SVA Spring/Winter Continuing Education Classes: Realistic Figure & Portrait Painting

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Happy New Year!

Personally, I can’t think of a better way to start the new year than by taking a life painting class with me. Can you? Every time I take a class or workshop with myself at the helm I get markedly better. It’s like magic. That’s why I keep doing it. It’s exciting and inspiring and I truly believe there’s nothing like it out there.  If you want to raise up the level of your work, this is the time and place to do it. But don’t take my word for it. Follow this link to my site and read the comments posted by many of my former students. See what they have to say on the matter.

Above is a recent portrait commission I completed, Portrait of Evan. When I was in art school, the idea of being able to do anything even remotely resembling the painting displayed here was beyond my wildest dream. Back then I promised myself, if I ever had the fortune to actually figure this out, I would become the teacher I wished I’d had. It took a lifetime of study, dedication, frustration and perseverance to get to where I am today, but I eventually transformed that sad pathetic soul, who knew for a fact that he could never paint to save his life, and transform him into the artist responsible for the painting above! For those with similar goals the struggle doesn’t need be so drawn out. The kind of information and training I have created can make as huge a difference for you as it has for me.

I’ll be teaching two continuing education classes for the upcoming winter/spring semester at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Both of the classes are titled, Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting. Each class is divided into 12 six-hour sessions. There will be two professional models posing for each class session, one portrait and one figure. Every student has a clear view of the model they are painting. The classes are not overcrowded like in many schools, where it feels like your model is in the next zip code. The facilities are top-notch. The duration for each pose is approximately half a semester. During the course I thoroughly demonstrate and explain my approach to realistic painting. I will demonstrate the underpainting phase, the lay-in of the color as well as finishing techniques. In addition, I will show you how I lay out my palate and explain a practical and bulletproof form of color theory. There is a reason for every action so while I demonstrate I clearly explain what I’m doing and why. I am present and teaching the entire duration of each class. There are no monitors or assistants giving second and third hand feedback. Just me, Marvin Mattelson!

This class is for artists of all levels, from rank beginners to the most advanced. My students progress is unfathomable, compared to what you see in other classes and workshops. A well known teacher of academic painting – who for obvious reasons chooses to remain nameless – said he had never seen the kind of progress he witnessed in my class, and that included his own teaching. By the end of the semester mind numbing progress takes place for those who surrender and cast off the shackles of myopic methodologies.

Old habits die hard…what you’ve done up to now is both the reason for your current success but, unfortunately, also the reason you aren’t the artist you aspire to be. I break down and streamline the key aspects of the painting process into digestible and understandable pieces, casting aside archaic rules and regulations and mythologies passed down from one uninformed instructor to the next. One of my recent students, Cynthia Brewster, eloquently stated:

“Each component is so logical, and allows me to review in my mind as I am reading. You always have something new to add, as well, from an historical or technical perspective. What I like best is that you have done the research from which I benefit! You do not create rules, but give a clearer path for making decisions.”

My goal is to develop artists whose full understanding allows them to manifest their own intrinsic artistic sensibilities without the constraints of rules and considerations. My teaching is an outgrowth of my own forty-year journey to discover the core truths that lie at the heart of all great painting. Whether you want to be a portrait artist, a figurative painter, a still life painter, a landscape painter or even an abstract artist, the valuable lessons that you will learn about painting will serve you in reaching whatever artistic aspirations you may have.

The Friday class begins January 31 and the Saturday class starts the following day, February 1. Sign up by clicking on the following links:  register for Friday’s class and/or register for Saturday’s class. Registration is now in progress. The classes are also available for undergraduate credit. For more info please call the Department of Continuing Education at 212-592-2050. If you’d like additional information regarding my teaching you can go to the teaching page on my website and follow the numerous links.

For those interested, there is an open house for fine art continuing education classes that I will be attending, if you would like to meet me and discuss my teaching or any other subject of your choosing. The fine arts information session takes place on Wednesday, January 8 from 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM. It’s open to the general public free of charge. It will be held that 133/141 W. 21st St., room 602C in New York City. I hope to see you there.

Until next time…

In the Dark About Black?

St-JeromeI consider black to be an indispensable and versitile color which I utilize wherever and whenever I deem it most appropriate. Obviously I’m in the minority, because conventional thinking seems to be leaning in the opposite direction. Black is apparently not too beautiful when it comes to it’s usage as a pigment. I think there are a lot of associated misunderstandings and misconceptions, so I’m taking this opportunity to set the record straight. Consider it my post-Christmas pre-new year’s gift to you!

