Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Carefully Described Terrain, Part 2 of 3: Shifting Light

The second indication that Sprout isn’t making ‘a pretty picture,’ comes from the dominant light in Fifth Street. The majority of the lighting in this painting comes from the reflected ‘remnant’ light bounced off the billboard and spilling onto the sidewalk.

Continued from “Carefully Described Terrain, Sprout’s Fifth Street – Part 1 of 3,” published March 17, 2018

NATURAL LIGHT DOMINATES PAINTING
A painter uses vision to see the scene, so everything a painter puts into a scene is also the result of light. Light is the most basic element used to construct an image, and Fifth Street meticulously details the character of the scene’s light.

Throughout the history of modern art, from the Renaissance on, light has been used as primary tool to describe depth and space. Most often, even to this day in photography, the light of choice – what is considered ‘the best’ light – are the many varieties of daylight.

Vermeer’s portraits use the diffusion of reflected Dutch ‘Northern Light,’ with all its refinement and detail to fill shadows full of detail. 

Vermeer, "The Milkmaid," ~1658 is a perfect example of diffused Northern light typical of Dutch renaissance painting.

Vermeer, “The Milkmaid,” ~1658 is a perfect example of diffused Northern light typical of Dutch renaissance painting.

Sprout also masterfully paints his landmark still life “Osterizer, 1993” in what looks like a scene bathed in similar, if brighter, indirect light. 

Osterizer, 1993 by Tobin Sprout, 60x40 inches, oil on canvas

Osterizer, 1993 by Tobin Sprout, 60×40 inches, oil on canvas

Further south in Italy during the Renaissance, scenes and portraits were painted with stronger sunlight. In so many ways, from the Renaissance to contemporary photography, sunlight, in its various incarnations, has been the singular standard of quality for serious makers of images in the Western world. It is considered the highest quality light.

In Virgin and Child by Italian painter Cima da Congegliano below, the modeling of the sunlight on the subjects looks nearly identical to a Profoto photography portrait with light diffusion modifications in 2018.

Natural light is king is Western art. 

Cima da Congegliano, Virgin and Child, oil on board, about 1500. Museum of Wales, England

Virgin and Child, Cima da Congegliano, oil on board, about 1500. Museum of Wales, England

 

PRETTY? NAH.
But in Fifth Street, Sprout is painting a scene devoid of sunlight, the well-spring of dimensionality and quality. Instead, he chooses a scene full of what is considered ‘ugly’ light, the leftover light of a 20th Century American city.

Obviously Sprout is adept at rendering with various types of sunlight – particularly indirect sunlight, but he’s also got a serious knack for doing light in general. He’s just choosing something different.

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

What makes the light in Fifth Street great isn’t just that it’s impressively rendered, but how precisely “true” the light is to the night time urban experience.

 

“TOTO, I’VE A FEELING WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANY MORE.”
A major part of the story of the 20th Century is a that millions of people moving to cities shifted from a ‘default natural light’ country setting to a ‘default artificial light’ city setting. One of the 20th Century’s best painters of light and chroniclers of this cultural shift is Edward Hopper. If Sprout’s Fifth Street references any painter, aside from his own work on paintings like Phone Booth, it’s Edward Hopper.

And if Sprout’s referencing any one Hopper painting, it’s The Art Institute of Chicago’s Nighthawks.

Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper, Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper, Collection of The Art Institute of Chicago

Nighthawks is a painting famous not only on its own merits, but also for the send ups this scene has inspired, most famously featuring Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe with Elvis serving behind the diner counter.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 1985, Gottfried Helnwein

Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 1985, Gottfried Helnwein, Collection of “20 Somethings Everywhere”

The nature of how fluorescent lighting describes its surroundings is a significant part of Nighthawks, a portrait of a different unremarkable city corner in New York City. Fluorescence have a kind of aggressively non-descript light that wraps around subjects in a way that makes them look flat and deflated. Both Nighthawks and Fifth Street attack this unique characteristic of fluorescent light head on, to great effect.

The fluorescent light in Hopper’s Nighthawks shows overlapping shadows just outside the windows, (fig. 1) as it is cast on the street. To show variety and contrasting types of light, Hopper paints the much sharper, more defined lines of light and shadow coming from a bright streetlight casting illumination from outside the frame from the left of the image (fig. 2).

