almost 3 years and thus they mean a little bit more to me. After all, I'm pretty sure I've spent more time looking at them than I have any other piece of artwork. And while I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Letness, I would always think about him (or an idea of him at least) whenever I'd look at his paintings.

Why those three actors? Did he do others and these were just the three the theater liked best? Were they commissioned? How did he decide what colors to use when his reference photos were in black & white? And so on and so on.

I never really thought I'd get the chance to ask him (or would even have put myself out there enough to do so if I did), but at least it was still possible. And now it's not. What's worse is that now he can't even make any more art for me to selfishly enjoy.

Thus here I am: down an artist, full of questions, and left knowing that these tenuous feelings of loss I have are insignificant to the ones of those that knew him personally.

Since I have spent a lot of time pondering these paintings, I figured it was the least I could do to send his son a card. Especially since his son is my boss and—more importantly—one of the nicer people you could hope to meet.

But anyways, here's what I drew for the card's image:

I was really quite pleased with myself over this design, but sadly no one I showed it to understood what it was supposed to be. Even though they had all worked at the theater just as long or longer than I have.

But I'm being rude. For if my own coworkers couldn't decipher it, what chance do you have? Here's the answer:

Make sense now? Still no? 

I guess I'll have to explain.

Since those paintings are what I think of when I think of George Letness it only seemed fair that they should take center stage. And you see my favorite thing about those paintings is that they aren't just three paintings; they're a set of three paintings. The artistic style is consistent across each of them. But the most impressive way that they display their kinship is in their use of color. They each have 3 distinct areas of color.

1. Background Color

The backgrounds are composed of a prominent single color. For instance, in Greta's case it's Orange.

2. Clothing Color

They're all posed from the shoulders up. So you have the background color on the top, which then juxtaposes with the color of their clothing on the bottom. In Gable's case the Yellow of the background nicely sets off the Blue of his suit.

3. Unique Color

Finally, they each have a bit of colored flair that's unique to their picture. Greta's Turquoise ring, Gable's White & Red polka-dot tie, and Marlene's Green ring.

I wanted to do something that'd harken to these paintings, but it seemed impersonal to digitally arrange photographs of the paintings, and yet sacrilegious to just draw each of them in my own style (not to mention they'd just end up looking amateurish in comparison). So I tried to get the essence of them by just distilling each painting to those three base color areas: Top Background, Bottom Clothing, and Unique Flair.

But apparently I'm the only one who's spent heaps of time considering the color compositions of these paintings, because none of the my coworkers got it until I pointed it out. And to think I even attempted to take measurements from pictures so I could get the proportions of the color section somewhat accurate to the originals in order to make them more recognizable!

(sometimes it's hard trying to be an artist, isn't it?)

However, perhaps the problem doesn't lie with anyone else at all. They just illuminated the fact that I've paid an extraordinary amount of attention to these paintings. And I can't help it! There is just something about them that seems to combine high art with comic art in a really interesting way.

And what's really interesting is that you just know that there was a reason for all the artistic choices that went on in this pieces. I can just imagine someone sitting down, really thinking about it, and crafting these characters with colors.

I mean Clark Gable's color scheme has these bright primary colors that give it a sense of energy and fun. Marlene's framing between Black & Magenta which gives her such a powerful and vibrant energy. And finally Greta's over there with a very warm and comforting combination of similar earthy tones, yet with these little accents of intense color contrasts coming from her blue eyes and turquoise ring.

Or at least these are the stories that come to my mind. They're just my theories. I'm left wondering if the way these colors frame their subject's persona is just something that I've invented, or was it intentional? If it was intentional then what were his opinions of these actors that led him to those choices? Or perhaps I'm just way off base and the intent was completely different from my interpretations?

But that's just how art is, isn't it? It has a life independent of the artist. Long after the artist has left the world of the living, their art continues on, leaving us to wonder about what kind of a spark brought it to life.

So I salute you, Mr. Letness. You may have left this world, but you have certainly left it in a better state than you found it in: more beautiful, more interesting, and more full of life.

And when it comes right down to it, that's really all you can ask from a person.

I'll leave you now with this excerpt from David Michaelis' Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography:

They were known as “Bureau's drawers” (Art Instruction shared the building with its parent graphic arts colossus, the Bureau of Engraving). Naturally, in such a competitive group, one unquestionable “top drawer” had to establish himself; this proved to be the reserved, smart, handsome George Letness, whom David Ratner had dubbed “the hottest artist in our class,” by universal consent the best draftsman and oil painter at the academy. He had arrived at the desk adjoining Schulz's in 1949, displacing Sparky as the shyest man in the room. Both were simultaneously reticent and competitive, displayed comparable senses of humor, and eventually became the “two best friends” among the younger instructors.
-Page 183

No comments:

Post a Comment