Monday, December 10, 2012

Simplified designs in iconic paintings

Winslow Homer, Fog Warning   The Museum of Fine Arts Boston
I write often about design. Design is what I call that part of  painting which is neither color or drawing. I prefer the word "design" to the word "composition" because it implies deliberate  and thoughtful human action.


 I have been playing with some images in my Photoshop program that divides everything into either a black or a white pixel. Looking at paintings that way is rather like squinting at them, which is something I routinely do. Like squinting it eliminates all the detail and reduces them to their basic value structure. Simplification is the root of design. There is a concept in Japanese art called notan
 ( I will smugly let you assume I know my way around Japanese art). Arthur Wesley Dow 1857 –1922 who was from Ipswich, Massachusetts wrote an influential book published in 1912. In it he discusses Notan. That is the use of  simplified arrangement of the dark and light in an image. The book is a classic text on the subject of design in painting.

  Below is Winslow Homers painting above reduced down to only two values.

Not all   fine paintings are as reduced as these but I think many iconic paintings are. They have a big and very spare design. Like the ability  of great orators to succinctly say something with a few words that stays on your mind, these paintings make a bold and unforgettable statement without many complicated and busy shapes. Brevity  is  eloquent. The Homer has a  big dark of a somewhat bizarre shape (the pointed shapes of those clouds is so strange!) accented by a slash of light, the fish.  The clouds look eerie as befits a dangerous development in the weather for the Gloucesterman in the small boat. Those spiky shapes say threat. Homer has played the lights and darks in the water close enough together that it remains one big shape. Had he pushed the lights and the darks there further apart he would have destroyed the unity in the big shape of the water. The sea remains a single shape decorated with variation rather than a  collection of different and separate shapes. Subordinating value changes within an area preserves the large shapes and yet still allows for the variations necessary to convey the drawing.

Here is a favorite Rembrandt of mine, A Woman Bathing, from the National Gallery in London. This is likely Hendrickje Stoffels his housekeeper who became Rembrandts lover and common law wife. That was a scandal that sorely affected his standing in Amsterdam.
Below is  the reduced version.

It is a big, somewhat complicated, but single light shape against a dark field. Not much question as to where we are supposed to look and what the subject is here. There is enormous bulk and solidity in this figure. It has weight and mass. The picture also has the earthy humanity for which  Rembrandt is famous. The impossibly rich darks contrast brilliantly with smash of light on the simple gown she raises to a nearly indecent height. Only the shadow of its hem hides her underneathies from our prurient gaze.

Here is Bougereau's Nymphs and Satyrs belonging to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.  I understand this is now on loan to the Metropolitan in New York. I have always felt they had a weaker Bougereau than was fitting given the superlative quality of their collection and their place as the premier American museum.

This painting reduces down to a diagonally placed oval anchored at one end by the  female wonderful figure that counterbalances the struggling satyr.This oval is an intricate rhythmic collection of shapes silhouetted against the darkness of it's background Evidently, according to myth Satyrs fear water.

Above is a Dean Cornwell, a great American illustrator, and  below is it's reduced version.

This design is a loop of intricate shapes, dark against a light background. Notice that each of these shapes is totally different from each other. That gives it the maximum visual interest, as opposed  to  repetitive quickly read too similar forms. All of those darks are  linked by  the way. You can  place your finger on it anywhere and trace its entire circumference without lifting your exploring digit. If you divide the picture at the center the weight of the two halves balances. The largest most bizarre  and alluring dark shapes surround the man in the chair at the middle left, as he is the main actor in this drama and Cornwell wanted to make sure you knew that.

 © The Estate of Edward Seago, courtesy of Portland Gallery 
Here is Edward Seago again, a superb designer. This thing could be a  Franz Kline it is so abstract.This is a powerful and arresting design, brutal and like the harsh world of the arctic  where it was painted. The bold and aggressive design carries the story as much as the rendering of the objects.There must be only about three different values in this painting. This thing is boiled down to it's essentials also.

Again, all of the darks are linked. Notice the white negative spaces, they  are each different in area, giving maximum variety to their shapes.

Here is The Hundred Guilder Print by Rembrandt You can squint at this and see it's simple arrangement also. It is really a big dark field with a pointed wedge of light extended into it. Within that doorstop shape is a triangle at whose apex is the figure of Christ.

Here is an early 20th century etching by Edward Blashfield (1848-1936)  an English artist. The Breaking up of the Agamemnon. This is an example of the use of bold shapes in design. There was a great revival of etching in that era and in the better works of that day were great examples of design. I have studied them to learn their moves. I guess I should do a post on etchings of that period. Perhaps I already have, I forget, I have written so much.

I have scheduled another Snowcamp, a winter painting workshop in the White Mountains of New Hampshire . Held at a rambling late 19th century inn.  The Sunset Hill in Franconia, New Hampshire which is very romantic and old timey.The workshop will be held January 26 through 28.  I have done this for a few years now and it is my favorite workshop of the year. The inn is the perfect place to do a class and the scenery is fabulous. The White mountains are spread before the inn like a movie set. 


It might be cold but the inn is right at our backs as we work so we can run inside by the fire and drink more coffee if it becomes too much. The inn has helped me do workshops for years now. They even provide us with our own dining room, where we can eat together around a big round table every night.  I do a talk  on art and design while our dinner is prepared by the inn's chef. If you are interested, please click here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sanding acrylic gesso.

