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:
Compare it to the one she did in the Spring.

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:

Followed by her painting from the Spring semester.

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…

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.
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…

Looking for Art in All the Wrong Places.

Style vs Substance: There Needs to Be Much More Than What Meets the Eye

I’m a very analytical kind of guy. When I was a kid I always took things apart. I wanted to get to the bottom of how they worked, much to the chagrin of my parents. I’m just not content knowing something works, because only by understanding it can I truly own it.

When I began painting, my dissatisfaction with existing teaching modalities emanated from the fact that they seemed anchored in rote methodologies. In a given situation do this, do that, but never do the other. No explanation about why. (As I tell my students, “You can’t explain what you don’t understand.”) So I started looking at the paintings I was attracted to, and tried to figure out what it was that made them so compelling. The search for the common denominator! One strong commonality was a sense of sincerity, an clear connection between artist and subject. We’ve all had that experience of losing ourselves in a situation when we become enthralled. People appreciate the fact that an artist took the time to commemorate their fascination by making a picture of it.

The other night I attended a local theatre to see a series of one-act plays. I was invited by someone involved with the production. Two of the plays really stood out to me. One was actually quite good. The actor made the character he played believable. He transformed himself into another person. I didn’t feel as if I were watching a play, rather, I sat listening to this guy talk. The other performance was painfully difficult to view. The actor was so vested in creating a strong character he lost the point of the play. What was intended to be a dark comedy came across as pointless and confusing.

Afterwards I realized that the dichotomy between the two performances was equally applicable to painting. So many paintings seem to be about style and not about sincere communication. The art that’s most interesting to me is when the artist has something real to say. It doesn’t need a significant concept. It can be the smallest statement imaginable. In the parable of acting, it’s the difference between a performance by Meryl Streep versus one by Jack Nicholson. Jack is always Jack, while Meryl loses herself completely in her role, which makes for a more engaging experience.

I’m interested in artists whose works seek to convey something deeper, and not just the statement: see what I did and look how awesome I am. For that very reason I love the sensitivity of William McGregor Paxton, Ivan Kramskoy and William Bouguereau, and at the same time, I don’t feel much affinity for most of the works by artists I considerself-serving and superficial, like Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent. Look at Kramskoy’s Woodsman, above. Although it’s superbly painting It’s about so much more than that.

For me, art becomes special because of a genuine connection between the painter and their subject. Particularly with regards to portrait artists, since that’s my oeuvre. I’m not saying that every single painting by Bouguereau and Paxton are great, and rarely misfire. On the other hand, Sargent and Eakins–who each did do some incredible paintings–did a lot of paintings I find less than appealing.

I don’t think it has to do with loose or tight paint application either. I see this epidemic of superficiality spanning all styles. Maybe it’s a function of living in a world that too often celebrates the superficial and materialistic aspects of life. Ironically Sargent and Eakins are more widely known.

I believe the way the art is taught is a huge contributing factor. Far too much painting today maintains an extremely strong imprint of the teacher or school. When I teach, I go out of my way to leave my inclinations out of the equation, my intention is facilitating the evolution of the student as a unique artist, not a clone of myself. I think it’s important to teach general principles and not specific rules or dogmatic points of view.

Stylistic predilections and contrivances not only limit self-expression they also poison one’s ability to appreciate work that falls outside the confines of imbedded belief system. Judging a painting by the way it looks reminds me of the Johnny Lee song, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”

Look at Kramskoy’s Woodsman, above. Although it’s superbly painted, it’s about so much more than that.

Until next time…

Warm and Cool- The Exciting Game Without Any Logic!

Hit or Miss Color Mixing–You Bet!

“The most confusing part of painting is mixing color.” How many times have you heard that?

Did you ever see the movie Bang The Drum Slowly? It’s the first time I ever saw Robert De Niro. He was amazing. The movie’s based on a novel by Mark Harris about a group of major league baseball players. What impressed me the most was actually a very minor part of the movie. The ball players would play a form of poker called TEGWAR. It stands for The Exciting Game Without Any Rules.

TEGWAR is a con game. The baseball players would sit in their hotel lobby and play. Eventually, some unsuspecting and starstruck fan would be tricked into joining them. The object of the game was to cheat the poor fellow out of as much of his money as possible. If the fan thought he had the best hand, one of the players would make up a new rule and proclaim himself to be the winner. For example, in TEGWAR a Full House or a Flush would lose to a Red Rooster or a Butchered Hog. The fan, even though he had no idea of what was going on, was willing to bow to the lack of logic because he wanted to fit in and was too embarrassed to admit that he was clueless. TEGWAR reminds me a lot of, what I consider to be, the most perplexing concept in painting: Warm and Cool.

Many artists claim the key to painting is in understanding warm and cool color relationships. This is their compass for navigating through color space. However, warm and cool are relative terms, and are therefore imprecise. It’s vague language, at best, for describing temperature–whether color or room. What’s warm to an Eskimo is extremely cool to a Floridian. If you wanted the room cooler, and asked each to adjust the thermostat, you’d get very different settings. If you wanted to be precise, you could ask either one to set the thermostat to 68°.

Adjusting colors, via warm and cool, makes no sense to me. If you want to modify a color, specify your target mixture. What exactly does “to cool a color” mean? It’s very confusing. Blue is a cool color. Does that mean you add blue to cool either yellow, red, green, purple or orange?

Warm and cool are comparative terms. Green is cool when compared to yellow but warm when compared to blue. You can have cool yellows and warm blues. Really!?! To warm a purple, you could add a cool red. If you want to warm a color should you add either red, yellow, orange, purple or green? Sometimes even a blue can warm another blue.

