15, January 2014 § Leave a comment
by Jane Morris Pack
Technological advances have changed the world of photography in recent years and given its practitioners an incredible tool box of options. The history palette in Photoshop makes it possible to maintain a record of adjustments. Since every decision is reversible it enables the photographer to try out several versions, nuanced or radical, to enhance the photograph.
Painters haven’t been able to benefit from these advances but they can have something of the same convenience with an iPad or smartphone. Taking pictures and recording the various stages of your work make it easy to see whether the latest application of paint was an improvement or not. We can’t simply push the button to undo but at least we can wipe paint off. But perhaps of equal interest is the editing tool within the photo program. On the iPad you can choose a filter option at the bottom of the screen and turn any color painting into black and white. This tool gives you an instant readout of your tonal range; if you have neglected the mid tones, or the whites are too dim, it will tell you. It would benefit beginning painters to take a snapshot of their subject and their painting and turn both into black and white studies and compare the two. Finding the mid tones is often the most difficult task for the beginner painter. With the ability to focus on various depths it is even possible to get your iPad to take an out of focus picture and this is a great device for seeing the overall blur of color range without detail.
I am not advocating turning the human eye and mind into a camera, which seems to be the goal of many of the super realists I see today. I am more interested in the personal human vision with its quirkiness and ability to select and emphasize. Even so, the attainment of clear tones with subtlety and range is a large part of the beauty of oil painting.
9, December 2013 § Leave a comment
by Jane Morris Pack
The aim of the advanced painting class is to deepen understanding of paint handling, to gain insight into one of the great painters of history and to push the students to expand beyond their own normal approach to constructing a painting. More can be learned from imitating the masters than most other pedagogical approaches. This style of learning happens without words, without theory. It is quickly understood that the eye and hand can absorb and convey information, bypassing the verbal centers of the brain. This information is rich and nuanced and reaches into our emotional core; we feel rather than explain the process.
The advanced painters each brought their own experience to this project and they will take away from it varied responses. The student learns what the mind is ready to accept; were it otherwise we could all be masters within a short space of time. My hope is that they will all find at least one aspect of Rubens to incorporate into their future work. I know that my own appreciation for this painter grew as we worked and I have already put his teachings to use in my own paintings.
2, December 2013 § 1 Comment
by Jane Morris Pack
Rubens frequently composed along the curves of an oval which rose diagonally from the lower left to the upper right of the canvas. This diagonal movement gives tension and drama to his work. We have chosen a group of stock characters from his mythological subjects, centaurs and satyrs etc, and arranged them with this device in mind, placing them in overlapping positions and in reducing scale to push the space backward into the depths. We created a dark tree as a foil against the highly lit figures on one corner and opened up another to deep atmospheric perspective.
The drawings, once accomplished on paper were transferred to the canvas with the perforated holes and pouncing method used by the Renaissance artists. The underpainting was then set in with raw umber loosely and not too dark to keep the shadows transparent and luminous. Much of the streaky gray imprimatura was allowed to show through. Highlighting with white came next which involved oil paint mixed with chalk to give the paint textural force and an active surface. This was placed to bring the eye to areas of interest and emphasize our oval composition. More modeling was accomplished with a toned down white and then the canvas was allowed to dry.
This procedure, which took several hours of group effort, brought the image to a more finished form and we began to visualize it as a whole for the first time. Rubens often used his studio assistants to bring a painting to this level and then he added his final touches in the glazing and overpainting that follows.
12, November 2013 § 4 Comments
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).
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.
4, November 2013 § 2 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
Euphrosyne Doxiades is a painter and an expert on encaustic, the wax based painting method of the Ancient Greeks. She has been asked to contribute her knowledge of the technique to a conference in Athens which is examining the use of paint on marble surfaces, both architectural and sculptural. She asked my help to recreate a figure which is on a marble disk thought to be from the mid fifth century. The piece is in the museum in Paros and was found in the cemetery excavation near the sea. It was the lid of an urn which may have held the ashes of an athlete who had won a competition for discus throwing.
What remains of the paint is vermillion pigment and there were traces of gold on the head and on the discus which are now missing. We painted vermillion mixed with hot bees wax and mastic directly into the surface of the marble and added gold leaf to the hair and the circle of the discus. The paint was “burned in” using a hot tool and then scraped and polished to a soft shine. Euphrosyne had made previous tests which insured that the paint adheres to the surface even out of doors in full sun.
We had a joyful time recreating this beautiful remnant of ancient culture and perhaps it will contribute to the scholarship as well.
15, May 2013 § Leave a comment
Euphrosyne Doxiades revealed secrets about the encaustic method of painting in a recent workshop at the Aegean Center. Encaustic is an ancient technique in which pigments and wax are blended together and applied hot to a surface. An electric hot plate kept the wax at the perfect temperature to dip into and spread with a brush. Small alcohol burners were also used to heat metal spatulas which spread the wax. Working on a dark imprimatura the wax strokes leave a highly textured surface which can be further manipulated with heat. Electric tools can be used as well. The four color palette was employed; white and black, yellow and red. Euprhosyne’s book, The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, shows how this ancient technique was used for mummy portraits in first century Egypt. Her book is published by Thames and Hudson.