 I was asked the following in the comments recently. I do want to return to the compressed values subject but I thought I might deal with this quickly tonight;

 I make a lot of my own (canvasses) because I don't like the thinness of the commercially prepared canvasses. I usually apply 3 or 4 layers of acrylic gesso to a heavier than average canvas sanding lightly between each layer. The finished product still comes out rough as sandpaper. I'm afraid to use my favorite brushes on the first layer of paint.What is the fix for this and who makes a good commercially prepared canvas? Thanks!
.....................Myrtle Durgin

I can't think of any reason your canvas would come out rough other than the grade of sandpaper you are using. Your sandpaper must be too fine to take the surface of the gesso down sufficiently. Why don't you switch to a rougher grade of paper, and then use whatever fine paper you are probably already using. It seems a little counter intuitive to use a rougher paper to get a smoother surface than you have been getting. But with only a fine paper you don't rip down the tiny standing ridges left in the gesso from it's application. You need to start with that action and then when those are knocked down you can smooth the gesso out with a finer grade of paper.A middling grit like a 150 might just do both if you don't require a silky or glass like surface. I prefer to have a little more tooth on my substrate.

I keep two only grades of sandpaper in my studio. They are: 80 grit and 150 grit. The 80  will rip a passage of rough or too thick paint off the canvas quickly and mercilessly. You want to stop before you go too far with that! The 150 is good for smoothing things. You might possibly want to follow that up with a 100 grit if you prize a very smooth surface.

I don't use acrylic gesso, I did years ago.  Real gesso is a different beast than the acrylic stuff put up in jars. I never prime my own canvas, preferring instead to buy it preprimed. I also don't like painting on canvas that is not oil primed. I think the paint handles better on an oil ground and looks better when you are finished too.

Here a word of caution,  be very careful about sanding oil paintings. There are lots of deadly cadmiums etc. on that canvas. On your palette or brush they are safe enough as they are bound up in oil. If you sand your pictures they are flying around in the air as a toxic dust which you may aspirate. If I have to sand a painting, I often dip my sandpaper in mineral spirits from my palette and wet sand it. That is somewhat safer anyway.

I NEVER sand  down an entire painting to reclaim the canvas, that releases way too much fine particulate dust. Canvas isn't THAT expensive. You asked me to recommend some canvas, I will recomend several. There are many fine canvasses and I haven't tried them all but here are some with which I am acquainted.

  • CHEAP!  Centurion DLX an oil primed linen that is around150 dollars a roll. It is a little thin but the price is right and I haven't had any problems with it. Find that here
  • More expensive, Claessens type 12 High quality Belgian linen. Also oil primed. Silky under the brush. This is actually whats called a portrait linen. That means it is pretty smooth. Claessens makes rougher linens too if you prefer that. But this is my favorite. Here is that
  • Also more expensive. Fredrix is an American made canvas. Another linen canvas. They make a lot of different sorts I like the Kent best. This used to be a lead primed canvas but is no longer. This is a really nice product. Go here for that.... 
  • I don't use or recommend cotton canvas, but if you want to paint on cotton here is a link to Fredrix cotton canvasses of various grades. Of these I would  prefer the Tyron or the Knickerbocker.
  • The cheap cotton prestretched canvasses sold at the big box retail stores are junk.It would be better to paint on cinder blocks. I will use them sometimes for demo paintings when I am traveling, but they feels dreadful and scratchy under the brush and  their absorbancy sucks the life out of your paint. Some of the big box stores do sell a better quality prestretched linen canvas at a higher price that are OK though.
You must be able to stretch your own canvas. It is not very hard, and it is something that a painter needs to be able to do. It is expensive to throw away the stretchers behind every canvas that doessnt work out. If you stretch your own you can cannibalize those stretcher, use better canvas, save money as you do.

Do you need a Take-it easel? (Gloucester easel) I know of someone who has a gently used one for sale. They want 150 dollars for it, plus shipping and handling, that's an excellent price. Please contact,

Interested in Snowcamp this year? A number of people have contacted me about that. I will announce the dates soon.  Snowcamp is my winter painting workshop held in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Value suppression , the apearance of nature and the" big look"

I have been frantically painting trying to get this years blue night picture out the door for a printing deadline. I have made one of these every year for about thirty years. Here I am though, lets see.................

A reader on the comments page recently asked me:
Please help my confusion on values. I have read and been taught to not use the full spectrum of values because it weakens the painting. Their instruction has been to narrow your values to three no more than four value groups by compressing the values together. By doing this you make a stronger pattern of shapes that holds together, especially from a distance. Please clarify. Looking forward to your response.

This is a big question and I may need more than a single post to answer it.

1)  There is the appearance of nature in light as it sits before you. I think I can readily discern and express about ten different values outside. Before the cast, as an atelier student I was taught with ten values. In practice I use maybe one or two less than that if I am trying to the the look of nature. When I teach, I generally try to point out the difference between nature and the students work. Most of the students I meet in workshops are struggling to get the image successfully and halfway accurately onto the canvas. That is the first skill that a student needs, transcription. This is not necessarily art, it is a skill and anyone can acquire it with some hard work.

Until a student has this ability it seems important to me, to help them "see" nature more clearly. I talk a lot about design, arrangement, color etc. but if I neglect to steer students closer to the look of nature I run the risk of teaching them "how I do things" rather than broader skills they can use themselves. So when I teach I would only suggest to the most advanced students that they paint their values any differently than they see them.

