Sunday, December 6, 2009

Damien Hirst Trades Formaldehyde for Linseed Oil

The resurgence of figurative realism as an emerging trend may have reached its tipping point with Damien Hirst's recent decision to re-invent himself as a representational oil painter and exhibit the "No Love Lost" show at the Wallace Collection:

Although the paintings are closer to the illicit chalk-on-blackboard doodles of a girlfriend-less teenage heavy metal fan being held in after-school detention than to the Titian masterpieces in the adjacent room, Hirst's conversion to painting is enthusiastic and unequivocal. In his own words:

"Conceptual or minimal art seems a bit dead."
- Damien Hirst, Time Out, 10/13/2009

Seismic tremors and rumblings indicating that realism could be the "value stock" in an uncertain market have even reached Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, which asks "Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank?"

The Gauntlet is Tossed

At Art Basel Miami I debated Hirst's legacy as a conceptual artist with a curator, making the case that his previous work was entertaining gimmickry. By "gimmickry" I mean that the artistic merit of the piece is a function of the production budget, which fuels the marketing buzz in a self-reinforcing loop. I claimed that any clever gent could easily come up with a brilliant concept if given a $20 million budget for its execution (this figure was the cost of Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull).

I was challenged to step up to the plate by producing just such an idea, assuming I had the budget, with the stipulation that I had to come up with it over the next round of cocktails in order to support my claim that it was "easy." So here goes. I hope Damien is listening and ready to write me a check, because this one is a winner.

Swinging for the Fences with $20 Million

My concept is entitled "Canned Almanac 2010." My budget: $20 million. The work will hold a mirror up to the face of the current global economic and cultural order.

A beef cow will be selected from a random midwestern American slaughterhouse. The bovine carcass will be launched into near-earth orbit on a commercial rocket. The capsule will circle the earth three times where it will be visible in the night sky to the world's population. The heat of re-entry cooks the carcass leaving a charred cinder. After dramatically impacting the earth, the cow's remains will be packaged into ordinary unlabeled aluminum soup cans.

All of the of the cans except one will be made available to members of the general public through an online lottery. The lottery winner's identities will be kept anonymous. The lottery entry web site will be publicized after the capsule landing by random distribution over internet social networking sites. The remaining can of meat will be retained by the artist and sold at an amount exactly equal the cost of the project.

I hereby submit the "importance" and "relevance" of this piece:

  • The work is historically important, as it sits at the intersection of Pop and Post-Modern conceptual art, seamlessly referencing Damien Hirst's animal carcasses, Warhol's soup cans, Piero Manzoni's cans of feces, and Christo's oil barrels.
  • The work is relevant because it informs the current ecological crisis debate by using a staggering quantity of fossil fuels to generate a nutritionally worthless food item that is distributed to an anonymous public via internet marketing channels. In this way it exposes the absurdity of the post-industrial global consumer product system.
  • The work deconstructs notions of the value of cultural productions, as it simultaneously rejects and embraces the art market's valuation process by giving away cultural production to random recipients who may be art world outsiders, while at the same time exploiting an insider art transaction and netting out at zero "profit".
  • The work explores the relationship between physical mortality and cultural permanence, as the dead cow is resurrected as a permanent art icon which invests the meat with cultural value while maintaining its essential meaninglessness.
  • The work redefines the commoditization of art by turning the pop art notion of commodity art on its head. Rather than re-contextualizing a cheap mass-produced product, it creates an undifferentiated and useless end product at a massive expense and then cheapens it by giving it away to anonymous "owners".
  • By using an internet lottery to distribute the artworks irrespective of insider status, the work subverts the structure of institutionally sanctioned access channels to cultural information.
  • The work subverts the art market's cultural product distribution norms, because the distribution of the artworks are a function of random digital interconnectivity over social networks.
  • The work challenges bourgeois notions of provenance and ownership in that the initial owners will be anonymous, and the cans of meat will be indistinguishable from a normal supermarket product.
I welcome feedback on the validity of this piece from conceptual artists. Does it meet up to the standards of a Hirst? I would ask him to finance this project, but I expect he will be busy in his garden shed painting another floral still life.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Arrière-Garde?

A new generation gap is emerging in the art world. In an interview with Charlie Rose on February 9, 2008, Julian Schnabel states:

"Most older artists are going to give you advice, and you can't listen to them because what they don't understand is that the basis of your work is to destroy the standards that they set out in the first place."

