To Be An Artist You First Need to Think Like One

Noor Chadha - Sarah

Noor Chadha – Portrait of Sarah

Painting is an extremely complex endeavor. Personally, I think that realistic painting is the most difficult task a human being can hope to undertake. My reasoning is: there are so many variables to contend with. Any difficult task is more easily overcome if you have a clear understanding of what’s involved. However, if you are trying to master anything inherently complex, and have no insight, or even worse, an overcomplicated theory, a difficult task becomes that much more formidable. To me, that’s the problem with most art training.

I have a theory about how teaching painting evolved. Whenever a lesser artist tries to replicate something they see in a masterpiece, the typical reaction is to compartmentalize it by making it into a rule and rigidly applying it. And then there’s the worst rule of all, “First you must learn all the rules before you can break them!” Rules are crippling because they eliminate any opportunity you have to think for yourself.

A prime example of this is the rule about halftones: “Halftones should always be cool”. The truth is, to save time, artists would often scumble their lights over the shadows to create a transition between the two, rather than mix an intermediate value. When a warm translucent light color is laid over a warm shadow tone, the result is more neutral. When a neutral is surrounded by warm tones it appears cool. I don’t know the physics behind this, but it’s the same phenomena that makes the blood vessels below your skin appear blue (yes grasshopper, blood is red!). But many artists, such as Sir Henry Raeburn, Rembrandt and Velasquez, used warm colors to bring halftone planes forward.

The problem with following rules is that a rule is by nature formulaic. Always do this: never do that. For example, the rule stating that chroma should stay consistent within the value range of color depicting a singular object. But, William Bouguereau, Jean Leon Gerome and William McGregor Paxton, shifted chroma extensively.

Even worse, rote learning is self-cannibalizing. A small number of precociously talented students may intuitively supersede the rules they were taught, and produce outstanding results, in spite of and not because of the rules they learned. But as they move up the food chain and eventually become teachers themselves, they will, in all likelihood, reiterate the same rules they were “taught” because there is no way to explain intuitive choices.

Though a school may be run by an accomplished artist, the rule following majority is screwed. When rote learning, which is essentially the memorization of rules, forms the basis of any methodology, the potential for true artistic development is severely curtailed and progress is slowed down considerably. When student work bears a strong stylistic footprint, rule following is at the root.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “practice must always be founded on sound theory… Those who are in love with practice without knowledge or like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going.” Sound theory is based on understanding, not following rules.

Noor Chadha - Before & After

Noor Chadha – Before & After

Above, are two paintings done by my student Noor Chadha, who has studied with me for exactly one year. The first painting done last fall was her first attempt at a color portrait. She painted the second one this summer. Her progress is astonishing. The number of class sessions she has taken with me is approximately 30. If she were studying full-time at an atelier, for example, she would be about 1 1/2 months in and still rendering her first barge plate. It’s not about the time spent studying, it’s about time well spent.

My goal is to transform the way my students think. l believe my approach can dramatically cut down on the amount of time it takes anyone to progress and reach higher and higher levels. Not because “that’s the way you’re supposed to do it” or “that’s the way so-and-so does it”. As Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Classes begin this Friday and Saturday, September 15 and 16th.

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting from Life

Fridays • 12:00PM – 6:00PM • Sep 15 – Dec 15 • 12 Sessions • Click here to register or find out more information about the Friday class.

Classical Portrait Painting from Life

Saturdays • 10:00AM – 4:00PM • Sep 16 – Dec 16 • 11 Sessions • Click here to register or find out more information about the Saturday class.

#PortritPaintingClasses

I gotta crow: Jocelyn Joyah Henry

 

A Student of Marvin Mattelson’s @ The School of Visual Arts

Jocelyn Henry - Geisha

Jocelyn Henry – Geisha

One of my pet peeves are teachers who teach painting in a rote manner. You know that’s the case when all the student’s works coming from a specific school or teacher have a strong stylistic imprint. I see it as a symptom of superficial training when the students’ works look just like their teachers’. There are logical underlying principles that are easily distinguishable when examining the works of truly great artists (assuming you know what to look for) and I pride myself on the fact that these principles are at the core of everything I teach. Case in point: my recently graduated student: Jocelyn Henry. She is now in training at Scenic Art Studios, who create sets for the likes of the New York City Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera. In addition to her outrageous talent, she is one of my all-time favorite people, totally down-to-earth, very clear about her own convictions and smart as a whip! She says what she means and means what she says. Here are some examples of her work from this past year in my portfolio class, and a brief description of the all-too-short time we spent together.