That artists who work in reduced numbers of values agree there are more values than they use seems clear, as they speak of compressing or limiting their values.

2) It is possible, perhaps desirable, to reduce the values in a design to get more unity of effect, a broader look and a clearer assembly of shapes. Usually the effect is one of a stronger, simpler arrangement. But, this is a lens  through which painter looks at nature, and not the appearance of nature itself. Compressing values, means to change them to something else, hopefully more desirable artistically.

This is a design method, and as such, a convention, a personal choice. That's OK, it is art after all, and the art lies in the choices we make about how  the painting will look more than in cold transcription. Below is a sphere with the parts of the light labeled on it.
The sphere above has five separate lights. A tree in light or a head or figure will generally need five separate values to explain itself. Where these five different values come from on the value scale, whatever size (but ten for the sake of this explanation) can be chosen and they could be derived from the middle of the scale or one end or even spread across its length from Stygian darkness to unalloyed white. I find it difficult to work effectively with fewer than five values. I  sometimes will design pictures using three premixed values, but when  I make that into a picture I feel the need to add a few more values here and there. Even this five value system precludes the representation of halftones. Each halftone (modeling in the lights) would add a separate value to the list. I don't present all of this to discourage the practice of suppressing or compressing values. This topic arose out of my listing problems that plague workshop students. I would suggest that the artist should first be able to render in  a full and not a truncated panoply of values before reducing their number.

4) I didn't hear the idea of compressing values until perhaps fifteen years ago, no doubt because of the enormous and beneficial influence of Richard Schmid. I learned something similar in the Gammell Studios though. It was  called the "BIG LOOK". The idea was this....Not to  cut up your big shapes with lots of varying values or details within them. One was to keep their shapes big, or uncluttered. Shapes of similar value would be  conjoined and darks or lights deliberately linked. All of these plus suppression of  detail gave a broader simpler look. Gammell often derided what he  called "looking into the shadows" that is allowing yourself  to refocus your vision  and examine separately from  the lights   the value  changes and detail within the shadows. That is the shadows  would be mistakenly painted as they appeared when examined individually and not as seen  in relationship to the entire scene including the  lights. This was seen as the enemy of the big  look.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

More thoughts on the challenges facing todays workshops participants


Oh! Here I am. Thank you to all of you who have commented on the blog. You have given me several subjects about which I may write. I had a visit from two readers from Utah, they even took me out to dinner. I enjoy meeting you all. Writing this blog is like speaking to a darkened theater where I can not see the audience or gauge their reaction to what I am saying. Workshops are the way I generally meet my readers.. The blog gets a lot of visitors, Sometimes as high as 30,000 a month, but fewer, lately, as I have been posting less often, but it is still a whole lot of people. How odd! considering that writing it is so solitary. More about the workshop problems;

Failure to appreciate the difficulty of painting well I always tell workshop students that learning to paint is no more difficult than learning to play the violin. They are always shocked to hear that. Some of them have decided to paint en plein air (as they call it) because they have supposed it would be easier. Again I am not talking about you, anyone you know or have ever met, I mean those bad people who are far away, those whose taxes should be raised. Painting is wicked hard. No one would ever bother with it except that it is so much fun and  perpetually interesting. I believe it takes about ten years working full time to become a competent painter. That doesn't mean you shouldn't paint if you have less time, it is fun and rewarding. But you wouldn't imagine you could learn to play the violin adequately in less time would you? Still many of my workshop students expect a hundred pounds of progress for ten pounds of application. I love em, but they need to be realistic about the effort it will take. Even the most brilliant teacher can't make that hurdle go away, that is just the way it is.


    • Believing that quality in art is subjective No idea is more destructive to the progress of a painter than this. The comfort it provides the student comes at the expense of advancing ability. The hard truth that there are folks out there who truly paint a whole lot better than you do is daunting, and I am sorry that is scary, but it remains true none the less. When people tell me that art is all subjective and that there is no such thing as one persons art being "better" than another's, I always tell them "I play guitar as well as Hendrix, you might not like it as well, but after all it is so subjective". I  was a high school garage band member with zero talent, by the way. I know some people who play like gods ( you know who you are!). I am comfortable with that. Somebody has to be in the audience. The following are the problems with the subjectiveist model;
    1. Why look to the greats in the art, like Rembrandt or Sargent if they are only superior to your own daubs in the opinion of  people who can be ignored or argued against? 
    2. If all art is equally good, how could you make your own better? Improving your art would only make sense if you could add quality to it. How depressing it would be to look back on your art from a decade ago if it could not have been made better.Why would one work to better their craft if the only possibility was to make it different rather than better?
    3. When I look in the mirror, sometimes I am handsome and other times I see a caviling dork. I see only what I think of myself, and not myself. The eye sees itself only by reflection Shakespeare said. If we argue that all of art is only subjective, then the only way it makes sense to think that our art is improving, would be if it is more what we would have it be. But then our ability to judge it will wax and wane like our opinion of ourselves. Before you say that you always have a great opinion of yourself, realize that would preclude self criticism altogether. That you yourself like your art is a slim recommendation for it in the larger world, and unlikely to convince those outside of your immediate circle of friends. 
    4. It makes it difficult to  utilize the opinions or suggestions of teachers or "masters"  after all, they are not arguably better at painting than we are, only different. Who then are they to criticize our art? Our art is just as fine as anyone else's. 
    5. I don't know any successful or skilled artists who believe this. There must be some who do, but I have met hundreds of painters and can't I think of one. I conclude it is an opinion not held by a significant number of fine artists. Surely it must be useful to emulate or follow the path of those who have had success in painting. There results are extensions of their opinions.
    6. Why would art be singular among all the efforts of man and not have standards, measures or examples of quality? There is better and worse carpentry, whiskey and cancer treatment. If  there is no art better than another,why go to the museum? Wouldn't the greeting card rack at the drugstore be just fine? 

