22, May 2015 § 1 Comment
by Jane Morris Pack
We admire masterworks in museums for, among other things, their brilliant colouring, their longevity due to the painter’s technical expertise and for the evidence of the artist’s hand in the brushwork. Many paint effects from the past seem nearly unattainable with modern materials and this has lead artists to try to rediscover secret formulas or find additives that emulate historical processes. Resins, wax, and complex chemical mixtures have all been tried. Research done by the National Gallery in London however has revealed that linseed oil, coloured pigment and additions of calcium carbonate are the sole ingredients in many master works before the 20th century.
Though we are seduced by the ubiquitous presence of modern materials, traditional methods are intriguing and wonderful to investigate. Egg tempera and encaustic have both had a renaissance in the last twenty years. The fundamental substance of oil painting however, which is the oil itself, has been accepted as standard by most artists. Modern linseed oil is alkali cleaned and heated, it is no longer manually pressed and sun thickened as it was. Some artists with curious minds have now reexamined the refining of the flax oil. Louis Velasquez and Tad Spurgeon both have websites dedicated to methods of hand refining oil to produce a non yellowing, flexible, fast drying oil which completely transforms the painting process. What they have uncovered in their investigations is a remarkable way to access an old and very successful formula.
My involvement in this exciting investigation began when I assigned Velazquez, the 17th century painter, as the topic of my advanced painters seminar. We looked into the addition of marble dust, a form of calcium carbonate, to his paint. I stumbled on the information about hand refining oils then but felt it was too intensive to delve into at the time. It took me several more years and further seminars on Rubens and Vermeer before I took the plunge and followed procedures I had read about online. The results are quite amazing to me, and the difference from the handling of modern tube oils is significant. The hand refined oil makes many things possible which I had read about and seen but had not been able to obtain. I always felt tube oils were too slippery, too thin, too flat once dry. I also found the suede effect annoying and could not build up impasto areas without needing many days of drying time. The hand refined oil has none of these defects.
This semester I introduced the new oil to students and we worked together to understand its potential. It is more flexible, shinier and forms a tougher film than the tube oils. The viscosity of the paint allows one to paint wet into wet without loosing brushstroke integrity and colour purity. It is far more transparent, the glazes are deep and clean, and it dries evenly and quickly without darkening as much. Impasto areas can dry overnight, depending on the weather, and keep their sharp edges and texture.
The best part of all of this is that solvent has been banished from the studio. We clean our brushes in vegetable oil and never thin paint with solvent. The smell of the new oil is something like fresh grass or fields of flowers. Because we mix it 1:3 with chalk and then use that 2:1 with tube paint our paint supply goes much further. It is hard on brushes though, as they wear down quickly. One wonderful advantage is the ability to wipe off the paint completely from a dry underlayer making changes in plan easy to execute.
There has been a complete change in my approach to paint and the student work is richer and more colourful. We are able to work into surfaces more quickly which speeds our process. The studios are no longer redolent with turpentine and the improved environment is beneficial for all who share our space.
13, April 2015 § Leave a comment
by Liz Carson
In both painting and photography the direction of the light that an artist chooses sets the intention of expression. Directional light with a raking effect from the side gives a graphic quality, flattening the form. It lends a graphic two dimensional quality to the work. On the other hand ambient light, which is generally overhead light, reduces contrasts and gives a sensuous rounding to form. It increases the three dimensional qualities and gives a sense of real space. This lighting direction brings the form more directly into the space you occupy and thereby brings a stronger personal reaction to the depiction, a sense of shared existence.
Edward Weston uses ambient light to bring a palpable sense of touch to the twists and turns of a pepper or a nude. His lighting brings out the soft edges of forms as they turn away from the light source. This light fills the voids and avoids black shadows. It can also bring out surface imperfections and textural areas. In contrast, a photographer like Ray Meztker often flattens the space into graphic sharp edges, reducing detail and pitting strong whites against strong darks.
