In the Dark About Black?

St-JeromeI consider black to be an indispensable and versitile color which I utilize wherever and whenever I deem it most appropriate. Obviously I’m in the minority, because conventional thinking seems to be leaning in the opposite direction. Black is apparently not too beautiful when it comes to it’s usage as a pigment. I think there are a lot of associated misunderstandings and misconceptions, so I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Consider it my post-Christmas pre-new year’s gift to you!

If you’ve read my past posts, you know my biggest peeve (one of them anyway) is with regards to rules, and specifically, those that pertain to art making. I tell my students all the time: rules are for fools…the truth shall set ye free! The point of rules is to snatch decision making from the huddled masses incapable of formulating intelligent choices on their own behalf. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s a subject better suited as a theme for a thesis on psychological deficiencies rather than a blog post by some random artist, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll move on to the subject at hand: that poor little misunderstood pigment, black!

Every artist is a creator. Being strapped with rules does nothing to enhance this capability. Rules are tremendously limiting. Making art is about being in the moment – in the now. Thinking what did so and so say about this situation takes us back into the past. Many teachers strap their students with a myriad of rules, as opposed to the conveyance of understanding. It’s easy to spot. When the work of students bears an uncanny resemblance to that of their teacher, rote non-thinking is in the air. It means the ability to make choices has been uncermoniously supplanted by dictatorial rhetoric.

As a result, options get buried under the banner of: never do this; always do that. The use, or more specifically, the non-use of black is the poster child of all art rules. After all, the almighty impressionists never used black!! They also demeaned the training they received at the French Academy. Many artists would rather have their eyes gouged out (I’m exaggerating here for dramatic effect) than put a dab of black on their precious palettes.

We’ve all heard the justifications. Black muddies your colors. Black kills the picture. Black in a landscape sucks away atmospheric effects. Black doesn’t exist in nature. Black isn’t a real color. It’s always better to mix your own black. Only amateur artists use black. Never use black, use blue instead.

Well, that’s all nice to hear, but the truth is: denying yourself the use of black would be like writing a novel using a truncated alphabet.

To put black in historical perspective:

  • Rembrandt used black.
  • Rubens used black.
  • Van Dyke used black.
  • Vermeer used black.
  • Lawrence used black.
  • Raeburn used black.
  • Bouguereau used black.
  • Gerome used black.
  • Paxton used black.
  • Sargent used black.
  • Zorn used black

Exactly what artist, of equivalent merit, eschews(ed) the use of black? Anders Zorn used four colors, one of which was black! So why did black get such a bad rap? Very simple, due to misuse through ignorance, the rule fairy came out, cast her wicked spell, and the masses bowed down. But lets not be so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The question here, is how was it misused and what can be done about it? To the best of my knowledge, there are just two problematic issues. The first deals with inappropriate color mixing. In the past, certain artists, like El Greco (see the painting, above) used black to darken their colors – as evidenced in the painting of St. Jerome’s hands. The muddy lifeless color perfectly exemplifies the shortcomings of this approach. The second problem is related to cracking on the surface of paintings. If you go to a museum, you can see this phenomena is more prevalent in the darks. Ivory black is very, very…wait for it…very slow drying. Oil paint dries from the outside in. If you attempt to paint over a slow drying color – which hasn’t thoroughly dried – it will eventually crack.

But black can also be a very potent and powerful tool. Black is the lowest valued pigment and gives us the ability to indicate the darkest accents. It’s also very useful if you want to darken an already dark color. Now, it may lower the chroma a bit, but how much chroma is actually evident in the deep shadows of nature. The hue shifts that may occur when adding black to lower the value of dark colors are inconsequential in my experience – since, in a low value range, the chroma is fairly subdued to begin with. Sometimes you need to make a choice: value vs chroma. Give up black and you no longer have that option.

Using black to darken light colors is another story. That’s a fools errand for two reasons. It grays everything down – whether you want to or not – and can cause unwanted and disharmonious hue shifts, the technical term for muddy colors. These shifts result from black always manifesting some evidence of an underlying hue. Ivory black is, in reality, a very dark low chroma blue. If you add white to it, you can easily see this. That’s the reason why, when you darken yellow with black, you get green.  (When people say they use blue in place of black, it makes me laugh. They’re essentially saying, instead of blue, I use blue.)

As far as cracking goes, make sure your under layers are thoroughly dry before over painting. When using ivory black, that may mean up to, or greater than, a six month wait. The other option: don’t use pure black in your under layers! If you add raw umber (the fastest drying of all pigments) to your black, it will speed up the drying considerably. Save the pure black touches for your final layer. Even in my darkest accents I add raw umber. (To be safe, make sure you wait a sufficient amount of time before varnishing.)

So use black appropriately and you won’t have any problems. And then you can reap the rewards of using it for, what I believe to be, it’s greatest property: as a component in the mixing of neutrals. Ivory black will make a very useful and practical neutral gray when mixed with the aforementioned raw umber, plus white. I prefer to use grays and not complements to knock down the intensity of my color mixtures, when need be. Since both raw umber and ivory black have weak tinting strength, their resulting neutrals do not cause any significant hue shifts when mixed with other pigments. These grays exhibit no evidence of color bias, even when mixing into delicate pastel yellows. As a portrait artist I need the ability to control the myriad of subtle hue, value and chroma shifts evidenced in the human complexion. These grays, which include ivory black, are for me, the answer to a lifetime of prayers.

As far as mixing blacks go, they’re fine to use as is, but if you use them to create chroma controlling neutrals, the end result would be unpredictable and erratic shifts. Just because two colors appear to look the same it doesn’t mean they will mix the same. Mixing colors is akin to playing with a chemistry set. The wrong mixture – say cadmium and sulfur – and… BOOM!!! One thing that is often overlooked when setting a palette is whether there are potentially volatile pigments in the mix.

In the end, the addition of black paint on your palette will give you the widest possible dynamic range available and a powerful mixing ingredient utilized by arguably the greatest realist painters in history. Remember, black is beautiful.

Until next time…

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…

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…

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…

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…