    Well that should do .... I better throw in something less philosophical and more "useful" to counter my ranting and raving. How about this?

    I like my paint to stay "open" all day. But after that I want it to dry. Paint that stays wet for days is a nuisance for me. If I wanted that, I could add poppy oil to my paint. I don't like acrylics because their rapid drying time makes it hard for me to manipulate it before it seizes. In order to speed my drying times I use an alkyd such as Liquin 
    Or  I could add a fast drying paint to my palette. Different brands of paint and different colored pigments dry at different rates. There are two logical places I have found to do this. The first is the white. I can add an alkyd white like Griffin, or use a flake lead that dries quickly ( no lead for you amateurs please! leave that to those of us who will blithely risk poisoning for our art.)

    Lucas paint (available form Jerrys) has a fast drying time. Since, after white, the color I use the most is ultramarine, I will often add the Lucas ultramarine to my palette. Since ultramarine gets into many parts of my canvas it is will pull along the other pigments with it as it dries. And it is cheap..

    Saturday, November 3, 2012

    Some thoughts on the challenges facing today's workshop participants.

    Demo painting from the Canton Mississippi workshop

    Well here I am again, it's been a while! I have been traveling all over the country teaching workshops since last I posted. I went on tour, like a rock band. I have been in the White Mountains, Minnesota,  Newburgh, New York and Mississippi and God knows where else. I can't even remember all of the places I have been. Most were three day gigs, but some were five days. I met a lot of students and had a lot of fun. I like doing workshops, and I love meeting the students. The workshop scene seems to select for an enjoyable group of participants. I run twelve hour days in my workshops, so I eat dinner and often breakfast with the students besides painting with them all day.

    I think I will write about what I have seen out there. There seem to be common problems that many students have, and recently I have been aware of how most of the students have the same things to learn. I get a broad range of students in terms of ability and experience, from beginners to demi-professional, so some of them don't have these shortcomings. Most of them do. Remember, I am not talking about you, or anyone you know, I am  talking about those "other" people who are far away. The common problems are these: (let me chamber a few bullets here)
    • Failure to express the full range of values in the scene before them. Most of the students seem to paint in a few middle tones. I always seem to be telling them, "when you look out there, you see a dark and paint it a dark value. When I look out there, I see a dark and ask myself, which dark is it? I have several to choose from." The students use a single generic dark and a single generic middle tone, etc. They command too few values to explain that at which they are looking. I have been telling them this ;:" Did you learn to read from the Dick and Jane books? " (for you younger readers, Dick and Jane were drab children who said things like "look Jane! see Spot run! Run,run run. See Dick run!!" Spot was a dog. Dick was once a common male name. Jane was a girl's name then, much  like Krystle or  Brittney might be today). he teacher went up to the blackboard and wrote a list of about ten words on the board before she even handed out the book. You had to know about ten words to read even this simple story. The authors of this sorry tome couldn't tell even its banal story without at least ten words. They couldn't write the book with only say... five words, they needed at least ten. If you imagine your value scale to be words you will need about 10 or at least six or seven anyway, to tell the story that is in front of you in the landscape. You students don't have enough words (i.e. values) to tell the story of the landscape in front of you. I suspect that the best cure for this problem would be cast drawing under the eye of a master, but that is atelier training and most people just can't leave their real life behind and do that. I am trying to come up with a systematic approach to curing this problem, I do have an idea. I will get back to you on that.
    • Inadequate paints and equipment. I see lots of mangled brushes, I pick them up and say "this was once a brush!" I will often see a student with two dozen brushes, none of which is in usable condition. They are as stiff as tongue depressors and worn into a point. I see a lot of hues too. Those are colors made for the student market that pretend to be the pigment but are not. Some cheaper pigment has been substituted for the necessary color. Usually this substitute is  pthalocyanine plus some other pigment. I have seen a student with a pthalo pretending to be their ultramarine, their viridian and their cobalt, all on one palette. Half of their colors are really just one pigment, pthalo. I have seen whites with the consistency of joint compound and faux "cadmiums" no more powerful than fruit juice.These students have defeated themselves before they even touch their shattered, frizzled bristles to the paint on their palettes. I also see easels that wobble every time the student makes a stroke on the canvas, weird contraptions made of balsa and recycled aluminum that rock from side to side in the slightest breeze.They look like they were manufactured by someone who had heard of easels but had never actually seen one. A decent easel is going to cost more than a toaster at WalMart, that's just a fact of life. Pharaoh taught the Israelites you cannot make bricks without straw.
    • Bargain canvas. I have seen students working on hyper absorbent canvas that sucks the life out of their paint. It is like painting on a loofah. The brush, instead of gliding sweetly over the canvas, scratches along like it is painting on sandpaper. You can buy a prestretched canvas at Michael's or Hobby Lobby for three dollars, but you shouldn't. If the gas it took you to drive to the store in your 25,000 dollar automobile cost more than the canvas you bought, you ought to walk there and get something that will actually work.
    • A lack of knowledge of the history of painting. Students are constantly telling me about the artists they have read about in American Artist or some other magazine. Most of the time I have never even heard of these artists and when I see their work I am disappointed. I tell workshop participants that I  never look to living artists as my models. These students  know only contemporary painters, many of indifferent ability. To make good paintings it is necessary to know what the great artists of the past have done. If you told me you were learning to play guitar and I asked you what you thought of Chuck Berry and you answered "who?" I wouldn't think you were going to get very far.The great artists of the past dwarf  ALL living artists. I  know of no contemporary artist who is the equal of a Rembrandt or  Rubens. It is absolutely essential to get up on the shoulders of the dead to see beyond the ordinariness of the art of our own time. Very few artists today could have cut it in the nineteenth century. We do a great job with technology and plumbing today, but our ancestors painted better. If you want to paint well read the classic texts and have giants for your heroes.
    I will write more on this in the next post, I need to get some sleep.

