A Parisian History in Color

sennelier_couvertureIn Paris, on the Quai Voltaire, amidst antique dealers of the highest order, along the left bank of the Seine, directly across the river from the famous Louvre museum, there is a shop.

Sennelier-Interieur-In 1887, or, perhaps, 1888, the shop was nearly bankrupt. With the sale, former shop owner M. Prevost, makes dreams come true. The new owner, Gustave Sennelier, always hoped to own a shop where he could manufacture and sell his own artist’s pigments. And so, the shop became known by the sign visible to all of Paris, Sennelier: Couleurs Pour Artistes.

This was an especially exciting time to be selling colors and working with artists in Paris. The impressionists enjoyed their first successful group show in Paris in 1886.  Painters were experimenting with color and light, trying new formulas and new ideas, and often relied upon the good advice of the chemists who were emerging as colorists. (Previously, pigments were sold in pharmacies as a sideline; art supply stores were still a relatively new idea.) As chemistry and art intertwine, artists now regarded as legend were working professionals who purchased their supplies from Sennelier. Cezanne was one of many in Paris who frequented the shop; others included Pierre Bonnard, Robert Delauney, and Pablo Picasso.

Seeking new products and new opportunities, Sennelier’s pigments found popular use for batik (the pigmentation of decorative fabrics), painting on porcelain, and in new formulations for artists, including, for example, new oil pastels. “Picasso adopted it immediately. He asked for it in 48 colors of which–Picasso’s grey period required it–10 were shades of grey, a heresy in the age of colors.” Artists used the new oil pastels to start an oil painting, allowing the fluidity and ease of sketching onto the canvas. Then, the painting would be completed in a classical oil painting style.

facade-quai-GFThe Sennelier family has passed knowledge, chemistry, color sense and business sense from generation to generation. In a sense, the new book, Sennelier: A History in Color by Pascale Richard, is a family biography. As with the Parisian landscape, the family is part of a bolder story: the powerful relationship between science (chemistry) and a tremendous assortment of artistic accomplishments. The book is filled with full-page images of Jackson Pollack paintings and store shelves filled with pigments; photos of antique paint tubes and pastel drawings by Edgar Degas; spectacular old city scape photos of the old shop and inside the old lab and photos of the shop today, a place that hasn’t changed much in a century. If you are planning a visit to the Louvre, do find the time to cross the Seine, make the left turn, follow the classic old buildings until you reach number 3 Quai Voltaire. At the least, you will buy a notebook or a sketchbook (Picasso bought lots of them), and perhaps you will be persuaded to buy a set of Sennelier pastels, which are among the finest in the world, or oils or watercolors, or artist’s pads. You can buy some, or even most, of this merchandise in many U.S. art supply stores, but it’s not the same experience. There is magic in the old shop, magic that is so loving transported into book format.

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Daniel Greene is one of my favorite artists. Click on the picture to explore his spectacular work.

It is a joy filled story: the idea of bringing Sennelier products to the U.S., the magic of those pastels in the hands of a great contemporary artist. Daniel Greene is such an artist, and his two-page spread of Manhattan’s Franklin Street subway station is a wonder. So, too, are the simple photos of the neatly-ordered tortillons in a century-0ld drawer in the old shop.

For about ten years, I have so enjoyed using Sennelier pastels. The freshness and depth of their color makes every painting special. When I have a Sennelier pastel in my hand, I sense that there is legend there. I visited the shop in Paris, and sensed some of the history, but it was difficult to understand how the story fit together. When I started reading the book, I loved the combination of new and vintage photographs, art and artists at work, and the story told in both French and English blocks of prose. About a third of the way through the book, I realized that I was grinning. And I wondered about the last time I had grinned my way through the reading of an entire book.

Several years ago, NPR did a wonderful story about the Sennelier shop. Listen to it here.

Even better, I think, is the photo essay and commentary on the blog A Painter in Paris. The photo below should encourage you to visit both the blog and the store. Enjoy!

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The Key to Fun and Learning

For many years, scholars have debated the aesthetics of film (or, with greater pretense, “cinema”) and the mass culture associated with television (or, with less pretense, “TV” or “the idiot box”). Videogames make for more interesting study because they combine the sound and images with the 21st century version of interactivity. Stories aren’t watched–they’re played. Characters aren’t observed–they’re enacted by the participant. It’s rich stuff.

So here’s my new hero, Constance Steinkuehler, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor who studies the intersection between videogames, science and cognition. Currently she’s on a leave of absence, working at the White House in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. I first encountered Ms. Steinkuehler while listening to NPR’s Tell Me More in April. Then, I found a video, and I realized how much I/we could learn from her.

So I took all of our plans and I threw them out the window. Structured stuff? Not going to work…If I talk at them, they are not going to listen to me. So, we’re just going to do this weird, radical thing. We’re just going to…play next to them. When an interest comes up, we’ll be like, well, you know, the place to read more about that would be “x”…Once we turned it around to a ‘follow their interests’ kind of a model, everything shifted. And it worked.

She’s talking about how learning works. And she’s using videogames as the basis for that learning. Among teen boys who were part of her project, chosen because they did not do well in school. She paid attention to the ways in which they preferred to learn, and here’s what happened:

So for example, we had a reader who was in tenth grade who read at the sixth grade level. [He was not] doing well in school. I handed him a fifteenth grade level text (from the game) and he was reading it with absolutely fine comprehension, 94, maybe 96% accuracy…”

Why?

When they choose the text, when they actually care about it, they actually fix their own comprehension problems…”

These quotes are lifts from the video below.

Steinkuehler is not the only academic who is thinking deeply about videogames and learning. This page does a good job in providing an overview of the videogame industry, and includes several videos that will stimulate your thinking about what games mean and why they are important. (The embedded TED talk is quite good because it covers bits about the industry and bits about game design.)

In this field, one original source of light is James Paul Gee, who explains, simply, that every videogame is a set of problems to be solved in order to win. His excellent book, What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy, is an excellent place to begin thinking seriously about videogames. So, too, is this introductory video:

Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell will take your thinking further. He’s a game designer, an author, and someone who is thinking about games and learning in very exciting new ways. You may have seen Jesse’s TED talk, but you may not have seen his TEDx talk which is, ultimately, about how games (by design) encourage collaboration and shared learning styles, and how well-designed games respect the learner in ways that school often does not.

BTW: Score yourself 100 extra points if you recognized this article’s title, “The Key to Fun and Learning” as the tagline that appeared on most Milton Bradley board games. Double your score if you recognized the bearded man as Milton himself, a pioneer in games that were fun and also provided a learning experience. Triple your score if you knew that Mr. Bradley started out by making game and puzzle kits for Civil War soldiers to occupy their time in camp (remember, those guys were, mostly, teenagers.)

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