My time with Marvin :

I’ve been Marvin’s student for two years if you don’t count my first year at SVA when he’d sidle into my Illustration Principles class and slip me advice on the calamities I was working on at the time. At that point, I was strictly a pencil person. I could draw but was terrified of painting after many attempts with other teachers trying to explain how to create their personal style in abstract jargon when I didn’t even know that you’re supposed to at least wipe your brush if you’re going to paint a lemon after using black. Painting made me feel like an idiot and drawing didn’t, so I only drew even if I felt limited by my medium. But Marvin was able to recruit me into his classes after a year of nagging when he explained to me that drawing and painting are very much the same, and approached foreign concepts to me like chroma, value relationships, and not being an idiot, with clarity and logic instead of abstract jargon. I was shocked when I painted my first figure with him, because not only was it pretty darn good and loads of fun, but my outside projects drastically improved with the principles that I’d learned, so much so that I painted my entire junior thesis, with complicated spaces and multiple figures and light sources. The greatest thing is that after another year of his wisdom I look back at those pieces that, at the time, were the best and hardest images I’d ever done, and now I think they suck, which means I’m still growing. What’s kept me sold on Marvin (I’m now at the end of taking a full year of his Senior Portfolio class) is a couple of things. First, he makes sense. He explains thoroughly and patiently, and is willing to hold your hand as he kicks your ass and challenges you to bring your work further than you thought you’d ever go. He teaches with an objective and fact-based approach untainted by ego bias so you can learn how to stand before you dance and when you do dance, you can dance your own way. Stylization, to me, is something personal that the student needs to bring themselves when they’re ready. It’s an opinion. Marvin teaches you the facts so you can make your own fully informed opinion, which is why my work looks like my work and not a second-rate attempt at someone else’s, and I know how to make anything I want instead of relying on happy little accidents to do it for me. Second, Marvin is basically the Wizard of Oz of art and you may think that a classical portrait artist won’t be able to help you with sci-fi illustrations or inked comics or whatever weird crap you’re into. Well you’re wrong, because he’s earned his salt as an artist working just about every kind of gig there is, from ink cartoons to acrylic advertisements to scientifically accurate illustrations depicting creatures that went extinct a jillion year ago. Combined with his good sense of design, he’s got something in his pocket for everybody. Even you, scarecrow. And the greatest part is, if he DOESN’T know something, he’ll tell you. He’s not the type to act like he knows everything, and is willing to learn and grow along with you instead of being hung up in a stale routine. In puzzling times, he helps you look to previous masters and identify what it was they did that made them successful, and why. He’s shown me so many artists that I’d never heard of that have influenced the work I do now, as well as broken down and demystified their techniques so I can pick and choose from a huge buffet of genius to inform the way I approach making an image. Finally, he’s just a genuine and fun guy, and truly cares about his students’ understanding and growth. Work never feels like work and he’s more of a valuable and enriching friend to me than some professor I’m never going to think about after graduation. I’d be pretty scared for my future if it weren’t for him, but instead I’m looking at it with a relaxed and honest confidence in my abilities. So that’s pretty cool.

– Jocelyn Henry

Jocelyn Henry - Statue

Jocelyn Henry – Statue

 

Jocelyn Henry - Wet

Jocelyn Henry – Wet

 

Jocelyn Henry - Wet

Jocelyn Henry – Wet

 

Jocelyn Henry - Roo

Jocelyn Henry – Roo

 

Jocelyn Henry - Monkeys

Jocelyn Henry – Monkeys

 

Jocelyn Henry - Boots

Jocelyn Henry – Boots

 

Jocelyn Henry - Lizard

Jocelyn Henry – Lizard

If you want to see more of Jocelyn’s amazing work or to commission her to do some spectacular illustrations for some project that needs spicing up, here is her website: www.jhenry.work. Jocelyn was a full-time undergraduate at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Visit this link if you’re interested in applying to SVA. Fortunately, you can also study with me if being a full-time student isn’t practical. Click here if you’re interested learning about or registering in my continuing education classes at SVA.

Until next time…

Marvin Mattelson Realistic Portrait Drawing Workshop

June 5-9 @ The School of Visual Arts in New York City

I’ll be leading a drawing workshop at the School of Visual Arts in New York City from June 5-9 (9 AM- 5 PM daily).

