Marvin Mattelson’s Latest Oil Portrait Commission: Fang Fenglei

Fang

I recently completed the above portrait painting of Fang Fenglei. It’s a great honor to be chosen to paint such an exceptionally successful gentleman. Mr. Fang has been referred to as “China’s ultimate dealmaker”. I wanted to create a portrait he would be proud to hang in his home in Shanghi.

For me, composition is the most important part of a painting. I give great thought as to exactly what goes where so that my sitter’s legacy can be best served. It was my goal to create a portrait which would showcase the strength of character behind a man so accomplished. Mr. Fang has carved out quite the impressive resume.

He is the Founder and Chairman of Hopu Investment Management and is also Chairman of Goldman Sachs Gao Hua Securities. Mr. Fang has been recognized as one of the “Top Ten Influential Leaders of China’s Capital Market” by Financial Asia and he was also awarded “Asian Financial Service Development Outstanding Achievement” by Euromoney.

I try to make each portrait I paint unique in it’s own right. The best way to achieve this is to utilize elements that most appropriately convey the true sense of my subject.

I felt a simple earth toned background would be the best way to symbolize Mr. Fang’s humble beginnings; he was born the son of a farmer. I suggested that Mr. Fang wear traditional Chinese clothing as opposed to a Western business suit – which is the way he generally appears in photos. When he sat down I asked him to remove his glasses and I used their placement to break up the shape of the white shirt, which I felt could easily have pulled the viewer’s eye downward. I wanted the emphasis on his expression. I’m very proud of how this portrait came out and happy that the Fangs were so appreciative of my efforts.

One of my all time favorite painters, Ivan Kramskoy, said, “The better the composition, the less noticeable it is.” I hope that my painting exemplifies this principle.

Here are some detailed shots for those who like that sort of thing:

Fang-headFang-faceFang_crop_faceFang_hand

Why The Negative Reaction To Painting From Photos?

Exposing Judgmental Narrow-mindedness.

Using photos for reference purposes remains a hot button issue and I’m not exactly sure why this is. Many artists blamed the negative response to Kate Middleton’s official portrait on the fact it was created from photos.

To me, someone who has worked from photo reference for 40 years, the issue is a non-issue. I see it for what it is: one of many tools available to artists today. In fact artists have worked from photos for a century and a half so you think the nay-sayers would get tired and just shut up.

Unfortunately, there are many who do not share my point of view and they tend to demonize those who choose to use photos in their creative process. Yes, there are legions of bad paintings done by artists who work from photo reference, but there are multitudes, every bit as ill-conceived, painted strictly from life. Cluelessness is an equal opportunity malaise.

The truth is, in the hands of a skilled artist, cameras can potentially offer great help and I find it hard to understand why anyone would choose to summarily dismiss such a helpful tool. The camera can be a huge time saver. Yes, there is potential for misuse and abuse, however, if used intelligently, the pluses far, far outweigh the minuses.

One great thing about the camera is that you can record bucket loads of visual information in the blink of an eye. As a portrait artist, using photos gives me access to movers and shakers who have neither the time or patience to sit the number of hours it takes for me to paint one of my paintings.

Photography makes it possible to incorporate elements in a painting that would be impossible to do otherwise. Certain fleeting lighting conditions for example would long be gone before most artists had the opportunity to set one’s palette, let alone collect the visual data necessary to replicate a scene in the style of high realism.

To this end, the amazing 19th Century Academician, Jean Leon Gerome, (see image above) used photographs extensively in his process. In fact, he traveled with a photographer on his numerous excursions to the Middle East, specifically for the purpose of gathering the degree of information necessary to execute his brilliant Orientalist paintings.

Would it have been possible for Gerome to create these paintings without using photography, by simply working from life? Personally, I don’t think so, because before Gerome, no artist had ever achieved anything near the same level of illusionistic atmospheric realism so effectively and prolifically.

Before photography was invented, artists used a vast array of devices and strategies to augment their ability to record the world around them. Once photography appeared on the scene, however, realism “coincidently” took a big leap forward.