    Friday, September 28, 2012

    A little about Nicolai Fechin

    I was in Minneapolis this last week and returned to the Museum of Russian Art. If you live in that area, or are passing through Minneapolis, this is a wonderful museum  It shows a collection begun about twenty five years ago by Raymond E. Johnson, a Scottsdale, Arizona art dealer. Johnson bought an enormous collection of Soviet era art during the time when Gorbachev was thawing relationships with the west. About ten years ago the museum acquired a Spanish Colonial style church in south Minneapolis. After renovation and some inspired redesign of its interior space the building became a splendid display place for the largest collection of art of it's sort in the country. At 5500 Stevens Avenue South  in Minneapolis the museum is conveniently located. It is right at a the Diamond Lake Road exit on 35, that's the main freeway from the airport to downtown. If you fly in, the museum is right on your way as you go into the city and it is about fifty feet from the exit, so for a traveler, getting there is really easy. Unlike many city museums there is a free parking lot across the street and admission is reasonable. I make it a routine stop when I am in Minnesota, which is frequently.

    I love the art of Levitan, Repin and Shiskin etc. but this museum is about the period after those artists, the era of what we once called "boy loves tractor" art, or social realism. Until just a few years ago Americans dismissed  this painting as propaganda and illustration for the evil empire. However Russia maintained the systematic and historically driven training of painters that was discarded by most of the rest of  the world. Many of these Soviet period paintings are very fine. They range  from impressionism to a sort of Norman Rockwell gone Marxist style.The level of technique is very high, higher for the most part than what was going on in this country.

    I bring up this venue because they are currently displaying a large retrospective of the work of Nicolai Fechin (1881–1955).  This show runs until January 20, 2013.  Fechin was trained in St. Petersburg under Illya Repin, one of the finest Russian artists at the turn of the 20th century. In 1923, after the Russian  Revolution and the death of both his parents from typhoid fever, Fechin emigrated to America. Himself a  victim of tuberculosis, he ultimately moved  to Taos, New Mexico. Before antibiotics the dry air of the desert was often recommended as a cure. The last part of his life was spent in Santa Monica, California. He was successful financially as both a portrait painter and with his figure painting.

    Above is a painting from the show. I hadn't seen many Fechin paintings in real life before the show and knew them from the one commonly available book on the artist.

      Fechin was a master draftsman but what really makes him special is his paint handling and his color. The painting above is typical of his work, the  head is rather smoothly painted and the rest of the painting is very broad and is full of various textures and rugosity of paint. Here is a detail of the painting above.

    The paint is troweled on and only assembles into the little girls dress at a distance. The level of abstraction is higher than in a Sargent. This passage is thick and  highly textured. Notice something else, this painting is cracked, Fechin used zinc white which is brittle and prone to cracking. Nearly every painting in the show  showed a fine craquelure. I don't believe these  paintings are going to fall off their canvasses anytime soon, but they are not very old as paintings go and most of the art I have seen of their age has not cracked. There is a warning here for anyone who would choose to work in zinc white. Painters use zinc because it is much lower in opacity than titanium and they feel that it lets there color show more, rather than "eating'' it. That is true I suppose,  but at least when worked thickly, the price to be paid is cracked surfaces. I have seen a lot of Emile Gruppe paintings done with zinc and they don't seem to be cracked, but they are painted much  more thinly, usually in one shot and only a single brushstroke thick.

    Here is another detail. Look at the rough texture of the hair and it's contrast with the smoothly modeled  flesh. I  think this is exciting painting and very effective. There is another thing going on here too, look at where the hair meets the face, most painters would soften that edge by stroking along it with a  brush,  possibly  a sable. But Fechin has used the broken surface of the paint to get his softened or minimized transition at the edge. There is another crack right through the cheek of this portrait.

    Fechin has laced wonderful accents of bright color into the background here. There are violets and a cold blue and and other notes  dragged over his rough underpainting or ground. These  colors look like jewels because of their contrast with the dark and unsaturated passages onto which they are placed. The grave notes activate the colored notes by comparison. Again the rough surface gives him a soft edge and keeps those bright notes subordinated to the larger passage. Notice how just to the right of the eye he hardens the edge to indicate the abrupt  plane change and the bony zygomatic cage surrounding the eye. I have written a lot about Edward  Seago. Seago used a textured ground and got a lot of his subordinated edges the same way. 

    Up close this handling or treatment is more interesting that a more matter of fact presentation. 

    It is in this handling or treatment that the ART lives, not in the choice of  subject matter.

      Up close this thing says PAINT, from a  normal viewing distance it says NATURE.

