Maxfield Parrish was an American Artist who made glowing images with saturated colors that featured neo-classical imagery. His first big break as an artist and commercial illustrator was the cover of L. Frank Baum’s Mother Goose in Prose. He worked in the first part of the 20th century and was one of the most prolific illustrators of the Golden Age of Illustration.
What attracts me to his work are his use of color and exacting attention to detail, particularly the treatment of the human form coupled with fantasy themes.
Light and color are key components of his style. What he is known for most is his signature use of warm and cool colors. He understood that warm colors appear to come forward, while cool colors recede into the distance. He was also a master of minimizing the background and making it fade. This adds dominance to the figures in this foreground.
Much like James Gurney does today, Parrish built models of the landscapes he painted, moving the light source and composing the image. Parish realized that observing real light hitting objects is the only true way to understand its effects. I’ve tried this- it takes time but you will receive valuable information regarding the subject and light effects.
Maxfield Parrish was known for glazing: applying layers of bright oil paint alternately with layers of varnish. Paint is translucent, so light passes through the top layer and bounces back. This creates a soft glow that Parish capitalized on. Oils are particularly good for glazing.
While setting up live models, he often used fabric with intricate geometric patterns. He would photograph the model and project the image onto the painting surface. This allowed him to replicate the fabric perfectly. I’ve taken drawing classes specifically on how clothing drapes on the surface of a model. It is more complicated than you think. This practice allows you to draw what the fabric actually looks like, not what you think it should look like.
Like many other artists who understand composition, he used the Golden Ratio. If you look at his paintings, you will see stabilizing factors like columns, architecture, rocks etc. in strategic places to frame the figure. You will also see hyper detail around the area he wants you to focus on (usually the figures’ faces.)
The National Museum of American Illustration is a gorgeous museum in Newport, RI. There are 69 of Maxfield Parrish’s work, in addition to hundreds of other American illustrators. I’ve been there a few times and highly recommend it – see it if you can.
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