I believe that my workshops are fundamentally different than those led by other people. My main focus it is on changing the way you think about making art. Mark Twain said it best, “When you do what you’ve done, you get what you’ve gotten.” If you want to be a better artist, you need to learn to think like a better artist. It’s not about learning a little trick or two and it certainly isn’t about learning more rules. But don’t worry, the course is packed with more technical information than you could ever imagine.

But why listen to me. Although I’ve been at every workshop I’ve ever led, I’ve never had the opportunity to actually experience one first-hand.  Then it hit me, wouldn’t the best explanation come from a former student who actually participated in one of my drawing workshops. So what follows is the text from an email that my former student, Mary Beth Lumley, sent to me following the workshop she took. I’ve also enclosed some pictures of her exquisite drawing for your viewing pleasure.

Marvin, how can I ever thank you for this week?? What a wonderful, eye-opening adventure it was. I so enjoyed meeting you and having the honor of spending time with you. I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned from you into action and have been working all morning to rearrange my condo (read also: life) to create space for the development of my artwork. I know I’m only one of hundreds of students you’ve encouraged and artists’ lives you’ve helped to transform, but you made me feel so special and have left an indelible impression on my art and my life.

Going into your drawing workshop, I had hoped to gain a fresh perspective and learn some fundamentals I could apply to what I already knew about drawing. I had no idea what I was about to experience. Like so many of your students, I thought I had some knowledge on the subject, but right away I realized the smartest thing I could do would be to leave behind what I knew and fully embrace your incredibly unique methodology. You didn’t just teach me to draw, you taught me to see — a universal skill I can apply to everything I create, regardless of the medium.

So few people have the ability to operate at the level you do artistically, but even fewer have the skills and desire to teach others how it’s done. You took what you learned about us as individuals and you developed custom, innovative teaching methods using them to push each of us to new levels. You understand how people learn and seem to genuinely thrive off of your students’ progress. Selfless with your wealth of knowledge, you jumped at any opportunity to share what you know with your students. After only six days, every one of us walked away with more knowledge than we could have ever hoped to achieve in that time-frame and for that amount of money. This workshop was, without a doubt, the best investment I’ve ever made in the development of my skills as an artist.

I cannot thank you enough for everything you taught me this week, Marvin. You are a spectacular teacher and person, and I will be counting down the days until I can study with you again.

Mary Beth Lumley

 

 

If you’d like to hear what others have said regarding their experience of studying with Marvin, you can read additional student feedback here.

To attend the drawing workshop please call 212-592-2200 or you may register online now. If you are interested in further information, you can read about the course here.

I’m also leading a 2 week workshop: Portrait Painting: The Real Deal from August 14-25. You can register online as well, or call 212-592-2200.

There will also be an open house at The School of Visual Arts on Thursday, May 11, at 6:30. I’ll be giving a short presentation about my summer workshops. I’d love to see you there and I’d definitely love to see you at the workshop.

Until next time…

“When you do what you’ve done, you get what you’ve gotten.” Mark Twain

Marvin Mattelson Summer Workshops at SVA@NYC

Edward_Cripps_full

Recent Posthumous Portrait of Edward Cripps by Marvin Mattelson

Contrary to popular belief, doing the same thing over and over doesn’t necessarily make you better. Many great achievers, such as Mark Twain, have echoed this same sentiment. For example, the writer/philosopher Rita Mae Brown has stated, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

If you want to become a better painter, you need to transform the way you think about making paintings. Simply put, the idea of going to a workshop and picking up a trick or two is not going to make a significant difference in the quality of the work you do. “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading,” cautioned Lao Tzu.

So if doing what you’ve always done isn’t the answer, what is? Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” If you want to achieve greatness you need to approach what you do with the same mindset as the greatest painters in history. I have dedicated my life to uncovering the common threads that bind the greatest classical artists, such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velasquez, Van Dyck, Raeburn, Lawrence, DeCamp and Paxton.

This summer I’ll be sharing my observations at the School of Visual Arts in New York City during my one-week portrait drawing workshop and my two-week oil portrait painting workshop. In the past, people have made remarkable progress in a very condensed time period. Your mileage may vary. Hope to see you there.

5 Day Realistic Portrait Drawing Workshop
June 6 – 10, 2016
Find out more information about this workshop
Register online or call 212.592.2200

11 Day Realistic Portrait Painting Workshop
August 1 – 12, 2016 – No class August 7.
Find out more information about this workshop
Register online or call 212.592.2200
This course may also be taken for credit. Please call the registrar’s office @ 212.592.2200 for more information.

Edward_Cripps_hs

Paxtonesque

The Boston School –  A Portrait Painting Pilgrim’s Progress

 

Paxton2Models

William McGregor Paxton – Two Models

 

There are a relatively small number of artists whose work I would classify as extraordinary. These artists all make paintings that showcase finely modeled form, enveloped by atmosphere and bathed in light. When artfully applied, those effects make compelling images that much more so, and are, most importantly, never an end unto themselves. Though each great artist has an easily recognizable and seemingly unique style, it occurred to me that there must be common denominators, some kind of underlying framework they all share. After all, don’t all great minds think alike?

Looking at reproductions offered very few answers. I needed to see originals, to analyze the actual colors and the way the paint was applied. So I made it a point, whenever the opportunity would arise, to check out original art by the painters I admire the most: Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vermeer, Van Dyke, Ingres, Raeburn, Lawrence, Kramskoy, Bouguereau, Gerome, Monsted, Paxton and DeCamp.

DecampVio2

Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II)

 

Living just a hop, skip, and jump from New York City, I’m privy to great museums, galleries and auction houses. So in essence, a plethora of great works have practically deposited themselves at my front door, so I rarely feel the desire to travel afar. However, I recently paid a visit to Vose Galleries on Newbury Street in Boston to see their current offering, The Boston School Tradition: Truth, Beauty and Timeless Craft, a collection of close to seventy paintings by Boston School artists, including six each by two of my very favorites: William McGregor Paxton and Joseph Rodefer DeCamp. The show runs until July 18. If you have a chance to check it out, I think it would be well worth your while, if not, here’s a little summary of the highlights of my pilgrimage.

DecampDetail

Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II) – detail

 

According to my calculations, at one time or another, I’ve seen 23 original Paxton paintings and a mere three by DeCamp. Paxton’s Tea Leaves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, here in New York, and DeCamp’s The Blue Mandarin Coat at the High Museum in Atlanta, have had as profound an effect on my ideas about picture making as any other paintings I’ve seen. This would be the first opportunity for me to see and compare so many by both artists. Carey Vose, one of the galleries’ owners, told me that having that many DeCamps available — something that had never previously happened — was the impetus behind putting this show together. And just to sweeten the pot, for me, The Museum of Fine Arts Boston – according to their website — had two paintings on view, one by each artist, that I had never seen in person. That’s seven paintings each!

Paxton-BluJar

William McGregor Paxton – The Blue Jar

 

Vose Galleries is located in a brownstone built in 1899. It’s composed of a series of rooms located on 5 levels. According to my fitness app I walked up (and down) 17 flights of stairs going back and forth comparing aspects of one painting to the next. The most impressive DeCamp at Vose was The Kreutzer Sonata (The Violinist II). It’s a painterly tour de force. Virtuosic! The violinist’s left hand is pure alchemy, simultaneously understated, and at the same time, profoundly informative. Unlike most of the artists who attempt to work this way, DeCamp never swirls the brush for its own sake. By his own volition, he was first and foremost a tonalist, like his idol Velasquez. The credo of another Velasquez disciple, Carlos Duran, perfectly sums up the genius of DeCamp: to achieve the maximum by means of the minimum. DeCamp’s brushwork is unparalleled but his ability to break the form down into totally abstract yet supremely coherent shapes is also second to none. Unfortunately, DeCamp’s portrait Mr. Joseph Baker which I was very interested in viewing — since I have never seen an original by him of a male subject — had already been shipped to a buyer. That was disappointing.

Paxton-BluJar2

William McGregor Paxton – The Blue Jar – detail

 

I was taken aback as I stepped up to examine Paxton’s The Blue Jar. Based on the reproductions I had seen — including the one I’ve posted above — the light areas look very smooth and bleached out. I couldn’t believe how much broken color and impasto paint texture was there. It was interesting to compare the painterly head to his Portrait Of A Young Woman In Blue with its enamel-like surface, which is more indicative of the way he normally rendered flesh.

