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:


New York Portrait Artist Workshop Demonstration – Day 1


Today was the first day of my Oil Portrait Workshop at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, my last workshop of the 2013 calendar year. After a brief introduction, I spent the day explaining and demonstrating my procedure for the wash-in, the painting’s foundation layer (see above). My mantra: work large to small.

Below you can see the steps I took:










For the next two days my lucky students will be working on their wash-ins. On Thursday, I’ll attempt my first color layer.

Until next time…

The You Can’t Get There From Here School of Color Mixing

Get Lost? Not if a Portrait Artist Knows His Latitude, Longitude and Altitude.

Maybe it’s because I started out as an illustrator, but I think of myself primarily as a problem solver. A problem solving portrait artist! That’s why I love painting portraits so much. To me a portrait painting is a giant conundrum waiting to be unraveled. My approach to coming up with the best answer is hierarchical, going from large to small. I face the biggest issues first, and from there I keep navigating my way down to and through the minutia. The most prevalent question–what color do I want and how do I go about mixing it?–is the problem we painters ask ourselves most often. We precede every stroke with a touch–or many, many, touches–of the brush to the palette.

I don’t really like to use color theory with regards to overall color composition. It can easily become predictable, were every painting looks the same. Boring! I like to play around and find a harmony that sings to me. There are intrinsic limitations with every problem. The best solutions are the ones which turn those into strong points. In a portrait we always start with our sitter, and work backwards from there. I like flattering my subjects while staying honest to their character. I don’t think it’s a matter of one versus the other. I choose clothing and background elements that I feel work the best. When a client wants a particular item of clothing or a specific background included, I need to find the best way to create unity. With regards to solving problems, its necessary to realize that one exists. The more specifically I can clarify it, the greater my chances of succeeding.

Once I’ve worked it all out I can go ahead and paint. Since I have taken great care with my compositional decisions, I feel that being faithful to the colors I’ve chosen makes the most sense. In the detail above, from my portrait of the Hart-Cohen Family, you can see that the seemingly daunting task of painting her hoodie could have been a real deal breaker. However, when mixing a color, the more specificity I can describe it, the better my chances of nailing it. I know a lot of people use warm/cool terminology to specify their intended mixtures, but if you read my post on that subject, you know I feel it’s not specific enough to go on. The reason is, if warm and cool are terms both used to describe shifts in hue as well as intensity–two totally different characteristics of color–confusion can easily result. Furthermore, depending on what you add to cool or warm a color you will invariably make it lighter or darker in the process. It’s the color mixing equal of you can’t get there from here. Most people learn about color in two dimensions: value and temperature. If we break down color into three dimensions: hue, value and chroma, you’ll always know where you are and how to get there from here. Using a GPS tracking device won’t tell you which floor your stolen computer is on. You need to know latitude, longitude and altitude. Being able to specifically describe the hue, value and chroma gave me the kind of control I needed to turn a potential disaster into a big win.

I was very lucky, when I started painting, to discover the theories of Albert Munsell. Munsell developed a system of color identification based on describing hue, value and chroma.

Until next time…

Happily Negative? I’m Positive!

Portrait Artist or Negative Spin Doctor

I am by nature a very happy person. I love what I do. I have a great family. I have relationships with people I admire and respect, who seem to return the favor. I’m very excited by the way my clients respond to my portraits. Never, in my wildest imagination did I ever think I’d be capable of creating the kind of paintings I do. When I think about where I came from and what I can now do, I have to pinch myself. So you would think that I would be very positive about everything I do, but in the heat of battle, my biggest weapon is being negative.

When I’m painting, what jumps out at me are the areas that don’t work. The more egregious the error the more it screams for my attention. I don’t actively focus on areas that are working, because if something works, there is nothing I can do about it. I guess I could admire it, but it’s hard to pat oneself on the back while trying to paint. (I’ve actually seen that attempted, but the result looked like poop!) What commands my attention? That which is out of whack. So, for positive results, I focus on the negative.

I critique my students the same way–with a slight caveat–because I don’t want to hurt their feelings, I offer a little praise. Praise may make you feel better, but learning to see mistakes will make you paint better. Only by finding out what doesn’t work, what needs fixing, or what’s out of kilter, can you can hope to improve. I don’t care about my own feelings, so I’m as brutal as I need be. And I am very, very brutal. Let it suffice to say, when my internal dialog is in full sync, a longshoremen’s ears would melt, because I’m extremely hard on myself.

My student, Julia, is the same way. During the course of the day, when I come over and I ask her how it’s going she always says, “It sucks!” She focused on what’s not working. Now, most people on earth would cut off their right arm to suck as much as Julia does. LOL. Eventually she acknowledges that the degree of suckiness is subsiding. So I came up with a mantra, “It sucks…it sucks…it sucks less…it sucks less…it’s success!”

I don’t have a set formula: Marvin Mattelson’s Magic Method for Painting Perfection. I follow a basic large-to-small hierarchy, until something bothers me. Once sighted, it must immediately be attended to, with the understanding that as I modify each aspect, I am affecting all the others. Change one thing, it affects everything. I will correct whatever bothers me the most, knowing that, it most likely will need future correction. I then return to my big to small progression. You can see my approach in the above portrait artist workshop demonstration I painted. (You can also see it in greater detail on my website.)

Knowing that everything is in flux eliminates the pressure of being perfect. My stroke-by-stroke goal is simple–make it less wrong. As crazy as it sounds, when I discover my mistakes it makes me happy. It means maybe I just got a bit smarter. I think it’s far more practical to learn to identify and correct mistakes than being perfect. If it looks perfect now, it probably won’t after I apply the next stroke. Perfection is something I move towards. I keep responding to what’s wrong and gradually my painting gets better. When nothing else jumps out at me, I know I’m finished.

This idea of focusing on the negative is not just limited to oil painting. For me that’s pretty much the way I see everything. I appreciate the good but it’s the bad that gets my attention. I have a strong sense of justice and I want to fix what doesn’t work. Obviously, in the world today that would be a huge undertaking, so for the sake of expediency I’ve chosen to focus on representational painting–particularly with regards to portraiture–and it’s teaching. More than enough windmills to tilt at there.

With regards to this blog, you may have noticed, I’ve been pointing out a variety of things that make me just want to shake my head. As a life long teacher, I want to expose all the nonsense encumbering our journey and replace it a greater awareness. There are more than enough folks out there extolling the many virtues of all that I find questionable. That’s not to say I’m immune to heaping the odd platitude where it warranted, but praise alone won’t ever effect change. So I’ll just continue being negative. Of that you can be positive.

Until next time…