Roots and Wings: The Tao of Teaching


Yesterday I received an email from my former student Roger Derrick, which jump-started this post in my mind. Roger wanted to show me some new works in progress. I was astonished to see how far he had come since being in my class. The goal of my teaching is to cultivate each student’s understanding of the underlying principles that inform the decision-making process, giving them the ability to come up with the appropriate course of action in any situation. This approach allows an artist to continue to develop just the way Roger has, through determination, hard work and applied logic.

Teaching is no different than parenting. When people learn that I am a father, the first thing they ask is, “Are your kids artists?” My reply is always, “No, they’re not me! They get to choose their own paths.”

Now, many parents want their children to follow in their footsteps. They want their kids to come back and ask for advice when there are important decisions to make, regardless of their age. Obviously, these parent’s intentions are good. They want what’s best for their children, but they base their counseling on their own priorities. It’s only natural to want what’s best for your offspring! Right? But natural for whom? I raised my children to think for themselves based on understanding and good judgment. I chose to support their interests rather than imposing my own. As a result, they grew up to be independent thinkers, more than capable of making their own life choices. I couldn’t be any prouder or happier of them, regardless of the paths they follow.

My goal as a teacher is the same as my goals as a parent, to allow my students to develop into the best artists they can be, and not a replication of myself. There’s a very famous poem by Dennis Waitley about parenting, entitled “Roots and Wings”. Here’s the poem:

If I had two wishes, I know what they would be
I’d wish for Roots to cling to, and Wings to set me free;
Roots of inner values, like rings within a tree;
and Wings of independence to seek my destiny.
Roots to hold forever to keep me safe and strong,
To let me know you love me, when I’ve done something wrong;
To show me by example, and helps me learn to choose,
To take those actions every day to win instead of lose.
Just be there when I need you, to tell me it’s all right,
To face my fear of falling when I test my wings in flight;
Don’t make my life too easy, it’s better if I try,
And fail and get back up myself, so I can learn to fly.
If I had two wishes, and two were all I had,
And they could just be granted, by my Mom and Dad;
I wouldn’t ask for money or any store-bought things.
The greatest gifts I’d ask for are simply Roots and Wings.

When it comes to teaching art there are two basic approaches:

1)You can teach what you do.

2)You can teach the underlying fundamental principles of understanding.

Those who teach what they do have very specific rules regarding not only technique but what to do in every given situation. In other words a strict edict to follow. Unfortunately this results in students whose work strongly mimics that of their teacher. The better the student, the closer the adherence. Everyone turns into a some version of the master!

I choose the fundamental understanding route. If you know why things work then you have choices in every given situation; you do what you do based on your artistic intent and not anyone else’s. That doesn’t mean I eschew technique. On the contrary, my teaching is very technical because it’s vitally important to have the ability to manifest the choices you’re making.

I love it when no apparent stylistic imprint of myself is evident in the work of a former student. It’s my understanding that Jean Leon Gerome – the great academic painter of the 19th Century and one of the most revered educators of his time – shared the same philosophy. This enabled him to develop students as diverse as Thomas Eakins and William McGregor Paxton. Each of those artists took what they learned and were able to form their own unique personality and point of view.

I thought about the past week, where I had the great privilege of seeing a new show of paintings by my former student, TM Davy, a series of beautiful unique and innovative paintings of horses at the 11R gallery in New York City. I also saw, on Facebook, two great paintings by former students Billy Norrby and Martin Wittfooth. I received an email from Steve Birmbaum, the Assistant Director of Media at SVA. Steve had interviewed another long ago student, Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS), a highly successful Chelsea gallery artist. Steve wrote, “The interview went great and Brian had a lot of wonderful things to say about you and your class during his time at SVA.” A few weeks ago, I learned another of my past students, Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, was developing, for 20th Century Fox Animation, a feature film based on “The Dam Keeper”, his 2015 Academy Award-nominated animated short. The incredible thing about all these artists is that you would never know they all studied with the same teacher. They took their roots and flew to the heavens.

This week my new continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts will be starting. It’s a perfect opportunity to self-reflect and ask yourself, “Do I follow in someone else’s footsteps or do I want to grow roots and wings?”

Portrait Painting: The Real Deal • Fridays
12:00PM – 6:00PM  • Jan 27 – Apr 21 • 12 Sessions
Register online now for the Friday class or call 212.592.2200.

Portrait Painting: The Real Deal • Saturdays
10:00AM – 4:00PM  • Jan 28 – April 29 • 12 Sessions
Register online now for the Saturday class or call 212.592.2200.

For more information please call the Department of Continuing Education at 212.592.2050 or go to this page on my website.

These classes may also be taken for undergraduate credit. Please call the registrar at 212.592.2200 to register or to find out more information.

A special bonus field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view and analyze some of greatest portraits in the collection will take place on a Sunday afternoon.

 

Oil Portrait Painting Workshop 2016

11 Day Workshop with Marvin Mattelson

August 1 – 12 (No class August 7)

Includes a 1 Day field trip to the Met

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Workshop demonstration by Marvin Mattelson

Painting is a function of problem-solving; the key is understanding how to control pictorial space on a flat surface. Every paining is different, every lighting condition has its own specific issues, and every situation requires it’s own unique solution.