If you’ve read my past posts, you know my biggest peeve (one of them anyway) is with regards to rules, and specifically, those that pertain to art making. I tell my students all the time: rules are for fools…the truth shall set ye free! The point of rules is to snatch decision making from the huddled masses incapable of formulating intelligent choices on their own behalf. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s a subject better suited as a theme for a thesis on psychological deficiencies rather than a blog post by some random artist, so for the sake of brevity, I’ll move on to the subject at hand: that poor little misunderstood pigment, black!

Every artist is a creator. Being strapped with rules does nothing to enhance this capability. Rules are tremendously limiting. Making art is about being in the moment – in the now. Thinking what did so and so say about this situation takes us back into the past. Many teachers strap their students with a myriad of rules, as opposed to the conveyance of understanding. It’s easy to spot. When the work of students bears an uncanny resemblance to that of their teacher, rote non-thinking is in the air. It means the ability to make choices has been uncermoniously supplanted by dictatorial rhetoric.

As a result, options get buried under the banner of: never do this; always do that. The use, or more specifically, the non-use of black is the poster child of all art rules. After all, the almighty impressionists never used black!! They also demeaned the training they received at the French Academy. Many artists would rather have their eyes gouged out (I’m exaggerating here for dramatic effect) than put a dab of black on their precious palettes.

We’ve all heard the justifications. Black muddies your colors. Black kills the picture. Black in a landscape sucks away atmospheric effects. Black doesn’t exist in nature. Black isn’t a real color. It’s always better to mix your own black. Only amateur artists use black. Never use black, use blue instead.

Well, that’s all nice to hear, but the truth is: denying yourself the use of black would be like writing a novel using a truncated alphabet.

To put black in historical perspective:

  • Rembrandt used black.
  • Rubens used black.
  • Van Dyke used black.
  • Vermeer used black.
  • Lawrence used black.
  • Raeburn used black.
  • Bouguereau used black.
  • Gerome used black.
  • Paxton used black.
  • Sargent used black.
  • Zorn used black

Exactly what artist, of equivalent merit, eschews(ed) the use of black? Anders Zorn used four colors, one of which was black! So why did black get such a bad rap? Very simple, due to misuse through ignorance, the rule fairy came out, cast her wicked spell, and the masses bowed down. But lets not be so quick to throw the baby out with the bath water.

The question here, is how was it misused and what can be done about it? To the best of my knowledge, there are just two problematic issues. The first deals with inappropriate color mixing. In the past, certain artists, like El Greco (see the painting, above) used black to darken their colors – as evidenced in the painting of St. Jerome’s hands. The muddy lifeless color perfectly exemplifies the shortcomings of this approach. The second problem is related to cracking on the surface of paintings. If you go to a museum, you can see this phenomena is more prevalent in the darks. Ivory black is very, very…wait for it…very slow drying. Oil paint dries from the outside in. If you attempt to paint over a slow drying color – which hasn’t thoroughly dried – it will eventually crack.

But black can also be a very potent and powerful tool. Black is the lowest valued pigment and gives us the ability to indicate the darkest accents. It’s also very useful if you want to darken an already dark color. Now, it may lower the chroma a bit, but how much chroma is actually evident in the deep shadows of nature. The hue shifts that may occur when adding black to lower the value of dark colors are inconsequential in my experience – since, in a low value range, the chroma is fairly subdued to begin with. Sometimes you need to make a choice: value vs chroma. Give up black and you no longer have that option.

Using black to darken light colors is another story. That’s a fools errand for two reasons. It grays everything down – whether you want to or not – and can cause unwanted and disharmonious hue shifts, the technical term for muddy colors. These shifts result from black always manifesting some evidence of an underlying hue. Ivory black is, in reality, a very dark low chroma blue. If you add white to it, you can easily see this. That’s the reason why, when you darken yellow with black, you get green.  (When people say they use blue in place of black, it makes me laugh. They’re essentially saying, instead of blue, I use blue.)

As far as cracking goes, make sure your under layers are thoroughly dry before over painting. When using ivory black, that may mean up to, or greater than, a six month wait. The other option: don’t use pure black in your under layers! If you add raw umber (the fastest drying of all pigments) to your black, it will speed up the drying considerably. Save the pure black touches for your final layer. Even in my darkest accents I add raw umber. (To be safe, make sure you wait a sufficient amount of time before varnishing.)

