Francis Cunningham Behind the Scenes
This is the first post in a series in which we will explore the inspirations behind a selection of paintings done over the course of Francis Cunningham's career. We will take a closer look at the subject matter, the intended meaning behind the piece, lessons learned from each work and other insights.
The first in this series is a painting called Floyd Woodbeck, which can be found in the Clothed Figure category on the website. Originally painted in 1972, this painting's background was re-painted in 2008, due to a mysterious change in the background over time. This is an oil on canvas with an underpainting in acrylic and it is 66" x 50".
Francis first met Floyd in 1964, soon after he had built a summer studio in Sheffield, Massachusetts. He was in need of help to install fencing, clear brush and in general, deal with the property.
Floyd was an interesting character. He was in his late forties at the time and had lived the life of a woodsman, carpenter and handyman in New England. Having a sickly childhood, suffering from asthma, he missed a lot of school and was teased by the other children. His solution to this was to spend time in the woods where he felt accepted by nature and the woodsmen he came to know over time. They taught him about felling trees, identifying edible plants and mushrooms and what he needed to know to be a woodsman himself.
Once Floyd came to help on a regular basis, Francis noticed that Floyd had a way of pacing himself throughout the day, changing tasks, that would allow him to finish a long day's work as fresh as he began it. Francis adjusted to this way of pacing a work load over time and it eventually became useful in his painting as well.
Francis completed 3 paintings of Floyd. The first in 1964, was of Floyd with hog butchering equipment, then a piece called "The Wine Press", finishing with the figure painting of 1972. Francis considered this final painting a turning point in his figure painting explorations.
Francis had been concentrating on developing his technique so as to paint anatomically functional figures. This technique, compared to camera realism, allows the figure in the painting to appear as if he could step out of the painting at any moment. Francis explains that the artist's eye is similar to a camera in that when an artist is painting what he sees in front of him this includes the optical distortions. To make a figure anatomically functional, one makes corrections to what the eye is seeing. Floyd's feet, which are nearer to you than his hands or his head, must be made smaller than they appear. This is in order to relate the feet proportionally to the body, as they do in the actual person. These corrections are what makes Floyd look like he could get up out of his chair and walk right out of the painting.
Floyd sat for a good part of 6 weeks, in 3 hour sittings sometimes twice a day, until completion. Francis prefers to have the subject there until the painting is completed so that all the color notes will relate to each other from sight. One other important note is that Francis does not impose on his subjects what to wear or how to sit. He wants the subject to speak. He says this has a way of opening things up, instead of taking the figure from an idealized point of view, and that this allows the character of the subject to come through. Francis says that if when he is done with a painting he is surprised, he knows he has done his job in capturing something not seen by the naked eye, something he didn't know was there ahead of time. In not superimposing his ideas of how the painting should ideally look, there is always an element of surprise in the finished painting.
This Floyd Woodbeck painting is considered by Francis to be the first life sized, clothed figure piece wherein he felt he created a truly anatomically functional figure.
The Floyd Woodbeck painting of 1972, can be seen at the Century Association's Masters Exhibition this October.
Post written by Terri Malloy