Archives for June 2012

A Palette-able Delight!

Do You Really Need Another Great Reason to Take My New York City Portrait Artist Workshop?

During my New York oil portrait artist workshop I will spend one day, with my students, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I’ll be analyzing a number of great master portraits and talk about how they relate to my teaching.

Today I visited the Met’s 19th Century European painting wing. I went to check out William Bouguereau’s Breton Brother and Sister, one of my two favorite paintings in the museum’s permanent collection. (OK since you asked, my other favorite is Tea Leaves by William McGregor Paxton.) Boy was I pissed off when it wasn’t there. Just typical, I thought. All the crappy paintings by “historically significant artists” clogging the walls and they have to take down a genuine work of genius. Where do these curators buy their eyeglasses? It’s bad enough they took down Lord Leighton’s Lachrymae (Mary Lloyd) a couple of years ago.

As I wheedled my way through the galleries bemoaning the loss of a major landmark of my tour I entered Gallery 827, and low and behold, there was Breton Brother and Sister after all…but wait a minute–I must be hallucinating–there, smack dab in the middle of the gallery’s main wall, now hangs Bouguereau’s major masterpiece, Nymphs and Satyr. It’s beautifully presented and looks beyond spectacular. I’d seen it twice before at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown MA. I was told it will be at the Met for a two-year loan while the Institute undergoes renovations. I am so excited to share this with my portrait workshop students. No reproduction can even begin to replicate its splendor. I will be pitching a tent. I hope they still serve crow sandwich in the cafeteria.

Until next time…

Put on Your Thinking Beret–Strategically Speaking!

William McGregor Paxton's Pink Rose

For Great Portrait Artists, Design is Key

Had Yogi Berra been a painter he surely would have said, “90% of painting is mental and the other half is technical.” When I look at a masterpiece I very rarely concern myself with the technical aspects. I’m much more interested in the thinking process behind the painting. What was the strategic reasoning behind the choices the artist made.

A couple of years ago I went to a gallery opening for my former student, Lori Earley. She was surrounded by a group of ardent fans, peppering her with questions. “Which medium do you use…what brand of paint…which brushes do you like…what kind of canvas…how do you mix skin-tones…?” I’m not saying these questions are without merit, but knowing these answers was not going to make any of them better artists. I’m not saying that technique is unimportant (far from it), but the bottom line is: great painters make great decisions.

Artists may have many arrows in their quivers, but those who hit bullseye after bullseye do it via superior picture making skills. In my classes I call it strategic thinking. It’s the ability to create a unified image, leading the viewer’s eye through a hierarchical balance of colors, values and edges melded together through a balanced design. In short it’s the ability to masterfully manifest your artistic intent. I never had any formal compositional training while in art school, but little by little, working as an illustrator for 30 years, I was able to develop my pictorial composition skills, before becoming a full-time portrait artist.

For me, Illustration was a terrific training ground to learn picture making. (I guess you can say I got paid to learn to design, as well as paint.) Illustrators can traverse one of two paths. They can develop a strong visual style, providing a particular look–which, like fashion design, will eventually become passé. The other route is to become a problem solver. Compared to self-themed fine artists, illustrators need to face problems existing outside of their own realm. Each assignment can be seen as an opportunity to create a fresh and unique strategy. With each new challenge comes the possibility of expanding one’s pictorial lexicon.

Since it was my goal to be as flexible a problem solver as I could be, I found myself navigating a wide range of subject matters and situations, some straight forward and some with a visual twist. My work ranged from movie posters, to scientific illustrations, to book covers and portraits. I seriously doubt, had I been left to my own devices, that I could have broadened my capabilities to the extent that I did. The pressures and time restraints were always imposing. I knew in the industry’s eyes I was only as good as my last assignment. Failure meant losing a client but I loved the pressure, because I had a warrior’s mentality. When the bullets stop flying, only the quick and the dead remain. As Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For over thirty years every picture I created made me a better problem solver.