So use black appropriately and you won’t have any problems. And then you can reap the rewards of using it for, what I believe to be, it’s greatest property: as a component in the mixing of neutrals. Ivory black will make a very useful and practical neutral gray when mixed with the aforementioned raw umber, plus white. I prefer to use grays and not complements to knock down the intensity of my color mixtures, when need be. Since both raw umber and ivory black have weak tinting strength, their resulting neutrals do not cause any significant hue shifts when mixed with other pigments. These grays exhibit no evidence of color bias, even when mixing into delicate pastel yellows. As a portrait artist I need the ability to control the myriad of subtle hue, value and chroma shifts evidenced in the human complexion. These grays, which include ivory black, are for me, the answer to a lifetime of prayers.

As far as mixing blacks go, they’re fine to use as is, but if you use them to create chroma controlling neutrals, the end result would be unpredictable and erratic shifts. Just because two colors appear to look the same it doesn’t mean they will mix the same. Mixing colors is akin to playing with a chemistry set. The wrong mixture – say cadmium and sulfur – and… BOOM!!! One thing that is often overlooked when setting a palette is whether there are potentially volatile pigments in the mix.

In the end, the addition of black paint on your palette will give you the widest possible dynamic range available and a powerful mixing ingredient utilized by arguably the greatest realist painters in history. Remember, black is beautiful.

Until next time…

Underpaintings Blogspot – A Post About Me!

My former student and friend, Matthew Innis is the author of my favorite blog Underpaintings.

Underpaintings – A forum posted by Matthew D. Innis which celebrates excellence in Representational Art – past, present, and future.

Yesterday Matt posted about his experience as my student in the Continuing Education program at SVA and shared how he came to study with me. It’s a very nice read. If you have yet to visit his blog you’re in for a big treat.

Matthew also posted some of my pre-portraiture illustrations. If you’re not familiar with that aspect of my artistic development, you can see a little of what I used to do.

Another former student of mine, Nanci France-Paz, generously commented on her experience studying with me as well. I’m very grateful to all my past and present students who have nice things to say about the time we’ve spent together.

Marvin Mattelson Portrait Unveiling: Wil de Hollander, President & CEO, Velcro Industries N.V.

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On Tuesday September 10, my portrait of Wil de Hollander, the recently retired CEO and president of Velcro Industries N.V., was unveiled. I assisted Wil’s successor, Alain Zijlstra, in removing the drapery that covered the portrait. We had some difficulty pulling it off, so of course everyone joked that it had probably been attached with Velcro – it hadn’t! After he spoke about Wil’s legacy, Alain asked me to say a few words about the portrait’s creation and this is what I said:

I’m very excited being here today for the unveiling of my portrait of Wil de Hollander. It was a great pleasure for me to get to know Wil and an honor to paint him.

I’m very passionate about what I do. If I were to win the lottery, I would probably build a larger studio, perhaps on the French Riviera, but I would still keep doing exactly what I love to do the most: paint portraits. I consider myself very fortunate, in that regard.

My goal for each portrait I create is for it to be my best to date. In the words of Michelangelo, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

When Wil and I first sat down to discuss the portrait, I was impressed by his charming, down-to-earth and engaging nature; as well as his sharp wit and intelligence. He mentioned that, unlike most CEOs, his career path came via the manufacturing route, and not through the business side. So right off the bat I ruled out a formal standing pose.

I’m a firm believer in allowing the best solution to reveal itself, and I immediately realized the way Wil sat before me, with the window light coming from the side, would make for a great portrait. The paneled wall and a low credenza behind him set him off beautifully. They also created a series of verticals and horizontals, which I felt could serve as a perfect metaphor for corporate structure.

I felt that the painting still needed something to balance Wil and visually connect him with the background. I saw in the far corner of the boardroom a brass sculpture which demonstrated the basic way that Velcro worked. I removed it from its pedestal and placed it behind Wil. I liked the way it mirrored the arabesque of his pose and it’s symbolism.

I terms of my technique, I build up of many thin layers of color to achieve a lifelike impression. It’s a very traditional approach and I feel is the most effective way to create the translucent and subtle transitions I seek. It’s very time-consuming but the results, I hope, speak for themselves, and the painting was well worth the wait.

