Californian Pavel Machotka creates landscapes and figure studies
that are inspired by Cézanne's sense of form and color.

 All artwork this article collection the artist.


"MY TECHNIQUE OWES MORE to Cézanne than to anyone else," Pavel Machotka says. "I fell in love with his work at the age of sixteen and it's been a very formative influence. I try to see the visible world as he saw it: extraordinarily rich, precise, complete. It's a point of view that allows for spontaneity and constant discovery." Since becoming a professional painter twelve years ago, Machotka has attempted to retain his work's Cézanne-like qualities as well as move in his own direction.

Like the great Postimpressionist paintings, the key to Machotka's work is the relationship of color to the modeling of form. "For me, color is an intimate aspect of form," he says. "It does the modeling in my work. If it didn't, I would consider the painting a technical failure. When you model with color, you have color balance and order. I don't employ the Impressionist method of creating a field with brushstrokes of broken color that the viewer has to integrate. I think I use color a little more structurally."

Integrating color and composition keeps either element from dominating the artwork. Machotka alters colors, especially green, to achieve this integration. He says, "Green is frequently troublesome to landscape painters. The structural dilemma with that color is if you put down the green you see, you may go too far toward the warm end of the spectrum. You have the blue sky, which is cool, and, in California, you tend to have a lot of yellows in the summer. What do you do with your green? Natural greens contain too much yellow and using them hinders your ability to create a painting in which the colors balance. You have to use cooler greens than you see.

House in Tuscany--Noon, 1992, oil on linen, 26 x 32.
"I learned this from Cézanne," Machotka continues. "It was the greens, especially, that he was inclined to manipulate. The yellows and blues, on the other hand, were rendered as he saw them. For example, pine needles in the south of France are actually quite brown, yet he painted pines in viridian--a very cool blue-green--so the painting would have balance."

Machotka says he schedules his plein air sessions according to the weather. "In Northern California, if you wish to paint by anything other than flat light, you must paint in the afternoon when the fog has burned off and the sun has emerged," he says. For him afternoon light is neither nostalgic nor symbolic but realistic: "I have a fairly strong sense of light in my work--not because I worship it, but because it defines shape in a certain way."

Study of A.B. #5, 1994, oil on linen, 30 x 36.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Cézanne redefined form, creating a revolution in the way we look at paintings--right down to how we look at the canvas itself. "Cézanne believed a painting had to work as a flat object as well as suggest depth, and I agree with that," Machotka says. "For me, the painting exists both on the surface and in depth. I could not limit it to either one or the other."

Although he has painted landscapes both abroad and in Northern California, Machotka is currently absorbed in figurative work. "I moved to the figure because I thought I had said a great deal of what I wanted to say about landscapes. When I return to landscapes, they'll be different. They'll be affected by my figurative work. One feeds another."

Machotka's equipment consists of canvas clipped to a French easel packed with his palette, brushes, oils, turpentine, and rags. "My pictures have gotten bigger as I've gotten more comfortable with the paint. Now, I can work well with a 35"-x-36" canvas, but I try not to use the same size all the time because it can be inhibiting," he says.

The artist doesn't make preliminary studies; he sketches with paint directly on the canvas. "Every work is a study," he says, "if you approach it as another attempt to find out something significant about the appearance of things. I make sure I take advantage of mistakes. Whenever I have, the painting was richer for it. I like my sketch to show through. In fact, I try not to obliterate the lines. It's more interesting when they're visible--it shows some of the initial spontaneity."

Sometimes he'll paint an entire composition quickly, scraping it down but leaving the drawing intact underneath. "Then you have your composition all ready," he explains. "You can start painting the next day. But it takes courage. You can't fall entirely in love with your first attempt."

The artist also places importance on the texture of the canvas, preferring one with a great deal of tooth. "Having the regularity of a three-dimensional weave relating to your painting can be very exciting, very sensuous," he says. "I use a high-grade, pregessoed, presized, thick linen canvas from Claessens. It's expensive, but it saves me a great deal of time. I stretch it myself."

He usually starts with a canvas sized with a colored ground. This imprimatura varies with the environment. He employs warm colors sometimes, cool tones other times. Machotka then draws his composition with a brush in either ultramarine or black violet, a color he finds is quite neutral. He almost never uses black. "Once I have the composition in place, I start putting on the paint. I preserve or change the outline, depending on how things are working," he says.

"I sound as if I know exactly where everything is going to go when I get to that stage. Sometime I do, and sometimes I don't. Often it's good when I don't. Then I have to just respond and solve the problem. Sometimes I've had to make many changes. For example, a vertical 'wall' (in reality, a hillside) behind a farmhouse I was painting did not have any rhythm and did not contribute to the composition. So I had to figure out a way to make that whole plane interesting and rhythmical."

He generally spends three hours at a time on a painting, completing it in two or three sittings. "But it's important to take it back to the studio, let it mature for several days, and then come back to it to see if everything works," he says.

Determining when a painting is finished has confounded many an artist. Machotka admits he's tempted to go back into a work he had deemed finished--even one several years old--and feels a bit like Degas, who had a habit of removing his painting from friends' walls in order to correct them. (Degas's friends responded by chaining down his works.)

Machotka is a trained psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He retired this year from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he spent most of his professional life. He taught psychology and art, augmenting his academic labors with occasional forays into art scholarship that resulted in several books: The Nude, (Irvington Press), Cézanne, Motif Into Form (London, Scolar Press), and Style and the Man: Siegriest and St. John, a study of California plein air artists Lundy Siegriest and Terry St. John, currently in the manuscript stage.

The artist was born in Prague and came to the United States with his family when he was twelve. Although he had always been interested in art and occasionally painted, Machotka didn't seriously pursue painting until much later. He was married and his eldest child had turned twelve before he picked up his brushes again. A few years later the newly divorced Machotka began to redefine himself, making art a part of that process. He took up plein air painting under the tutelage of St. John and Siegriest.

Machotka's landscape paintings combine pattern and color in a sensuous whole. "Every brushstroke is crucial, but you can't obsess over every one," he concludes. "Our perceptions are so fine that the slightest change in the field alters them. You just hope that you do it right--intuitively."

Machotka is represented by Campbell-Thiebaud Gallery in San Francisco.

Karen Haber is a freelance writer based in Oakland, California.
American Artist © opyright 1995 by BPI communications. Reproduced with permission.