Marvin Mattelson Continuing Education Classes at SVA in NYC

Class portrait by former student Billy Norrby.
Billy_Norrby3Classes begin this week.
The School of Visual Arts • NYC
Oil Figure & Portrait Painting Continuing Education Classes
Registration is now open for the 2013 Winter/Spring Semester.

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting • FPC-2010-CE
Fridays • 12:00PM – 6:00PM • 12 sessions • Feb 01 – Apr 26
Register for the Friday realistic figure and portrait painting class.

Classical Portrait Painting • FPC-2348-CE
Saturdays • 10:00 AM – 4:00PM • 12 sessions • Feb 02 – Apr 27
Register for the Saturday classical portrait painting class.

A Royal Fiasco

I’m sure by now that everyone in the universe–except perhaps for cave dwellers, Bedouins and survivalist living off the grid–is familiar with the controversy and ensuing ripples of negativity surrounding the first official portrait of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, and the future Queen of England.

It would seem a most enviable commission–potentially career altering–based on Kate’s iconic status. That’s assuming, of course, all went according to plan. The potential for criticism was always lurking in the shadows, but I don’t believe anyone, particularly the portrait artist, Paul Emsley, ever expected the tsunami of negativism that ensued.

Legions have been quite forthcoming with opinions regarding what’s wrong with the portrait. I can’t recall such a stink ever made over another portrait. As negatively as the Lucian Freud portrait of Queen Elizabeth was received by the public, it was still seen as just a painting by some crazy artist. No such consideration this time, however. Wherever you turned, there was the portrait of Kate, larger than life, surrounded by a sea of vitriol.

Unless this is the first time you’ve read my blog, you would know that on the day of the unveiling I was interviewed by Kate Snow on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, regarding the subject of portraiture. They weren’t seeking a critique from me, just looking for a sound bite or two that could offer their national audience a little insight into the process. I stated that ultimately, as long as the artist and client were satisfied, a portrait should be considered successful. Anything beyond that is a bonus, so since both subject and artist proclaimed great satisfaction–Kate described the result as “absolutely brilliant”–that should have been it. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it went down, with Paul Emsley stating that criticism was “so vicious” he doubted whether there was any merit in the work.
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During my interview I was asked what makes a portrait successful. I answered, “A good portrait, in my point of view, makes you think you’re sitting in front of the person!” While I was showing a clip of the interview to some students the other day, they asked me, based on my criteria, how I felt about the portrait, so I thought I’d share what I told them with you, my readers.

Each semester I take my students on a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, here in New York City, and break down a range of paintings by various artists, based on the principles I teach. I talk about what works and what doesn’t. Very few paintings are without some flaws. That doesn’t mean they’re not still great. I don’t critique to be mean-spirited, or to elevate my ego–I am far from flawless–but to help my students understand there are consequences to the choices they make. Forewarned is, after all, forearmed!

When I paint a portrait the reaction I am looking for is, “I feel like he/she is about to step out of the canvas and speak!” When viewing great portraits at the Met I see how strongly people respond to that very quality. With that in mind I’ll put in my own two cents worth and try to pinpoint what exactly went wrong here.

Illusionistic painting requires a certain degree of alteration; you need to deceive your viewer. In order to capture the feeling of space you must organize, edit and interpret information. To what end you make these changes is a question of intent. Intrinsically there is no right or wrong, but if creating an illusionistic reality is the goal, one needs to understand how the eye and brain function in tandem. You experience spacial depth through the mechanism of binocular vision. If you draw and paint exactly what you see, whether from life or a photo, your painting will look flat, because it’s on a flat surface, and binocular vision is taken out of the equation. I believe to create a dimensional illusion certain adjustments (based on tangential phenomena associated with binocular vision) are required. The bulk of what I teach is based on this concept.

A sense of structure is achieved by emphasizing planes, mainly through value changes–although it can also be achieved via hue and chroma shifts, or any combination of the three. Used in tandem with the juxtaposition of hard and soft edges a painting can seem quite spacial.

I have placed the reference photo used by the artist next to a reproduction of the painting. (Why anyone would ever post their reference photo online is beyond me, but being able to compare the reference to the painting is most useful.) In the photo, Kate appears thinner, younger, crisper and more dynamic. Looking at the painting, Kate appears much softer, with the exception of her eyes and mouth. This is a photographic technique called shallow depth of field. You set your lens to the widest aperture and focus on the plane of the eye. Everything in front of and behind the eye gets blurred, this draws your attention straight to the eye. Unfortunately this is not the way we humans see, so you wind up with a flat photographic look and not the illusion of three dimensionality.

