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"LAYERS: Pushing Through the Arts to Perfume" - Dannielle Sergent, Cognoscenti

December 18, 2018

There is a rule in oil painting referred to as “fat over lean.” This means any added layers over a base must be heavier (contain more oil) than the initial or previous layers for it to adhere properly and dry without cracking. It is science pushing on art and a small lesson to learn if one aspires to bring the visible world, or dreams, to life with oil paint. This is an old rule, and one the Ancient Masters perfected by creating mediums with a drying oil, a resin varnish and a dilutant that thinned the upper layers without breaking the bonds in the paint. This allowed the many layers of under paint to remain visible even after a thin “fatter” layer was applied over. Translucent blue veins in the arms of an aristocrat, the velvet under their lace collar and the flush of the redolent cheeks hiding behind candle illumination are all possible with the science of mediums. Historically, paintings were rarely ever very thick, so mediums didn’t have to work as hard as they do in modern art. Modern chemical engineering has created additives that allow us to trick the paint and allow visibly thin layers over paint that is sometimes so thick it is structural. With this example one could argue that the final and top layer is the most important in painting. Andy Warhol said: “just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” However, it is the interplay between the layers that is crucial. Even his paintings are built up, typically with a bold single colored background and graphic overlays. The surface of the paint becomes important because of what lies beneath. I find that sometimes the most important part of my painting is what I cover up. It charts the path and defines the final perception of the upper layers. It’s like a secret that I choose to veil, completely hide or reveal at will.

There is another rule in painting that warm colors advance, and cool colors recede. If you want something to feel like it is close to you, use warm colors. If it is in the distance, you choose cooler colors. Our eyes adjust to the different wavelengths (red=long; blue= shorter) as they travel through space to accurately place the depth of the colors. Adjacent colors can skew the depth placement as adding complementary colors nearby (those on the opposite side of the color wheel) change the visible wavelengths by increasing or decreasing their intensity. It allows an artist to trick the depths of the canvas and further manipulate the position in the frame.

“Warrior Queen”  30” x 40” Oil on wood, ©Dannielle Sergent 2018

“Florentine Combover” 30” x 40” Oil on wood, ©Dannielle Sergent 2018

Color is also dependent on light so when considering the depth, one cannot ignore tonal variants. Our spatial perception of light is based on our prime light source, the Sun above. Black recedes and white moves toward you. Edges seem closer because they are traced with light. Recesses are given a physical location as they are said to be “pushed or plunged into darkness” because light can’t reach the interior surfaces. This push and pull, when coordinated with the warm and cool properties of hues, allow us to manipulate our audience across, into, underneath and around objects within a painting. But how does paint work with light? Adding white to colors creates a tint to lighten the color and adding black to colors darkens the hue and creates a shade (“Throwing shade” = adding darkness). Yet, adding black or white paint flattens the colors removing the depth and squashing the layers. What we really want to do is to add or remove light. Paint cannot do this. We can only manipulate the hues, layers and adjacencies to make it appear that we are adding or removing light. One solution is not to add paint but leave it open or slightly veiled to allow the light from the surface below (typically a white canvas) to push through. In my new paintings, I have inverted the color and light so that the recesses are brighter than the edges. This gives the painting the illusion of being lit from within and purposely rearranges the depth and layers of the image. It requires an understanding of what colors will do when flipped (complementary) and what light will remain to illuminate the painting. Bold color adjacencies, veiled under paint, and conscious manipulation of depth pulls viewers through the work. However, this type of manipulation is not possible with all the arts.

Above: Basic Color Wheel.


Above: Dannielle’s favorite fragrance wheel, the Aftelier Natural Perfume Wheel by Mandy Aftel

Architecture has always been considered one of the lesser arts because it must address the physical laws of gravity. The weight of a building is translated down to its foundation, the hidden layer that supports all efforts above. Architects often design to hide the effects of gravity with cantilevers, thin tensile structures, floating buildings and more. In each case, the architect tries to eliminate the visible connection to the ground. This is done through careful handling of materials, light and space. Using voids (windows, doors, portals) visual and physical material weight (textures and density), the play of light (reflections and shadows) an architect can lift, carve out and enfold space. Gothic churches were considered miraculous because the weight of the building and the roof was supported by color and light (stained glass windows). What they didn’t see was the way the engineers of the time solved their problem of “fat over thin” to trace the building loads to the ground.