The current generation of young painters seems to be taking this to heart in an unexpected way, by questioning the painting standards of elder artists like Julian Schnabel himself, starting with these:

  • Preference for concept over execution
  • Crude execution passed off as expressiveness
  • Self-referentiality as a primary source of inspiration
  • Incoherence presented as intellectual sophistication

An even more fundamental rejection of Schnabel's artistic generation would be to re-think its destructive notion of the avant-garde itself. Artists are choosing to advance the development of painting constructively, by "standing on the shoulders of giants". This approach attempts to build on the accumulated knowledge of the past rather than obliterating it.

This is exactly what today's young figurative realists members of "The Upset" and "Classical Realist" movements are doing. Hopefully Schnabel will pass the baton to this emerging generation and stick to filmmaking where his talents seem to be better suited.

In this "arrière-garde" action of standing on the shoulders of giants, let's not discriminate too much: in this recent painting I'm hoping to stand on the shoulders of a troublesome Modernist as well as my 17th century heroes:

"Green Palimpsest", 2009. Oil on board by Thomas Shelford.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Flight to Quality, and a Flight from NYC

Recommended reading: a very timely article by the New York Times about the boom-bust cycle in the art market and the impact of the recent correction:

"The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!"

I share the author's relief that the over-hyped art market is experiencing a correction, and that this is resulting in a "flight to quality," defined as skill-based figurative art. However, I don't share the author's view that the resurgence in realistic painting is due to the fact that paintings are easy to sell: the New York Times is betraying its conceptual bias here. The resurgence of painting in the past 15 years was driven by underground reactionaries who were bucking dominant tastes, and the movement to re-connect with traditional painting practices was discouraged by both critics (with cries of "kitsch") and galleries that prefer to sell "factory" conceptual art which is easier to produce quickly in large format. It is far more cost effective for a gallery to exhibit a "found art" plastic bag installation stapled to the wall alongside a pretentious essay (I'm not making this up, by the way) than it is to invest 150 hours over 2 months on the "slow art" process of making an 18x24 inch oil painting.

NYC Studios: Casualties of the Downturn

That being said, artists are really suffering right now and leaving the city in droves as studio rents and maintenance costs have remained high while art sales vaporize. The anecdotal evidence is accelerating: next Saturday I'm invited to attend the going-away party for a hyper-talented New York Academy of Art Postgraduate Fellow who is moving to Maryland on a permanent "sabbatical."

For those who care about the grass roots of NYC's cultural ecosystem, it's time to think globally and act locally: I'm organizing a regular salon event with the legendary celebrity fine art photographer Gilles Larrain to raise consciousness about this issue and engage people in the studio community. Here's the press release and web site, spread the word!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Upset: Young Contemporary Art

Gestalten has just published a survey of the resurgence of figurative realism that is now overturning the art world, spotlighting the torrent of young contemporary artists who view late 20th century Modernism as a dead-end movement that has reached its logical conclusion and exhausted itself. This new avant-garde is pulling off a come-from-behind "upset" as they turn their backs on the conceptual conceits of the art establishment by adopting the skillful execution last seen in 17th and 19th century painting.

In the late 1990s, Classical Realist ateliers perfected their archaeological recovery effort, and now young artists are reaping the rewards by pointing their bazooka-sized skill sets at contemporary subject matter inspired by science fiction, comic book illustration, street art, and other sources. The Upset offers a who's-who of this broad movement with interviews, biographies and beautifully photographed artwork.

Taking the art world by storm, artists of The Upset like David Kassan and Mark Ryden (who draws inspiration from post-modernism's whipping boys Bruegel, Ingres and Bouguereau) are running circles around the current generation of institutional elites who took great pleasure in declaring the death of painting in the 1960s and '70s.

It seems that the dustbin of history has been flipped over unexpectedly, and if the trends documented in The Upset continue on their current trajectory, in twenty years we may find ourselves looking back on late Modernism as an odd interruption in the continuing two-thousand-year historical narrative of Western painting.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Still Life Painting Process

"Purple Palimpsest", 2009, 11 x 18 inches, oil on board, by Thomas Shelford

In this post I'll walk through the making of a still life painting called "Purple Palimpsest". Click on the photos below to see larger close-ups. This still life process is a combination of 17th / 19th century techniques and is inspired by contemporary painters such as Jacob Collins and Kate Lehman. The use of a multi-step "indirect" painting process allows the artist to focus attention on executing one aspect of the painting at a time, isolating rather than juggling the many complicated variables such as drawing, composition, application, hue, value and chroma.

The Concept

In this still life painting I'm arranging pears, books and a postcard of a favorite Mark Rothko painting in a geometric configuration, with the postcard setting the overall color scheme. The center of interest occurs at the intersection of the fully lit postcard and the principal pear. The concept behind this piece is to create a visual vocabulary that will hopefully communicate the following things:
  • On a narrative level, make an art historical statement that tries to integrate the legacy of modernism with the recent resurgence in 19th century-style realism.
  • On a visual level, explore the relationship between abstraction and representation by "re-contextualizing" an image of an abstract painting through the device of executing the image in a traditional format.
  • On a symbolic and philosophical level, explore the relationship between the intellect (represented by the sparse geometry of the Rothko postcard and the books) and the sensual world (represented by the anthropomorphic pears and the driftwood board), and examine how the two can be integrated in a harmonious, balanced, and beautiful way.
The Setup

Various configurations of the still life objects are tried, with small charcoal sketches made in order to test out the composition. After several iterations, a final setup is selected based on the charcoal compositional sketches. The setup is done under a natural north light skylight with black felt creating a "box" around the objects to control lighting and obtain a chiaroscuro effect of forms emerging out of the dark, after the example of a 17th century Caravaggio or Zurbaran painting.

The Poster Study

In order to arrive at a final color scheme, small studies are made in oil, massing in the average hue/ value/ chroma of each large shape in a "posterized" version of the painting. The sketch is made working from dark to light, painting each shape side by side rather than jumping around, so that comparisons can be made and each brushstroke can be judged for temperature ("is it too warm or too cool?") and value ("is to too dark or too light?"). Successful color combinations are saved as swatches on a piece of canvas and labeled for reference with the colors that were used. This swatch sheet becomes the basic reference palette of the painting and is used to mix the major strings when the final painting begins.

("Poster Study", 4x6 inches)

(Color swatches from poster study)


A graphite line drawing is done from life in order to ensure simple, organic, harmonious relationships between the large shapes and sweeping lines of action. Proportions are established through comparative measurement and viewing the drawing in sight-size to identify proportional errors and speed up the drawing process. Photography is not used because it can result in a flat, "cut-out" looking drawing and is subject to the "fish-eye" distortions of lens curvature. The drawing consists of an "envelope" or "block-in" of the objects with the separation between light and shadow (the "terminator" line) indicated. No modeling is done in the drawing, and only the broad sweeping line movements are indicated. The drawing is kept at a simple "blocky" stage so that there will not be a temptation to "tighten up" during the painting process in order to avoid losing small drawing details.

(Block-in graphite drawing)


The drawing is then transferred to a sanded birch board that has been primed with Gambiln's white oil ground in a succession of thin coats, and then covered with an imprimatura ground layer of raw umber that has been thinned with odorless mineral spirits. The transfer is done by tracing the drawing onto tracing paper, covering the back of the tracing paper with raw umber oil paint, placing the tracing paper face-up on the painting surface and going over the lines with a ball point pen to make an impression through to the painted side of the paper.

Open Grisaille

Once transferred, an "open grisaille", (also called a "wipe out" or "imprimatura") is painted using raw umber for the darks and the white of the board for the lights. (This as opposed to a "closed" grisaille which uses white paint for the lights). The advantage of the "open" grisaille is that the reflective surface of the board shows through, and creates an effect of glazed luminosity when light is shown on the painting and it reflects back to the viewer through all of the paint layers.

The open grisaille establishes a crude value structure, locks in the drawing using paint, and leaves loose edges if large bristle brushes are used. The transparent raw umber creates atmospheric effect which will show through in the dark areas of the final painting. The raw umber is applied with large bristle brushes and the light areas are created by scraping away the paint to reveal the white board surface. Thinner is used as needed to cut through the paint and expose the white ground of the board. It is very helpful to use bristle brushes that have been cut down to create a scraping tool that will etch through the paint.

("Open Grisaille" in raw umber)

Ébauche or First Pass:

The first pass consists of a thinned layer of paint which is mixed to a slightly darker, less chromatic "average" color for each major plane visible in the objects. This creates a baseline "context" of color against which subsequent brushstrokes can be judged. By mixing a lower contrast, dull or "dead" palette, there is plenty of room or "range" left to add chroma and value in later stages of the painting.

Strings of paint (ranging in value from the darkest to the lightest visible) are mixed based on the poster study swatches. Each form is simplified into its major planes, as if they are the facets on a disco ball. Paint is applied by "crawling" out across the form, from the shadows towards the light-facing planes. At this stage, the major plane boundaries are delineated in a "choppy" geometric look, not blended together. This will make it easier to identify and correct drawing and value problems at this early stage.


After the first pass has dried, the subsequent passes can be made with the brushes dipped into a "fatter" medium of 2/3 stand oil, 1/3 thinner so that they will sit on top of earlier passes and leave them intact. Once again, paint is applied by crawling out across the form, from the shadows towards the light-facing planes, frequently stepping back from the canvas and squinting to compare the large temperature and value qualities of the painting with life. This is where the bulk of the real painting happens.

The setup is used as a reference for the movement of form and is not necessarily "copied", as artistic decisions are made, consistent with the desire to create a "convincing" illusion of form and space which will create a more arresting dialogue with the viewer. The setup at this point is being used as a "reference", since the ebauche phase has already established overall value and temperature relationships that are analogous to the relationships that exist in nature.

In order to avoid an "overworked" feeling, each brushtroke is placed deliberately and corrected with a subsequent color rather than by smearing or blending in an attempt to turn form with an airbrushy effect. The shape and placement of each brushstroke should further correct and refine the drawing, and create the desired edges as one stroke is dragged over the next in an overlapping "tile" effect. The temptation to touch the surface more than once with each loaded brushstroke to massage or smear the paint is avoided, as this results in muddy color and murky atmosphere. If each stroke is left intact and corrected with subsequent strokes, the paint application will retain "freshness."

While progressing around the forms, the puddles of paint are adjusted warmer or cooler to make them recede or come forward in space. High contrast and high chroma is used selectively to make forms advance in space and create a center of interest. Edges are adjusted to make objects recede using softer edges, or come forward using harder edges and more contrast.

Usually 2 or 3 complete modeling passes are required and the centers of interest are resolved and developed further than the other areas of the painting. Before each subsequent pass, the painting is "oiled out" by rubbing in the medium gently with a fan brush to bring out the luster and true color.


The highlights are built up with thicker, more chromatic paint. The temptation to use white is avoided as this results in a "chalky" or washed-out look. The center of interest is resolved with additional detail while less important areas are left undeveloped and may remain untouched since the ebauche phase. Paint fattened with medium may be applied as a glaze to simulate surface effects, create translucency or to modify the temperature of a previous layer. Finally, the painting will be oiled out to unify the finish and may be varnished after drying for a year. A frame is selected to compliment the aesthetic of the painting rather than the environment in which the painting will temporarily be displayed.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Splitting (Fine) Hairs

The difference between fine art and illustration is an irresistible hair-splitting exercise for figurative realist painters. The term "illustrated" is used by art critics as an epithet to dismiss realistic artwork, just as "decorative" is the pejorative deployed against abstract artists. "Illustrated" seems to have replaced "kitsch" now that realism has made a comeback and powerhouse painters like Odd Nerdrum have successfully pushed back against the k-word, re-defining it in terms of their own agendas.

(Above right: Malcom Liepke's figures have an "illustrated" look.)

I have overheard fine artist and former illustrator Rick Piloco dispatch the question by framing it in terms of intentionality: "illustration is just painting what an art director wants me to paint, instead of what I want to paint." Piloco has a gift for no-nonsense incisiveness, but I propose that there are certain stylistic hallmarks that mark the difference.
The purpose of illustration is to communicate a specific narrative idea, usually contained in the accompanying story or magazine article. Illustrators develop a symbolic shorthand to express narrative ideas with clarity. This is even more evident with cartoonists, who develop a visual vocabulary based on a range of simple shapes that are limited in scope but extremely flexible and able to miraculously convey the full range of human emotion with a few dashed lines. When this symbolic vocabulary surfaces in figurative fine art, the work starts to acquire an illustrative quality or "shtick."

