Saturday, January 25, 2014

Five Hour Portrait Sketch

In this post I'd like to walk through an alla prima portrait sketch approach.  Here is the final result:


The canvas is prepared with an oil-based ground of Gamblin Oil Painting Ground thinned to the consistency of milk.  This "sizes" (water seals) the canvas and makes the surface less absorbent so that the paint will flow and the strokes will hold up their shape without sinking into the canvas weave.  A warm semi-transparent tone is then applied to the canvas  using a mix of raw umber (50%), yellow ochre (30%),  ultramarine blue (10%) and alizarin crimson (10%), thinned with mineral spirits. 

For a convenient self-portrait the canvas can be placed directly on a long mirror so that you have the option of painting in "sight-size" where the reflected image in the mirror is exactly equal in height and width to the drawing. 

Stage 1: Block-In

The purpose of this stage is to lay in a rough drawing, capturing the major simplified shapes and their relative proportions using a warm, dark transparent wash that approximates the main shadow color.  It's best to use large bristle brushes and create the initial drawing using straight lines and simplified shapes which will make it easier to evaluate the relative proportions. 


Stage 2: Open Grisaille

Once the major proportions of the shadow shapes have been defined, bristle brushes are used with plenty of thinner to scrape away the under-tone and indicate the light areas by allowing the white of the ground to show through.  This is called an "open" grisaille because white paint is not used.  

Stage 3: Posterizing

The "average mid-tone" colors for the 3 or 4 largest shapes are mixed and laid in side by side so that their relationship can be compared on the basis of temperature (warmer / cooler) and value (darker / lighter).  Typically this is the background, shadow shape, light fleshtone and clothing. These colors are laid in as flat "poster" shapes for easy comparison.  Once they are all adjusted to work harmoniously they form the basis of the value structure of the painting.   In mixing the "average" it is best to err on the side of darker middle values and low saturation.  It's also important to keep a bit of clean thinner in the brush so that this layer will dry quickly.  Pay attention to edges and "service the big shapes" by resisting the temptation to paint in smaller details.  Maintain the simplest, biggest shapes possible. 

Stage 4: Mid-Tone Mass-In

At this stage the brush is loaded with medium (50% stand oil, 50% thinner).  The major shapes are broken down to the next level and the large mid-tone colors are massed in with large brushes starting with the shadow shapes and working into the mid-tones.  The values are kept in the middle range for now. 

At this stage the drawing needs refinement, and a more precise exploration of the anatomical shapes.  I find it helpful to do a quick exploratory study of the major planes and shadow shapes, in keeping with the anatomical shapes identified by John Henry Vanderpoel in his classic "The Human Figure".

Using the drawing as a guide yields further refinement.  The "architectural integrity" of the major planes is maintained, with well-defined edges that blend into each other without losing their borders.  This way the sense of form and the structure of the head does not become "mushy" or "wobbly":

Stage 5: Modeling

At this stage more sensitive modeling is painted using a wider value range, crawling across the form from the shadows to the lights, but using "temperature" changes rather than exaggerated value changes to articulate the turning of the form.

Stage 6: Finish

Now working all around the painting rather than "crawling" across the form, the highlights, dark accents and saturated "broken color" passages are used to make important features like the nose extend out into space and draw attention to important moments such as the red of the lips, the high points of the chin, and center of interest in the model's right eye. 

Here is a detail of these finishing passages.  Note the "broken color" on the chin, and the transition from the "hot" pink of the right cheek to the "cooler" pink of the same value as the cheek turns:

Friday, June 15, 2012

Painterly Printing

I was introduced to the monotype printing method at the Salmagundi Club's recurring Monotype Parties which are hosted by Master Printmaker Robert Pillsbury.  The monotype (or "monoprint") technique creates a single, unique print and allows a very painterly approach to printmaking.  Ink is rolled onto a metal plate and then wiped away by using the "subtractive" method that is identical to creating an "open grisaille" or "wipeout" underpainting.  In the subtractive method, the plate (usually copper but can be plexiglass for tracing a drawing)  is covered with ink and the lights are "rubbed out" with a variety of brushes, styluses and other mark-making tools.

When the print is pulled on wet paper, the result is Tonalism at its best: smoky, atmospheric, and moody with loose, expressive edges. This style was exemplified in the 19th century by painters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, George Inness, and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

"East Hampton Beach Path No. 1",  2012.
Monotype Print, 6x9 inches, by Thomas Shelford

Monotype printmaking tips:

  • Create a medium-value  "ground by covering the plate with a  "mid-tone" using a soft rag.  Soften the ground tone into a cloudy, smoky haze by brushing it with a soft makeup brush such as the type that is used to apply blush.
  • Work into the ground tone both additively (by adding ink) and subtractively (by scraping away ink).  
  • Work soft-to-hard by beginning the drawing with a broad, soft, hazy application, (for example, by using Q-Tips to loosely "draw" the light areas)  and then gradually hardening selected edges at the center of interest as the drawing progresses. 
  • Use two types of ink, sepia and cold black, and mix them together to create a rich color with a unique warm-cool balance that is to your liking. 
  • Use a very diverse combination of drawing tools to obtain a wide variety of surface effects and a "layered" feeling.  Makeup Q-Tips, makeup brushes of all types,  bristle brushes, wooden chopsticks and toothpicks leave unique marks.  

Charles Brand Printing Press
Tools of the Trade

A great place to learn and practice monotype printmaking is The Lower East Side Print Shop which offers residencies to working artists, providing 24x7 access to their facilities which include a Charles Brand press.  I recently completed a residency at LESPS and exhibited the results, a series of monotype landscapes, with Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor.

Lastly, here is a recommended book for learning about the history of monotype printmaking:

The Painterly Print: Monotypes from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, by Sue Welsh Reed.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"It's Been Done"

I was listening to stories from the landscape painter Albert Handell at the Salmagundi Club's "American Masters" exhibition.  In the 1950s Albert was considered to be a very odd walking anachronism indeed for painting realistic landscapes, in spite of his ability to capture the volume and movement of water with broad expressive brush strokes that would put his contemporary Mr. Pollock to shame. Albert often heard the following rebuke when he mentioned that he was a realist:

"Realism is a waste of time, it's already been done by the Old Masters.  Why bother with a stale format? Do something original!"

"Rocky Mountain Stream", 24 x 40 in. by Albert Handell

Fifty years later, and it's still difficult to have a discussion about this topic in the current culture, where novelty is given the place of honor, and the definition of Art is so broad that it is almost impossible to engage in a meaningful dialogue. Instead, I give up on "ArtSpeak" and look for insight by re-casting the argument in a musical context in order to see how it holds up.  

For example, take a mature artistic genre in the musical space, such as guitar-based Rock N' Roll.  I can imagine a conversation with Bono in the year 1982, as U2 was about to release the War album.  In this thought experiment, some fictional critic might have asked him:
"Hey Bono, why are you bothering with this Rock N' Roll format? Your primary instrument of expression, the guitar, dates from the 1600s!  The Rock N' Roll genre itself is 40+ years old already, and it's already been done by Chuck Berry and Elvis!  It's now 1982, do you actually think you're going to have a more unique sound than the Beatles, using that same old arrangement of lead guitar, bass, drums and  vocals? Do you really expect your silly U2 experiment to be more original in an artistic sense than the Velvet Underground, or David Bowie?  Forget it, Bono! Rock N' Roll is a dead horse, as done as Latin!  
Not to mention, in terms of the limitations of the medium, there are only 12 major chords on the guitar.  Furthermore, there is the issue of subject matter and relevance.  In popular Rock N' Roll  music, isn't it always about romantic heartbreak or about rebellion against authority?  So limiting!  And you Mr. Bono want to extend the genre by singing about politics for heaven's sake? Bob Dylan already did that 20 years ago!  You're going to be better at it than the poet radical?  Do something original!"
And so on...

Obviously, no-one would make such a ridiculous argument in a musical context, even concerning a 
well-worn  genre such as popular guitar-based Rock N Roll music, with its standardized AABA format and song structure of introduction-verse-build-chorus-bridge-solo-finale.  

Yet in spite of the fact that the guitar originated in the 1600s, has only 6 strings and 60 standard chords, it's been one of the primary sources of original modern popular music since Django Reinhardt in the 1930s.

By contrast let's get back to the subject of painting, and limit the sub-genre to naturalistic, representational oil painting on canvas.

  • The subject matter: All  of visible nature.  In contemporary figurative realism alone the range of expression varies from the floating outer space bodies of Odd Nerdrum to the hyper-realistic psychological intimacy of David Kassan to the lyrical poetry of Jeremy Lipking.
  • The mode of expression:  Millions of color combinations. The Munsell Color System corrals the oil paint color gamut into quantifiable chunks at regular intervals of hue, value and saturation and still ends up with 1500 pleasing visual chords. 
  • The medium: Oil paint, with its infinitely variable optical properties of transparency and texture is applied in thousands of brush strokes, each carrying a unique signature.  A painting is a layered physical object, a cast or mold preserving the thousands of movements of the painter's body over many hours.

Detail of a head study painting by David Kassan

The capacity of realistic oil painting for diversity and originality of expression is astonishing, and each generation points this infinitely versatile medium at its contemporary subject matter.  

As the undaunted Mr. Handell said to me at the end of our conversation, 
"So, it's been done, eh?
Well, it hasn't been done yet by ME!" 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Nude Bares(sic) Repeating

A favorite topic amid the celebratory buzz of The Great Nude Invitational was that the resurgence of figurative painting has finally reached a critical mass. News of the resurgence has even leaked to the far corners of the Hamptons, which hosted the young turks of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field Painting in the 1940s and 50s. The region has long had a love affair (hangover?) with abstraction ever since those fondly recalled days. Interior designers keep the flame of abstract minimalism alive, since large flat decorative swaths of thinned cerulean work well over the sofas of the East End's white-walled beach mansions built by junk bond moguls in the 1980s.

