Marvin Mattelson’s Online Virtual Portrait Painting Class for Fall 2020.

Marvin Mattelson class demo painting of Erin.
Marvin Mattelson’s Online Workshop Demo Painting of Erin.

The above image is my demo painting of Erin, created during my online virtual August 2020 two-week portrait painting workshop.

I received an inquiry today regarding my virtual online portrait painting class for this upcoming Fall Semester. I wanted to share my answers with anyone who may be considering taking a class or course of study to up the level of their work. I’ve included his questions followed by my responses:

How does your course differ from the many other painting courses?

Most teachers, in all schools, take one of two basic approaches, either the provide specific steps (rules and regulations) to follow and memorize (rote learning) or a more “creative” or intuitive approach based on doing what feels good or “floats your boat”. 
Neither of those is all that helpful IMHO.
My teaching is based on conveying an understandIng of the underlying principles based on how artists of the past created paintings that appear even more alive than reality. 
Additionally I fully demonstrate every step in my process with a full explanation of what I’m doing and most importantly why. It’s like the Bible says, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for life.“ 
In my studio I have installed multiple high quality PTZ cameras which follow every action I take. You can see every brush stroke I make, in great detail, and how each color is first analyzed and then mixed on my palette. And, unlike watching a video, I will answer any questions that arise along the way. My approach is what’s termed, mindful learning. 
With regards to critiquing my students work, I have a computer running photoshop in which I can show them exactly what to do to correct problems and to move forward. I also have a wide range of graphics I incorporate into the lessons, as well as the ability to overlay important info and quotes. 
My goal was to create an educational experience that would take learning in a live classroom to an entirely new level.

Detail of demo painting from August 2020 online Virtual Portrait Workshop, by Marvin Mattelson
Demo portrait detail by Marvin Mattelson

Does this course focus more on photos and digital interaction as opposed to models? 

Since live models are not possible in Covid times, you will be working from high resolution photos, which I will provide for you to download. Classes that utilize Zoom models are working from very poor quality images taken with cell phones. I will also share what it takes to create high quality photos on your own. 

Will the skills learned in this class be applicable to people who are more illustrators than painters of what they see in front of them?

What you learn in this class can be applied to any area of the arts. Once you understand how to create the illusion of three dimensional form in space, you can choose to incorporate this knowledge to whatever degree you choose. You can go from full-form to flat, or anywhere in between. Former students of mine inhabit the fields of fine art, illustration, animation, concept art, matte painting, graphic design, advertising, etc. These underlying principles can be universally applied in every aspect of the visual arts. 

Detail 2 of demo painting from August 2020 online Virtual Portrait Workshop, by Marvin Mattelson
Demo portrait closeup detail by Marvin Mattelson

Here are comments from this past summer workshop’s participants:

I am so glad that I took both Marvin’s Drawing and Painting workshop this summer! It was a great opportunity. Marvin is a very generous in sharing his knowledge and expertise in drawing and painting. He teaches his proven methods of drawing and painting that you can carry with you in your artistic journey. You can start at any level and learn what you need to take you to the next level. He also has developed very successful way to do an online class with the best equipment available. It was truly a high quality online class experience and I hope to do another workshop soon. Thank you so much for the fabulous workshops!

Becky Bahas

This is a workshop that I have been meaning to attend for years, but never seemed to be able to coordinate, between the travel and time off etc. I am so glad I thought of checking out your plans for this workshop during our lockdown times.  When I saw that you placed the workshop online I jumped for it.  But you didn’t just add a camera to your “conventional” workshop. You thought this one out in a detailed way to make an amazing learning experience, including your demonstrations and even your Met tour.  The fact that the zoom recordings were available to review, allowed me to increase the workshop virtual time, by rewinding and reviewing much of the realtime workshop hours.  And since we used a reference photograph instead of a live model, we were able to continue working after (and before) workshop official times. This increased the value of the workshop even more.   

Regarding your basic methods, on top of your masterful world class portraiture expertise, you have developed methods that will always be of value, long after the workshop.  In school, objective and logical subjects were always easier for me to absorb. And you have been able to take fine art and treat its principals with logic in order to reduce the “subjective contamination”. Exactly what I always look for!  

Abbe Mendlowitz

Can’t believe it’s been over a week since we finished the workshop and I am still trying to catch up with all the things I didn’t have time to do then.

I meant to write as soon as we finished but the days just seem to have blown by. I still need to find the time to write a proper recommendation of both courses. They were amazing, and for me who had been completely apart from producing art for so long it was a great reintroduction in the best way possible.  

For now, I am glad to tell you that I have managed to keep painting, even if only a couple of days a week, and have started a portrait of my son Nicolas. Will send pictures soon but so far I think it’s the best thing I’ve done!

Irena Moreno

Thank you again for an incredible workshop. It was a truly amazing educational experience. I can’t thank you enough for all the hard work you put into making the virtual workshop the best it could possibly be.

I’m not sure if you remember, but back when I completed the painting of my mother in your foundation class, I told you that I was learning an insane amount, but that I absolutely didn’t want to be an oil painter, and was still very committed to the graphic novel/comics path. However, you planted an extremely powerful seed in my mind, especially by way of exposing me to amazing painters/illustrators/draftsmen such as Leyendecker, Paxton, Cornwell, Escher, Raeburn, Sargent, (and Mattelson!), etc. In the year and a half since then, that seed has grown tremendously – this led me to switch majors so I could focus my entire efforts on picture making. The more I dig into myself to seek what it is that I truly want to create in life, the more clear my place at the easel becomes, and the more grateful I am to have such an incredible mentor on this journey.

Noah Klavens

 If you’re interested in attending or would like more information, please contact me at fineartportrait@gmail.com for specifics.

Until next time…

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…