The Rubens Project

12, November 2013 § 4 Comments

rubensdrawingsmallby Jane Morris Pack

This fall, six advanced painting students are working with me to discover Rubens’ painting technique. To delve into Rubens’ style we studied the twisted forms of a knotted rope and a gnarled stick to imitate his brushstroke which often follows a spiraling line. We see it in the manes of his horses and the fabric of capes, in beards and in clouds. It was also important to learn to highlight economically with white as this is the primary way in which Rubens creates dimension. So our first study involved working on toned paper with white conte (above) and looking for expression of the twisted form. We then continued this investigation with paint (below).

rubenstwistsmall

rubensknotsmall
Copying a master work is the best way to educate the eye and hand so our next step was to copy a passage of Rubens’ work. An enlarged section is easily obtained by perusing his work on Google Art Project. It is quite clear what the layers are and how they are preserved or covered by subsequent paint. Rubens seems to do so little but each brushstroke is amazingly rich in information. Not only is the color of the object’s surface there but also its texture, tone, temperature, direction of thrust and lighting condition. He accomplishes with one stroke what others would with many.

We are adding chalk to the paint as recent scholarship has detected the presence of it in his work. Chalk adds a textural component to the paint and helps it to dry quickly.

Meanwhile we are composing a large canvas to include five or six figures which will give each student a chance to contribute to the piece.

rubensvictory

rubenslion

Covering a lot of ground, and a lot of paper

24, July 2013 § Leave a comment

figure drawing 9by Jane Morris Pack

Today is the final day of the two week Figure Drawing Intensive at the Aegean Center. We are tired but exhilarated and all the participants have seen great improvement in their abilities to draw the figure.  I see startling jumps in the comprehension of form and anatomy, exactness of position and character of the pose. In the last few days the ability to concentrate and focus has increased and a one hour drawing flies by without awareness of the time passing.  We have worked in ink, finger paint, conte, charcoal and pencil.  Yesterday we drew portraits. Now time is needed to allow the information to sink in and enter the subconscious.

It was a joyful experience to teach this group.  Each student brought their unique skills and perspective and we all helped each other to achieve our best.  Thank you to Eleni, Elena, Ellie, Maia, Cassie, Penny, Isabel, Anglelika, and Avril for your contributions.

figure drawing 9a

 

Figure Drawing Intensive at the Aegean Center

19, July 2013 § 3 Comments

figure drawing 8

Nine students are attending the Figure Drawing Intensive now underway at the Aegean Center. Each morning we draw from the live model for two hours and every afternoon the class reconvenes to study some particular aspect of the figure, whether it be the form of the skull or the concept of negative space.  We have worked in clay and cut figures from paper, learned names and parts of the skeleton, drawn cylinders and spheres.  The ability to draw a geometrical form in any direction, from any angle, is a critical but often overlooked  aspect to beginning figure drawing.

Our group is varied in age from 17 to 60 and although we are all women we represent five different countries.  As a teacher my hope is that at the end of two weeks the students will be able to draw the human form from memory in varied stances. Drawing from the model then, with the level and degree of accuracy we hope to achieve, will enable the student to proceed on their own and improve with practice.

figure drawing 7

figure drawing 3

The Vermeer Project: Part Two

8, May 2013 § 3 Comments

DSC00523 small

Detail of Color Application

by Jane Morris Pack

Surprised by the ease of painting in the dark and upside down, I left the reader waiting for an update while our underpaintings dried.

The projection seems bursting with color and light inside of our dark room or ‘camera  obscura’  as is the Italian phrase.  How strange it was to apply color then and find our efforts were too garish in comparison.  Our second surprise with this project– how neutral the image needed to be.

Vermeer Palette

The neutral palette

I first suggested we tint our underpainting with some generalized glazes while still outside the camera.  This gave us a sense of the general warms and cools.  The vase was glazed in a warm transparent brown very thinly applied and wiped back with a rag; the wall was tinted with a veil of blue.  In truth this glazing just barely altered the color of the painting from its monochromatic state to something resembling an old fashioned tinted photograph.

After studying Vermeer I saw that many of his tones are neutral, darks are mostly without color, half tones are very grey, and only lights have true color. This matches what we perceive of the projection.  Highlights are obviously colored yellow or blue, gradations are very soft,  contrasts are muted. Selecting a very limited palette of raw sienna and cobalt blue, with just a touch of cobalt violet (plus black and white), I matched the underpainting’s tones and scumbled on color very lightly. My application of the colors, once viewed in daylight, was too colorful.  I went back in a second time and added greys, warm and cool, softened transitions and added transparent color glazes into the darks.  The feeling of cool light this gave was more northern in feel, the greyed out colors were more photographically ‘real’. The process is somewhat demanding, light off and on, white card up, down, staring at the image, mixing color, all in the half dark.  But it goes fairly quickly nonetheless.