A former client once told me that he felt people would always remember him based on his portrait. Being chosen to define someone’s legacy is a great responsibility, and in the case of painting Wil de Hollander, a very pleasurable experience as well.

Here are some close-ups and details of the painting:

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After I spoke, Wil said a few words. He thanked everyone for coming and acknowledged me for my efforts, but what he was most emphatic about pointing out was a very small detail in the painting – which could have been easily overlooked – a Heineken bottle cap.

During our first meeting I had asked Wil, as I do all my clients, if there was something I could add to the painting to personalize it. He immediately responded that he would love being painted holding a bottle of Heineken Beer. Heineken was the first company he worked for and it’s his longstanding beverage of choice. Of course, he said, there is no way it would be appropriate for a boardroom portrait. I suggested that I could paint a Heineken bottle cap hidden in the sculpture’s shadow. There would be no logo visible and unless someone was specifically looking, it would probably remain unnoticed. Wil loved the idea.

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During my little speech, I had purposely said nothing – wanting to keep the secret intact – but Wil was so excited upon seeing it in the painting, he pointed it out to everyone.

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Until next time…

Marvin Mattelson’s Fall CE Classes at SVA

I’m teaching two continuing education classes this fall. 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 it’s 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.

Rather than me harping on why you would greatly benefit from studying with me I thought I’d have one of my students share her experience.

Free-fullThe above portrait was painted by my former student Kathleen Speranza. It’s an outstanding portrait and I’m so proud of her. When I saw this painting posted on Facebook I immediately asked Kathy for permission to reproduce it here. And this was her response:

I would be honored to have my painting up on your blog! I love reading it and anything you might say would be great. For my part there were many things that I learned in your class that are very visible in the portrait of Jeffree. Most important would be the large mass organization and the clear division between light and dark shapes. Keeping the shadow masses in the front of the face joined together aids in the impact of the gaze which is obscured but implied by the turn of the head and the light on the lashes. Free is a very gentle, soulful individual and I thought this use of light helped to depict those qualities. The color shapes are pretty obvious and are not fully covered by subsequent layers of paint. This may be of use to students since the process is “on the surface” For me, your class jump-started an investigation of classical form and composition in all of my work. It has been a great way to simplify and organize my compositions in still life, and landscape as well as portraits and figures. Something I never learned in art school! The palette is of course the most complex part of the process and has been of enormous help. There is much more but that’s probably enough for now.

Here’s a closeup:
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Kathy took a two week workshop with me about five years ago. At the time she had the following to say:

It was a fantastic experience for me to participate in the workshop. My instincts had been pointing me in that direction for some time now and it’s very gratifying to know that they were correct. I was able to connect to a part of myself that has been dormant for many years. The supportive environment and the excellent instruction were exactly what I needed to become involved with portrait painting again. I’ve decided to put all of my other obsessions on hold and pursue this direction for the entire next year. I’d also love to make studying with you an ongoing “habit”. I know that I have only scratched the surface of the knowledge you can provide.

I searched the web for examples of contemporary portrait painters and was disappointed to find that 98% of the work I saw was not really painting. Most of these works were clearly copied from photographs with little to no understanding of effective composition or color structure. Your paintings stood out clearly as luminous and elegant images that also happened to be portraits. It was clear that you were creating sophisticated color harmonies as well as classically structured compositions. Your extensive study of masterworks was evident and the paintings combined naturalistic likeness with pictorial integrity. Your were the 2% I needed to study with.

I would also like to say that I think your generosity is rare indeed. All of the hard work and research you have done over the last several years is a gold mine for your students. Your own work is a testament to the beauty and logic of the color system. I have been describing it to my friends as a typewriter analogy. I have been hunting and pecking for 25 years and have finally been given a keyboard I can understand. I’m confident that with practice I’ll be able to reach that all important “flow state” with respect to color and value.

At no time in my education, which includes a BFA from Boston University and an MFA from Yale, did I encounter anyone who was qualified to teach on this level. I believe you have isolated some of the core truths in figurative painting. Thank you so much for helping me to see them. I feel that a whole new direction in painting has now opened before me.

And one last amazing detail:
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The bottom line is, reaching your full potential doesn’t necessarily involve years of servitude. It’s about understanding. Kathy took a two week workshop — the equivilant of a one semester continuing education class — and it transformed her approach to painting. Just sayin’!

Until next time…