Breadcrumbs Among the Piles of Paint

Breadcrumbs? What’s with breadcrumbs? I thought this was a blog about painting. Well it is a blog about painting, and I have, over the course of my 40 year career as both a professional artist and educator, come to certain conclusions, many of which I will be sharing during the course of writing this blog. So I thought I would give you some insight into how I roll.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wasn’t formally trained as a painter. I had to scratch and claw until such a time that the puzzle pieces came together. I don’t accept anything on face value. I need to know why things work, before I can use them. Here’s the tricky one. How can you figure out how something works before you’ve tried it? So in the beginning there was a lot of trial and error utilizing many different approaches. If I now say that approach A works better than approach B, it’s based on my having experiencing both. Believe me, if I knock it, I’ve tried it. I also had mentioned that I had the resource of sharing my discoveries with my students and making sure that what worked for me was universal.

After a while my instincts became keener and I developed (I guess you’d call it) a sixth sense, an uncanny ability to ferret out the truth from the rhetoric. This is not to say that I haven’t gone down the wrong tunnel, but the fact that I’ve developed to the degree that I have, I owe primarily to my instincts. I equate my particular journey from being a non-painter (to the portrait artist and teacher I am today) to having been lost in the forest and following  breadcrumbs. By now, I feel like the trees have thinned out a bit. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped searching for better solutions, because I haven’t. I have no agenda and nothing to defend. If I were to discover that mixing Day-Glo paint with egg whites, while standing on my head and whistling the Star-Spangled Banner made me a better painter… up I go!

Anyway, this is the story of how I found my first breadcrumb. When I was in art school, in my first ever painting class, we were given a list of colors to use. We were given no instruction with regards to mixing color or anything else technical. When I looked up at the model, the colors I saw looked nothing like the colors on my palette. Trying to mix the colors was very frustrating for me. I had no guidelines for mixing color. If I would mix of color for skin tone I’d start with an orange and lighten it with white, but the color would be too intense compared to the model. So I would mix the complementary color (like I was taught in elementary school) to gray it down, but it also darkened it. When I added white, it lightened the color but it also made it cooler. When I’d add something to make it warmer,  it would change the value again. By the time I mixed something that sort of resembled what I saw in front of me I had no idea how to duplicate it. I found it all very frustrating because I felt I had no control.In the meantime my teacher would walk around the class and say things like, “Don’t you see that green in the middle of the forehead?” I never did!

Flash forward a dozen-or-so years, I was working as an illustrator, doing pen and ink drawings. When I looked at my finished drawings, I felt that I should be able to peel the paper up and underneath would be a painting. Unfortunately, I still had no clue on how to paint. But the desire to paint was absolutely driving me nuts so I had to do something. Whenever I would walk by an art supply store I would go in and look at the paints. I would look at all the different brands to try to figure out which would be the best to paint with. Then I would leave, empty-handed, still haunted by my color mixing nightmares. This went on for about six months until one day I walked into a Sam Flax and I saw a new product, called Liquitex Modular Acrylics (see pamphlet above.) Modular acrylics were based on a new concept. Rather than labeling each tube according to the pigment name (i.e., Ultramarine Blue), the Module Acrylics were labeled according to the color’s properties: it’s place on the color wheel [hue], how light or dark it was [value] and how intense it was [chroma]. I immediately bought the entire set. The logic behind this labeling was so remarkable because it allowed me to modify each property of a color without effecting the other two. Incredible!

Subsequently I found out that the labeling was based on the Munsell Color System, developed by Albert Munsell. Within 2 weeks I had completed my first full-color painting for the National Lampoon. My entire method has stemmed from bread crumb number one.

Until next time…

The Law of Gravity is Not a Rule, True Story!

How many times have you heard the expression, “Great artists know how to break the rules”? What exactly does this tell us? If rules are so significant, then obviously, breaking them should lead to disastrous results. However, when analyzing the work of great master painters, like Anthony Van Dyke (above), we can see that breaking the so-called rules had the opposite effect. Portrait Artist Anthony Van Dyke created a masterpiece.