By virtue of the softening, the structure gets lost. The side planes of her face are barely discernible, diminishing her bone structure and making her face seem wider. This makes her eyes appear small. The front planes of her lower lids seem lightened a bit which unfortunately emphasizes the lines and accentuates the bags. Her chin and jaw line are softened, but since the edge is uniformly soft, she appears rounder. The result: an older and heavier version of Kate.

The eyes are over modeled–this means the value range has been expanded–so they don’t sit back far enough in the socket, and they seem a bit glassy. According to William Bouguereau, the secret of great painting is having the smaller accents remain subservient to the large planes. In other words, each part needs to be in relationship with the whole. The eyebrows seem to have been painted more symmetrically than they appear in real life, and their shadows has been lightened at the expense of structure.

The nose, also the target of much scorn, has lost its aquiline character. The shaft has been widened, further flattening (and fattening) Kate’s appearance. It’s under modeled–meaning the value range is compressed–which pushes it back. The ball of the nose doesn’t project out due to the softening and deemphasizing of the wings of the nose. The highlights have been almost eliminated. Having the nose project forward is very critical because it indicates form. The mouth looks flat because contrast was lowered and overly sharp.

I think the way the face is placed and lit was less than ideal if spacial illusion is the goal. Thomas Eakins called light the big tool. I think there’s a major misconception that a true artist can make a great painting regardless of how the subject is lit.

With regards to the color, and this is a very personal thing, I feel the flesh is a little too monochromatic and neutral for my taste. The subtle hue and chroma variations present in human flesh can go a long way towards suggesting that there’s blood circulating under the surface. Again, I don’t really see evidence of this in his other portraits. To be fair I am evaluating this based on digital imagery. The artist told Hello! magazine that “half the problem is the portrait doesn’t photograph well.” (I don’t know of any artist who doesn’t feel the same way when seeing their own work reproduced.) The digital image is all I have to go on.

I believe the artist’s intention was to flatter the Duchess, but based on the public’s overall response, he didn’t succeed. Our appearance is based upon our skeletal structure, so the alterations ultimately flattened the form and downplayed her character. I find this a bit peculiar because Kate requested, and Mr. Emsley reiterated, that she wanted to be painted as her natural self. I also question the portrait’s scale. It’s an aesthetic decision, of course, but it’s my theory that people are put off by freakishly large heads, unless the painting is intended to be viewed at a distance. Call it survival instinct, because in nature larger creatures devour smaller ones. Another drawback of painting large-scale is it’s more difficult to step back, particularly if the artist paints sitting down, which I believe Mr. Emsley does.

When you paint in a classical manner, like Mr. Emsley or myself, you open yourself for potshots across the board. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is an maven when it comes to reality. Many so-called bona fide experts have chimed in, but I’ve heard very little with regards to the mechanics of what went wrong. According to The London Evening Standard, “He (Paul Emsley) was accused of making her seem a decade older than her 31 years, giving her ‘hamsterish’ cheeks and a look as ‘soundless and smooth as an undertaker’s makeover’, while others described the portrait as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘rotten’.” But saying that her nose isn’t quite right or her eyes are strange is just stating the obvious.

Personally, I don’t think the artist warrants the terrible, vicious and insulting response he received, nor did he deserve to be vilified and eviscerated. The majority of portraits out there are far worse than his. Critic Michael Flood McNulty stated that Kate’s painting is, “Truly the worst royal portrait ever.” Perhaps he’s the worst critic ever, because the majority of those done in the past century are horrible. I tried to discuss the reasons behind the most often cited complaints. What I pointed out were subtleties, not gaping holes, but under a microscope, even the tiniest misstep can appear the size of the Grand Canyon, or should I say, Buckingham Palace? I think the artist handled the paint with great ability, but unfortunately technique alone can’t carry a painting. There’s so much more to a portrait than surface. The decision-making process, relative to intent, lies at the heart of all great painting.

So this begs the question, who’s at fault? I believe the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Kate. She picked the wrong portrait artist, because I don’t believe Paul Emsley’s intent is ever to create illusionistic realism. Unfortunately, based on the public’s reaction, that’s what they were expecting, and unfulfilled expectations lead to upsets. What he did here–enlarging her head, flattening the form and accentuating the texture–is what he always does. It was very effective for his portrait of Nelson Mandela and won him the coveted BP prize for his portrait of Michael Simpson. Mr. Emsley is using a classically styled technique to express modern sensibilities and I think that’s what attracted Kate, who was an art history major. Next time she should choose an artist who’s capable of integrating a contemporary sensibility with a classical illusionistic reality, assuming her goal is a great portrait, not a great controversy.

