An excerpt from the book Asphalt Renaissance, available on Amazon.
This part of the book describes my ideas, innovations and philosophy about the role of drawing in pavement art. The parts in Italic are my words, while the other text is by the author of the book, Miriam Hospodar. Classical drawing for pavement art was an innovation that made it possible to compose original works within the tradition of street painting.
From the start, Wenner developed a drawing technique that was radically different from that of other street painters. Most sketch their subjects in simple white outlines and build up layers of color using the side of the chalk to rub the color into the pavement. This technique results in large areas of smoothly blended color. As a final touch, details are added on top of the amalgamated chalks. This technique limits the amount of refinement and subtlety of detail that can be obtained, and the final images often resemble airbrushed or spray-painted works of art. The idea of obliterating the initial drawing held little appeal to Wenner.
I’ve never been drawn to impasto techniques that obscure the underlying drawing. For my work, it is essential to have a smooth transition between the drawing process and the final work of art. When I first started street painting, I had a sense of panic when the initial strokes of the pastel hit the pavement. I was tempted to press heavily on the pastel, but it actually takes an extremely light hand to prevent a pastel from breaking. At first, it seemed impossible to create a delicate or detailed drawing on a rough surface.
Venus. Wenner created many drawings from sculptures in order to learn the language of classical form.
Wenner discovered that if he used the same drawing techniques he employed in his classical studies, he could achieve the results he desired. He applied color in separate strokes that would overlap and change direction, a technique known as crosshatching. Wenner was the first to apply this method to street painting. He uses it for the entire surface of the picture, including vast areas such as sky. Although it might seem that creating a picture from thousands of separate strokes would take much longer than rubbing in large areas of color, for Wenner this is not the case.
Battle Scene. Wenner uses the same drawing skills in permanent and ephemeral works.
Most street painters were surprised when I introduced this technique with Manfred at the festival in Grazie di Curtatone, as they could not believe that we managed to complete our composition in the allotted time. Many street painters eventually adopted this practice, and this helped the art form take off in new directions. As the technique spread, individual styles became more apparent, as the drawing was no longer obscured. Classical drawing in pavement art brought out, rather than obscured, the individuality of the individual artist.
Wenner. Dies Irae, (detail of drawing).
Wenner. Dies Irae, (another detail of the drawing).
Wenner ventured even further a field from traditional street painting by executing large, original compositions. During the long months of training and study in Europe’s great museums, he gave a lot of thought to the significance of classical art, and was anxious to compose original works of art within that language. His first compositions were not easy to distinguish from Renaissance and Baroque works, and most people mistook them for copies.
Sculpture and architecture from the ancient world were a major inspiration for Italian Renaissance art. In order to describe three-dimensional forms in a drawing or painting, the Renaissance artists developed the technique known as chiaroscuro (“light and shadow”), which is based on the observation of light and shadow in the natural world. As the technique evolved, painters were no longer dependent on merely reproducing the effects of light and shadow in the observable world; chiaroscuro had become an artistic language capable of describing imaginary worlds all on its own.
Renaissance artists also formalized various perspective techniques in order to create specific geometrical relationships that a painter could tailor to suit distinct compositions. In addition to classical drawing, Wenner did much research into perspective and geometry, reading ancient texts in order to understand the evolution of this form of mathematical theory. Far from being a set process, Wenner discovered that perspective was also a language. If classicism was the language of form, then perspective was the language of space. Before perspective theory was frozen into the conventional geometry of the camera lens and film plane, it was an exciting and flexible study that stimulated and challenged artists. Wenner’s art is based on the essential elements of classicism: perspective, formal drawing, and chiaroscuro.
Wenner. Office Stress, (drawing). Wenner often creates elaborate tonal drawingsfor his works. The perspective in the drawing reflects the curvature of the finalimage. The actual art does not have curves in the architecture.
I enjoy designing paintings in a traditional manner, using figures and elements from my imagination. When I began creating original works on the street, the public’s reaction was immediate and puzzling. For a while, it was fun listening to the spectators as they guessed at the authorship of my work. All the great masters’ names were invoked, and I felt flattered. Quite unexpectedly, I experienced great difficulty in convincing the public that my works of art were indeed my own compositions and not copies of paintings by Renaissance masters. I was incredibly discouraged and frustrated when some spectators insisted my images were pastiches. A pastiche work of art is one where the artist combines bits and pieces from other painters’ work, and is the artistic equivalent of plagiarism. I expected the audience to eventually catch on to the fact that I was the author of the images after they saw three or four of these unknown paintings.
Wenner. The Magic Flute. Tonal Drawing. Wenner created an entire set of studies for this early composition based on Mozart’s famous opera.
Wenner soon realized that the majority of people assumed a classical composition could no longer be created, and therefore did not recognize his compositions as belonging exclusively to him. His extraordinary paintings did cause a new set of people to ask questions and engage him in conversation and debate. Some questioned his artistic direction, ascertaining that figurative art had reached its pinnacle centuries ago and that there was no point in revisiting the past. Many thought contemporary figurative paintings could only be weak interpretations, copies, or amalgamations of what has already been done. Wenner realized he needed to resolve the difficult problem of getting the public to understand that his work is original, and that not everything within the field of classicism has yet been expressed.
Wenner. The Magic Flute. Fresno, California. The work was a great success and Wenner was asked to recreate it as an oil painting for the new City Hall.