    Above is a painting by the late Leroy Nieman. Here is a painting with bravura handling of thick paint that is nowhere near the equal of the Fechins. It is a matter of taste, the Fechins  are beautiful and elegant, the Nieman of Miles Davis has heightened cheese content. This may serve well in a magazine illustration, but it is not fine art the same way the Fechin is. The comparison of these two paintings could serve as a test of sensitivity to fine painting. The Fechin is a waltz of both restrained and grave color contrasting with the accents of saturated  notes. Together the graver and colored notes in the Fechin are beautiful and balanced. The Nieman is all saturated color and looks vulgar.



    Hudson River Workshop
    with special Guest star Garin Baker

     The workshop will start on Saturday, October 13 and run three days through Monday the 15th. It will be held at the Carriage House Art Studios in Newburgh, New York. Well known and highly skilled artist Garin Baker will be our host and special guest star. If you live in the city or Westchester or maybe New Jersey this workshop should be within easy striking distance  for you

    The schedule includes;
    • a demo every morning, on the first day I explain the palette and the various pigments.
    • In the afternoon the students paint and I run from easel to easel doing individual instruction and try to diagnose each students particular barriers to better painting.
    •  after the demo each day I run  a series of exercises  teaching root skills like creating vibrating color and the parts of the light (that is what you need to know to establish light in a painting) I am going to add a new exercise this time on color mixing.
    • I do a presentation before dinner with images from my laptop. One is unpacking  the design ideas in the works of great landscape painters, particularly Edward Seago and Aldro Hibbard, two favorite artists of mine. I will also  do a little presentation on the Hudson River school and their techniques.
    • I promise I will work you like a borrowed mule. 
    • I can save you years of screwing around

    There should be some autumn color by this time. This is getting into the best time of the year to paint outside. This is sacred ground to American landscape painting. The early history of American landscape painting was written on this ground by  the Hudson River School.. I will talk a little about their working methods and show some examples of this art as well. You can sign up by going here.

    Thursday, September 13, 2012

    Diagonally receding perspective in a landscape

    I generally don't show a lot of my own paintings on this blog. But today I will do that. I have a design lesson that I can teach using it. This is a new painting that will be in the New England Landscapes show at the Old Lyme Art Association.

    • The painting is a 26 by 30, so it is by most peoples plein air standards, rather large. I  don't make my paintings by enlarging small studies in the studio, the paintings I exhibit are started on location, and then finished in the studio.
    • I  painted almost all of this one outside in one shot. I worked on it in the studio for only a few hours.
    • Virtually the entire painting was done using a number 10 flat, a big brush. That brush was made of nylon and came out of a package of 10 that cost 9.99.
    • In the studio I only worked on the top and bottom of the painting. I invented the shadow shapes on the left and leveled out the foreground  field which actually  dropped down to the right. That dip that I removed gave a sagging line across the front of the painting and took the viewer downward and out of the painting at the right hand corner, rather than allowing the observer  to follow the line of bushes back to the  barn.
    • In the illustration  below  you can see that I put the foreground shadows  into the lower left hand corner and the line of the bushes  is over on the right hand  side of the passage. We look out from the shadows on the lower left, across to the line of bushes over on the right. This  was not observed but INSTALLED into the image.
    • I have arranged , that is, forced the elements of the landscape into a diagonal recession back into the picture plane. The nearest planes are on the left and as they go away from the viewer they are behind the first plane and to the right. The receding planes are "stacked obliquely into the picture plane.
    •   The  receding elements of the landscape are not stacked horizontally back into space, and progressing like a frieze, level with the bottom of the canvas from one side of the painting to the other. The elements are arranged  to progress diagonally back into the painting starting in the lower left. Each of the elements of the painting are arranged on diagonal lines, so that as they recede into space they also march obliquely up and to the right.
    • I  did this because it is more dynamic than the somewhat static arrangement based on receding horizontal lines.
    • But it also does another thing, it embeds the perspective more deeply in the drawing. Each layer of the scene is more visibly behind the layer in front of it. I sure hope what I mean is explained by the planar boxes drawn on the illustration above, when I explain this in person  I am able to make chopping movements with my hands and wiggle my eyebrows up  and down.

    •  I did the same thing in  the sky, see how the clouds recede backwards into space diagonally as well.

     Above is an illustration of the planar boxes as they would be arranged receding not as diagonals but one behind another parallel to the bottom of  the image.

    That wasn't easy to explain, I hope you caught that!

    Thursday, August 23, 2012

    Another little trick I know 5

    Toward the end of a painting day it is often useful to know how long you will have to continue painting before the light fails. I love saying "when the light fails" it is so old timey and romantic sounding. Long ago I  used to tell One lovely young woman that I would meet her "when the light fails".

     Here is a way to tell how long you have before dark, this is an old woodsman's trick. Hold your hand out at arms  length. Then place your hand below the sun  with the bottom of your hand on the horizon, or that line of trees, or whatever the  sun intends to drop behind. You might need to use both hands to do this if the sun is still high. Count how many fingers there are between the sun and the horizon. You can figure on fifteen minutes for each finger. In the picture above I have 45 minutes before the sun drops behind that row of trees.This works no matter how large or how small your hands are, I suppose because the length of your arm varies somewhat in proportion to the size of your hand.

    Here is a trick for keeping your white (or whatever color) fresher overnight.

