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…

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…