When I started the street painting festival in Fresno, California, I created an original composition based on Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It was such a success that a couple of the city counsel members decided to commission the piece as an oil painting for the new city hall. Although they raised private funds for the work, there were some community members who protested the acquisition because it was not considered a work of art that followed the conventions of modernism. Once the mural was presented, the protesting stopped and the art was widely accepted. In the years that followed, I worked on numerous large-scale commissions of permanent works almost exclusively for private patrons. Without street painting, the general public would have had little chance to see my work.
Wenner. The Magic Flute. Oil on canvas. The final work became a popular backdrop for wedding photos.
In the early 1980s, there was no room in the modernist mind-set to consider figurative art as a living language that had evolved over the past four hundred years. Wenner did not agree with this, believing figurative art to be a continuing and valid form of expression. However, in modernist theory, an artist was expected to create original works in an original form. Wenner thought about whether it was possible to create a unique form of art within the language of classicism. He also considered whether an audience could recognize and accept a new form if he could create it.
In my experience, classical art differs fundamentally from other types of realistic art, because classicism does not begin with an attempt to draw or paint exactly what one sees. Rather, it is based on the ancient Greek philosophy that human perception can be codified into a series of harmonious relationships by reducing the complex forms in nature into ideal geometrical relationships of form and proportion. As I see it, classical art is essentially abstract art. A classical masterpiece often gives the illusion that it is a copy of nature, although in reality most or all of the elements may come from the artist’s imagination. Ultimately, artists themselves become fooled by the illusion and begin to try to copy from nature. Attempting to copy from nature causes the downfall of classicizing styles, because it removes the art from the image. When artists forget that they are dealing with pure form, the works fall apart. In a masterly classical work, every brushstroke has purpose. It communicates form and space to the viewer, and carries an emotional or spiritual message.
Contemporary art has inherited the modernist tendency to alienate the public. Often, the audience is confronted with images they cannot understand or simply do not like. Artists may demand a great deal from the viewers by requiring them to be informed about the artist’s background and motivation, as well as the context in which the art was created.
As a result, contemporary art is often accompanied with a verbal description, and frequently an elucidatory or enigmatic title. All of this serves to distract the viewer from what may be no more avant-garde than a blank white wall. While Wenner contemplated the idea of creating a new form for the expression of classical art, he couldn’t help but wonder if the public would embrace it. Classical drawing in pavement art was a helpful tool for introducing new ideas to the general public.
Detail of the Compositional Drawing for Idomeneo.
Artists of the past who studied in the classical tradition didn’t have to analyze it. I, however, needed to understand how the tradition had continued to evolve over the four centuries following the Renaissance. Some techniques, such as the use of perspective, reached a high point in the Baroque era (approximately 1600 to 1750), while other elements of visual art, most notably color theory, were not formalized until the twentieth century. As a twenty-first-century classicist, I can utilize discoveries and ideas that were not available to artists of the past. Classical drawing in pavement art is really a new application of that ancient formal language.
Wenner. Drawing for Idomeneo. Mantua, Italy. Wenner used his first street painting commissions to compose large works in a classical style, training himself for later mural commissions.
Wenner was particularly concerned about the relationship between drawing and photography. While it is a commonly held belief that photography caused classical art to decline because there was no longer a need for artists to create representational images, Wenner suspected that viewing photographic images caused a structural change in human perception.
Wenner. Head of a Muse. Mantua, Italy. This drawing was a preparatory study for Parnassus. It was part of a one-man show at the Kennedy center in Washington D.C.
While studying, I spent untold hours in the company of classical paintings. One day, it occurred to me that my perception of the world was becoming altered, because I was starting to see life in terms of a painting. I realized that the artists of the past had never seen any image that had not been created by the hand of another artist. They had no choice but to see the world in terms of a classical painting. Although society now believes that we see “like a photograph,” art history shows us that this was not true before the invention of photography. People actually saw “like a painting.” This experience is what caused me to suspect that photography has profoundly altered human perception. From the time we are born, we are bombarded with photographic images, which give us the perception that we see “like a camera.” Is this just an illusion, or has our perception of the world been truly altered by constantly viewing photographic images?
Wenner. Parnassus. The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. This work was commissioned for the Kennedy Center’s “Imagination Celebration”.
Wenner came to understand that classical training is more than a skill; it is a profound alteration of perception. The subject of a painting needs to be deconstructed in the artist’s mind, until it is reduced to its most elementary forms. Then, the artist must reconstruct the image using the perceptual language of classicism. Perhaps most importantly, classicism is a powerful mnemonic device that allows an artist to mentally store and organize complex visual relationships. Artists of the past conjured up images of figures, animals, plants, and flowers from their imaginations as easily as if they had drawn them from life. The characters in a Renaissance painting may have been drawn from life, from statuary, or purely from the imagination. For a classical artist, there was no difference between observation, memory, and imagination. Classical drawing in pavement art therefore aids the artist in the imaginative process.
I realized that classical painting is not a depiction of reality, but a substitution for it. A work of art doesn’t convince the viewer by competing with reality, but by replacing it. I had to figure out how to insert this knowledge into the contemporary art world.
Wenner. Parnassus. Oil on Canvas. A number of Wenner’s early compositions were finished as oil paintings. In later years Wenner composed anamorphic works for the pavement and traditional works as permanent murals. Only recently has digital technology made it possible to create permanent works on pavement surfaces.
To read further, continue to: Life as a Street Artist, part 2