There is a rule in perfume, that a perfume is constructed of top notes, middle notes and base notes. Top notes fly away quickly, middle or heart notes define the fragrance, and the base notes anchor and ground the perfume. This helped my initial understanding of the individual ingredients but proved problematic when I started to blend. Most of the middle notes are floral, and while I love flowers* I didn’t want to smell like one. I tried eliminating the floral hearts focusing on the top and base notes only; but the fragrance wouldn’t hold. It flipped and presented “ass first,” base notes forward and top notes after. The timing was wrong. It needed the same ties back to the foundation that are required in architecture. I was trying to build a skylight without walls. After spending decades studying the importance of layering: light (from above and within), color (hues and their complements), visual densities and texture, material weight and molecular bonds in other art forms I realized this knowledge was exactly what I needed in order to paint with scent. Scent however added another layer, that of time. Understanding the timeline of a note became as important as its texture and color. The first rule about top, middle, and base notes was really about density and its connection to time, not to the categories of the source materials.

At COGNOSCENTI, I do not start with a story or a brief. Instead I start with a few notes that I want to push or pull, to “manipulate the audience across, into, underneath and around“ in order to create an olfactive tableau in the same way I paint. I use the color, density and textures of the ingredients to take you on a journey through the perfume itself. Journeys imply movement and time so I study the physical location properties of the notes and how they move. Lavender 40/42 is sharp angular, brassy, quick, and its placement is hot and up front. Lavender Absolute is round, rich velvety, slow and dark - pushed back into a wet recess. I assign each note colors so that I can further place them within the “frame." Yet, there is no fragrance wheel that defines the notes across the wheel in the same way as a color wheel. The complimentary notes aren’t on the opposite side. That flip of my initial blends helped inform that complementary notes exist, but it required further study. The parallels with the other art forms brought up other questions: How do you connect notes without highlighting the bond? How does one bring light into a dense formula? How can you reveal and conceal a note simultaneously? What methods can you use to veil the notes below without entirely obscuring them? What techniques can hint at the aristocrats blue veins but still focus on the warmth and heat from the body itself?

I ask these questions every time I sit down to blend. Sometimes, while pursuing the notes along multiple paths, pushing and pulling the layers, adding bridges between and across, I find answers. A well-lit edge, an open window, a mirror, a spinning of the structure or a veiled note. These become the framework for the perfume I am composing at the time. In COGNOSCENTI No.30 – Hay Incense, I use two separate Hay Notes. The Wet Hay note veils the sharper Dry Hay that comes out when the Wet Hay starts the “dry down." It is timed to open and show itself when the wet hay moves backwards, a brighter note revealing itself after the heavier one. In the same fragrance I use Immortelle to suggest a ray of light in the density defined by the Incense and Leather. The weight of the base notes holds up the light notes without engulfing them. Both are suggestive of the internal illumination of my new paintings. For COGNOSCENTI No.19 – Warm Carrot I used Carrot Seed to define the heart instead of flowers. It is a familiar note but hard for some to place. I wanted to give multiple hints by having the structure circle back from the top note to the heart note to the base note and back again to the heart of Carrot Seed. The layers are pierced and the flip of the structure from that earlier blend is tamed to flip back and forth almost imperceptibly in a smooth curve. Each perfume is composed to respect and reject the proper placement of materials within the artistic frame. Whether the layers are visible or hidden, veiled or open, dark or light, brightly colored or monochromatic each defines the final blend. With perfume it also takes time.

‘The Princess and the Pea,’ reimagined by Brunschwig &Fils


*I seriously love flowers. See my paintings at
Dannielle Sergent practices architecture as a profession, but painting and perfume are her passions.

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