3, February 2017 § 2 Comments
“When we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ‘the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.” –Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, 1998
Seven Liberal Arts: Francesco Pesellino: 1422-1457 Florence
While hoping to find a way to take a much needed sabbatical many years ago I made some phone calls in search for a person to take over my job for a semester. I talked to a woman who taught at a well known academy in the States, someone who I felt could teach drawing and painting simultaneously as I had been doing for years at the Aegean Center. I gave her the outline of the program; a three month course, in Greece, teaching 20 hours a week, covering the gamut from printmaking to oil painting. She brushed aside my inquiry but not because she felt the weight of long hours of teaching, or because the responsibilities were onerous, but because she would need to teach drawing and painting concurrently. She said that a student needed a full year of basic drawing, followed by a full year of figure drawing before they should be allowed to touch a brush. When I explained that being a single semester abroad program prevented us from spreading out the curriculum in this way she dumbfounded me with her response. “Well”‘ she said, “I consider myself a fascist when it comes to art instruction”. I thanked her for her time and promptly hung up.
In relating this story to students I often wondered whether the fascist intent was sanctioned by her academy or if it was just her own perverse mindset. I have unfortunately seen and heard of teachers who felt their method was uniquely correct and had no tolerance for other viewpoints. In art classes the slavish adherence to what is fashionable and a blindness to tradition can narrow students responses. As teachers we must all ensure that our students learn the basic skills that will serve them in future no matter which direction the art world takes. I am deeply committed to obtaining and practicing these skills, but to be a self proclaimed fascist in order to attain that objective is repugnant. Recently I contemplated her response again and thought about it in context to the current political climate. It still horrifies me and I still fight against the dictates that her statement implies.
The Liberal Arts were conceived to educate citizens who could uphold the highest ideals of the Greek and Roman cultures. Rhetoric, grammar, logic comprised the trivium and to these were added the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Over the course of the centuries a liberal arts education has come to means something broader but it still indicates a course of study which seeks to inculcate a student to uphold the fundamental underpinning of a democratic society. The arts, especially the visual arts, play a role in embedding memory, culture and history into the minds of citizens. The museum plays its part as well as the galleries, publications and criticism. The arts aspire to imagination, forward thinking, to uphold aesthetic ideals and keep sensitivity alert. This perhaps is why the first thing many dictators do is imprison the artists and poets. But art can also be fashioned into propaganda and can in itself become weighted down with rules and dictates. And apparently teaching art can become fascistic as well.
If we are to remain an open society we need to teach the creative process and embody it as well in our teaching. I try to foster a creative environment in the studio along with emphasizing the discipline that learning an art form demands. Strangely, many art students do not feel creative. The striving to make something of merit often stifles the urge to begin. Creativity requires a certain amount of mess, of boredom, of play and practice in order to perform its magical alchemy. Rigid hierarchical formulae do not help to promote its appearance. We cannot be creative if we are being taught that conforming is the most important requirement. This is why so many students feel that being creative is a rare gift rather than a natural outcome of their nature, too many years spent in graded, monitored, tested classrooms can kill off the ability to create. Often beginning students are intensely creative before fear and compliance knock them back into simply performing for others.
I stay in my job with pleasure, it keeps me involved in my passions and engaged with young clever minds. I teach drawing and painting but I also feel my job is to awaken students to their own nascent creativity. To engage in the creative process is to grow as a person and as a citizen of the world. Within the beautiful environment of the Center with its multicultural milieu, with imaginative and intellectual activities and trusting relationships the creative is allowed to emerge. :Jane Morris Pack
“Those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and . . . they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1779
19, July 2016 § Leave a comment
Jane Morris Pack
Learning to draw the human figure is a challenge and demands a clear understanding of how to capture form. It is also a difficult task to do in two weeks but the eight students attending the Intensive Summer Workshop did an amazing job of pulling it all together in a short time. We worked from the model for two hours every morning and then after lunch the projects included working in clay and drawing the bones and muscles. Learning to draw the basic geometric forms was given particular attention as they are the building blocks for all form. We investigated perspective, built a clay head, foot, hand, nose and mouth. The students traced their own proportions life size on paper and then added the skeleton and muscles to those drawings. On the final day, as a creative exercise, we hung paper cutouts onto a line and played lights over their forms to suggest movement.
Since drawing is such an intense activity we needed a few distractions to smooth the steep learning curve. One night was spent watching the stars appear from a vantage point high on the mountain after sunset, on another we had a wine tasting of six prominent Greek varietals, and lastly a full day was enjoyed on a wonderful boat trip around the neighbouring island of Antiparos. Thank you to all of my wonderful and enthusiastic students from whom I learn so much.
30, June 2016 § 1 Comment
The Aegean Center summer workshop, Oil Painting Innovations, concluded this last Saturday with a successful exhibition at the Center. The five painters showed four paintings each, sharing the space with the watercolour and the photography students from the other workshops. The walls were crowded with excellent work all of which showed a high level of skill and aesthetic involvement.The painting class followed several historical methods chosen for their instructive value; Venetian heightening with white on a dark ground from the 15th century, Flemish floral painting from the 17th century and Impressionist still life from the 19th century. These methods were explained and then explored in order for the students to maximize their understanding of the principals of structured oil paintings. A fourth exercise, which dealt with the painting of an all white still life, was chosen to challenge color mixing choices and the necessary lowering of tone which oil paint dictates.
The process of hand refined linseed oil which we began using a year ago at the Center was demonstrated and became our medium. It’s unique properties allow us to forgo solvents. The oil is stronger and shinier than the store bought tube oils. The handling is fluid, each touch is recorded. It creates a tough film, maintains textural elements of brushwork and keeps its color integrity when painting wet into wet. We were in the studios every day for six hours six days a week. The new oil paint made it possible for us to continue working without the need for long drying times and so the layers went on quickly. Working on four canvases with different criteria kept us energized. Thank you to my students for their enthusiasm and their dedication.
30, January 2016 § 1 Comment
After too long a silence we are posting some past events bringing us up to the present, 2016. Like always we will try our best to stay more current…
Last September our students had the privilege to meet with Maurizio Seracini in Firenze while we were in residence at the Villa Rospigliosi in Pistoia, Italy. A passionate man whose interests range over physics, engineering and art history, he has been investigating the possibility that Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco of The Battle of Anghiari may still exist behind another later fresco on a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze. We met him near the equestrian statue in the Piazza della Signoria and had the great honour of accompanying him to view the hall named the Salone dei Cinquecento and hear him talk on the subject. His warm and personal approach brought us all closer to the mystery of the disappearance of this masterpiece which was hailed as the greatest depiction of a battle scene at the time it was created and was copied many times before its eventual disappearance behind another fresco by Vasari. Mr. Seracini has made this search his personal quest.
For a more complete article on his process and work you can read this: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/science/06tier.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&no_interstitial
Maurizio Seracini is a 1973 graduate in bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego, he founded the first company in Italy for diagnostic and non-destructive analyses on art and architecture, the Diagnostic Center for Cultural Heritage in Firenze. Adapting technologies from the medical and military fields and other technical measuring instruments he has made possible diagnostics of art and search for art without destroying the artwork itself.
In 2013, Seracini established Great Masters Art Authentication in San Diego California, the first US company dedicated to true scientific authentication of Old Masters art from the 14th to 19th Century.
22, May 2015 § 2 Comments
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.
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.
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.