Until next time…

How To Be A Better Artist in 2013

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A commenter, responding to my recent post On The Quest For Excellence, said their New Year’s resolution was to be a better artist. They cited the following quote:

That which we persist in doing becomes easier – not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I know Emerson was a brilliant guy but, big picture in mind, I think he missed the mark. Yes, it’s true, you will get better through repetition, but if you do something badly and you practice and practice, you’ll get better at doing it badly. Which begs the question: how do you to learn to do it well?

If you’re being objective (a huge part in the quest for success, IMO) you first identify the problem and then come up with the solution. However, it’s easier said than done, because, had you had that knowledge, there wouldn’t a problem in the first place. Therefore, you need to look outside yourself to expand your capabilities. This where a good teacher comes in.

At the height of my illustration career (Time Magazine covers, movie posters, national ad campaigns, etc.) I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of my paintings; I spent the next ten years studying, one day a week, with John Frederick Murray, a former student of the legendary Frank Reilly. Everyone thought I was crazy because I was “so good” but I wanted to be so much better. Reilly’s teachings allowed me to fill in many gaps in my approach. Having been self-taught, up to that point, I was amazed to discover that Reilly’s methodology synced perfectly with mine.

My former student Martin Wittfooth, one of today’s hottest young painters, was mentioned last week in People Magazine. Comedic actress Kaley Cuoco stated that she had recently purchased a large painting of Marty’s. When he first came to study with me, he was having modest success with his gallery work, but he too wanted more. He signed up for my Friday class and came every week for three years. Above you can see a recent painting of his and below, you can read what he had to say about his experience.

Marvin Mattelson’s technique and teaching philosophy have been an invaluable asset to my own understanding of painting. A tremendous amount of the knowledge and experience that I have acquired in this class greatly informs the way that I paint in my own time as a full time professional artist, regardless of what subject matter I choose to depict. Everything from the best choice of materials, to a thorough understanding of color, to the handling and application of paint and the achievement of compelling realism is covered in Marvin’s method, and in a manner that is extremely easy to absorb and process. The method allows for immense personal development for an artist at any stage in the game. In the various classes I have attended throughout my studies and my career, I have never witnessed such great strides of advancement in well-rounded skills as in the students in Marvin’s class. I am grateful to count myself among them.

It really has been a hugely transformative experience for me, and I wish that more aspiring artists who had the chops to progress with their painting discovered his class. I do make a point to tell anyone asking about my portraits or just painting-advancement to consider signing up.

Martin Wittfooth

I’ll be teaching two continuing education classes for upcoming winter/spring semester at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. These classes are open to everyone, not just full-time students. Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting, Fridays from noon to 6pm, starting Feb. 1, and Classical Portrait Painting, Saturdays from 10am to 4pm beginning Feb. 2.

On Tuesday September 15 there will be a Continuing Education Information Session for students interested in learning more about available courses at SVA. I’ll be in attendance, so if you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by and say hello. This information session will be held at 209 East 23rd Street, room 311, 3rd floor. Seating is given on a first-come, first-served basis. Session begins promptly at 6:30 PM.

You can read more about my portrait painting and figure painting classes and workshops here.

Link to video of portrait Artist Marvin Mattelson on NBC Nightly News

mattelsonportrait1Here’s a link to the clip on NBC’s site: Marvin on NBC Nightly News

Look Mom! I’m On National TV Tonight

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Tonight, January 11, 2013, I’m being interviewed by Kate Snow for the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. It airs at 6:30 Eastern Standard Time. Please check your local listings.

The interview lasted 25 minutes and during that time I painted the above color study of Kate from life. It’s for a piece about the unveiling of Kate Middleton’s first official portrait. The entire segment will be lasting about a minute and a half so if you want to see me, don’t blink or go to the potty.

This all took place at The School of Visual Arts, in the studio space where I teach my classes and workshops. Kudos to them for getting it together at the drop of a hat.

All this happened today and Kate (Snow not Middleton) left a few minutes ago to edit the piece. It was pretty awesome and she seemed to genuinely like the portrait, especially the eyes, so I gave her the painting. The mouth was the most challenging aspect since she had to keep talking the entire time she interviewed me. It was tough because the lights were glaring in my eyes and I had to mix colors more from feel than visually. All things considered, it turned out better than I ever anticipated so I’m quite pleased with it. For 25 minutes worth of painting I think I did a credible job. I would have liked having more time, but, you know what they say, that’s show biz!

Until next time…