A Portrait Artist’s Biggest Challenge

Creating a Posthumous Portrait Painting

This past Saturday I delivered the above posthumous portrait, Shelly, to Al, her widower. When he saw the finished portrait he became very emotional and started to tear up. It was as if  he was peering into the eyes of his beloved wife one more time. It was a very touching and rewarding moment for me. I thought outside of a sadist or a bully who would derive pleasure from making someone cry? The obvious answer: a portrait artist.

When a client reacts emotionally, it means I’ve managed to touch their heart, and from this I derive great satisfaction. In the case of a posthumous portrait it’s more meaningful still. I always feel guilty about this kind of commission, that somehow I am profiting from someone elses’ great loss. So it’s always my intention that my portrait painting will serve as a conduit for closure and solace for those who were close to the deceased. This puts a positive spin on it for me.

Al shared, as we talked over lunch, “It’s a day by day thing, but there are times when the reality just hits me.” Hopefully this portrait can serve to comfort him and soften the sting.

A posthumous portrait is a very challenging endeavor because, in most instances, having never met the subject you are at the mercy of existing photos. It’s a big compromise, for me, because I feel that my control of the lighting is so instrumental. Then there is the potential for disappointment, on the part of the client, because the way he sees his loved one, in his mind’s eye, may differ wildly from the photo. Lastly, the chosen photo may have the subject smiling, and that can present its own can of worms. (The worst being the scorn of purists who automatically reject the smile as being aesthetically impure.)

I believe the phrase painting someone in their best light sums up my strategic philosophy when I’m commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait. I think serving the clients needs, at this sensitive time, makes the most sense. Portraits are a collaborative effort between artist and client. I find that by listening to the loved ones to talk about their relationship and their remembrances of the subject gives me great insight into their persona.

It’s my feeling that where a painting really trumps a photo is because an artist can introduce something beyond the mere image. I call it tiny time pills of emotional content. Your feelings are woven into the fabric of the painting and if you can channel what you’ve experienced through your connection to the family, something more powerful, than the image itself, can prevail.

Since you are using existing reference, there is potential for problems, particularly if you need to place the deceased into a group setting or into an environment where the lighting differs from the photos of the subject. The best solution may necessitate your sculpting a likeness, matching the lighting, and photographing the sculpture to get the proper information, so that everything matches perfectly. Very few are willing to go that extra mile. In the case of Shelly I needed to extract her from a very busy background, use an out-of-focus photo for the most flattering view, and take detail from another shot.

Maybe that’s why, when I receive an emotional response, it’s a bit more satisfying than a standard commission. As we parted, we hugged and Al expressed how happy he was that I was the artist he chose to paint his wife’s portrait. It’s nice to know I can make my living by creating something that has true meaning for someone else.

Until next time…

 

Marvin Mattelson’s Atlanta Portrait Artist Workshop

July 9 -21, 2012 @ Binders Art Supplies and Frames

I will be returning to Atlanta for my annual two-week workshop at Binders Art Supplies and Frames in the fashionable Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta GA. If you’ve enjoyed my blog thus far, you may want to consider what effect a full two-week live avalanche of nonstop information would be like. Pretty smokin’ stuff! (Some say it’s the reason Atlanta gets so hot in July. Not to worry, Binders classrooms are very comfortably air-conditioned.) You can read much more about the portrait artist workshop here on my site.

In the workshop, not only will I be espousing my methodologies, unconventional wisdom, and unbridled humor, but I’ll be demonstrating every step I take and every move I make with full explanatory commentary. The painting above is a portrait demo I did last year of Catherine Pica, our model. It’s not finished up to my normal portrait commission standards (not enough time for that) but it gets across exactly how to build up a portrait. I feel that watching demonstrations and then applying the techniques yourself makes for the most powerful learning experience.

You can also read what others have said about my portrait artist workshops here. Once there, you can follow links to student work and see lots of other interesting distractions.