“Common observation and a plain understanding is the source of all art.”

Sir Joshua Reynolds

After having devoted myself to a life-long in-depth study of the old masters, I have come to the conclusion that there’s no one-size-fits-all formula which will solve the myriad of problems an artist encounters in the course of  creating a realistic painting.

Recently I went to see the Van Dyck portrait exhibition at the Frick Collection here in New York City. I went a total of four times. Each time I went back I was able to pick up on more subtle touches, which served to further validate the ideas that have been percolating in my head for over thirty years.

Van Dyck is one of my great heroes and he has played a significant role in my artistic evolution. In 1988, The National Gallery in D.C. had a show of over 100 Van Dyck portraits and figurative paintings. It was there my ideas about painting took a 180 degree turn when I realized it was possible to not merely replicate reality but to greatly enhance it. Compared to the people looking at the paintings in the gallery, Van Dyck’s figures appeared far more alive and dimensional. To be able to achieve that same enhanced sense of reality became my Holy Grail.

I wasn’t interested in having my paintings look like they were painted by Van Dyck. To merely copy his stylistic devices, would be the artistic equivalent of feeding myself a fish rather than learning how to catch them. I didn’t want to merely copy what he did, rather, my sole focus was to get inside his head and fully understand his thought process.

Understanding why and when he varied his approach seemed to be the key, since he solved seemingly similar problems in a plethora of ways. Little by little, I was able to assimilate his thought process and, I realized, when I began analyzing the paintings of the other great artists I admired, they too employed a similar strategic way of thinking and were also able, without compromising their own unique look, to achieve the same sense of enhanced dimensionality and aliveness as Van Dyck.

With each subsequent Frick visit, this past spring, I felt more and more validated in the approach I utilize when I’m painting and teaching. I believe that once understood, this knowledge can help any artist take their work to a higher level.

What I teach is not a dogmatic cookie-cutter solution but a context within which you can make intelligent and appropriate choices. Conventional thinking never worked for me. I don’t believe that keeping halftones cool or shadows warm or any specific action or series of actions comprise the secret to exceptional painting, No magic medium, fancy palette or specific color is going to transform you into a great painter.

I’m leading an eleven day portrait painting workshop at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from August 1-12. I will be demonstrating all aspects of my teaching. (You can see the demo above, from a previous workshop.) We’ll be working from live models and also be spending one day at the Met, where I’ll be analyzing some of the greatest portraits of all time, and showing you exactly what it is that makes them so effective. This is the only painting workshop I do all year, so if you’re interested in what I have to offer you can register online or call 212.592.2200.

11 Day Realistic Portrait Painting Workshop
August 1 – 12, 2016 • 9:00AM – 5:00PM • No class August 7.
Find out more information about the workshop
This course may also be taken for credit. Please call the registrar’s office @ 212.592.2200 for more information.

Until next time…

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!

Paxton-BluJar

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…

You Can Get There From Here!

ReneeFinkelstein3Generally, we think of spring as the time of birth and growth. As far as educational institutions go, Fall is when the ball gets rolling. Fortunately, growth and learning are not seasonal, so with that in mind, I’m happy to announce that my continuing education fall classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City will be starting on Friday and Saturday September 20th and 21st, respectively.

As a teacher it’s always exciting to watch my students evolve. Generally they make great strides, however, everybody develops differently, but it’s always satisfying knowing that I help people keep moving closer towards achieving their goals. Occasionally, when the stars are properly aligned, mind-boggling progress will occur. A case in point are two students, Renee Finkelstein and Zuzanna Kozlowska, both of whom started studying with me this past spring. They had both done well during the semester, so much so that each signed up for my summer workshop. The summer workshop at SVA is 10 eight hour sessions – the approximate equivalent of a full semester of painting classes. The progress that each made during the two weeks of the workshop was quite mind-boggling, superseding their wildest expectations. Above, is the first of the two fantastic portrait paintings that Renee painted of Kyli during the workshop.

Below is the second, from the same workshop:
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Compare it to the one she did in the Spring.
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How does this happen? I believe that my teaching methodology facilitated both students because my approach to teaching painting is based on aligning one’s mind to the mindset of great painters, not by weighing them down with a set of constraining rules and bylaws, which is time intensive. Rather, my goal is for them to discover their own capabilities while maintaining their own uniqueness. I teach my students how to make choices, not which choices to make. The problem with a regimented approach, is that individualism can be easily crushed. My approach is unique, time tested – I’ve been teaching for 40 years – and highly effective.

Bellow, are Zuzanna’s two paintings. First is her workshop painting of Megan:
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Followed by her painting from the Spring semester.
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For those interested, my Friday class at the School of Visual Arts is called Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting. It’s 12 sessions from 12 PM to 6 PM starting September 20, 2013. You can register and find more info here. My Saturday class, Classical Portrait Painting, runs from 10 AM to 4 PM. It starts September 21 and runs 12 sessions as well. You can click here to sign up or to learn more. These classes are also available for full college credit at a substantially higher fee, which is why each class is listed twice.

There will also be an open house for Fine Art Continuing Education classes on Thursday, September 5 from 6:30 to 8:30 PM. at the school. I’ll be there if you’d like to come and meet me. The address is 133-141 West 21st Street in room 602C.

Hope to see you there.

Until next time…