It was my goal to one day–when I retired–switch to portraiture. That retirement came very abruptly, when a client transformed–what would turn out to be my last illustration assignment–into a Photoshop hack job. They rearranged the elements, added a new background and turned a fully rendered figure into a black silhouette–which was embossed in the printing. “Never again,” I swore. It was then, I said to myself, “Marvin you’re now officially a portrait artist.”

It was only logical for me, when I switched over to portrait painting, to bring my problem-solving/picture-making mentality along for the ride. Rather than just painting the same redundant portrait motifs I saw at every turn, I felt that I could make each painting a unique portrayal of my sitter. I saw portraiture being very much like illustration, in that most portrait artists’ works are about their superficial style. My feeling was that my strategic thinking could be a key factor in making my work stand out.

When designing my portrait paintings, I don’t follow any preexisting rules–imagine that? Instead, I put on my thinking beret, to come up with something I’d be thrilled to paint. I decide what the most important aspect of the portrait is and then I build a viable value and color structure around it, using edges to speed up or slow down the way my viewers’ eyes will traverse through the portrait. I call my basic strategy backwards thinking, because I start with the central focus and work backwards, subjugating the pictorial elements to my focus. William Bouguereau and William McGregor Paxton are the picture makers I admire most. I feel neither gets the credit they deserve in this area. Paxton’s advice to, “find a new motif,” and “seek a noble and ample design,” are my guiding lights. These concepts are beautifully illustrated in the above painting, William McGregor Paxton’s, The Pink Rose. You can see how Paxton turns a simple head and shoulder portrait into a strikingly unforgettable artistic tour de force.

Finding the best composition, clothing, props, lighting and pose to portray the character of my sitter, takes effort, but it’s well worth it in the end. I’m constantly looking at great strategic composers, trying to get under the hood, so to speak, of the decision-making mentality of artists like Paxton, Bouguereau, DeCamp, Ingres, Rembrandt, Raeburn and Kramskoy. All this will be discussed in great detail in future blogs.

I’ve often been asked, “Marvin, don’t you get tired just painting portraits?” The answer is a resounding no. I love being a portrait artist. Every face I see is so fascinating. Everyone’s energy is a thing unto it’s own self. I love coming up with a design strategy that incorporates these qualities, while commanding the viewer’s attention, and drawing them in. Even if I won the lottery, I’d still choose to do portraiture. The only difference is, were I to win the lottery, I would pay my subjects to sit for me. Then they would be required to pose for as long as I wished.

Being a great portrait artist requires far more than just rendering skills. If you want to  distinguish yourself, then you need to place a far greater degree of emphasis on problem solving and picture making. Remember, Michelangelo said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands!”

Until next time…

Put a Fork In It, the Road That Is!

Yogi Berra said, when you come to a fork in the road…take it. Forks are just a folksy way of saying time to choose. Life is a series of choices. Astrophysicist or homeless person? Some choices are more obvious than others. I chose artist, but, as it’s been said, every solution creates a bigger problem. Each fork in the road precedes the next one. Abstract or realist?

During the course of creating a painting, there are a myriad of choices that need to be made. These choices could be dictated by a variety of catalysts. Unfortunately, choices can be predetermined by prejudices rooted in belief systems. That’s a fancy way of saying, your rules choose for you. If this is how you navigate your course, it could turn into a very long and winding road.

Of course there is another option. You can choose in which direction to go, based on your intended destination. This is the road far less traveled. Probably not even on the map for most. You can make the best choice by responding to the task at hand, based on understanding the consequences of each action. You use your knowledge and savvy to figure out which fork will get you to where you want to go. The key here is intent. Time management guru, Steven Covey says, “begin with the end in mind.”

A rule may direct me to sharpen an edge, but understanding my intent I might choose to soften it.