A painter such as Degas has a comparable sensuous lighting technique which emphasizes rounded form, such as we see in his bathers series. Velasquez was also known as a “painter of the air” as he surrounded the figures he painted in an atmosphere of light.
A photographer chooses the subject carefully and then brings full attention to how the light direction depicts its qualities. The emphasis on edge, whether soft or hard, says as much about the artist’s idea as about the object.
27, March 2015 § 1 Comment
I wrote a few notes to myself at the beginning of this semester about what I expect from students in my classes. These include a desire that they engage deeply with their work, that they find ways to discuss their progress and their process. I want them to take more responsibility for their learning, to risk more and to be able to play with the material to allow spontaneity. I place similar demands on myself as an artist and an educator. This semester is no exception. I am introducing a new painting method which involves hand refined linseed oil and chalk. This method is somewhat complex at the beginning to explain but allows for more freedom and energy in the paint handling. I wondered what details I need to add and when and how they would adopt the information I was giving them. Would they be able to handle the complexities of the system? All my energies are devoted to communicating clearly the nuances and the particulars.
I take a risk altering my teaching methods each semester. There are some moments that feel as though I were on a high wire without a net. I prepare my lessons but go off in various directions as the moment takes me. I throw away the script and sometimes improvise wholesale. I suppose all teachers with years of experience can do this but I have often felt that vertiginous drop in the lower stomach when you realize you are in free fall. But I am willing to take the chances and the students benefit. I’m not bored and hopefully neither are they.
Hand refined oil and chalk as additions to painting have been researched by Louis Velasquez and Tad Spurgeon, each of whom have valuable insights into this historical method. It involves purifying the organic flax seed oil with alcohol and using psyllium husks to hold and retain the mucilage which is released from the oil. I have been playing with it for just about a year and I find it redefines oil painting. It requires some investment in time for the preparation of the oil but speeds up the painting process considerably as the oil dries quickly and with great body and gloss. It creates effects which resemble early master works which I have been unable to achieve with modern manufactured paint. I felt it was worth the extra work and effort to introduce this new paint to students. As it is my first semester doing so, I await their results before I can judge. The risk will probably pay off, but at any rate allowing the students to watch me take the risk could be just as instructive.
2, February 2015 § 1 Comment
Knowing the exhibition would be crowded we organised our tickets for the last two hours of the day. Even so the smallness of the rooms and the number of people jammed into them did not make for comfortable viewing. A similar crush occurred during the Da Vinci show. It’s time the National Gallery allocated a bigger space for its major shows.
The first room of the exhibition held four self portraits from the last ten years of Rembrandt’s life. Entering from the grey damp London weather directly into the vivid charcoal reds and resinous blacks of the paintings we experienced a quick intake of breath. The powerful self portraits each capture a memento of passing time on his face and form, his flesh more grey, his eyes growing more opaque with the years. Those who know any of the other nearly one hundred self portraits can see his loss of energy, humour and confidence. We believe the paintings to reflect the veracity of his physiognomy and yet we are not looking for attributes that would identify him. We feel he is revealing his inner depth. Knowing that he died bankrupt having turned away from the lucrative commissions which would have kept him in the public eye, suffering the death of lover and children, we feel we are witnessing his sorrowful soul.
The exhibition continues with a journey into the oeuvre of the great Rembrandt as he experimented and pushed his technical skill to express his tender view of humanity. The paint itself captured us as it pulsed and swirled, thin as silk one moment and heavy with turbid weight the next. The transparent darks pushed back into unspecified backdrops while the lead white clumped or embroidered the edge of collars or highlights on nose and eyelid. We were particularly taken by these warm and textured whites. They were a character of their own, playing a part as varied and eloquent as a Shakespearian actor. Rembrandt placed the white with palpable energy, using a stick, a brush, perhaps a rag. It hovered under glazes and emerged like waves breaking. His limited palette, with little or no blues and limited earth greens did not keep him from expressing nature while his concentration on capturing faces was best served with the “tetrachromy” of the Ancient Greeks: white, black, yellow and red.
