To Be An Artist You First Need to Think Like One

Noor Chadha - Sarah

Noor Chadha – Portrait of Sarah

Painting is an extremely complex endeavor. Personally, I think that realistic painting is the most difficult task a human being can hope to undertake. My reasoning is: there are so many variables to contend with. Any difficult task is more easily overcome if you have a clear understanding of what’s involved. However, if you are trying to master anything inherently complex, and have no insight, or even worse, an overcomplicated theory, a difficult task becomes that much more formidable. To me, that’s the problem with most art training.

I have a theory about how teaching painting evolved. Whenever a lesser artist tries to replicate something they see in a masterpiece, the typical reaction is to compartmentalize it by making it into a rule and rigidly applying it. And then there’s the worst rule of all, “First you must learn all the rules before you can break them!” Rules are crippling because they eliminate any opportunity you have to think for yourself.

A prime example of this is the rule about halftones: “Halftones should always be cool”. The truth is, to save time, artists would often scumble their lights over the shadows to create a transition between the two, rather than mix an intermediate value. When a warm translucent light color is laid over a warm shadow tone, the result is more neutral. When a neutral is surrounded by warm tones it appears cool. I don’t know the physics behind this, but it’s the same phenomena that makes the blood vessels below your skin appear blue (yes grasshopper, blood is red!). But many artists, such as Sir Henry Raeburn, Rembrandt and Velasquez, used warm colors to bring halftone planes forward.

The problem with following rules is that a rule is by nature formulaic. Always do this: never do that. For example, the rule stating that chroma should stay consistent within the value range of color depicting a singular object. But, William Bouguereau, Jean Leon Gerome and William McGregor Paxton, shifted chroma extensively.

Even worse, rote learning is self-cannibalizing. A small number of precociously talented students may intuitively supersede the rules they were taught, and produce outstanding results, in spite of and not because of the rules they learned. But as they move up the food chain and eventually become teachers themselves, they will, in all likelihood, reiterate the same rules they were “taught” because there is no way to explain intuitive choices.

Though a school may be run by an accomplished artist, the rule following majority is screwed. When rote learning, which is essentially the memorization of rules, forms the basis of any methodology, the potential for true artistic development is severely curtailed and progress is slowed down considerably. When student work bears a strong stylistic footprint, rule following is at the root.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “practice must always be founded on sound theory… Those who are in love with practice without knowledge or like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going.” Sound theory is based on understanding, not following rules.

Noor Chadha - Before & After

Noor Chadha – Before & After

Above, are two paintings done by my student Noor Chadha, who has studied with me for exactly one year. The first painting done last fall was her first attempt at a color portrait. She painted the second one this summer. Her progress is astonishing. The number of class sessions she has taken with me is approximately 30. If she were studying full-time at an atelier, for example, she would be about 1 1/2 months in and still rendering her first barge plate. It’s not about the time spent studying, it’s about time well spent.

My goal is to transform the way my students think. l believe my approach can dramatically cut down on the amount of time it takes anyone to progress and reach higher and higher levels. Not because “that’s the way you’re supposed to do it” or “that’s the way so-and-so does it”. As Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Classes begin this Friday and Saturday, September 15 and 16th.

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting from Life

Fridays • 12:00PM – 6:00PM • Sep 15 – Dec 15 • 12 Sessions • Click here to register or find out more information about the Friday class.

Classical Portrait Painting from Life

Saturdays • 10:00AM – 4:00PM • Sep 16 – Dec 16 • 11 Sessions • Click here to register or find out more information about the Saturday class.

#PortritPaintingClasses

Marvin Mattelson’s Winter/Spring Classes at SVA in NYC

New York City Portrait and Figure Painting Classes

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I’ll be teaching two classes at SVA in NYC for the Winter/Spring semester on Fridays and Saturdays. Each course is comprised of 12 six hour-long sessions.

Most of the class descriptions I read all sound pretty much the same but the question remains, do they deliver on the promise? Are all instructors created equal? My students tell me that isn’t the case and they’re so glad they found me.

…one of the greatest teachers ever. Marvin Mattelson changes the lives of anyone paying attention. I know I wouldn’t be half the painter I am without his guidance.