The students were anxious to try a portrait but we quickly discovered that a human model needs to be very still or the results are skewed.  Given fifteen minutes one can attain a likeness; more time generally results in a slumping model and a frustrated painter.

pencil portrait

Pencil portrait

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Ink portrait

vermeer still life

Camera obscura student work 1 

This project has taught us much about the use of color, its potency if restrained in use, the use of selective focus, the beauty of grey.  I don’t think we are any closer to answering the final question of whether Vermeer painted inside of a darkened room but we have certainly understood that it would be possible to do so.

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Camera obscura student work 2

The Vermeer Project

19, April 2013 § 8 Comments

Actual-Projected-Image-(flipped)Actual Projected Image in Camera Obscura (approx. 40×48 cm / 16×19 in)

by Jane Morris Pack

Have you ever painted upside down in the dark?

While visiting Rome this winter I had the opportunity to study several Vermeer paintings in the exhibit at the Quirinale.  They were part of a larger show called “Vermeer and The Golden Age of Dutch Art”  and although there were some other fine pieces in the exhibit, the Vermeers outshone the others. They seem to glow from within and the accuracy of the perceived space is extraordinary. Johannes Vermeer has captured modern interest not only for his dreamy women engaged in mundane tasks but also perhaps due to the mystery surrounding his life.  We know little about his training, his personal life or his methods.  I was intrigued by his use of the camera obscura, which seems to be an accepted fact among art historians, and I purchased a book which discussed his use of lenses, “Vermeer’s Camera” by Philip Steadman.  This book suggests that Vermeer used a small booth type of camera which one sits in, and not the tabletop type.  I felt Steadman’s work was intriguing and it raised some questions that I wanted to investigate.

Advanced painters, those that have already done one semester with us, work on a project with me during the term. This spring I suggested we put our energies into discovering what makes Vermeer unique.  His subject matter is neither original nor particular to him. His power lies in his method.

We did some preliminary toying around with a magnifying glass and a black tent pitched over easels to get a sense of what a lens will do.  When we determined that an image could indeed be projected by that means I took the time to build a small room out of PVC pipe and covered it in cardboard and black cloth.  This served as our camera obscura. Procuring the lens was a bit more challenging but after some reading on the Internet I discovered that we needed a lens with a low number diopter and the local optician was kind enough to allow me to try many lenses until I found the one with the correct focal length.

Jane's-Camera-Obscura-The Beginnings of Jane’s Portable Camera Obscura Booth  (lens mounts in cardboard  behind the chair)

Once we had the lens and fixed it in place the next challenge was to see if the image could be traced easily and how one might go about painting on the tracing afterwards.  We set up the still life and used a mirror to reverse the image right to left because I thought we would need to see the real still life to paint from it at some point and the lens by itself reverses the image.  This proved unnecessary but I didn’t know that at the time.

We found that inside the booth we had a beautiful painterly projection and that the light coming from that was enough to see the palette and mix tones.  Following traditional methodology we placed five tones directly onto the imprimatura, moving from the extremes of black and white and then locating the middle three.  It was not difficult to find and apply the tones even though the image was in color but my advanced painters have had experience using the five tone range before.  We took extra time to blend edges and smooth gradations.  It is necessary to check your work against the projection occasionally which we do by turning on and off a light inside the booth.

Vermeer-Underpaintings

The extraordinary discovery was that a very credible image can be made, despite working in the semi darkness, despite working on a colored, upside down image, despite the lack of a preliminary tracing.  I was thrilled to see the results, though each student had individual differences in handling and application, the paintings were all very beautiful, correct and nuanced.  The next step was to add color once our underpaintings had dried.  Again, working entirely inside the camera obscura, we mixed and applied color, both as glazes and as opaque paint.   I am waiting for our group to finish this step and then I will report again on the results.

The exhibit at the Quirinale was a chance to view paintings I may not get an opportunity to see again.  There was also an obvious fake nestled in among the real work, something a trained eye could see. It will no doubt be bought by a major museum in the near future and pass into the oeuvre of Vermeer’s genius with an appropriate exchange of millions.  But cynicism aside, the purpose of our exercise is not to make fake Vermeers.   Sitting in the dark, seeing the painterly vision of light causes nearly all to exclaim at its beauty. We learn so much about color, surface, transitions of tone and application of paint following in the footsteps of this great artist.  We have all gained immeasurably just by going through the process.