A portrait of Lucretia whose blood leaves her white gown stained red, trembles with sadness and dishonour as she plunges the knife into her side. Perhaps it is a tribute to his mistress, Hendrickje, who was hounded by society to confess her sin of living out of wedlock with Rembrandt. The subject from Roman history expresses a woman’s deeply conflicted emotion. The emotion is the theme again with the magnificent painting of Bathsheba as she contemplates the letter from David, her King. The somewhat damaged surface of this work does not distract from the subtle current of anguish she expresses.
There are many etchings and drawings interspersed with the paintings in this exhibition. Rembrandt’s etchings are a miraculous tangle of haunting lines. With bravado and verve he depicts so much information with so little effort. These pieces greatly added to our understanding of his vision and method. The vivacious brushwork is equivalent to the handling of the etching needle, the supremacy of white is equal to the vibrant unmarked white of the paper. Light is the subject and everything else falls to its authority. We see his thought process more clearly in the etchings but the large textural paintings dominated the show.
4, November 2014 § 3 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
The advanced painters this semester are examining the famous division between the merits of drawing versus color. We have done some reading on the subject and are working on portraits using the two different methodologies. The drawing approach favors a study of form and a clear use of line and shading techniques to depict the geometry of the face. The coloristic approach seeks patches of color which border other colors to turn form and to show light. This requires a clear understanding of color mixing: warm vs cool, light vs dark and pure vs neutral.
The debate between the merits of drawing versus color has been a long standing one. The most famous proponents of drawing were Florentines in the 16th century who disdained the colorists of Venice. Titian’s broken colorful brushstroke was to them evidence of poor draughtsmanship. This debate was forwarded to each successive generation and finds such artists as Poussin and Rubens on opposing sides. Ingres and Delacroix fought a similar battle.
The muscles and bones of the Florentine male nudes are perfect subjects for a drawn approach. Vasari rightly praised Michelangelo as the supreme master of this art. In Venice the preference for the female form in landscape was better suited to a coloristic handling. One thinks of the Giorgione nudes in the soft enveloping color of evening. Subject matter may influence the choice of one method over another but it may simply be personal outlook or the type of training an artist receives which determines the way to proceed. The finite correct world of drawing appeals to the intellectual mind. A line which describes a form is either correct or it is not. The color approach on the other hand captures a more fleeting, emotional, infinite world, one which shifts moment to moment with the changing light.
These two renderings of an eye show the different mindsets. On the left Sargent finds color swatches to depict the folds around the ball of the eye. The painting by Christain Seybold on the right gives us a linear understanding of every part of the eye. Although they both use color the priority given to line or to color is evident.
A paragraph from the story “The Unknown Masterpiece” by Balzac summarizes the confusion which arises when an artist is hovering between form and color. The master painter, Frenhofer, is critiquing a work by the painter, Porbus.
“Ah!” said the old man, “it is this! You have halted between two manners. You have hesitated between drawing and color, between the dogged attention to detail, the stiff precision of the German masters and the dazzling glow, the joyous exuberance of Italian painters. You have set yourself to imitate Hans Holbein and Titian, Albrecht Durer and Paul Veronese in a single picture. A magnificent ambition truly, but what has come of it? Your work has neither the severe charm of a dry execution nor the magical illusion of Italian chiaroscuro. Titian’s rich golden coloring poured into Albrecht Durer’s austere outlines has shattered them, like molten bronze bursting through the mold that is not strong enough to hold it. In other places the outlines have held firm, imprisoning and obscuring the magnificent, glowing flood of Venetian color. The drawing of the face is not perfect, the coloring is not perfect; traces of that unlucky indecision are to be seen everywhere. Unless you felt strong enough to fuse the two opposed manners in the fire of your own genius, you should have cast in your lot boldly with the one or the other, and so have obtained the unity which simulates one of the conditions of life itself. Your work is only true in the centres; your outlines are false, they project nothing, there is no hint of anything behind them. There is truth here,” said the old man, pointing to the breast of the Saint, “and again here,” he went on, indicating the rounded shoulder. “But there,” once more returning to the column of the throat, “everything is false. Let us go no further into detail, you would be disheartened.”