It seems to defy all logic that one could break rules and not crash and burn. This is because in a civilization, such as ours, rules keep us from turning into an anarchistic society. If we didn’t have them, people would be killing, drinking and driving, jaywalking, and stealing left and right. Why isn’t this the case with regards to painting? The answer is very simple. The whole point of rules is to mandate the correct way to act. The fact that we are expected to follow rules implies we’re too stupid to make proper judgments on our own. Rules have been put in place to keep the un-smart people in line, but this can sometimes be problematic.

At intersections the rule is: always cross when the light is green, never when the light is red. The truth is: don’t walk in front of a moving car. When the signal turns green you have the right-of-way. What if, as you’re crossing the street, a car driven by a teen (texting their BFF), comes barreling down the road, right at you, and see’s neither the red light nor you…Splat! Hey, you had the right of way; you followed the rules! But unfortunately, as a result of following the rule, you are presently meeting your maker.

A rule, by definition, is “a principal or regulation governing conduct.” Rules are created for people who don’t have the capacity for reason. Truths, on the other hand, are “verified or un-disputable facts.” For example, the truth about gravity, is simple: things fall down (not up)! Unfortunately, those of us who aspire to live the life of artists haven’t been properly conditioned by society to think objectively consider the situation at hand and respond appropriately. This kind of training, I believe, should be the top priority of art education. Michelangelo said,” A man paints with his brain and not with his hands.”

Being an artist is about experiencing flow, not about regimentation. When I’m painting, I’m responding to the situation at hand and allowing the best solution to reveal itself, moment by moment. A truly trained artist is highly capable of making the appropriate decision at the appropriate time. This is the essence of creative problem-solving. There is a saying,” Give a man a fish and he won’t starve for a day. Teach a man how to fish and he won’t starve for his entire life.” We  teachers must nourish our students by giving them the tools necessary to allow them to think as artists. I have spent my entire artistic career trying to understand why the old masters did what they did, not trying to ape the style of artists long gone, or even worse, trying to force others to do it.

The result of learning rules, in lieu of truths, is dogmatic thinking. If students are not being taught how to think, but instead are being told what specifically to do in a given situation, they have very little chance of evolving. Students come up to me all the time and proclaim that they’d alway been told: “never use black,” or “always use the compliment to grey colors,” or “always use blue in shadows,” or “always hold the brush this way!” or “always paint a portrait against a dark background,” or “Don’t overwork a painting,” or “never touch a brush stroke once it’s on the canvas,” or “don’t ever put detail in a painting,” or “never use more than three colors in a mixture,” or “allegorical painting is more significant.” These are but a few of the myriad of rules we’ve all had shoved up the old wazoo. In the case of the Anthony van Dyke’s Lady Lucy Percy (see above), the oft cited  rules that “warm colors come forward, cool colors recede” and “intense colors comes forward, grayed down colors recede,” have obviously been tossed out the window.

Rigid adherence to rules turns us into automatons and, even worse, make us totally dogmatic with regards to judging all else. When we are led to believe that the principles we have been spoon fed are indisputable, how can we avoid casting a blind eye to all else? It saddens me when an artist’s work displays little or no evidence of their own hand. I worry that the realistic movement of today will share the same sad fate of 100 years ago.

To make matters even worse, those doing the professing believe their rules are really truths.

We don’t need to be told what specific action to take. We need to understand what effect our actions will have. Ultimately the choices we make in art, as in life, are what define us. We need to nurture our ability to make our own decisions and express our own individual points of view. Until next time…

So You Think You Can Draw?

“Drawing includes everything except the tinting of the picture.”Who said that?  Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

“I can draw pretty well, but I don’t really know how to paint.” Who said that? The vast majority of people who inquire about taking a portrait painting class with me.