Dorian Vallejo

With numerous classes being given in a wide variety of venues I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why choosing to study with me will not only teach you the technical aspects of painting but transform the way you approach painting altogether.

For me as an artist, being told what to do in any given situation was not nearly enough. Painting at the highest levels goes way beyond following dogmatic rules; it’s about making intelligent choices.

Michelangelo said, ”A man paints with his brain and not with his hands.” This can’t happen unless you understand the full ramifications of the options you have available to you at any given moment. Basho, a Japanese poet from the 17th century said, “Don’t follow in the footsteps of the masters, seek what they sought.” My teaching is about empowering students.

You will learn how to easily mix the colors you see, how to create the illusion of solid form in three-dimensional space on a flat canvas, how to capture a likeness and create lifelike figures and portraits, but most importantly, gain great insight to the mindset that informs the choices available to you.

During the course of the semester, I will be demonstrating every step of the painting process. (The above image is a detail from a class demo painting.) I will progress from the underpainting, to the color lay-in and and to the finishing stage. As I paint, I explain not only what action I’m taking, but also my reason for doing it. During the semester we will take a Sunday field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I will dissect many master works to reveal that the same logical approach that I am teaching you in class is in the DNA of all great paintings.

We will have two set-ups at all times, a figure model and a portrait model. Every student will have an unobstructed view of their model. The lighting is classically inspired. The duration of each pose will last for approximately half of the semester.

The rapid growth I experienced at SVA was only made possible due to the quality of your instruction. It was your roadmap for me to follow. Like a sage boxing couch you showed me what to train and how to go about it. Above all else you fostered an incredible appetite for oil painting and a strong desire to know more, be that through rummaging through yellowing Vermeer notes or staring down Raeburn at the Frick.
What was so enthralling and captivating about oil painting anyway?
I’d like to think that a huge part of the allure and magic, was just how fun and endlessly rewarding you made the medium out to be. You turned what ought to have been a basic freshmen introduction painting class, into the veritable quest for the holy grail.
It takes a very special artist and teacher to set up such an environment. To design such a system of approach and reward, and do it with such seeming ease, that even maddeningly counterintuitive principles comes off as the most natural and beautiful thing in the world.
Your training and the mission you gave me was so jam packed and undeniable that SVA was nearly bursting at the seams to contain it. I am forever indebted to your brilliance as an artist, as a teacher and the deep generosity that powers both.

Billy Norrby

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

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting • FIC-2221-CE
Fridays • 12:00PM – 6:00PM • 12 sessions • First class: Jan. 29, 2015
Click here to register online for the Friday class.

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting • FIC-2221-CE1
Saturdays • 10:00 AM – 4:00PM • 11 Sessions • First class: Jan. 30, 2015
Click here to register online for the Saturday class.

These courses may also be taken for undergraduate credit. For more information please call the Registrar’s Office (212) 592.2200.

I will be attending a fine art information session on Wednesday Jan. 6 at 133/141 West 21st Street, room 602C, 6th floor, from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM. Please stop by and say hello.

Until next time…

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…

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.

So You Think You Can Draw?

“Drawing includes everything except the tinting of the picture.”Who said that?  Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

“I can draw pretty well, but I don’t really know how to paint.” Who said that? The vast majority of people who inquire about taking a portrait painting class with me.

I teach four painting classes each fall and each spring. Every summer I schedule three portrait painting workshops. People come to me to learn painting based on their familiarity with my work as a portrait artist. Thanks to my teaching methodology my students make incredible progress, but, when a student is having a problem with their painting, it’s the drawing that’s invariably at fault. So each summer, because I feel it’s so important, I dedicate one week to lead a portrait drawing workshop at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. This year I’ve scheduled a classical portrait drawing workshop to run from Monday June 25 through Friday June 29.  In every class I teach, everything is fully demonstrated and thoroughly explained. The above drawing is a detail of a workshop demonstration drawing. What gets covered in the workshop? In Ingres’ words, “To draw does not mean only to reproduce an outline, drawing does not consist only of line; drawing is more than this, it is expression, it is the inner form, the structure, the modelling. After that what is left? Drawing includes seven-eighths of what constitutes painting.” Need I say more.

If you want to find out more, here’s a link: http://www.fineartportrait.com/nyc_drawing_workshop.html

Until next time…