This charming story goes on to explore many aspects of the painter’s world. Balzac seems to have been a close listener to his painter friends and gives us this glimpse into studio practices.
Whether a contemporary painter favors color or drawing to construct an image is immaterial. The debate about their relative merits is interesting to art historians and art connoisseurs. But the art student is less confused about choices to be made when the two issues are separated and defined so that, unlike the young painter in Balzac’s story, one is not hesitating between the two worlds.
21, October 2014 § 4 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
The 25th anniversary of the Italian Session now underway at The Aegean Center has been a delightful and rich experience for all of the faculty and students. In September, we arrived in Italy to find that our villa above the town of Pistoia had recently been restored to its original appearance and the 16th century painted trompe l’oeil facade on the garden side has been redone. The painted elements enhanced the plain walls with illusionistic stone work and invented windows. The paint echoes the front of the building but does not coincide with all the actual windows on the back. This use of illusion to provoke symmetry even when it does not exist was questioned by some of the students who could not understand why the paint and the architecture do not coincide. But the tradition of illusionistic painting to achieve perfection is a long standing practice in Italy. There are many false windows and arches painted on buildings to balance design.
We had the additional treat of watching the restoration painters demonstrate for us the painting technique. The Bellini family of artists, father and sons, follow a long tradition of painters using techniques which date back hundreds of years. The straight lines were drawn using a simple stick held against the wall and a sure hand in the artisan. The paint was mixed in clear divisions for the highlight, basic tone and three shadow values. As we watched, a three dimensional frame appeared before us, simply and carefully constructed by the master painter. It was fascinating to observe and humbling to understand his command of his craft. As he put on the final paint to represent the cast shadow, the frame seemingly lifted off the wall into the third dimension. We were delighted to have this firsthand insight into the time honored craft of illusionistic perspective painting.
17, October 2014 § 1 Comment
by Steven Kosovac
Three years have passed since I found myself in a taxi driving through olive groves just outside of the Italian city of Pistoia. Three years since I first attended the Aegean Center Fall Semester – the start of a profoundly formative journey that has drawn me to the tiny marble island of Paros time and again.
This past summer I returned once more to Paros, not as a student but as assistant to John Pack in the printing of The Greater Journey. A two-tome collection of photographs by John and poetry by Peter Abbs, the book was printed in a limited run of 121 handcrafted books. I arrived to find Peter’s poetry, already printed by letterpress on Hahnemühle fine art paper, resting on the shelf. My job then was to transform the reams of virgin paper and litres of Piezography printer ink resting nearby into the 21-image portfolios that accompany each book of poetry.
After a leisurely few weeks spent on the island (my arrival was premature, as the spring semester was still in session), I abruptly transformed into a machine, printing more than 2,500 images over a period of six weeks. In the air-conditioned oasis of the Center’s digital lab I methodically loaded Hahnemühle’s soft and warm bamboo digital photography paper into an Epson 4800 printer modified to take Piezography monochromatic inks.
The unique ink blends required continual minor adjustments to the contrast and midtones, but apart from a few minor setbacks and one near-catastrophe – solved after many hours of determined problem solving with John – the images printed without trouble.
Though much of the work was mechanical and repetitious, the time spent looking at the photographs and understanding John’s sensitive photographic eye has contributed to my own visual sensibilities. And that is to say nothing of the invaluable hours passed beside a great and determined mind.
Now with the job done and a new school year starting again, I’ve left Paros one more time, and my own journey continues.
The Greater Journey is to be presented to donors who make a substantial contribution to the Aegean Center Endowment Fund or otherwise significantly support the Center’s mission and various development projects. For more information please contact John Pack directly via email or phone at the Aegean Center.