WmnBluDress

William McGregor Paxton – Portrait Of A Young Woman In Blue – detail

 

However, the Paxton which impressed me the most was his figurative masterwork Two Models. I had seen it reproduced numerous times previously – I even possess a 4×5 transparency — but I wasn’t expecting what I saw. The original just blew me away. The contrast was far more subtle. The cast shadow on the back wall wasn’t nearly as dark as I assumed and there were more subtle value shifts within its shape. The modeling of the flesh was absolutely exquisite, with very life-like coloration. I could almost discern the subtle rise and fall of the ribcage on the closest model.

Paxton2Models3

William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail

 

Paxton’s chroma and hue gradations created so much spacial illusion. His deft turning of the form, using neutrals, was perfect. He created such a convincing sense of space and atmosphere, a quality I’ve rarely seen matched. When he’s at his best, Paxton’s paintings feel like dioramas set within the picture frame.

Paxton2Models2

William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail

 

My two favorite details were: a neural plane next to a chromatic halftone, of the same value, on the near cheek of the closest figure, and the way he alternated soft and sharp edges to model the back of the far figure. I also love the neutral edge plane under her breast, as well as the hue and chroma shifts starting from her right arm and progressing over to her left arm. These are the kind of touches which clearly demonstrate to me just how intelligent a painter he was. Every aspect worked perfectly. The boldly stated smaller touches never called attention to themselves or superseded the overall effect. As I closely examined the painting, I felt like I was inside Paxton’s head and could fully appreciate the decision making behind each stroke. It was a very validating moment for me.

Paxton2Models4

William McGregor Paxton – Two Models – detail

 

Eventually I departed and I made my way over to the Museum of Fine Arts, which I had last visited ten years ago. Since then the Museum had expanded significantly, perhaps almost doubling in size. Last time there I had seen the The Guitar Player by DeCamp and Nude Seated by Paxton. Now, thanks to the additional gallery space, a greater number of Boston School artists were on display. This time, both artists were represented by two works apiece, the aforementioned ones plus The Blue Cup by DeCamp and The New Necklace by Paxton. Both paintings at the MFA were gorgeous. A reproduction of The New Necklace was actually the first Paxton I had ever seen. It was on the cover of the catalogue for a Paxton show that took place at Indianapolis Museum of Art in 1974. While browsing at the Met’s gift shop in 1988, I serendipitously picked up a copy. So finally seeing the original brought me full circle. It’s a great work but my all-time favorites are Tea Leaves and The Breakfast, and now of course Two Models.

DeCamp-BluCup

Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Blue Cup

 

Decamps’s The Blue Cup was a breathtaking symphony of brushwork and subtle tones, even better than the The Violinist II that I had just seen at the Vose. I love the way he reduced the chroma on her left arm to push it back into the atmosphere. I still love the The Blue Mandarin Coat, but this one comes within a whisker.

DeCamp-BluCup2

Joseph Rodefer DeCamp – The Blue Cup – detail

 

My takeaway from all of this was an even greater admiration for both artists, but particularly Paxton. Both he and DeCamp were constantly searching out new ideas and approaches, technically as well as compositionally. To me, Decamp’s brushwork beats out Paxton’s by a nose, but I prefer the way Paxton handled edges. I am definitely nit-picking here, but I feel that Decamp’s edges are sometimes a bit too sharp and more apt to flatten the space. But it’s Paxton’s use of color that truly distinguishes him, in my book. The way he creates compositional color harmonies to convey a sense of illusion within a strong abstract design are incredibly innovative. I feel no artist, before or since, has so succinctly married academic form and the Impressionist notion of true color notes. Was either artist always successful? Of course not, but they both obviously learned from their miscues and were able to grow. In fact, The Blue Manderin Coat was the DeCamps’ last painting. I can definitely relate to their penchant for seeking more. Hunger is what drives an artist to excel.

Although I love many aspects of both artists’ works I have no interest in making paintings that resemble theirs. That, in my mind, is a fools errand. I see things differently and I am a product of another time. However there are very valuable lessons to be learned and I like to think I’ve been able to tap into this shared mindset with regard to the choices I make. These same ideas serve as the cornerstone for all my teaching.

When it comes to painting, the pictorial strategy used by great artists in their representation of spacial illusion, within the context of brilliant composition, is what intrigues me the most. I refer to any such a painting — in which every aspect comes together flawlessly, regardless of whomever painted it — as: Paxtonesque!

Until next time…