Caption (Left Image):
Machinehead, 2003, from the Fungus series, Wangechi Mutu,
ink, acrylic, and collage on Mylar, Commissioned by the Museum
for African Art, Courtesy of the artist.
Caption (Right Image): Portrait of Sarah
Erving Waldo, ca. 1765, John Singleton Copley, oil on canvas,
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Edward Cotting, PEM
Although they are separated by two and a half centuries, these
two artworks employ a similar strategy to convey their respective
messages. In Machinehead by Wangechi
Mutu and Portrait of Sarah Erving Waldo
by John Singleton Copley each artist has used
contrasting color and texture
with great effect.
Copley, a self-taught artist, was an acute observer and a skilled
technician. Like his sitters, he was a product of the pragmatic
emerging colonial American society. The colonists were determined
to prove that creating an egalitarian and moderate society did
not mean sacrificing sophistication and elegance and Copley met
their needs by providing status-conferring portraits. Rather than
exploiting class distinctions and presenting idealized features
in his portraits, as was customary in Europe at the time, he showed
the particular faces of the individuals he painted.
In Portrait of Sarah Erving Waldo, Copley uses his extraordinary
facility at rendering minute detail and textures to convey the
richness of the objects. Satin, lace, pearls, and polished wood
are brought to life brilliantly. The artist plays off of subtle
differences in the appearance of each object’s surface while,
like Mutu in Machinehead, minimizing the use of color.
There is a basic contrast of value between Sarah, who is light,
and the remainder of the portrait, which is darker. Copley creates
another notable contrast, between the warm colors of Sarah’s
skin, the red drapery and the brown table against the cool grays
of her gown and blues of her shawl. By limiting his use of color
and rendering beautiful texture contrasts Copley focuses the viewer’s
attention on the message of luxury and success that the sitters
wanted to communicate.
By limiting her main color selection to the warm pink in the figure’s
skin and clothing and the contrasting cool gray of the mushroom,
Mutu helps the viewer attend to the beautiful but vaguely repelling
surfaces in Machinehead. The exact nature of the textures
is unclear; on the figure could be animal or reptile skin, disease
or clothing. The surfaces suggest impermanence and change, infinite
space and microbial life, man-made horrors and nature gone awry.
By limiting her use of color, Mutu leads the viewer to focus on
the tensions she creates with the texture contrasts. The viewer’s
speculative journeys resulting from this tension are central to
Mutu’s artistic explorations about the nature of identity
revealed by race, gender, geography, history and ideas of beauty.
was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, earned two art degrees
in the United States and studied anthropology. She is known for
her assemblages and collages that address questions of identity
revealed by race, gender, geography, history and beauty.
Related Web Links: 1
Singleton Copley (1738-1815) is considered to be the
greatest self-taught genius of American colonial painting, noted
especially for his acute observation of the material world. Introduced
to art by his stepfather, who was an engraver, Copley was influenced
later in his career by English immigrant Joseph Blackburn, but
soon surpassed Blackburn in skill. A successful showing of Copley’s
painting Boy with Squirrel at the 1765 exhibition of
the Society of Artists in London was not sufficient immediate
incentive for him to leave his lucrative portrait business and
travel to Italy to study. When Copley finally did set out for
Italy on the eve of the American Revolution, the nature of his
American Art: History and Culture by Wayne Craven. McGraw-Hill,
Related Web Links: 1
of Sarah Erving Waldo was commissioned by the sitter’s
husband, Samuel Waldo, two years into their marriage, when Sarah
was 27 years old
Art Elements and Principles
Six art elements can be thought of as the building blocks artists
use in forming an art work. Seven art principles that organize
the “blocks” can be thought of as the construction
Elements - The building blocks
1. LINE A mark/stoke
longer than it is wide: straight/curved, horizontal, vertical,
diagonal, and thick/thin.
2. COLOR What we
see when light is reflected or absorbed by surfaces: saturated/diluted
3. VALUE (Luminance)
Degree of lightness or darkness of colors: tint(light)/shade(dark)
4. TEXTURE Appearance
of surfaces both represented (2D) or physical (3D): smooth/rough,
glossy/flat, undulating/jagged, and transparent/opaque.
5. SHAPE (2D) FORM
(3D) Area defined by lines, colors, values and textures: geometric/organic,
soft/hard and sharp/smooth.
6. SPACE Distance
or area between lines or shapes: deep/shallow, crowded/empty,
Principles - The construction method
1. UNITY Each element
in art work is necessary, none can be left out with out changing
the work significantly.
2. BALANCE Even
distribution/arrangement of elements in an art work.
3. DOMINANCE One
element is given more importance than other elements in an art
Use of an element(s) more than once in more than one way in an
5. RYTHYM Arrangement
in an art work of element(s) in an ordered sequence to create/suggest
6. CONTRAST Use
of opposite elements (see parings above) in close proximity.
Incremental changes in any element(s), especially a dominant element
in an art work.
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