But the zeitgeist is shifting. My viewpoint on the changing climate was referenced in an article by arts journalist Pat Rogers about the return of the figure, along with that of photographer / video artist Jane Martin who beautifully dissolves the nude behind screens of mist and water.

So the figure is back and she is being led by the hand into the spotlight by young artists like Adam Miller. It's happening. But what is driving it? If we want to encourage the trend it would help to know.

Painting by Adam Miller"Seaside" by Adam Miller

Business As Usual for 35,000 Years

An easy answer to the question "why now?" would be that humans are simply back to the "business as usual" which started our 35,000 years ago with the Hohle Fels Venus statuettes (Photo by H. Jensen, Universität Tübingen). According to this mode of thinking, modernism will turn out to be a brief 80 year interruption caused by the ironic joke of Duchamp, whose pranks were a necessary breath of fresh air at the time but were taken a little too far for a little too long. After all, why should today's painters pay much heed to a fellow who didn't think very highly of "ocular" art in the first place, and would rather be playing chess?

Abstraction vs. Realism? Really?

Another easy answer is that there is no art historical conflict here worth discussing, because the distinction between abstraction and representation is an artificial one that has disappeared for all practical purposes. Realist painters have internalized and co-opted the critical language, processes, narrative and concepts of modernism since Eric Fischl and Vince Desiderio made their intellectual forays in the 1980s against the "painting is dead" crowd. I don't know very many realists who claim that their job is to be a visual journalist by faithfully coping nature, yet I often hear painters talk about interpreting their authentic visual experience through the language of abstract shapes and imposing a conceptual understanding of the subject matter, whether that concept entails psychological presence, narrative, or form itself.

Both of these attitudes have a case to make, but I suspect there is a deeper cultural shift at work. Young artists are experiencing global interconnectedness via the environmental movement and issues like global climate change. They are hyper-connected in their informational nakedness on the internet, and after 8 hours a day on Facebook and in the studio craving the desire for real human connection.
The economic climate may have been the point of inflection. Since the 2008 crisis, disenchantment with market-driven value systems has positioned realism as the "blue chip value stock" of art. Skillful execution invests an object with uniqueness, irreplacability, and therefore intrinsic value that is independent of market fluctuations.

To the ears of this young 21st century audience, Picasso's statements below have a different ring to them:

"Obviously, nature exists so we may rape it"
"I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy!"
-- Arianna S. Huffington, "Picasso, Creator and Destroyer."
New York: First Avon Books Printing, October 1989.

It's an adolescent and meatheaded ring, to be specific. Yet not so long ago, such sentiments were seen as the testosterone-spiked fuel of a great creative engine. Our information age has exposed utterly forgotten 19th century sensations like Meissonier, the most commercially successful artist of a half-century now ignored and unmentioned in the textbooks, so we can plausibly imagine a time 50 years from now when Picasso becomes the Meissonier (or even the Bouguereau) of the 20th century.

Beauty is Back?

Another driver of the resurgence of the figure is the unashamed return to Beauty.

Our sense of beauty is what makes us human, even more so than our logical reasoning which is so easily twisted to evil ends, or recruited into the service of our emotions, or used to justify our egotistical desires.

The project of aesthetics has failed to define universal criteria for beauty, and so thinking about Beauty is now considered to be a a dead-end endeavor. Even Tolstoy threw up his hands and criticized the notion of beauty reduces to "that which I find pleasing."

But Beauty is not merely a subjective feeling; it is intricately linked to the basic fabric of the universe, as any mathematician or physicist knows. In mathematics for example we are confronted with mysterious idea of "elegance", that the most aesthetically beautiful mathematical solution is almost always the correct one. Throughout the history mathematics, the beautiful solution which displayed characteristics of simplicity, harmony and proportion yet seemed to have no practical application has proven crucial in Physics 50 or 100 years later. Mathematical ideas like the Golden Ratio (left, image by Joel Holdsworth) demonstrate how our intuitive sense of beauty has a deep kinship with the fundamental laws of nature.

A beautiful object acts as a pointer to an underlying truth that expresses a harmony with the fundamental nature of reality. Beauty defies objective categorization because it is a material object pointing to the immaterial truth. The tangible acts as a compass needle pointing to the intangible. Rather than despair over the fact that Beauty defies definition in concrete terms, it is this fluid quality of Beauty that liberates the artist. It is the role of the artist to propose a definition of Beauty in the visual language of her particular life experience.

Post-modernism has left us at a dead end: if anything can be art, then art it is nothing. This vacuum has taken the notion of the avant garde down with it as well. Today's artists are presented with a blank slate, armed with a treasure trove of digital imagery from all of history, and freed from the conformist pressure of a self-appointed avant garde.

In this liberated art historical vacuum , the current zeitgeist of connectedness has brought us right back to business as usual for humans. Here we are, still looking at each other naked, compelled to do the least necessary yet most essential activity: making Art, the inspired exercise of a craft for the purpose of intentionally transmitting, through external indications, the thoughts and emotions which the artist has experienced.