So why is it that so many people get all sanctimonious and holier than thou when the subject of using photo reference comes up? Why all the negativity?

There is no dismissing the importance of working from life? As a teacher, I firmly believe it’s the ideal way to train artists, because instilling a spatial three-dimensional sensibility is a crucial to creating life-like paintings. I think the fastest route to being an exceptional realist is to first learn to perceive the dimensional aspect of reality before you can hope to replicate it, let alone interpret it, on a two-dimensional surface.

I took a much slower route. My initial training as a realist was self-inflicted and based solely on working from photos. I was working as an illustrator and needed to meet deadlines to pay the rent. I didn’t have the luxury of going to an Atelier, nor did I even know they existed. I had drawn and painted from life in my first two years of art school, but the model was merely considered a creative departure point, not as a way to understand structure, light and atmosphere.

Initially, I used reference from books and magazines — the internet wasn’t even a gleam in its mothers eye, at that point. Working from photos, two things became abundantly clear. First, if I would merely copy a picture, the result would be flat and lifeless. With no understanding of my subject’s structure, my rendition lacked a certain authenticity and snap. Secondly, if I relied on photos taken by others, my control over compositional elements was moot. I needed to insert myself deeper into the process by taking control of my source material. .

So while attempting to learn the ins and outs of painting realistically, I was also teaching myself how to use the camera to my best advantage. I started with a Polaroid camera and eventually, wound up building my own darkroom. When I painted I was using the Munsell System to control my values and colors. At the same time, I used Ansel Adams’ Zone System of Photography to pre-visualize the values in my reference. These two modalities formed an awesome symbiotic relationship and I learned so much. Additionally, taking my own reference pictures enabled me to shoot my subject from multiple positions, enabling me get a more complete view of my subject and have a better sense of its intrinsic structure.

After ten years of working things out on my own I was fortunate enough to find a former student of the late great Frank Reilly, John Frederick Murray and John eventually introduced me to painting from life. I studied with John one day a week for ten years. The awesome thing was, the method I had developed on my own synced perfectly with Reilly’s teaching.

Now I use painting from life as the basis of my teaching philosophy, but I don’t regret for one moment my circuitous path. If the intent is there the path will reveal itself.

What you do and how you go about it is up to you, but if you want to be a realist painter, I think it would be most beneficial to learn photography. The rational that “I’m an artist and technology give me a headache” is lame. Get real. The technique of painting is a zillion more times complex that photography.

There is no reason to work from bad photos. Learn to take pictures that appear as close to the way the world appears to the naked eye. Today’s top flight cameras are so far beyond what film was ever able to yield, with respect to that. Plus, you now have the ability to review your pictures instantaneously and make sure you have exactly what you need. When I shoot reference, my camera is tethered to a laptop which allows me to scrutinize my images at a far greater magnification than looking at the LCD screen on the back of my camera.

There is an acronym used in computer programing: GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage out. Understanding how to take good reference photos will go a long way towards eradicating the misconception that “using photo reference results in flat boring images.”

Until next time…

Put on Your Thinking Beret–Strategically Speaking!

William McGregor Paxton's Pink Rose

For Great Portrait Artists, Design is Key

Had Yogi Berra been a painter he surely would have said, “90% of painting is mental and the other half is technical.” When I look at a masterpiece I very rarely concern myself with the technical aspects. I’m much more interested in the thinking process behind the painting. What was the strategic reasoning behind the choices the artist made.

A couple of years ago I went to a gallery opening for my former student, Lori Earley. She was surrounded by a group of ardent fans, peppering her with questions. “Which medium do you use…what brand of paint…which brushes do you like…what kind of canvas…how do you mix skin-tones…?” I’m not saying these questions are without merit, but knowing these answers was not going to make any of them better artists. I’m not saying that technique is unimportant (far from it), but the bottom line is: great painters make great decisions.