Winter Flus and Blues

30, January 2013 § 3 Comments

Jan'e Sketch

by Jane Morris Pack

If we are suffering illness, poverty, or misfortune, we think we shall be satisfied on the day it ceases. But there too, we know it is false; so soon as one has got used to not suffering one wants something else.
– Simone Weil

Illness is a clumsy attempt to arrive at health: we must come to nature’s aid with intellect.
– Nietzsche

Lying in bed with the winter flu gives one too much time to think. Browsing all the news articles on the brutality of our species adds to the depression. For a brighter view I glance at the happenings in the tech world and also feel overwhelmed. My mind struggles to find a place to be at rest. I ache to be back in the studio and yet I am ambivalent as well. If I’m honest I never really settled this battle, this score with the creative process . Every winter I once again pick up my brushes to try to find a new artistic expression that I so long for when I am away from it, and then I struggle with the “why”. Why am I doing this? Why do I occupy so much of my time and effort in something which after all changes the world so little? I am often asked this question by students. Is the struggle and sacrifice worth it? I don’t claim to have  authority but at least the question makes me pause and consider this question for myself.

All artists want recognition and a few even claim to desire fame. But fame brings stiff competition and even more pressures. Having met a few celebrities recently I can only imagine that their stresses are way beyond mine. I would like to say that being an artist is all joy. But perhaps it is only the privileged status we award ourselves that makes this struggle seem worthwhile. The self-doubts and the push to find the material and means to express what you feel about the world, about art, can trip you up. Too much hesitation and the joy can evaporate. I think about my audience, then just as swiftly try to deny their presence. It is fatal to work for another. This constant push toward self renewal is taxing. It is so much easier to find a niche and stay there, or a distinctive method and just push it rearranging the elements. But I think the explorer in me rebels against sameness. Although my work may look similar to others and identifiable as mine, I always feel that I am breaching new walls and confronting new ideas.

We all have limitations. Our place in the world is unfortunately stratified and tiered. I don’t prescribe to the idea that anyone can become anything, although that is an American dream which receives much lip service. But within the limitations that we prescribe for ourselves could we not be more? Could we not do more? How many of us waste the better part of ourselves wondering rather than doing. While lying here on the couch waiting for my health to return I ebb and flow with restlessness and inertia. Maybe age pushes me more strongly than youth. But time ticks away for all of us and what we do not tap will drain away. All humans surely struggle with the balance of work and play, creativity and duty. Perhaps labeling myself as an artist gives me some sense of urgency, or at least inevitability to continue. Could I do more? That answer is an easy yes, a resounding yes.

Art and Risk

29, November 2012 § 3 Comments

Hemingway

by Jane Morris Pack

It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever. – Philip Adams

The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become. – W. E. B. Du Bois

Stephen Nachmanovitch  relates in his book, “Free Play”, that the Buddhists list five great fears.  They are the fear of loss of life, the fear of loss of livelihood, the fear of loss of reputation, the fear of unusual states of mind, and the fear of public speaking.  It is the last which seems  significant to the arts. If making art were a completely private endeavor we could all be as reckless as we pleased, try out wild ideas and fumble and fail if necessary as we learned.  But the presence of the invisible critic leaning over our shoulder is a specter who haunts our work, the intimidating public eye.  It sometimes prevents us from taking risks which might benefit our work.

I recently read in a New York Review of Books that Faulkner once criticized Hemingway for lacking courage as a writer.  Quoting the article, Faulkner said that  Hemingway  “…had always been too careful, never taking risks beyond what he knew he could do.” Hemingway was an outdoors man, a hunter, a deep sea fisherman, a war correspondent.  Faulkner on the other hand was a school dropout, a postmaster, a clerk.  The article, penned by E.L. Doctorow, concludes with these remarks, “that Hemingway was technically undaring… in thrall to the romance of the self, he never tapped the human psyche to the depth of raw existence, or written of characters not defined by the familiar constructs of social reality.” Hemingway was seemingly willing to risk life and limb but Faulkner dared to confront human passions at “eye level” as Doctorow puts it.  It is obvious who Doctorow admires most.

Art taps into a sense of risk and bravado without necessarily reflecting outwardly into our daily actions and habits.   I see this contradiction in some students occasionally, those with quiet exteriors that  hide surprising strength and daring.  Public failure steers many others away from taking risks, the probability of catastrophe looming too large and near.  What do we have to fear? Perhaps the other four possibilities on Nachmanovitch’s list… loss of life, livelihood, reputation, and  finding ourselves in unusual states of mind.  But perhaps mostly we  fear that we were fooling ourselves all along into believing that we had some special gift for artistic expression. We fear exposure.

Peter Abbs wrote that art allows one to “ratchet up one’s life to the level of high adventure”. So how do we dare? By not settling for the familiar.  By not repeating our successes endlessly.  By trying out a new material, a new medium.  By not believing too religiously either our critics or our admirers. Perhaps by avoiding a new difficult 21st century problem…instant gratification and shallow success.  Taking a few risks is gratifying whether we win or lose.

The refusal to rest content—the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions—is what distinguishes artists from entertainers and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all. – John Updike

It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who—at the best—knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who—at the worst—at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.  – Theodore Roosevelt

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