Anatomy of a Painting

John Welch

Between 1915 and 1970, more than 6 million African-Americans moved out of the South to cities across the Northeast, Midwest and West.

This relocation — called the Great Migration — resulted in massive demographic shifts across the United States. Between 1910 and 1930, cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland saw their African-American populations grow by about 40 percent, and the number of African-Americans employed in industrial jobs nearly doubled. . . .

‘There was no leader, there was no one person who set the date who said, On this date, people will leave the South.' They left on their own accord for as many reasons as there are people who left. . . .*

Figure 1. Migration Series #3, 36 x 40”, oil on Belgian linen From March 5 – 30, 2014, self-taught artist Mason Archie completed a painting for his Migration series focused on the great transition from South to North by African Americans. The completed work is shown in Figure 1.  While executing the work, Archie shared examples of each stage of his vision — from images of the initial drawing to the completed canvas.

Based in the Midwest during much of his life and professional career, Archie’s emerging success as a fine artist comes as a second career largely realized through self-education. His reception toFigure 2 date among collectors and galleries has been promising, and this walk through his vision and practice on a single work offers insight to his success in approaching subject, composition, color and light in numerous works that have been shown and collected in recent years.  Through close scrutiny of elements and details in the production phases of this work, viewers are afforded an intimate glimpse into the creativity and problem-solving the artist brings to his project. 

In his initial drawing (Figure 2) Archie envisions the principal composition and elements for his painting. The viewer is positioned to look into the scene with the on-coming train as the central element. A lone figure, perhaps a musician due to his guitar case, crosses the track in the foreground on the right side of the composition, while waiting passengers, a stationhouse, and a figure with a cart occupy the platform on the other side of the work.  A door with steps and windows are evident on the stationhouse and a large area of the platform is blocked, perhaps indicating a seating area. Smoke and light from the train are vaguely sketched, as are background trees on the left of the canvas and telephone poles and wires on the right. The curve of the second track on the right side of the canvas provides a sense of depth and variation for the eye. 

Figure 3With the artist’s first coat, as exhibited in Figure 3 (March 5), there are few compositional changes. The orientation of tracks, train, stationhouse, foreground figure and platform figures remain similar. The great change here is with atmosphere and texture. The smoke from the train is made evident providing a turbulent treatment of the sky above with similar hissing smoke at ground level. Texture is more prevalent in the treatment of the ground beside the tracks and the slick pavement of the station platform. The clothing of figures is further delineated with both form and color. Suitcases and baggage are now evident and the earlier cart on the platform is now fully developed to read as a flatbed with luggage and a porter. The door and steps on the platform are now fuzzy where before they were more clearly delineated. The guitar case of the track figure is now larger and his hat is of a different type. Interior lighting is evident from the windows of the stationhouse and exterior lighting is projected forward from the train’s locomotive. Telephone poles now receding in the distance are taller and more vertical.

Figure 4With Figure 4, (March 8), the artist continues to refine his thought about the placement of figures and objects in the painting while adding further color and texture to the work.  Most pronounced in this iteration is the struggle with the lone guitar figure crossing the track. Where before his hat, jacket and guitar case was clearly delineated, he is now apparition-like akin to the earliest under drawing. The train tracks now have wood pylons under the tracks for the first time and are set upon a more formalized dirt mound. The reflection of the locomotive smoke stack appears in the foreground puddle between the tracks accentuating the pooled water there.  The steel gray color of the train and its orange glow interior lighting in passenger cars is now developed. The reflection of light on tracks and platform is now subtlety treated with warm accents. The architectural form of the stationhouse has altered with two prominent doors, where there was only one before, no steps, and clear indication of signs above the two doors. Some of the passengers on the track begin to read as white or black for the first time. A long wooden bench behind passengers can be read clearly for the first time. The flatbed luggage cart and porter are not present on the platform as before. Instead, we now have an indecipherable shrouded object and a lone figure in its stead.  A new platform element is added in a vertical train switching pole with colorful red and green lights and white and red flags which adds a compositional counterpoint to the newly treated telephone poles on the opposite side of the canvas. Foliage on either side of the canvas has been given fuller texture and color. The sky is better realized with a brooding character.

Figure 5In the fourth iteration of the work, Figure 5, (March 11) most noticeable is the change of hue or undertone of the entire work. It is now dominated by a steel gray tint where before, Figure 4 (March 8) the gold tones emanating from light sources in the picture dominated its overall effect.  With this change comes a photographic effect bringing a hyper realism to train, tracks, platform and elements of clothing on passengers. It now appears that all of the platform figures are people of color, yet the foreground guitar case figure remains non-delineated in this iteration. The luggage cart and porter have reappeared on the platform in this rendering with greater detail and color. Smaller accents such as the train conductor and a water tower in the distance have come into plain view.

Figure 6In Figure 6, (March 17) the artists has clearly made a decision to indicate dusk or a night scene. The darkened effect brings a more serious, if not somber, mood to the work. Little has changed here in composition or with platform elements. The big change other than color and mood is the treatment of the foreground guitar case figure. He is once again fully delineated as perhaps a boy or teen of color. The contrast between the platform figures in their Sunday best and this lone figure in what appears ordinary garb begins to draw a contrast between the people of the scene.  Additional signs and a chalkboard have been added to the station house exterior further defining the scene.

Figure 7 (March 18) and Figure 1 (March 30) are the final two iterations of the painting, with March 30, Figure 1, as the completed work. At this late stage of the painting’s development all pictorial elements are in place and unchanged between the two versions. The final problem-solving for the artist is with levels of brightness and tint for the work.  In his next to last rendering, (Figure 7), the scene has a soot-like covering and is darker in mood. The final version, by contrast, has been brightened in its overall effect bringing more clarity and realism to the picture.  With access to this specific artistic process, we have learned how the artist grappled with and resolved many significant and subtle aspects of his work ranging from color and tints to treatment Figure 7and placement of figures and objects. This will be valuable in considering other paintings by the artist where one begins and ends with a single version of the work.

The exercise in close observation of elements and details with Migration #3, 2014, can also be instructive for viewing all art. Though we may not be privy to how artists approach revising aspects of individual works when we see their final products on view, what we experience here highlights the importance of discoveries we make with both cursory scanning and closer observation. As is true with any art object, viewers seek to make meaning and engage interpretation as a natural outgrowth of connecting observed elements and details in works of art.  In Migration #3 we have the historical fact of The Great Migration for context, as well as the artist’s response when asked what inspired the work: 

My own personal interest in our history. The historical reference to African-Americans creating opportunity for our selfs[sic], refusing to settle. . .My subject in the piece is the historical event. The African Americans of that time frame and historic accuracy, from the train, clothing, signage and atmosphere in the painting....”  

Yet, the subjective meaning we assign to the young man crossing the tracks, or the people who will take the train, or the atmosphere of the work can be all our own.

In a previous article on Mason Archie, John Welch described how the artist self-trained to develop proficiency in painting and surveys his landscapes.

See excerpts, Isabelle Wilkerson. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. (Random House), NPR.

IRAAA contributing writer John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian who lives in Philadelphia, PA.