Although the name Roy Lichtenstein conjures up images of comic print reproductions and heroines in distress, he also produced a series of landscape paintings using his signature primary colors and Ben Day dots. In his 1965 piece Yellow landscape, Lichtenstein utilizes these elements, using the plastic paper Rowlux to create a piece that displays his high art knowledge and his interest in the landscape genre. In this article, Singulart will explore the trajectory of Lichtenstein’s career, his use of color, and the composition of Yellow landscape.
The Life of Lichtenstein
Roy Lichtenstein was born on October 27, 1923 in New York City. Raised on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he showed an early interest in art and began taking watercolor classes at the Parsons School of Design. In 1940, he started taking painting classes with Reginald Marsh, emulating Marsh’s social realist style. Later that year, he would enroll at Ohio State University, developing his skills in art alongside his studies of botany, history, and literature.
Lichtenstein was drafted into the army in 1943. He traveled to England, France, Belgium and Germany, taking engineering courses and working as a clerk and draftsmen. As part of his duties, he enlarged army newspaper cartoons for his commanding officer, which no doubt influenced his later work for which he became famous. He received an honorable discharge in 1946 and returned to Ohio State University to complete his bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts.
After his first solo exhibition in 1951, he moved to Cleveland, where he would remain for the next six years. Upon his return to New York, he began working as an art teacher and started working in the abstract expressionist style. After he began teaching at Rutgers University in 1960, he was heavily influenced by Allan Kaprow and started to experiment with the Photo-pop style. It was during this period he produced his seminal work Look Mickey!, the first of his pieces to incorporate elements such as Ben Day dots, speech bubbles and comic book imagery.
Lichtenstein continued to rise to prominence, resigning from Rutgers in order to focus on his art. He produced some of his most famous pieces during this period, including Drowning Girl and Whaam!, which were applauded by critics. However, not everyone was a fan of Lichtenstein’s style, with Life Magazine printing an article asking “Is He the Worst Artist in the US?”.
By the mid-1960s, Lichtenstein had started using his signature elements to produce pieces in other genres, as seen in Yellow landscape and his Brushstrokes series. He left New York in 1970 and moved to Southampton, where he began experimenting with the sculpture medium. By 1980, he was using a myriad of artistic influences in his work, including surrealism, cubism and German expressionism.
Lichtenstein died of pneumonia in 1997, with The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation being established in his honor in 1999.
Lichtenstein’s use of color
Lichtenstein had a keen awareness of color and composition. During the early stages of his career, he exclusively used primary colors with black outlines, calling to mind the works of Piet Mondrian, who also used a palette made up of exclusively primary colors. The use of Ben Day dots allowed Lichtenstein to add a depth to his pieces, playing with light and shade.
Lichtenstein described his color palette as primarily “acid yellow, dull green, purplish-blue, and Life Magazine red”. When Lichtenstein applied the colors to his canvas, there was no variation of tone in order to emulate the flat blocks of color employed by the comic book artists from whom he took inspiration.
Of his technique, Lichtenstein explained: “My use of evenly repeated dots and diagonal lines and uninflected color areas suggest that my work is right where it is, right on the canvas. [It is] definitely not a window into the world.”
Lichtenstein exclusively used Magna paints thinned with solvents to create his pieces, and famously stated, “I could paint with something else, but then I’d have to learn to paint all over again.” With Magna paints, Lichtenstein could achieve the matte, flat look of the comic books. When Magna went out of stock, Lichtenstein bought all the available stock he could find and attempted to persuade a German company to create a paint using the same formula. In the description of his pieces, it will specifically list Magna as one of the elements used.
Yellow landscape and Lichtenstein’s landscape series
Yellow landscape demonstrates Lichtenstein’s utilization of Rowlux, a plastic paper that had a shimmery, vibrant surface and that was used by Lichtenstein to suggest movement. He described the product – originally created to cover urban signposts – as “a kind of ready made nature”. In Yellow landscape, viewers can see Lichtenstein’s signature Ben Day dots along the bottom of the artwork, separated from the shiny surface of the Rowlux by two wavy lines of yellow and blue.
Lichtenstein first explored the landscape genre in the mid-1960s after reaching new heights as an artist with the production of pieces such as Drowning Girl and Whaam!. His first solo print portfolio, titled Ten Landscapes, was a creative process of preparatory drawings and collages, hand-cut stenciled screenprints, and the supervision of the cutting of Rowlux. During the final years of his career, Lichtenstein would again reference landscapes with his series Landscapes in the Chinese Style, which parodied the traditional paintings of China’s Song dynasty into dotted, mechanical compositions in the style of his pop art pieces.