Lessons from Mary Cassatt

While demonstrating how to make a form show dimension using color temperature instead of value, artist Jerry Salinas suggested we take a closer look at the work of impressionist artist Mary Cassatt.

Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1880, Mary Cassatt
Girl Arranging Her Hair, 1880, Mary Cassatt

She was a master of controlling the space in her paintings by using big shapes of dark against big shapes of light. In Girl Arranging her hair she has grouped the girl and the sink top together by using close values in the light range. We know that there is porcelain, glass, a stiff white fabric and soft flesh without the use of dark to light modeling, just subtle color temperature  shifts and very few dark calligraphic lines.

detail of Girl Arranging Her Hair
detail of Girl Arranging Her Hair

In this close up of her arm you can see how many subtle colors are in the flesh and how effective it is at making that arm read as warm soft and round.

Girl in a Blue Chair, 1880, Mary Cassatt
Little Girl in a Blue Chair, 1880, Mary Cassatt

This painting, Little Girl in a Blue Chair really amazed me when I changed it to grey scale. I was so sure the girl would stand out as a light shape against the chair she is sitting in.

Grey Scale, Little Girl in a blue Chair
Grey Scale, Little Girl in a blue Chair

The truth is, she is very close in value to the chair seat, but totally across the color chart with her orange skin tones. I love the masterful placement of those few dark lines to give her volume as well as the shape of the large sash defining her roundness as well as the left sock explaining the curve of her leg as it comes forward.

Having the opportunity to work from life, I am going to be more conscious of looking for those color temperature changes. This is one of those skills that can be infused into paintings done from photographs in order to make them more vibrant and life-like.

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