My intent is to be an illusionistic realist. I want my portraits to come to life. When someone stands before one of my paintings, it’s my intent for them to feel that they’re looking at reality. That’s the main reaction I’m after. Once they get past their first reaction, I’d like them to think, wait a minute, this is actually a painting–by portrait artist Marvin Mattelson! That’s my secondary intent.

If my intentions are clear, I can approach each fork in the road as if it were a walk in the park.

Until next time…

Rembrandt’s Redeeming Qualities?

Here is the Rembrandt Self Portrait (detail below) I referred to in my discussion about Herman Doomer, with Jean Ingres. You can follow that discussion here. This self-portrait was painted about 20 years later than Herman Doomer. Look at the edges on the right shoulder and the beret. Compare those to those same areas in the Herman Doomer portrait. Do you see more similarities or differences. What stands out to you? Here’s a closeup of the face to aid in your comparison.

Reflecting Upon My Reflections

Today’s post marks the two-week anniversary of Brush Aside–time flies when you’re having fun. I thought such a significant event was just cause for some serious self-reflection and a wee bit of celebration, thus the inclusion of the Rene Magritte painting Not To Be Reproduced (Portrait of Edward James). Hip-hip-hooray! Now that the celebration part is officially over, back to reflection. Overall I would classify my initial foray into the blogosphere as a success. I managed to overcome some minor (for coders) technical glitches, I’ve reconnected with a number of old friends and students, made some new friends, and got the ball rolling.

I appreciate all the positive responses, kind words of encouragement and feedback I’ve been getting via e-mail, thru Facebook and from the comments here on the blog. Thank you all. I’m flattered that so many people have voiced interest in what I have to say. So far 99.9% have been positive–well I did receive one span response.

For my blog platform I chose WordPress and not Blogger which is the choice of basically every other art blog in the universe. I chose the Prose Child Theme by Genesis, because I believed their claim that you can  “customize your…blog without knowing the intricacies of stylesheet properties or HTML code,” and that your blog will “scale and adapt appropriately so that it looks proportional and consistent across variety of devices including tablet computers and mobile phones.” As it turns out, getting everything the way I wanted it was a bear. But it does scale well. Ultimately, I had to join site setup kit to receive the technical support I so desperately needed. Going against the grain and choosing the most difficult path–that’s me in a nutshell!

Two blogs in particular inspired me to delve. The first is Underpaintings, created by my friend and former student, Matthew Innis. It’s my first stop when I go online. Matthew’s a great source of info. I can check out all the current shows and auctions I find pertinent and interesting. I enjoy his research into both contemporary and historical artists. Matthew has been very generous in his support of both my painting and teaching efforts. My second source of inspiration is Gurney Journey by Dinotopia author James Gurney. James has a huge following and does a great job covering a wide spectrum of subjects. I was very flattered when he commented positively about Brush Aside. Hats off to both Matthew and James who both do a great job. I see no need to duplicate their efforts.

I plan to discuss issues that no one else either sees or wants to comment on, things that ruffle my feathers. Unless things are brought to light nothing can ever change.

My main purpose is to create a platform where I can present the ideas about painting and teaching that I’ve developed over my 40 year career as a professional artist and educator. A lot of what I want to say goes against the grain of conventional thinking. My goal is to create a contextual shift in the way artists approach their art. I’m looking forward to see where this all leads. Elbert Hubbard said, “The teacher is the one who gets the most out of the lessons, and the true teacher is the learner.”

Please spread the word to anyone you think may be interested. Feel free to comment here, on the blog and share in your thoughts with your fellow readers. I set everything up to make it easy for you to post. You don’t have to register; there are no silly boxes that require psychedelic drugs to decipher. Just hit the comment button and state your opinions, your reactions, your questions or any ideas you have. You’ll be hearing plenty about what I think. I look forward to hearing what you think.

Happy two-week anniversary from the folks who bring you Brush Aside?

Until next time…