Detail of Fluorescent Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Fig 1. Detail of Fluorescent Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Detail of Streetlight Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Fig. 2. Detail of Streetlight Shadows, Nighthawks, 1942, Edward Hopper

Sprout defines the character of fluorescent light in his Fifth Street with a sharp, almost fake looking, shadow slicing the fire hydrant completely in half (fig. 3a) while casting a blunt shadow characteristic of a light source coming from a broad, rather than singular, area. The light also has a kind of uneasy feeling smoothing over of the uneven concrete abutting the choppy wall where the billboard is mounted (fig. 3b).

Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 3a. Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 3b, Fluorescent Light Detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Even the uneveness of the concrete is a near perfect description of the location as this present-day photograph provided by Dayton resident and Tobin Sprout painting fan Sean Merkle shows. The strange upheaval of the concrete creating a kind of wavy line where it abutts the wall of the building is still a match, 25 years later.

Current photo of corner portrayed in Fifth Street. Courtesy of Sean Merkle, 2018.

Detail, current photo of corner portrayed in Fifth Street. Courtesy of Sean Merkle, 2018. Notice how accurately the uneven concrete is portrayed.

Sprout also mixes a variety of light into his ambient night lighting painting. Two windows show the incandescent bulb lighting we associate with home interiors. The primary interior lighting is directly above the billboard where we see a clock, wallpaper and and a thin curtain blowing (fig. 4).

Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 4, Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

The second interior light shows a lone window across Fifth Street illuminating a refrigerator (fig. 5).

Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 5, Detail of illuminated window, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

The final mix comes from the left of the painting where Sprout has included his own streetlight illumination and shadows into the mix of exterior, night, urban lighting. We see the clearly defined shadow of the streetlight poll running up the parapet on the far side of the street (fig. 6), very much like the well-defined shadows in the background of Hopper’s Nighthawks.

Fig. 6, Streetlight shadow detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

Fig. 6, Streetlight shadow detail, Fifth Street, 1993, Tobin Sprout

The purposeful rendering of all these types of light makes Fifth Street ‘true to life.’ It is by this truth achieved through diligent rendering that we ‘believe’ the scene. Fifth Street is accurate according to what we understand subconsciously from our personal experience and cultural understanding of this scene.

Sprout’s attention to detail allows what is common to become universal. We are not forced to suspend disbelief as we are in a work of fiction with too many plot holes.

The stage is portrayed accurately to allow everything else the painting has to offer: The art historical references. The cultural shifts. The latent human drama.

 

Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted March 25, 2018. Originally scheduled for posting March 23, this essay was delayed from publishing for two days.

The Flood Content & Fine Art website is written and produced by Flood Content, a digital marketing agency based in Asheville, North Carolina. Flood makes exceptional fine art accessible to individuals and families who believe original artwork has the unique capacity to transform how we see the world. 

CAREFULLY DESCRIBED TERRAIN, PART III
Join Flood here next Thursday, March 29, for the third and final installment of this three part essay on yet another remarkable Tobin Sprout painting from 1993.

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“Fifth Street,” 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

Carefully Described Terrain: Sprout’s Fifth Street – Part 1 of 3: The Billboard

"Fifth Street," 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

“Fifth Street,” 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

For a painting that seems, at first glance, empty, Fifth Street is loaded with ideas. This dramatic noir streetscape from Tobin Sprout’s early 90’s sprint into large Photorealism has just been listed for sale, for the first time, online.

In the profession of journalism, it is said that the most important part of the story is the part that isn’t being reported. It seems like the initial report Sprout is giving the viewer in Fifth Street is much like an initial media report of a major incident: A very accurate description of not-the-story.

While Fifth Street does a great job describing what is visible to the eye, a precise description that renders a familiar feeling scene, the apparent normalcy of the scene obscures nearly every key element of the work.

Once again, Sprout is using the cover of realism to disguise the story, or maybe just wrap it in layers. It’s a painting of a street corner, so what? Much like his other Photorealistic work, it’s the deliberateness of Sprout’s choices and execution that gives us clues to why he’s going to all this trouble to render this street corner so precisely.

