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

Marvin Mattelson Summer Workshops at SVA@NYC


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.



The Boston School –  A Portrait Painting Pilgrim’s Progress



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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…

Marvin Mattelson’s Foundation Painting Class at SVA

Award Winning Painting Student Mary Searless


Marvin and Mary Searless


Can any thrill compare to that of being a proud parent? When my sons were growing up, the amount of pride I took from even their smallest achievements far eclipsed whatever I experienced from my own. It was gratifying to feel that I might have contributed to their successes, even it happened to be in the smallest of ways. Now that my sons have grown and flown the nest I no longer have the opportunity to experience their achievements on a daily basis. Fortunately, teaching allows me to share the knowledge I’ve been cultivating my entire life and to watch it utilized by my students in their artistic pursuits. To this day, when a student takes anything I’ve told them and manifests it in a constructive way, I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

One of the classes I teach at the School of Visual Arts in New York is Foundation Painting. Each class is run at the discretion of the teacher. My approach is a pretty rigorous training program for kids right out of high school. This past year’s class was great. My students were very talented, extremely motivated and hard working. What more could a teacher ask for? They really bought into my methodology and applied themselves whole heartedly. The Foundation Painting class is unique in that it spans a full school year. It’s a two semester class, while all my other classes are one semester long. The extended time frame gives me the opportunity to bring the students around more slowly and reinforce all the various aspects of my teaching.

My goal is to give the students as thorough an understanding of the technique of oil painting and more importantly, of how to control the illusion of light, solidity, depth and atmosphere. It’s important to me that what they learn dovetails with their own intrinsic artistic identity. I want them to develop their own style, and not be clones of myself.


Class painting by Elisa Karjalainen


In class we work exclusively from live models. I think it’s important that my students experience the spacial aspects of reality, so in the future they know how to integrate these effects if they need to work from photo reference. During the first semester we focus on working from the nude, starting with charcoal drawings to learn better accuracy. Then we move on to doing wash-in (imprimatura) monochromatic under-paintings. From there we go to color mixing and ultimately, building up layers of color to achieve the finished effects. For the second semester we work from a costumed figure and eventually transition to a complex two figure set-up with props and drapery (see the above painting by Elisa Karjalainen which was painted this semester). The students are also required to create paintings on their own as homework assignments.

At the end of the year the school holds a Foundation Painting exhibit. The work was juried from over 300 students. Each was permitted to submit one painting. When I walked into the studio I was stunned to see that out of all those those submissions only 22 were selected to hang in the gallery and be eligible for award consideration. I thought it was astounding that out of all those students, five of mine had been included in the show and that my student,  Mary Searles, had been awarded the medal for third place. The chair of the Fine Arts Department, Suzanne Anker, was at the opening and was extremely complimentary about the quality of the work my students had produced. It was a great night.

I’m very proud to present the paintings here:


Mary Searless – Third Place Medal Winner



Mayerling Soto



Kaitlynanne Russo



Gene Zhao



Elisa Karjalainen


Now if that wasn’t gratifying enough, I just received the following notification. At the end of each semester every student is asked to rate their teacher’s performance. On the form there’s an option to anonymously comment and I wanted to share what one student wrote:

Marvin is an extremely well rounded artist, if that’s even a valid term. I am thankful for what I learned in this class, and I will keep it with me for as long as I live. Learning traditional painting techniques was one of the best things I participated in this school year.

It just doesn’t get better than that.

Until next time…

Marvin Mattelson’s Continuing Education Painting Classes – Winter/Spring 2015

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting Classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City


Mia by Carol Katz

“If I had your technique I would be a great artist!” I get this all the time, but nothing could be further from the truth. “If only I could paint tighter!” “If only I could be more painterly!” I hate to be the bearer of bad news; it’s not about technique. I tell my students that Rembrandt would have been able to create masterpieces with a bucket of mud and a mop! A lot of artists seem to feel that they will somehow magically figure it out all on their own. I know I did. Problem is, you can’t get there from here!


Katya by Sijia Xie

The way painting is generally presented in books and classes made no sense to me. Allegedly it’s visceral, but in reality you get a plethora of random rules. So how exactly can one learn the core truths that form the basis of representational art. When I looked at the work of the great masters, there was obviously a strong underlying logic. That’s what I tried to discover on my own, the hidden mindset! And as it turned out, I got pretty far, but not far enough. Eventually, I realized I would never get it on my own, so I found someone to study with and to help me fill in the blanks. His name was John F. Murray and I will be forever grateful for the time we spent together. John had been a student of the legendary Frank Reilly’s. Reilly was a man with a questioning nature, not unlike me, who believed the common bond shared by the best artists was deep understanding. To be a great painter you need to think like one.


Mia by Debby Waldron

From the beginning of my studies with John, I was amazed at how succinctly my own conclusions dovetailed with Reilly’s. I truly believe had I continued on my own, I would have eventually figured it all out. The only problem was, it would have taken me several lifetimes to get there. What I learned turbocharged my understanding, which I’m happy to say, is continuously evolving. It has allowed me, and so many of my students, to become the artists of our dreams. If you’d like to shave a couple of centuries – or at least a few decades – off of your struggle, you should come study with me.


Dayna by Jessica Pester

I’ll be teaching two continuing education classes at the School of Visual Arts in New York City that run for 12 sessions each:

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting (FPC-2010-CE) is on Fridays from 12:00 PM to 6:00 PM and begins January 30. You can register for the Friday class here.

Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting (FPC-2010-CE1) is on Saturdays from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM and begins January 31. You can register for the Saturday class here.

On Wednesday January 6th there is an open house for those interested in learning more about what the school has to offer. This information session will be held at 133/141 West 21st Street, room 602C, 6th floor. Session begins promptly at 6:30 PM. I’ll be there so please stop by and say hello.


Katya by Guilherme Ghignone E Silva

Sprinkled throughout this post are some painting from my continuing ed classes this past fall semester. Some are beginners and other’s more seasoned. They all took great strides forward.  Each was able to capture a true sense of liveliness and a feeling of solid form. Those qualities form the basis of all noteworthy figurative painting. I also feel it’s important to not lose your hand. I don’t try to turn my students into Mini Me’s. I love that each student’s work has a unique quality. The idea is to become the best version of yourself by making insightful choices.


Mia by Pablo Almonte

Until next time…

Marvin Mattelson’s Latest Oil Portrait Commission: Fang Fenglei


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: