Saturday, June 14, 2014

Studying the Masters

In my extremely limited studio time recently, I've been focused on learning better ways to put paint on canvas.  You may recall (if you're one of the 3 readers who've been with me a while) that last fall and winter, I stopped all new work and focused on re-learning the basics.  At least, high-quality basics.  I studied the techniques of several artists, took a workshop, got a DVD from a really strong painter, did some studies, and finally applied it all in a new painting, "Saddle Up", which was featured in a recent post.

A couple of things have blocked my development of new paintings.  Outside life events in general over the last month (the heat pump, the car, the cat, and lots of other nitnoid things) have demanded an inordinate amount of time.  The other is that my consulting business has been very busy in an unpredictable way lately.  Two clients have hit me with some very time-intensive projects.  Fortunately, they didn't come at the same time, but between the business and life events, I haven't been able to spend a sufficient amount of time in the studio to think about new works.

So I've focused instead on developing my techniques.  I got a new DVD on making a "classical" portrait from Robert Liberace.  The earlier one I got from him was on making an alla prima portrait - meaning a portrait done in essentially one sitting.  The "classical" approach is different in that it is done by carefully building up the painting in layers over a period of time.  This approach seems to fit my way of working: it's slower, more deliberate, and really rich when done properly.

Robert has an extremely well-developed sense of color, much better than mine can ever be, because my eyes just don't see color the way his do.  But that's okay, even very restricted color selections can have strong impacts.

Let me drop back a bit here.  For many years, I had no understanding of how color worked.  You mix one blue and one yellow, and you get a bright green; you mix a different blue and you get a dull green, and I never understood why that happened.  It was like I was supposed to memorize all the different color combinations.  Well, anybody that knows my memory knows that just won't fly.  Finally, in the mid-90's while studying at Maryland Institute College of Art, I was exposed to the book Blue and Yellow Don't Make Green, by Michael Wilcox.  At last, here was a reference that explained why mixtures made strong or muted colors.  Rather than making me memorize things, now I had a logical understanding of how to deliberately select and mix colors for specific effects.  Finally, I could paint!

But there were also some side effects from Wilcox's book.  (There are always side effects to everything.)  One was that my palette was now made up of a lot of strong colors such as cadmium red, cobalt blue, and phthalo green.  When you use strong colors, they tend to stay strong.  In painting a face, for example, your reds tend to be RED, your yellows YELLOW, and so on.  It's like driving your car with wild swings at the steering wheel and going all over the road.  Strong colors are great, but learning how to use them with subtlety is difficult.

In some of my studies recently, I've seen that many of the great artists used very restrictive color choices.  Sorolla, for example, used primarily yellow ochre, cadmium red, ivory black, and white.  Occasionally he used a small touch of a blue, but not often.  Yet he was able to achieve remarkable skin tones.  So I did a study using the Sorolla palette and, while the painting itself is kinda blah, I learned a lot.

The new Liberace video built on that approach.  While his colors were definitely more varied and stronger than Sorolla's selection, Liberace used them with restraint.  He mixed up a basic skin tone, then made a couple of variations on it, one warmer and the other cooler.  The differences in color temperature (meaning how warm or cool it is), value (how light or dark it is), and intensity were generally very small.  Certainly much smaller than my clumsy attempts.

I decided to put Liberace's approach into practice.  Rather than copy the painting from the DVD, I decided to copy an Odd Nerdrum portrait.  Here's how it turned out:

This was an interesting and fun exercise.  Nerdrum and Liberace don't paint the same way.  They use the same fundamentals (underpainting, layers of color, and so on) but their color choices and methods are different.  Liberace uses burnt umber for an underpainting, which is a warm muted brown.  Nerdrum uses a blue-black for an underpainting, which is much cooler.  Generally, blue is not a color you want in a face, but Nerdrum's is very muted and he makes it work. So, by using one painter's approach to copy another painter's portrait, I learned a lot.

In fact, I had so much fun, I did it again.  This time, I copied a Rembrandt self-portrait from the cover of The Rembrandt Book by Gary Schwartz.  Here's the result:

What I learned from this one is just how amazingly observant and good Rembrandt was.  There was no attempt to pretty himself up.  He showed all his wrinkles, pits, and sags.  There was no overstatement of anything - all his strokes are small, efficient, accurate, and lively.  As I was working on his forehead, for example, I was blown away by his attention to detail in each and every fold.  Usually, "attention to detail" in a painting means that it's way overworked and the artist should have stopped long before he really did.  Not with Rembrandt - with him, the detail provides additional support for the overall story in the painting.  My copy is just a poor cousin to the richness, vitality, and life in the original.

But still, my copy is a decent painting.  I learned a lot about subtlety, paint application, and a bit about "trusting the paint".  I'm going to make another copy or two.  And then I'm going to do some new paintings using what I've learned.  Can't wait!

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