THE BILLBOARD IS KEY TO MAJOR THEMES
The massive, street-level billboard that’s advertising discount brand cigarettes is an obvious artistic choice, and a good one to look at first. The unique positioning of the billboard at street-level, combined with strong receding lines creates a sense of depth. Without these lines and this billboard, the painting would feel a lot more flat. Visually for the painting, it’s clearly a compositional anchor.

But this visual anchor also happens to be ‘ugly.’ This billboard is not attempting to win any beauty contests. Its primary image is a giant oversized cigarette. It’s what my mother would call ‘hideous.’ Already, we’ve made it one step closer to discovering Sprout’s modus operandi in this painting: He’s not in this to make a ‘pretty picture.’

ON THE CONSTANT OFFENSIVE
The cultural aspect of the billboard could not be more important to the story of the painting. The buildings themselves have a character that feels low-rise, mid-century, inner-city American but, stripped of the inappropriately placed billboard (and the fire hydrant), the streetscape could also depict low-rise, mid-century, inner-city Bucharest, Romania.

The flag’s red and white striped theme evoking the U.S. flag is no accident of commercial art either. It’s a compelling, patriotic image dreamed up by the manipulating minds over at the ad agency with the Cambridge cigarettes account to sell maximum cigarettes through maximum psychological leverage.

For the viewer of the painting, the presence of this billboard is also, literally, the presence of American culture in an otherwise undefined landscape.

Putting a visual meant to be viewed at a distance of at least 100 yards and an elevation of at least 25 feet at eye level on a wall abutting a sidewalk is a kind of an f-u to the humans who are subjected to it day in and day out.

More likely, it’s an unintentional outcome of the callous disregard for human tranquility built in to advertising culture as it is traditionally practiced in the United States.

The Cambridge billboard pictured in Fifth Street is a perfect example of how advertising culture can inadvertently control and dominate the physical and psychological environment, and define the environment as uniquely American – even in its ‘wrongness.’ Making the Cambridge billboard a singular, anchoring element in the painting shows the painter making an interesting observation about a somewhat outrageous cultural norm.

Also noteworthy is the transience of the cigarette brand itself. The billboard projects brash confidence, the veneer of success America loves, or maybe just requires from everything. But the discount brand is like any other upstart, presenting its case as best it can, while striving for permanence and greatness in the marketplace worthy of the Marlboros, Lucky Strikes and Camels. Isn’t this the reality of the world we all live in? This striving reflects a universal truth about life in America.

Today, it’s the Instagram influencer with a 100,000 followers who just wants to be, and can never be, the cultural force known as Beyonce or Kanye. 

The commercial imperative of the billboard even inadvertently provides the dominant light for the scene. The overlit fluorescent light, exclusively dedicated to illuminating the billboard, is shown carelessly creating large areas of visual glare that overexpose the advertisement itself.

Like vision, painting depends on light. The primary lighting of Fifth Street is actually made from the remnants of billboard light. Using this leftover light to make the painting is another nod to our conscious or unconscious immersion in, and our willing or unwilling dependence upon, the commercial environment.

"Fifth Street," 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

“Fifth Street,” 1993, Tobin Sprout, American b. 1955, 42 x 32 inches, oil on canvas

CAREFULLY DESCRIBED TERRAIN, PART II AND PART III
The environment created in the image of the billboard sets the stage for the drama of collective and individual memory. In the next two essays, I’ll be examining the nature of the light in Fifth Street, and the human drama in the scene. Join us here again the following two Thursdays, March 22 and March 29, for an extended analysis of yet another remarkable Tobin Sprout painting from 1993.

To receive notification by email, subscribe to Inventory Journal, Flood Content & Fine Art’s periodic notification channel for good work under the microscope and for sale. To learn more about the company, check out our Benchmarks. To inquire about buying Fifth Street, please visit the About Page on this website.

Original analysis by T.R. Brogunier, posted March 17, 2018.

The Flood Content & Fine Art website is written and produced by Flood Content, a digital marketing agency based in Asheville, North Carolina. Flood makes exceptional fine art accessible to individuals and families who believe original artwork has the unique capacity to transform how we see the world. 

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Flood Content & Fine Art is a network of channels showcasing our artists’ work and connecting fans to deep culture and analysis of their favorite artists online and on social media. Channels run by Flood Content & Fine Art include:

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