Paxtonesque

The Boston School –  A Portrait Painting Pilgrim’s Progress

 

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William McGregor Paxton – Two Models

 

There are a relatively small number of artists whose work I would classify as extraordinary. These artists all make paintings that showcase finely modeled form, enveloped by atmosphere and bathed in light. When artfully applied, those effects make compelling images that much more so, and are, most importantly, never an end unto themselves. Though each great artist has an easily recognizable and seemingly unique style, it occurred to me that there must be common denominators, some kind of underlying framework they all share. After all, don’t all great minds think alike?

Looking at reproductions offered very few answers. I needed to see originals, to analyze the actual colors and the way the paint was applied. So I made it a point, whenever the opportunity would arise, to check out original art by the painters I admire the most: Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vermeer, Van Dyke, Ingres, Raeburn, Lawrence, Kramskoy, Bouguereau, Gerome, Monsted, Paxton and DeCamp.

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Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II)

 

Living just a hop, skip, and jump from New York City, I’m privy to great museums, galleries and auction houses. So in essence, a plethora of great works have practically deposited themselves at my front door, so I rarely feel the desire to travel afar. However, I recently paid a visit to Vose Galleries on Newbury Street in Boston to see their current offering, The Boston School Tradition: Truth, Beauty and Timeless Craft, a collection of close to seventy paintings by Boston School artists, including six each by two of my very favorites: William McGregor Paxton and Joseph Rodefer DeCamp. The show runs until July 18. If you have a chance to check it out, I think it would be well worth your while, if not, here’s a little summary of the highlights of my pilgrimage.

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Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II) – detail

 

According to my calculations, at one time or another, I’ve seen 23 original Paxton paintings and a mere three by DeCamp. Paxton’s Tea Leaves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, here in New York, and DeCamp’s The Blue Mandarin Coat at the High Museum in Atlanta, have had as profound an effect on my ideas about picture making as any other paintings I’ve seen. This would be the first opportunity for me to see and compare so many by both artists. Carey Vose, one of the galleries’ owners, told me that having that many DeCamps available — something that had never previously happened — was the impetus behind putting this show together. And just to sweeten the pot, for me, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston – according to their website — had two paintings on view, one by each artist, that I had never seen in person. That’s seven paintings each!

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William McGregor Paxton – The Blue Jar

 

Vose Galleries is located in a brownstone built in 1899. It’s composed of a series of rooms located on 5 levels. According to my fitness app I walked up (and down) 17 flights of stairs going back and forth comparing aspects of one painting to the next. The most impressive DeCamp at Vose was The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II). It’s a painterly tour de force. Virtuosic! The violinist’s left hand is pure alchemy, simultaneously understated, and at the same time, profoundly informative. Unlike most of the artists who attempt to work this way, DeCamp never swirls the brush for its own sake. By his own volition, he was first and foremost a tonalist, like his idol Velasquez. The credo of another Velasquez disciple, Carlos Duran, perfectly sums up the genius of DeCamp: to achieve the maximum by means of the minimum. DeCamp’s brushwork is unparalleled but his ability to break the form down into totally abstract yet supremely coherent shapes is also second to none. Unfortunately, DeCamp’s portrait Mr. Joseph Baker which I was very interested in viewing — since I have never seen an original by him of a male subject — had already been shipped to a buyer. That was disappointing.

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William McGregor Paxton – The Blue Jar – detail

 

I was taken aback as I stepped up to examine Paxton’s The Blue Jar. Based on the reproductions I had seen — including the one I’ve posted above — the light areas look very smooth and bleached out. I couldn’t believe how much broken color and impasto paint texture was there. It was interesting to compare the painterly head to his Portrait Of A Young Woman In Blue with its enamel-like surface, which is more indicative of the way he normally rendered flesh.

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William McGregor Paxton – Portrait Of A Young Woman In Blue – detail

 

However, the Paxton which impressed me the most was his figurative masterwork Two Models. I had seen it reproduced numerous times previously – I even possess a 4×5 transparency — but I wasn’t expecting what I saw. The original just blew me away. The contrast was far more subtle. The cast shadow on the back wall wasn’t nearly as dark as I assumed and there were more subtle value shifts within its shape. The modeling of the flesh was absolutely exquisite, with very life-like coloration. I could almost discern the subtle rise and fall of the ribcage on the closest model.