To further confuse the issue, consider the concept of Simultaneous Contrast, the brainchild of French chemist Michel Chevreul. He said that our perception of a color is biased by what surrounds it. A middle value gray appears darker against white but lighter against black. A neutral gray appears to have a blue-green cast when surrounded by red.

As human beings we seek balance: hot tea in the winter; iced tea in the summer. To effect visual balance, your brain superimposes the compliment of any color you see, over itself. The compliment of a larger field will influence the appearance of a smaller note. That explains why gray looks blue-green against red. (Blue-green and red are optical compliments.) Hold a red card against a white wall. Stare at the card for 30 seconds. While keeping your gaze on the same spot, quickly pull the card away and you’ll see a blue-green after image. The same thing holds true for values. Do the same experiment using a high contrast black and white image, and the values will reverse.

Because of simultaneous contrast, if you place a neutral gray square in the center of a blue field, it will appear to have a slight orange cast. In warm/cool-speak, the neutral grey is warm. If you’re a portrait artist and add a neutral gray to a flesh tone, in warm/cool-speak, it would be considered cool. So gray warms cool colors and cools warm colors? Warming or cooling implies a change in the temperature, which means a shift in hue, but when you properly gray down a color, the hue doesn’t shift at all. Only the intensity is affected.

Does it make any sense to use warm and cool to describe changes in both hue and intensity? How could anyone ever know what you’re talking about? How would you even know what you’re talking about? Can you name one example of amorphous guidelines leading to a specific result? The only one that pops into my mind is TEGWAR, The Exciting Game Without Any Rules!

Since we’re talking baseball, what about Abbott and Costello’s, vaudeville comedy routine, Who’s on First? Bud Abbott tries to tell Lou Costello the nicknames of baseball players. Abbott informs Costello that the first baseman is Who, What is the name of the second baseman and I Don’t Know is playing third. It’s hysterically funny to see just how confused and frustrated Costello gets because he can’t understand that the answer to the question: Who’s on first? is the declarative statement: Who’s on first! Confusion isn’t so amusing when you’re trying to mix up a color and all that come to mind is, “I Don’t Know!”…third base!

Until next time…

Happily Negative? I’m Positive!

Portrait Artist or Negative Spin Doctor

I am by nature a very happy person. I love what I do. I have a great family. I have relationships with people I admire and respect, who seem to return the favor. I’m very excited by the way my clients respond to my portraits. Never, in my wildest imagination did I ever think I’d be capable of creating the kind of paintings I do. When I think about where I came from and what I can now do, I have to pinch myself. So you would think that I would be very positive about everything I do, but in the heat of battle, my biggest weapon is being negative.

When I’m painting, what jumps out at me are the areas that don’t work. The more egregious the error the more it screams for my attention. I don’t actively focus on areas that are working, because if something works, there is nothing I can do about it. I guess I could admire it, but it’s hard to pat oneself on the back while trying to paint. (I’ve actually seen that attempted, but the result looked like poop!) What commands my attention? That which is out of whack. So, for positive results, I focus on the negative.

I critique my students the same way–with a slight caveat–because I don’t want to hurt their feelings, I offer a little praise. Praise may make you feel better, but learning to see mistakes will make you paint better. Only by finding out what doesn’t work, what needs fixing, or what’s out of kilter, can you can hope to improve. I don’t care about my own feelings, so I’m as brutal as I need be. And I am very, very brutal. Let it suffice to say, when my internal dialog is in full sync, a longshoremen’s ears would melt, because I’m extremely hard on myself.

My student, Julia, is the same way. During the course of the day, when I come over and I ask her how it’s going she always says, “It sucks!” She focused on what’s not working. Now, most people on earth would cut off their right arm to suck as much as Julia does. LOL. Eventually she acknowledges that the degree of suckiness is subsiding. So I came up with a mantra, “It sucks…it sucks…it sucks less…it sucks less…it’s success!”

I don’t have a set formula: Marvin Mattelson’s Magic Method for Painting Perfection. I follow a basic large-to-small hierarchy, until something bothers me. Once sighted, it must immediately be attended to, with the understanding that as I modify each aspect, I am affecting all the others. Change one thing, it affects everything. I will correct whatever bothers me the most, knowing that, it most likely will need future correction. I then return to my big to small progression. You can see my approach in the above portrait artist workshop demonstration I painted. (You can also see it in greater detail on my website.)

Knowing that everything is in flux eliminates the pressure of being perfect. My stroke-by-stroke goal is simple–make it less wrong. As crazy as it sounds, when I discover my mistakes it makes me happy. It means maybe I just got a bit smarter. I think it’s far more practical to learn to identify and correct mistakes than being perfect. If it looks perfect now, it probably won’t after I apply the next stroke. Perfection is something I move towards. I keep responding to what’s wrong and gradually my painting gets better. When nothing else jumps out at me, I know I’m finished.

This idea of focusing on the negative is not just limited to oil painting. For me that’s pretty much the way I see everything. I appreciate the good but it’s the bad that gets my attention. I have a strong sense of justice and I want to fix what doesn’t work. Obviously, in the world today that would be a huge undertaking, so for the sake of expediency I’ve chosen to focus on representational painting–particularly with regards to portraiture–and it’s teaching. More than enough windmills to tilt at there.

With regards to this blog, you may have noticed, I’ve been pointing out a variety of things that make me just want to shake my head. As a life long teacher, I want to expose all the nonsense encumbering our journey and replace it a greater awareness. There are more than enough folks out there extolling the many virtues of all that I find questionable. That’s not to say I’m immune to heaping the odd platitude where it warranted, but praise alone won’t ever effect change. So I’ll just continue being negative. Of that you can be positive.

Until next time…