What does a "shtick" look like in practice? Just like the difference between pornography versus an Ingres odalisque, I know it when I see it, and what I'm seeing is the use of symbolic visual shorthand instead of an authentic visual experience. Malcom Liepke's work presents a good case study since it is formidable and not a "straw man" that is easy to knock over as "illustrated." Liepke is considered to be a leading figurative realist, so his work is a valid target for scrutiny. Looking at Malcom Liepke's older restaurant scenes from around 2003, all the figures look the same. The noses on the faces are the clones of the same bulbous shape and exaggerated plummy red. Does Liepke only hang out with people who have colds? More likely, he verifies its orientation and placement among the larger shapes of the face, and drops in his standard nose in an artful copy and paste.

(Above: a delightful scene by Malcom Liepke, with an "illustrated" feel.)

Don't get me wrong, Liepke's narrative figure scenes are delightfully cinematic, playful, with inventive color schemes of complimentary reds and greens. The paint quality is luscious and fresh. But, alas, in my view his work is the essence of "illustrated" fine art. Of course, greenish backgrounds, scarlet lips and puffy roascea is his stylistic "signature" which makes his work recognizable, but to Liepke's well publicized dismay, his visual shorthand is readily copyable. Indeed, a host of second-hand Liepkes have been popping up everywhere (especially in the pages of American Art Collector), each imitator hoping to siphon off his commercial success. Unfortunately for Liepke the copies look an awful lot like the real thing.

This ease of imitation points to the main shortcoming of "illustrative" work: it is formulaic.

A similar problem affects the artwork of many fine art anatomy instructors, who can't resist drawing what they "know" is there rather than interpreting their authentic visual experience.

Contrast Liepke with Jacob Collins. Both are at a similar stage in their careers. Collins paints nude figures in the same lighting, using a limited repertoire of classical poses, under similar studio conditions, yet through diligent attention to his authentic optical experience is able to imbue each figure with an entirely unique psychological presence. The figures have a life force that fills up the room. This careful mindfulness in working exclusively from life allows Collins to be informed by his knowledge of anatomy and conceptual understanding, without falling into the trap of what Ted Seth Jacobs calls "symbolic thinking".

(Self Portrait by Kate Lehman, 2003. A stunning fine art counter-example to an "illustrated" approach.)

This optical naivete, informed, but not overruled, by intellectual understanding is also evident in the quiet emotional power and of portraits by Travis Schlaht and Kate Lehman. The border between illustration and fine art is a hazy one, but the edges of the split hair span a vast chasm between Sargent's subtle anatomical shorthand and the formulaic recipes of many commercially successful contemporary realists.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jim Napierala. Nice Modernist.

I must come clean about the fact that most abstract art leaves me about as satisfied as a nice hot bowl of water soup. The flatness is visually uninteresting, the lack of emotional content leaves me cold, the lack of narrative content is a snore, and I'm out the door muttering the "d" word: decorative. Chalk up another yawn on Clement Greenberg's tab.

(Above right: "Fornax Chemica", 2008, by Jim Napierala.)

Yet every so often when I'm expecting a water soup I am served up a spicy gumbo by some nice modernist. Such was the visual fare at Sylvester & Co. in Amagansett which exhibited the abstract paintings of Jim Napierala. Jim is a jovial, engaging gent who has invested a significant amount of craft in developing a series of paintings that combine the visual richness of layered materials with undulating geometric patterns. Paint of varying applications (thin, glazed and impasto) jumps to the fore alongside glinting aluminum leaf to create swirling meditative shapes, which Jim carves into the sandwiched surfaces of his pieces.

The surfaces shimmer and undulate, and the eye is lost in a meditative visual space as it follows intertwining linear pathways. The geometric flux reads to me as a visual metaphor for thought itself, as pleasing spiral patterns emerge, referencing each other, flowing back into themselves, and resonate together to create a macro-rhythm. In some of the pieces an illusionistic depth of field hints at opening up, drawing the viewer into Napierala's meditative realm. Nice modernist!

More about Jim's process:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

This Is How We Do It

Here is a video of an amazing drawing demo by David Kassan at the Salmagundi Club in New York City, which illustrates the virtues of working from life, particularly with respect to the harmonious, organic relationships between large and small shapes. This portrait was done in under three hours, in charcoal and white chalk on toned paper. Bravo!!

Chelsea Gets Back to the Future

The resurgence of figurative realism which has marked the past decade seems to have kicked into high gear with exhibits by artists such as David Jon Kassan who recently showed at Gallery Henoch in New york City's Chelsea art district.