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William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail

 

Paxton’s chroma and hue gradations created so much spacial illusion. His deft turning of the form, using neutrals, was perfect. He created such a convincing sense of space and atmosphere, a quality I’ve rarely seen matched. When he’s at his best, Paxton’s paintings feel like dioramas set within the picture frame.

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William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail

 

My two favorite details were: a neural plane next to a chromatic halftone, of the same value, on the near cheek of the closest figure, and the way he alternated soft and sharp edges to model the back of the far figure. I also love the neutral edge plane under her breast, as well as the hue and chroma shifts starting from her right arm and progressing over to her left arm. These are the kind of touches which clearly demonstrate to me just how intelligent a painter he was. Every aspect worked perfectly. The boldly stated smaller touches never called attention to themselves or superseded the overall effect. As I closely examined the painting, I felt like I was inside Paxton’s head and could fully appreciate the decision making behind each stroke. It was a very validating moment for me.

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William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail

 

Eventually I departed and I made my way over to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I had last visited ten years ago. Since then the Museum had expanded significantly, perhaps almost doubling in size. Last time there I had seen the The Guitar Player by DeCamp and Nude Seated by Paxton. Now, thanks to the additional gallery space, a greater number of Boston School artists were on display. This time, both artists were represented by two works apiece, the aforementioned ones plus The Blue Cup by DeCamp and The New Necklace by Paxton. Both paintings at the MFA were gorgeous. A reproduction of The New Necklace was actually the first Paxton I had ever seen. It was on the cover of the catalogue for a Paxton show that took place at Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1974. While browsing at the Met’s gift shop in 1988, I serendipitously picked up a copy. So finally seeing the original brought me full circle. It’s a great work but my all-time favorites are Tea Leaves and The Breakfast, and now of course Two Models.

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Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Blue Cup

 

Decamps’s The Blue Cup was a breathtaking symphony of brushwork and subtle tones, even better than the The Violinist II that I had just seen at the Vose. I love the way he reduced the chroma on her left arm to push it back into the atmosphere. I still love the The Blue Mandarin Coat, but this one comes within a whisker.

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Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Blue Cup – detail

 

My takeaway from all of this was an even greater admiration for both artists, but particularly Paxton. Both he and DeCamp were constantly searching out new ideas and approaches, technically as well as compositionally. To me, Decamp’s brushwork beats out Paxton’s by a nose, but I prefer the way Paxton handled edges. I am definitely nit-picking here, but I feel that Decamp’s edges are sometimes a bit too sharp and more apt to flatten the space. But it’s Paxton’s use of color that truly distinguishes him, in my book. The way he creates compositional color harmonies to convey a sense of illusion within a strong abstract design are incredibly innovative. I feel no artist, before or since, has so succinctly married academic form and the Impressionist notion of true color notes. Was either artist always successful? Of course not, but they both obviously learned from their miscues and were able to grow. In fact, The Blue Manderin Coat was the DeCamps’ last painting. I can definitely relate to their penchant for seeking more. Hunger is what drives an artist to excel.

Although I love many aspects of both artists’ works I have no interest in making paintings that resemble theirs. That, in my mind, is a fools errand. I see things differently and I am a product of another time. However there are very valuable lessons to be learned and I like to think I’ve been able to tap into this shared mindset with regard to the choices I make. These same ideas serve as the cornerstone for all my teaching.

When it comes to painting, the pictorial strategy used by great artists in their representation of spacial illusion, within the context of brilliant composition, is what intrigues me the most. I refer to any such a painting — in which every aspect comes together flawlessly, regardless of whomever painted it — as: Paxtonesque!

Until next time…

Portrait Painting: Not Just a Passion, but a Great Escape!

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Is Anything More Dangerous Than a Frustrated Artist?

