Trying to Understand Cézanne

I’ve been having the hardest time trying to understand Cézanne’s composition.  I bought Cézanne’s Composition by Erle Loran, which seems to cover exactly what I want to know. There are a couple of problems right off the bat: the book itself is an odd shape – 12″x9″, which isn’t a bad format for a painting, by a bit strange for a thin paperback; the print size is small; there are many references to the Plates in the back of the book, so I find myself thumbing back and forth quite frequently; the most troubling problem is that the Plates are in BLACK AND WHITE!

Not to say all is lost. There are photographs from the vantage point from which Cézanne painted; in at least one case, there is a painting from another artist (Renoir) of the same subject, from the same vantage point; there are diagrams which show the set-up of different planes and the flow of the composition.

The Sainte Victoire

I know that Cézanne painted several versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire in Provence. The author does not tell us which one he used as Plate XXII to illustrate the section on ‘aerial perspective’ – the treatment of objects at a distance.

Loran notes that Renoir paints the distant mountain in a washed out, faded manner that indicates distance, in the same way that distance fades an image in a photograph. However, Cézanne does not diminish the coloration in the mountain. Instead he sets up a pictorial plane of trees in the foreground (as a curtain – according to Loran). The distant hills set up another plane in the middle distance and the mountain, ‘boldly outlined’ is the plane at the furthest distance from the viewer.

Loran supplies a diagram that indicates the point of entry into the depth of the picture at a break in the ‘curtain’ of the foreground trees.  He shows arrows that point the way the viewer’s eyes would enter into the depth, through the middle-distance plane to the deepest plane and back out to the ‘surface’ of the picture plane.

While I understand what Loran is saying, it is beastly difficult to see this for myself in the small black and white reproduction of Cézanne’s painting.

Today’s experiment:

Let’s hope the third time is the charm for my back yard picture (Back Yard, Back Yard Take 2).  I actually thought of a composition prior to starting this painting (unusual for me, sad to say). I knew that I wanted to produce depth in the same manner explained by Loran.

Here is the result:

Watercolor Painting - View of Back Yard Take 3

Back Yard 3
9″x12″ 140# Cold Pressed Watercolor Block

It falls woefully short of portraying any depth.

I purposely tilted the frame inside the picture frame. I tried to indicate the entry into depth by actually pointing the way with the lines on the deck and the solid fence. The bold lines around the distant tree do seem to work. The only indication that this tree is in the distance is the wooden fence in front of it.  I wanted the red triangular shape of the umbrella to lead the viewer back to the surface of the picture plane, but with no depth, this seems to fail as well.

Here is the flow of depth that I wanted:

Watercolor Painting - View of Back Yard Take 3 with Arrows

Back Yard 3 with Arrows

I really need to see Cézanne’s work in high def color or better yet, in person. Perhaps then I could get a better inkling of what he does to get depth without the visual cues used in conventional paintings.

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