    Put a tuna fish can upside down over that pile of color and it will be less likely to dry out overnight. If  paint drying overnight is a big problem, you can always put your paint in the refrigerator. That won't hurt it at all. You might want to make a special box for it if you do this routinely. That will keep the paint and your cottage cheese separate. In the winter I often  throw the palette in the trunk of my car when I am done working for the day. Even if the night is very cold the colors will rapidly warm up again in the heat of my studio.

     I have the attention span of a goldfish. A goldfish has about a two second memory. All day they swim around their little bowl muttering "I think I've seen this before... I could swear I've seen this before,
    I think I've seen this before". I have a case of ADD that would kill an ordinary man, I am a human whippet, I am so easily distracted. 

      So, I keep a kitchen timer beside my easel. When I am having a problem staying focused, I work timed hours. I set the timer and no matter what happens I work for an entire hour. If the phone rings I will ignore it. I don't do this all the time but when I am against a deadline or there are lots of distractions I set my timer. Evidently people with jobs have similar systems involving timeclocks and scowling supervisors. To be self employed you have to have the discipline to oversee yourself, no one else will.

    Is this next item a painting trick? Maybe not. but it is a useful survival habit for gaunt bohemians and hipsters with uncertain incomes.


    Every time I sell a painting I go to the grocery store, there I make a point of buying a selection of imperishable food items, along with my regular grocery purchases. I buy things like tuna fish, soups, spaghetti sauce, noodles. canned soup, you know, stuff that will patiently wait for a long time to be eaten. This has saved me from hunger many times. These days my income is always sufficient to feed me, but there have been times when it was not and I went hungry. I still practice this habit out of caution, in these uncertain and tenuous economic times you never know. I could live for a month or longer without buying groceries if I had to. If you belong to Costco  or Sams Club, that is a great place to shop for survival rations. I usually have a case of soap around and enough dish detergent and household cleaning products to carry me through an extended period of financial misfortune. I feel safer knowing that I have a well stocked larder, just in case.

    I do this with art supplies too. I buy my paint by the quart or five big tubes at a time. I could paint for months without resupplying. Paint won't spoil and I feel comforted knowing that it is there.


    I have a few spots left in the Minnesota workshop to be held in Stillwater, Sept. 15 through the 17th. 
    I am excited to be teaching in Minnesota, where I grew up. I like the prairies and hills there. Minnesota has great oak trees that are fun to paint. It is often a low horizon sort of a place, reminiscent of my hero Seago or Dutch painting. Perhaps you would like to join the group? I can save you YEARS of screwing around. Workshops are a lot of fun and I enjoy teaching them. I am  pleased to announce two special guest stars for this event, Mary Pettis and Kami Polzin, both are well known Minnesota plein air painters and will  join us out on location.

     Each day after painting we go out to dinner and I draw on napkins and teach design skills from my laptop. So this is the most intense  program possible. It runs from breakfast until after a late dinner. You will be exhausted at the end of each day, I promise. I will work you like a borrowed mule!. I only have three days with you and I want to cram as much into that time as I possibly can. There is a lot of camaraderie and I am always sorry when work shops end. Below is the link  if you would like to sign up or learn a little more about the work shop.

    The same is true of my New Hampshire workshop in the White Mountains. I am down to only a few spaces left so let me know if you would like to come.

    This is a total immersion program and I run the class about 12 hours a  day. I do an evening lecture while we wait for dinner to be served.The fall color in the White Mountains is legendary and people come from all over the world to see it. In the 19th century all of the great Hudson River painters made a point of being there too, just a few miles up the road from the inn.Sign up here;

    Tuesday, August 14, 2012

    Partying with the The Hudson River Fellowship

    Lauren Sansaricq and Erik Koeppel

    I got a phone call the middle of last week from Nathan Sowa, a member of the Hudson River Fellowship. The Hudson River School fellowship is a yearly gathering of young painters, many from The Grand Central Academy in New York. The Grand Central Academy is highly regarded as the most elite of the new ateliers training young artists.

    They submit portfolios and if selected spend a month painting in the field with a group of 30 artists. This year they worked in Jackson, New Hampshire. That is in the Mt. Washington Valley in the White Mountains. In the 1860's many of Americas greatest landscape painters summered in the Mt. Washington Valley. The guidebooks in those days called it the "Switzerland of America"

    Nathan suggested that I come up and paint with them for a day, I jumped at the chance. I have known about the group for years and wanted to see for myself what they were doing. This year's Fellowship began with many of the students taking a ten day workshop with Erik Koeppel. Erik was written up in Plein Air magazine this month. I knew he had recently moved to New Hampshire and I was glad for the opportunity to meet him.

    Erik usually does drawings outside as preparatory studies for paintings made in the studio, exactly as his 19th century heroes did, on the same locations that he is working.

    Erik has spent years studying the methods of the Hudson River School painters. His paintings really do recall the work of that first generation of American landscape painters, artists like Thomas Cole and Asher B Durand. Erik has a DVD showing his methods that will be available soon. I will get a copy. I don't want to paint like a Hudson River School guy myself, but there is a lot to be learned here.

     Erik's partner, Lauren Sansaricg also studies the Hudson River painters, below is one of her paintings.

    On Thursday night I met my friend Jerome Green in Hyannis Mass. We went to a concert featuring Kim Simmonds, Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, Leslie West and Rick Derringer. Those are all guitar heroes. I, of course, mostly went to see my friend Kim Simmonds, guitarist and founder of the legendary Savoy Brown Blues Band.