According to Friday’s New York Times, one of two escaped inmates bartered his portrait painting skills in order to get an unsuspecting guard to smuggle in tools which the convicts used to break out of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. The escapee, Richard W. Matt, was pretty talented, as you can see from his above paintings of President Obama and Martin Luther King, Hillary Clinton, Julia Roberts and Marilyn Monroe. All in all, the guard wound up with 12 original paintings. That’s a lot of work for set of needle nose pliers, a screwdriver and a couple of tubes of white paint. Perhaps he broke out in order to attend my 2 week, August 3-14, Portrait Painting Workshop at the School of Visual Arts. Maybe he realized that if he had taken either a class or a workshop with me he may have been able to fully manifest his talents, like so many of my former students. If he had polished his skills, he might have been able to afford a better lawyer, rent a helicopter to aid in his getaway, or perhaps even have avoided a life of crime altogether. Unfortunately for Mr. Matt,  he was killed by police earlier today. A cautionary tale, no doubt!

Until next time…

Marvin Mattelson’s Foundation Painting Class at SVA

Award Winning Painting Student Mary Searless

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Marvin and Mary Searless

 

Can any thrill compare to that of being a proud parent? When my sons were growing up, the amount of pride I took from even their smallest achievements far eclipsed whatever I experienced from my own. It was gratifying to feel that I might have contributed to their successes, even it happened to be in the smallest of ways. Now that my sons have grown and flown the nest I no longer have the opportunity to experience their achievements on a daily basis. Fortunately, teaching allows me to share the knowledge I’ve been cultivating my entire life and to watch it utilized by my students in their artistic pursuits. To this day, when a student takes anything I’ve told them and manifests it in a constructive way, I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

One of the classes I teach at the School of Visual Arts in New York is Foundation Painting. Each class is run at the discretion of the teacher. My approach is a pretty rigorous training program for kids right out of high school. This past year’s class was great. My students were very talented, extremely motivated and hard working. What more could a teacher ask for? They really bought into my methodology and applied themselves whole heartedly. The Foundation Painting class is unique in that it spans a full school year. It’s a two semester class, while all my other classes are one semester long. The extended time frame gives me the opportunity to bring the students around more slowly and reinforce all the various aspects of my teaching.

My goal is to give the students as thorough an understanding of the technique of oil painting and more importantly, of how to control the illusion of light, solidity, depth and atmosphere. It’s important to me that what they learn dovetails with their own intrinsic artistic identity. I want them to develop their own style, and not be clones of myself.

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Class painting by Elisa Karjalainen

 

In class we work exclusively from live models. I think it’s important that my students experience the spacial aspects of reality, so in the future they know how to integrate these effects if they need to work from photo reference. During the first semester we focus on working from the nude, starting with charcoal drawings to learn better accuracy. Then we move on to doing wash-in (imprimatura) monochromatic under-paintings. From there we go to color mixing and ultimately, building up layers of color to achieve the finished effects. For the second semester we work from a costumed figure and eventually transition to a complex two figure set-up with props and drapery (see the above painting by Elisa Karjalainen which was painted this semester). The students are also required to create paintings on their own as homework assignments.

At the end of the year the school holds a Foundation Painting exhibit. The work was juried from over 300 students. Each was permitted to submit one painting. When I walked into the studio I was stunned to see that out of all those those submissions only 22 were selected to hang in the gallery and be eligible for award consideration. I thought it was astounding that out of all those students, five of mine had been included in the show and that my student,  Mary Searles, had been awarded the medal for third place. The chair of the Fine Arts Department, Suzanne Anker, was at the opening and was extremely complimentary about the quality of the work my students had produced. It was a great night.

I’m very proud to present the paintings here:

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Mary Searless – Third Place Medal Winner

 

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Mayerling Soto

 

Kaitlynanne-Russo

Kaitlynanne Russo

 

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Gene Zhao

 

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Elisa Karjalainen

 

Now if that wasn’t gratifying enough, I just received the following notification. At the end of each semester every student is asked to rate their teacher’s performance. On the form there’s an option to anonymously comment and I wanted to share what one student wrote:

Marvin is an extremely well rounded artist, if that’s even a valid term. I am thankful for what I learned in this class, and I will keep it with me for as long as I live. Learning traditional painting techniques was one of the best things I participated in this school year.