There’s still space available. I’d love to see you there, but if you can’t make the full workshop I’ll be giving a series of lectures which you can sign up for separately. Of course if you take the workshop the lectures are free. Hope you can make it. It will be a blast.

Those Who Repeat History are Doomed.

Appropriation or Inspiration?

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” So said the great statesman, Winston Churchill. Since Sir Winston was also an artist, I’ll assume he was talking about painting, because to me, everything is about painting. To put his words into a slightly different context, I see far too many artists today trying to repeat history while failing to learn from it. What’s the point of creating paintings that look as though they were painted a hundred or more years ago? What does it say when an artist isn’t willing to come up with something fresh on their own? Why plagiarise the works of past centuries here in the 21st?

I believe there’s a great deal to be learned from the artists of the past. One would have to be blind to not appreciate the fantastic achievements and innovations of our artistic forbearers, but to copy an existing composition, using the same color schemes or emulating someone else’s brushwork is not merely an homage. I’ve heard the rationale, “I want my work to be timeless!” But shouldn’t an artist’s work reflect upon their own times without superficially mimicking the past?  All the great artists created works which were specific to their time. Rembrandt’s work is obviously 17th Century, but it’s his depiction of humanity that’s timeless. We connect with his sitter’s soul because he did. Rembrandt’s sincere and spiritual connection is what makes his work seem genuine. In comparison, paintings that lean on slick superficial emulation feel vapid.

Look at the (above) painting, Reverie, by portrait artist Edmund Tarbell. It’s absolutely breathtaking, one of my all time favorites. If you’re ever in Boston, it’s at the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s worth the trip to just see this up live. It doesn’t look like it was painted today, it’s of its own time. Nor does it look like anything that preceded it. It’s timeless because of Tarbell’s connection. Although we could pick out many influences from other artists, it looks like Tarbell, and Tarbell alone, painted it. What would be the point of me copying it and claiming it as my own?

When I was an illustrator, a colleague, whose work I greatly admired, won a Gold Medal for a painting he copied, stroke for stroke. It was by an artist he evidently thought was too obscure for anyone else to discover. Maybe a client had approached him and said I want you to copy this painting. That’s somewhat understandable, but to accept a medal for it, that I can’t buy.

Parroting masterful paintings is the ultimate irony, since great work is always about substance, and never about style. William Bouguereau was emotionally connected to his subjects and that comes through, loud and clear. This is what we respond to. While many of his contemporaries (and ours) try to replicate the look of his paintings, their attempts are, at best, vapid. In the truest sense, there were no close seconds. This includes his wife, Elizabeth Jane Gardner Bouguereau. She said, “I would rather be known as the best imitator of Bouguereau than be nobody.” I think that’s pretty sad.

When we look at a Bouguereau we can’t help but be impressed by his virtuosity, but if we go beyond the surface, there is so much more to learn. What’s the most impressive aspect, to me? It’s his understanding of picture making. My contention, is that all great painters share a similar mindset. In fact, my goal is to get under the hood of all the great painters and dissect their wiring. At the base of everything I teach, is my understanding of their accumulated knowledge. This insight reveals a myriad of choices and the potential for innovation. The idea, as I see it, is to pick, and utilize the knowledge to best represent your own aesthetic vision. That’s what artists like Bouguereau, Ingres, Raeburn, Tarbell, Paxton, Rembrandt, Van Dyke and Kramskoy did.

Study Bouguereau’s compositions, how he used subtle value and chroma changes to turn the form. Examine the intricate way he wove his edges, with the most delicate of variations. Genuflect before the works of great painters (with your eyes wide open). Get in their heads and try to understand what fueled their decision-making, but do not fall into the trap of mindless mimicry. Let your own hand come through. The challenge then, for contemporary realist painters and portrait artists, is to create paintings which are timeless in their portrayal of the human condition, while depicting the world we live in. That’s precisely what all the great artists did. The one’s that copied, like Elizabeth Gardner are just footnotes. When I look at master paintings I’m not thinking about which brush or medium was used. I want to know why they did what they did. If I can’t see beyond the superficial aspects of the past, then I’m forever doomed to try to repeat it.