This is a really encouraging development: my memories of a Chelsea art crawl two years ago featured plastic garbage bags tacked to a gallery wall along with a pile of smashed up ping-pong balls on the floor. As is the custom in these parts, the garbage bags were accompanied by the obligatory essay. The arranger of crushed plastic had been hard at work re-contextualizing the viewer's perception of what art is, finding found objects and leaving the job of making the stuff that actually is art (or might be art if properly "contextualized") to less "discursive" folk.

A big relief it was then, in September of 2008, to see the likes of David Kassan's solid figures posed against graffiti- scarred concrete walls. Kassan's chunky, visceral build-up of paint in the lights points in the direction of Rembrandt's emotional heaviness. An obsessive attention to the topography of flesh lends gravitas to the subjects. The gritty urban backdrops echo the grooved textures of flesh and neatly marry abstraction and realism. The result is a figurative oeuvre that is contemporary to its bones, but stands confidently on the shoulders of past giants.

David Jon Kassan Web Site:

Gallery Henoch:

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

An Empire of Flatness

A question often posed to artists who paint the human figure from life:

"Why don't you just take a photograph?"

The relationship between photography and painting has become a complicated and interesting one as Hyperrealists execute impressive technical feats through software-assisted "human laser-printer" activities worthy of an android. Digital imaging technology provides an unlimited range of settings for the figure, liberating artists from the confines of what is possible in studio setups.

Yet, in spite of all the technology that money can buy for art star Photorealists like Damien Loeb, figure painting based on photography often reads as emotionally shallow, lacking the organic harmony and psychological center of interest necessary for that elusive feeling of "life energy" in an image. Photo-based figure painting is often executed in a manner that is airbrushy, uniformly resolved, undifferentiated, flat.

Contemporary Photorealists employ a process somewhere in between photography, digital graphic design and painting. The totality of the visual experience has been converted into an abstraction by the machine which the artist then re-interprets and enhances, working in a place several steps removed from the orginal visual experience.

The prevalence of photo-based figurative painting has created a new Empire of Flatness in the contemporary art world. "Exploring the flatness of the picture plane" was a mantra of mid-20th century modernists, but this recent plague of flatness seems to be an unintentional by-product of a painting process that is derivative of the two-dimensional low-resolution digital image.

Most accomplished figurative artists who work from life develop the uncanny ability to immediately identify a figurative image that was based on a photograph, even when looking at an image of the artwork in a catalog or brochure. The figure often has the feeling of a "paper cut-out" which has been pasted onto the background. Digital images exaggerate reflected lights, and flatten form against the background. Gallerist Laura Grenning, for example, has elevated this ability into a virtual mind-reading parlor trick, which I've seen her deploy to expose the working methods of aspiring figurative realists with nary a 10-second glance at their portfolios.

So, then, what exactly is the "secret sauce" of life drawing that gives it the organic and emotional energy lacking in photo-based figure painting?

Life drawing entails the gradual creation of an image slowly over time, through the accumulation of thousands of marks which are related to each other through a process of intentional artistic decisions. The gradual accumulation of marks over time, creating a cast or mold of thousands of movements of the artist's body, results in an image with these features:

  • Psychological Focus. We see with the mind, and our attention focuses on visual elements that convey emotion. In life drawing this center of interest will naturally emerge as some areas of the painting are resolved while other areas remain loosely indicated. The camera, however, does not differentiate between an expressive mouth and an earlobe. Everything within its focus is resolved and given equal attention. There is no psychologically-driven hierarchy of interest.

  • Organic Harmony. With each mark, the artist builds the image by establishing relationships between the parts and the whole. In classical figure drawing, this happens through a deductive process, as relationships between large shapes are established before the smaller component shapes are drawn. Connections are found between gestural lines that run "though" the form. This process is destroyed by tracing an image that has been projected onto a canvas and then traced.

  • Gesture. A sense of motion is conveyed in life drawing through the accumulated selection of thousands of tiny moments that are layered together, as the artist patiently waits for the model to settle into a particular position or for the light to catch a form in a certain way. Line and edge quality leaves indeterminate borders between the form and the space around it, creating a sense of energetic movement.

And now for an exception. Many artists who have been extensively trained in life drawing methods are able to overcome the limitations of the photo-derived image and imbue their subject with the life force that the camera normally sucks out. A contemporary example would be Alyssa Monks who uses color temperature and a Venetian glazing process (along the lines of a red imprimatura -- terra verte grisaille -- dead palette first pass -- modeling with glazes and heavy scumbling) to turn form and compensate for the flattening cut-out effect of photography. In her other paintings, Monks has used screens and veils (water, shower curtains) to break up the image and scatter edges into blurred geometries, avoiding the pitfalls of stiff photo-based drawing by virtue of her choice of subject matter.