It just doesn’t get better than that.

Until next time…

Realistic Portrait Drawing Workshop with Marvin Mattelson in New York City

School of Visual Arts • June 1 – 5 • 9am – 5pm

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Dustin by Marvin Mattelson (detail) – Charcoal and white chalk on toned paper

Drawing is the backbone of all representational art. J. D. Ingres said, “Drawing includes three and a half quarters of the content of painting… Drawing contains everything, except the hue.”If you are interested in sharpening your drawing skills and/or improving your portraits, this workshop presents an opportunity to gain the kind of strategic thinking and technical know-how that great master artists have used for centuries. You will gain insight into achieving better accuracy, greater solidity and a life-like essence. This knowledge is not style or subject specific. When you incorporate what you’ve learned into your existing working method you will notice a big difference.

I believe the way art is taught today limits all but the most precociously talented from succeeding. The majority of realistic art instruction is rule oriented. That’s why so much work is easily identifiable by school or instructor. As a result, many potentially good artists are thwarted because they are not provided with the proper understanding and training necessary to seek their own paths. I want my students to fully understand all the options they have at their disposal. It doesn’t make sense to mandate a specific action for each particular circumstance. That kind of rigid thinking is the antithesis of the creative process.

A refreshingly logical and clear approach for artists of all levels.

Whether drawing or painting is your end game, a deeper understanding of the drawing process is the most crucial part. The essence of draftsmanship is having a well-trained eye. If you want to learn how to draw well, the first step is to transform the way you see. The ability to faithfully represent what lies before you is the major factor in achieving long-term success as a realist. When approached logically, mastery over your drawing is far more easily attainable. There is more to drawing than mindlessly copying and obsessively rendering what you’re looking at. Drawing is having the ability to understand what you see and the skill to clearly convey it’s essence.

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Dustin by Marvin Mattelson – Charcoal and white chalk on toned paper

We will be working from live models under ideal lighting conditions, the most effective way to learn how to represent the illusion of three-dimensionality. I will demonstrate and explain every step of my method throughout the workshop. I work one-on-one with each of my students during the times I’m not demonstrating.
Here are some of the key points of what I’ll be teaching:
• Achieving accurate drawing and values – which also happen to be the two most crucial aspects of representational painting.
• Creating the illusion of form and atmosphere.
• Varying edges intelligently (not formulaically) so that your drawing has more vitality.
• Understanding how to achieve pictorial unity.

To register online: http://www.sva.edu/continuing-education/fine-arts/realistic-portrait-drawing-15-cu-fic-2148-a

For more info or to register by phone, please call: 212-592-2200

Until next time…

Alla Prima Portrait Painting Demonstration

Marvin Mattelson’s One & Done Technique

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This past Saturday I did a portrait painting demonstration for my class, alla prima style. The point was to show the students how I approach painting oil studies during my initial meetings with clients. I primarily work from reference photos for my finished portraits, due to the time limitations of my busy clients. This quick approach gives me the opportunity to study their facial structure, get a better sense of who they are and, most importantly, to record their complexion. Judge for yourself, by looking at in the above photo, how I’ve done with regards to matching Simone’s skin tones.

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This painted study took me three hours and forty minutes – not counting breaks, although in the past I’ve done them in as little as one hour.

Here’s a little movie I put together showing how the painting evolved:

Don’t Try This at Home!

When going the Alla Prima route – trying to nail everything at once – if you are not in complete command, your results will suffer. If you’re having problems, you need to reload; first learn to do things correctly by mastering each of the major aspects of painting: drawing, value and color. That’s the way I break things down for my students. If you wanted to learn to ride a unicycle on a high wire while juggling burning axes would you try to do it all at once? When you break it down in digestible bites you get to dessert way faster?

Sound appetizing? Come study with me, this summer. I’ll be leading a portrait drawing workshop in June and a portrait painting workshop in August at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Also, there’s a Fine Arts Information Session on Monday, May 11, from 6:30 pm – 8:30 pm. It will be held at 133/141 West 21st Street, room 602C, 6th floor. If you want to stop in and say hello I’ll be there and I’ll be bringing Simone (the painting) with me.

Until next time…