Until next time…

Warm and Cool- The Exciting Game Without Any Logic!

Hit or Miss Color Mixing–You Bet!

“The most confusing part of painting is mixing color.” How many times have you heard that?

Did you ever see the movie Bang The Drum Slowly? It’s the first time I ever saw Robert De Niro. He was amazing. The movie’s based on a novel by Mark Harris about a group of major league baseball players. What impressed me the most was actually a very minor part of the movie. The ball players would play a form of poker called TEGWAR. It stands for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.

TEGWAR is a con game. The baseball players would sit in their hotel lobby and play. Eventually, some unsuspecting and starstruck fan would be tricked into joining them. The object of the game was to cheat the poor fellow out of as much of his money as possible. If the fan thought he had the best hand, one of the players would make up a new rule and proclaim himself to be the winner. For example, in TEGWAR a Full House or a Flush would lose to a Red Rooster or a Butchered Hog. The fan, even though he had no idea of what was going on, was willing to bow to the lack of logic because he wanted to fit in and was too embarrassed to admit that he was clueless. TEGWAR reminds me a lot of, what I consider to be, the most perplexing concept in painting: Warm and Cool.

Many artists claim the key to painting is in understanding warm and cool color relationships. This is their compass for navigating through color space. However, warm and cool are relative terms, and are therefore imprecise. It’s vague language, at best, for describing temperature–whether color or room. What’s warm to an Eskimo is extremely cool to a Floridian. If you wanted the room cooler, and asked each to adjust the thermostat, you’d get very different settings. If you wanted to be precise, you could ask either one to set the thermostat to 68°.

Adjusting colors, via warm and cool, makes no sense to me. If you want to modify a color, specify your target mixture. What exactly does “to cool a color” mean? It’s very confusing. Blue is a cool color. Does that mean you add blue to cool either yellow, red, green, purple or orange?

Warm and cool are comparative terms. Green is cool when compared to yellow but warm when compared to blue. You can have cool yellows and warm blues. Really!?! To warm a purple, you could add a cool red. If you want to warm a color should you add either red, yellow, orange, purple or green? Sometimes even a blue can warm another blue.

To further confuse the issue, consider the concept of Simultaneous Contrast, the brainchild of French chemist Michel Chevreul. He said that our perception of a color is biased by what surrounds it. A middle value gray appears darker against white but lighter against black. A neutral gray appears to have a blue-green cast when surrounded by red.

As human beings we seek balance: hot tea in the winter; iced tea in the summer. To effect visual balance, your brain superimposes the compliment of any color you see, over itself. The compliment of a larger field will influence the appearance of a smaller note. That explains why gray looks blue-green against red. (Blue-green and red are optical compliments.) Hold a red card against a white wall. Stare at the card for 30 seconds. While keeping your gaze on the same spot, quickly pull the card away and you’ll see a blue-green after image. The same thing holds true for values. Do the same experiment using a high contrast black and white image, and the values will reverse.

Because of simultaneous contrast, if you place a neutral gray square in the center of a blue field, it will appear to have a slight orange cast. In warm/cool-speak, the neutral grey is warm. If you’re a portrait artist and add a neutral gray to a flesh tone, in warm/cool-speak, it would be considered cool. So gray warms cool colors and cools warm colors? Warming or cooling implies a change in the temperature, which means a shift in hue, but when you properly gray down a color, the hue doesn’t shift at all. Only the intensity is affected.

Does it make any sense to use warm and cool to describe changes in both hue and intensity? How could anyone ever know what you’re talking about? How would you even know what you’re talking about? Can you name one example of amorphous guidelines leading to a specific result? The only one that pops into my mind is TEGWAR, The Exciting Game Without Any Rules!