"Penance", 2006, by Alyssa Monks, oil on canvas, 54 x 72

Digital photography liberates the figurative artist in terms of subject matter, but paintings based on the digital image consistently fall short of expressing the undeniable life force that is visible in this painting by Jacob Collins. His work "Anna," painted from life, powerfully illustrates the advantages of working from an authentic, original visual experience:

"Anna", 2004, by Jacob Collins, 36 x48 inches oil on canvas

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Even more than a pipe, a beard makes a fellow look wise.

This is one reason why I keep coming back to Tolstoy's ideas, like this (paraphrased) definition of art:

Art is the inspired exercise of a craft for the purpose of intentionally conveying to others, through external indications, sentiments which the artist has experienced.

Intrinsic to human communication, art transmits the feelings the artist has experienced to the rest of humanity across time, and in that sense it is as important as writing, which communicates intellectual ideas across time.

Whereas our contemporary art scene equates incoherence with sophistication, in Tolstoy's view, great art always communicates with simplicity and clarity. Today, the more confused and inaccessible and muddled the work the more intellectually sophisticated and "discursive" it is supposed to be.

Tolstoy loved the simplicity and honesty of Jean-Francois Millet's paintings.

Simplicty does not mean simplistic. This idea seems to have been lost on modernism's minimalist painters.

I love paintings in which simplicity of composition is married with complex execution. As in this painting below by Kate Lehman, clarity and complexity can happily co-exist.

Simple composition, complex execution.

"Blue", Oil on Linen, 24 x 24 inches, 2006, by Kate Lehman

A Violinist on the Subway

Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world, played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

What's unusual about this is not what he played but where he played it:

in the DC Metro during rush hour.

Only a few people stopped to notice, with the exception of children.

I think this experiment illustrates why marketing is so important, to keep quality art alive for humanity over the long term and prevent knowledge from being lost as it was in painting in the 20th century. Sometimes folks just need to be told that the art is art. People who care about art need to make the case for it to the public. An important task of the artist is to teach and educate; to act as a custodian for the accumulated knowledge that has been handed down from previous generations of artists, and to pass it on.

Modern people live hectic busy lives isolated from art and nature and alienated from a regular experience of beauty. They don't see it if left to their own devices without someone to point the way, even if they literally walk past it on the metro.

It is interesting to note however that children did naturally respond, which for me backs up Tolstoy's idea that simplicity and clarity are key attributes of all great art, as opposed to the obfuscation and intentional incoherence we see so often today.

Links Related to Classical Realism

About Classical Realism - A Living Artistic Tradition, by Stephen Gjertson:

Wikipedia Entry for Classical Realism:

"Slow Painting" A Deliberate Renaissance:

A Quote from Gustave Courbet

"I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to do, that was my idea. To be in a position to translate the customs, the ideas, the appearance of my time, according to my own estimation; to be not only a painter, but a man as well; in short, to create living art - this is my goal."

-- Gustav Courbet's comments on Realism, 1855

For starters...

A few very personal ideas about art and oil painting.

In this era of commoditized images, oil painting provides a medium for authentic individual self-expression that also fulfills core human needs for transcendence and relatedness.

Realistic paintings based on skillful observation of the human figure and the rest of the natural world allow the artist to employ a visual language that is implicit in the human mind, inspiring the viewer by accessing the same collective unconscious syntax that is found in music and mathematics.

The idea of Beauty is a most challenging, complex and rewarding area of artistic exploration. Encompassing philosophy, psychology, religion and history, classical notions of Beauty can imbue artwork with intrinsic value for its viewers independent of the marketing labels, critical discourse or political agenda associated with it. Traditional painting practices from the 17th and 19th centuries provide a rich heritage that can be applied to contemporary subject matter.

Many important ideas about the human condition contain paradoxes which do not lend themselves to abstract reduction without a loss in the richness of their meanings. These paradoxes, which permeate the spiritual and literary heritage of all cultures, naturally lend themselves to emblematic visual expression. In my opinion, it is the task of the artist to give form to these ideas by combining inspiration with thoughtful craftsmanship. This skillful pursuit of Beauty, inspired by careful observation, is central to humanity's collective drive to define a meaningful existence.