I teach four painting classes each fall and each spring. Every summer I schedule three portrait painting workshops. People come to me to learn painting based on their familiarity with my work as a portrait artist. Thanks to my teaching methodology my students make incredible progress, but, when a student is having a problem with their painting, it’s the drawing that’s invariably at fault. So each summer, because I feel it’s so important, I dedicate one week to lead a portrait drawing workshop at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. This year I’ve scheduled a classical portrait drawing workshop to run from Monday June 25 through Friday June 29.  In every class I teach, everything is fully demonstrated and thoroughly explained. The above drawing is a detail of a workshop demonstration drawing. What gets covered in the workshop? In Ingres’ words, “To draw does not mean only to reproduce an outline, drawing does not consist only of line; drawing is more than this, it is expression, it is the inner form, the structure, the modelling. After that what is left? Drawing includes seven-eighths of what constitutes painting.” Need I say more.

If you want to find out more, here’s a link: http://www.fineartportrait.com/nyc_drawing_workshop.html

Until next time…

The Essence of Painting, the Shape of Things to Come

Edgar Dégas said,” painting is easy for those that do not know how, but very difficult for those that do!” Yes, painting is very complex. I like to tell my students that painting realistically is the second most difficult thing that a human being can learn. The key to true mastery of anything is understanding its essence. So the question is what is the essence of painting?

I would define essence as the most important part or quality. Let’s take tennis, for example. If one were to watch a tennis match one might conclude that the essence of tennis is hitting the ball hard, because all of the really great players seem to do that. But if we look through tennis history we see that the players that hit the ball the hardest weren’t necessarily big winners. Players like Andy Roddick and Roscoe Tanner come to mind. Big hitters that didn’t win consistently. The most successful tennis players succeed not because of how hard they hit the ball, but because they understand tennis strategy. They understand that the essence of winning tennis is to hit the ball over the net and in the court one more time then your opponent.

So, that brings us back to painting. The equivalent of the big forehand or giant serve in tennis is the juicy brush stroke in painting. A lot of people feel that the technical aspect of handling the paint is the mark of a great artist. But no matter how flamboyant the paint handling, if the stroke you put down is not the right place, it doesn’t really matter. Claude Monet said,” paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives you your own naïve impression of the scene before you.” Master portrait artist, Joseph Rodefer DeCamp said,” don’t draw eyes, noses and mouths, but put on the splotch of paint the size and shape of the light or shadow, don’t let your mind do the seeing, it tells you too much…

So if you follow their advice and put the right color in the right shape and put it in the right place, you’re well on your way to painting mastery. I want to be as objective as I’m capable of being. When I analyze the works of the great masters, that’s one of the major commonalities that I see, the importance of seeing shapes objectively.

As an example, of what I’m talking about, you can see (above) this detail of an eye in a beautifully painted portrait by artist William Bouguereau. Although we think of Bouguereau as being very detailed in his painting, you can see upon close examination that it’s all shapes of paint juxtaposed with each other, and that’s what creates the illusion of reality. No eyelashes, follicles or other precise detail. Just shapes. Your brain assembles the pieces into a believable reality.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what the most difficult thing that a human being can learn to do is, it’s teach someone to paint the illusion of reality. Until next time…

How Much for a Quickie?

One of my goals in writing this blog is to educate potential clients about what’s involved in commissioning high quality portraiture. Sometimes people’s expectations can really throw me for a loop, so I consider this post to be my first public service announcement. Based on the following, I think I’ve got my work cut out for me.

The above portrait is one I recently completed. A larger version is on the homepage of my website. If you keep clicking on the image you’ll be able to see enlargements of details and see some of what went into creating this challenging commission. Click on each enlargement and the magnification will continue to increase. It’s a portrait of the Hart-Cohan family. It’s a posthumous portrait of the mother, Arielle Hart. The size of the portrait is 4′ x 6′ and it took over a year to complete.

I just received an e-mail from a potential client. The e-mail read as follows,”Need a painting by Friday of my parents and/or family. Similar to one on your homepage. I need a price quote ASAP Sir. Thank you!”

Until next time…