Artists may have many arrows in their quivers, but those who hit bullseye after bullseye do it via superior picture making skills. In my classes I call it strategic thinking. It’s the ability to create a unified image, leading the viewer’s eye through a hierarchical balance of colors, values and edges melded together through a balanced design. In short it’s the ability to masterfully manifest your artistic intent. I never had any formal compositional training while in art school, but little by little, working as an illustrator for 30 years, I was able to develop my pictorial composition skills, before becoming a full-time portrait artist.

For me, Illustration was a terrific training ground to learn picture making. (I guess you can say I got paid to learn to design, as well as paint.) Illustrators can traverse one of two paths. They can develop a strong visual style, providing a particular look–which, like fashion design, will eventually become passé. The other route is to become a problem solver. Compared to self-themed fine artists, illustrators need to face problems existing outside of their own realm. Each assignment can be seen as an opportunity to create a fresh and unique strategy. With each new challenge comes the possibility of expanding one’s pictorial lexicon.

Since it was my goal to be as flexible a problem solver as I could be, I found myself navigating a wide range of subject matters and situations, some straight forward and some with a visual twist. My work ranged from movie posters, to scientific illustrations, to book covers and portraits. I seriously doubt, had I been left to my own devices, that I could have broadened my capabilities to the extent that I did. The pressures and time restraints were always imposing. I knew in the industry’s eyes I was only as good as my last assignment. Failure meant losing a client but I loved the pressure, because I had a warrior’s mentality. When the bullets stop flying, only the quick and the dead remain. As Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For over thirty years every picture I created made me a better problem solver.

It was my goal to one day–when I retired–switch to portraiture. That retirement came very abruptly, when a client transformed–what would turn out to be my last illustration assignment–into a Photoshop hack job. They rearranged the elements, added a new background and turned a fully rendered figure into a black silhouette–which was embossed in the printing. “Never again,” I swore. It was then, I said to myself, “Marvin you’re now officially a portrait artist.”

It was only logical for me, when I switched over to portrait painting, to bring my problem-solving/picture-making mentality along for the ride. Rather than just painting the same redundant portrait motifs I saw at every turn, I felt that I could make each painting a unique portrayal of my sitter. I saw portraiture being very much like illustration, in that most portrait artists’ works are about their superficial style. My feeling was that my strategic thinking could be a key factor in making my work stand out.

When designing my portrait paintings, I don’t follow any preexisting rules–imagine that? Instead, I put on my thinking beret, to come up with something I’d be thrilled to paint. I decide what the most important aspect of the portrait is and then I build a viable value and color structure around it, using edges to speed up or slow down the way my viewers’ eyes will traverse through the portrait. I call my basic strategy backwards thinking, because I start with the central focus and work backwards, subjugating the pictorial elements to my focus. William Bouguereau and William McGregor Paxton are the picture makers I admire most. I feel neither gets the credit they deserve in this area. Paxton’s advice to, “find a new motif,” and “seek a noble and ample design,” are my guiding lights. These concepts are beautifully illustrated in the above painting, William McGregor Paxton’s, The Pink Rose. You can see how Paxton turns a simple head and shoulder portrait into a strikingly unforgettable artistic tour de force.

Finding the best composition, clothing, props, lighting and pose to portray the character of my sitter, takes effort, but it’s well worth it in the end. I’m constantly looking at great strategic composers, trying to get under the hood, so to speak, of the decision-making mentality of artists like Paxton, Bouguereau, DeCamp, Ingres, Rembrandt, Raeburn and Kramskoy. All this will be discussed in great detail in future blogs.

I’ve often been asked, “Marvin, don’t you get tired just painting portraits?” The answer is a resounding no. I love being a portrait artist. Every face I see is so fascinating. Everyone’s energy is a thing unto it’s own self. I love coming up with a design strategy that incorporates these qualities, while commanding the viewer’s attention, and drawing them in. Even if I won the lottery, I’d still choose to do portraiture. The only difference is, were I to win the lottery, I would pay my subjects to sit for me. Then they would be required to pose for as long as I wished.

Being a great portrait artist requires far more than just rendering skills. If you want to  distinguish yourself, then you need to place a far greater degree of emphasis on problem solving and picture making. Remember, Michelangelo said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands!”

Until next time…