Since we’re talking baseball, what about Abbott and Costello’s, vaudeville comedy routine, Who’s on First? Bud Abbott tries to tell Lou Costello the nicknames of baseball players. Abbott informs Costello that the first baseman is Who, What is the name of the second baseman and I Don’t Know is playing third. It’s hysterically funny to see just how confused and frustrated Costello gets because he can’t understand that the answer to the question: Who’s on first? is the declarative statement: Who’s on first! Confusion isn’t so amusing when you’re trying to mix up a color and all that come to mind is, “I Don’t Know!”…third base!

Until next time…

Happily Negative? I’m Positive!

Portrait Artist or Negative Spin Doctor

I am by nature a very happy person. I love what I do. I have a great family. I have relationships with people I admire and respect, who seem to return the favor. I’m very excited by the way my clients respond to my portraits. Never, in my wildest imagination did I ever think I’d be capable of creating the kind of paintings I do. When I think about where I came from and what I can now do, I have to pinch myself. So you would think that I would be very positive about everything I do, but in the heat of battle, my biggest weapon is being negative.

When I’m painting, what jumps out at me are the areas that don’t work. The more egregious the error the more it screams for my attention. I don’t actively focus on areas that are working, because if something works, there is nothing I can do about it. I guess I could admire it, but it’s hard to pat oneself on the back while trying to paint. (I’ve actually seen that attempted, but the result looked like poop!) What commands my attention? That which is out of whack. So, for positive results, I focus on the negative.

I critique my students the same way–with a slight caveat–because I don’t want to hurt their feelings, I offer a little praise. Praise may make you feel better, but learning to see mistakes will make you paint better. Only by finding out what doesn’t work, what needs fixing, or what’s out of kilter, can you can hope to improve. I don’t care about my own feelings, so I’m as brutal as I need be. And I am very, very brutal. Let it suffice to say, when my internal dialog is in full sync, a longshoremen’s ears would melt, because I’m extremely hard on myself.

My student, Julia, is the same way. During the course of the day, when I come over and I ask her how it’s going she always says, “It sucks!” She focused on what’s not working. Now, most people on earth would cut off their right arm to suck as much as Julia does. LOL. Eventually she acknowledges that the degree of suckiness is subsiding. So I came up with a mantra, “It sucks…it sucks…it sucks less…it sucks less…it’s success!”

I don’t have a set formula: Marvin Mattelson’s Magic Method for Painting Perfection. I follow a basic large-to-small hierarchy, until something bothers me. Once sighted, it must immediately be attended to, with the understanding that as I modify each aspect, I am affecting all the others. Change one thing, it affects everything. I will correct whatever bothers me the most, knowing that, it most likely will need future correction. I then return to my big to small progression. You can see my approach in the above portrait artist workshop demonstration I painted. (You can also see it in greater detail on my website.)

Knowing that everything is in flux eliminates the pressure of being perfect. My stroke-by-stroke goal is simple–make it less wrong. As crazy as it sounds, when I discover my mistakes it makes me happy. It means maybe I just got a bit smarter. I think it’s far more practical to learn to identify and correct mistakes than being perfect. If it looks perfect now, it probably won’t after I apply the next stroke. Perfection is something I move towards. I keep responding to what’s wrong and gradually my painting gets better. When nothing else jumps out at me, I know I’m finished.

This idea of focusing on the negative is not just limited to oil painting. For me that’s pretty much the way I see everything. I appreciate the good but it’s the bad that gets my attention. I have a strong sense of justice and I want to fix what doesn’t work. Obviously, in the world today that would be a huge undertaking, so for the sake of expediency I’ve chosen to focus on representational painting–particularly with regards to portraiture–and it’s teaching. More than enough windmills to tilt at there.

With regards to this blog, you may have noticed, I’ve been pointing out a variety of things that make me just want to shake my head. As a life long teacher, I want to expose all the nonsense encumbering our journey and replace it a greater awareness. There are more than enough folks out there extolling the many virtues of all that I find questionable. That’s not to say I’m immune to heaping the odd platitude where it warranted, but praise alone won’t ever effect change. So I’ll just continue being negative. Of that you can be positive.

Until next time…