    After the concert I drove back to New Hampshire, a several hour trip, and then slept for a few hours. On Friday morning I drove up to Jackson. That's on the other side of the mountains from mine so it is about a 2 and 1/2 hour drive. I arrived there and it was raining. It was my 60th birthday. I got to spend it teaching, I 'll take that!

    This was their last night in the White Mountains and because of the rain there was little to do except have a party. There were about twenty or so of the fellowship hanging around at their rental house, so I went into my showbiz mode. I did a sort of mini workshop and lecture at them. I talked about landscape painting and making your living as a painter. They were also interested in hearing about my first teacher R. H. Ives Gammell, who is a famous figure to the classical painting revival. They asked me lots of questions and I did my best to answer them. They have had many teachers but have probably not known too many people who make their living painting.

    We had dinner, take out pizza, and then I set up my easel and did a seascape demo in the corner where I was out of the way, but if anybody wanted to watch they could. It was not the best demo I have ever done. There was very little light.  I think my Rockport ways of working were very different from the measured approach they have all studied in the atelier. I was taught that way too, but I have long since developed my own less formal ways of doing things. They were probably shocked.

    I guess their average age might have been about 22. They were college age , I would call them art students, but the atelier program they are in is far more demanding and structured than most art schools. They draw casts and figures, they study anatomy and work in mostly late 19th century technique.

    They had good drawing skills and some of them seemed to have experience painting the landscape. Below is particularly fine effort by Zoey Frank. Isn't that  a fine painting? I met Zooey, she will be a fine painter before she is done.

    Brian MacNeil working at his pochade (pronounced pochade) box. He is a Bostonian and is a both a tattoo artist and a painter. I asked him if he would please quit putting tattoos on women, but he told me that was the best part of his job. Below is one of his paintings of the Wildcat River above Jackson. I have painted there many times it is a spectacular place to work.

    Below are some studies also done on the river by Nathan Sowa. Nathan arrived from an extended stay in Sweden and has taught for the Florence Academy of Art, another classical atelier.

    The fellowship had done an  exhibition, that was well received, the night before in Jackson and there were many sales made. That which didn't sell was stacked all over the tables and around the house.This was the last night of the fellowships stay in Jackson. I missed meeting a few students who had already departed.

    Nathan Sowa

    The revival of interest in classical painting means that there are again young students working to learn the skills of a traditional painters craft. When I was studying in the mid 1970's almost no one had any interest in doing this kind of art. Today  dozens of ateliers train young artists in classical painting. They seldom have taught much about landscape though. Usually they confine themselves to figurative and still life painting.But the atelier training is an enormous asset for the would be landscape painter.Of course landscape painting is its own thing and after studying in an atelier few of these students will choose to become landscape painters. But those who do will be well prepared. Landscape painting has it's own set of skills. A painter is always a student.

    Above is another painting of the Wildcat River by Connor DeJong. This artist is 19 years old. I have shoes older than that. I really enjoyed meeting these young artists. You would think that I would meet lots of young painters but I haven't. Until recently there weren't very many young people interested in classical painting. I sat in a gallery in Rockport, Mass. for 14 years and never had an art student express any interest in what I was doing, in the entire time I was there. T.M. Nicholas and I set up our easels in Savannah once and painted 30 by 40's a couple of blocks from the famous "name brand" art school there. None of the hundreds of students passing by with their portfolios under their arms bothered to walk the few paces out of their way and see what we were doing.

    There is a tide flowing in the art world. It is ignored by the museums and the art schools but hundreds of young people are learning traditional painting techniques. I am certain that it will have an effect on our nations art. Some day one of them may actually get to show one of their paintings in a museum, besides the Alex Katz portraits and Damien Hirst seafood under plexi aberrations. It is glacial, but a shift is slowly occurring. These are hip, smart, beautiful young men and women who will be the artists that will live to see traditional painting accorded some attention by the official  art institutions. I am 60 now, I  don't believe I will live to see it, but they will. This has been generations in the making. My own teacher R.H. Ives Gammell began training young people in the 1950's hoping to preserve some of the accumulated knowledge of our culture before it was forever lost. In his day perhaps dozens of young people were working to learn this art, today many hundreds are.


    I am lining up a number of workshops for the fall, more than in previous years. They seem to fill and I enjoy teaching when I can do it in 3 day spurts and then go back to my own painting. I have a bunch of workshops coming up.

    Several people have asked me if I would do a workshop in Minnesota. The workshop will start on September the 15th and run though the evening of the 17th in (well, near) Stillwater,  Minnesota. Stillwater is an easy drive from the cities so participants can commute, or stay in one of the many motels or inns in this historic river town.
     There should be some autumn color and the greens of summer will have burnt off some by this time. This is getting into the best time of the year to paint outside. Woods and fields are a great subject at this time of year. Minnesota has lots of oaks that look real good in the late summer and fall. I grew up in Minnesota and will enjoy painting that landscape again. I am going to bring in some special guest stars to teach a little too.. I will tell you  a little more about that soon.

    I will do the Stapleton Kearns show. So come out to Stillwater and join me. I can save you years of screwing around! The link to sign up is below.

    Here is the link to sign up for my fall workshop in the White Mountains. This is a total immersion program and I run the class about 12 hours a  day. I do an evening lecture while we wait for dinner to be served.The fall color in the White Mountains is legendary and people come from all over the world to see it. In the 19th century all of the great Hudson River painters made a point of being there too, just a few miles up the road from the inn.Sign up here;