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…

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…

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.
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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…

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…