8, May 2013 § 3 Comments
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.
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.
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.
19, April 2013 § 8 Comments
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.
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.
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.
13, December 2012 § Leave a comment
Dear John, Jane, and Jun– my lovely teachers from a year ago–
It is true that everything changes for the better after a time at the Aegean Center. Looking back one year ago we were hanging that final show. This week I am hanging my university’s final show. I can only hint at the personal growth, joy, and creative productivity that has occurred between the two. I know that this incredible moment, which is yet unfinished, began while I was on Paros immersed in what I can retrospectively see is one of the best and most unique communities that exist anywhere. Paros opened me to loving a place, loving a craft, and loving myself, and those lessons have continued to guide me as I make my way back in the States. Thanks to all of you for that.
I didn’t know it then but the time spent in Italy and watching Jane and Jun do their painting work gave me a strong interest in narrative and classical technique. When I came back in the winter I began studying egg tempera and have been working with it since then. I was also awarded a scholarship to go study fresco this summer, and now work in both. Early in the year I started on my Honors thesis, a year-long independent project in the student’s discipline. My thesis is the work I am hanging in the show and I will be defending it to my committee in two weeks time.
I wanted to share this with you because I feel it shows how much I absorbed while in Italy and Greece and the tremendous impact you have on your students. I think of you all and things you have taught me often. From you, John, I think of lessons about midtones, I am not even joking. I truly want to make the midtones in the paintings sing. I also think to really see things and appreciate. From you, Jane, I think of lessons about the figure, some tips on glazing, and how to be a woman and an artist all at once. From you, Jun, I remember many painting techniques learned, and I see how to be a young figurative painter with verve. All these lessons and more went into completing this project.
The painting project I conceived for my thesis is a narrative polyptych “afterpiece” in egg tempera. I wanted to explore the process and flow of bliss, vernacular space here in Orono, and feminine creative power. I started painting early this spring and finished last week. The painting is eight feet wide and five and half feet tall, structurally organized as a hinged triptych, with multiple paintings on each panel. There is silver leafing in the sky and I built the frame in a timber-frame style, learning much about carpentry! It is almost a house in itself. The center panel mimics annunciation paintings, but with a twist. The bottom panel is a hell montage inspired by Bosch. The outer two are symbolic landscapes compiled from my town here.
That’s all. I’m so happy to share this with you and to look back a year ago and remember it all.
As for the future, I am graduating in December, working on my portfolio this spring and summer, and headed out for residencies in the fall. I am applying to some in the states but really hoping to get over to Europe where I can learn more about the sort of painting I am interested in.
My best wishes to all of you, and thank you, thank you, thank you,
15, October 2012 § Leave a comment
At the core of the Aegean Center, lies the philosophy of the Sanctum, the Center’s special space for students in the hill village of Lefkes. If the Center is an oasis for the Classical arts in a wasteland of post-modernism, then the Sanctum is an island refuge from the din of the over-connected, banal networks found in the supposed modern world. In my own experience I have found the Sanctum to be a place of healing, a fountain of renewal after I had been drained dry by societies pressures and the indecision of identity and character.
In 2010 I was still connected to old rhythms, still dancing a tired, limping waltz leftover from an exhausting home-care commitment in which I had willingly labored since 2004 and human aid work in Bosnia in 2007 and 2008. That fresh spring day I had not intended to come to sit in the clear light of that quiet room. I had wandered around Lefkes hoping to take some interesting photos in the streets and the surrounding area, but found myself, quite by accident, at the Sanctum’s door. The students had visited the place a few weeks before with John Pack. He had told us something about himself that day and opened up his heart in both joy and sadness. I inserted my shiny, new key, turned the lock and walked in. I put down my day-pack. It suddenly felt too heavy to bear. The muted April light shining through the windows illuminated the soft pillows, colorful rugs and a small wooden writing desk on the floor. There were only earth tones, nothing jarring to the senses. There was a painting on the wall, some wooden tables, a few simple caned chairs. The air was cool, scented with oregano growing in small pots. In comparison I felt heavy, ungainly, somewhat unbalanced. My mind was buzzing with a dull grey drone and I found myself asking questions as old as Paros: “Why am I here? Who am I? What is my reason? Where am I going? What will I find when I get there?” I sat down roughly into the pillows, grateful for their softness, kicked off my shoes and fell into oblivion.
I awoke an hour later feeling more calm, but still pensive. I had dreamed. I understood that it was acceptable to feel uncertain, to ask these questions of myself. I didn’t need the answers today. Perhaps they would never be satisfied. To keep searching would be better than ending the quest with a quick, efficient, modern answer. I had discovered this vital truth, a truth I knew in my heart, in a little room in Greece, surrounded by silence and light. I returned to Paroikia that afternoon, transformed.
So what is the philosophy of the Sanctum? To be honest I am not entirely sure, but I know that there is one important rule: No electronic interference or devices: no mobile phones, no internet, no recorded music, no games. Nothing that would distract the mind from the important experience of ‘being’, as opposed to ‘doing’. We come to the Sanctum to learn who we are, just as we come to the Aegean Center to experience something we do not have in America, or wherever we are from. With any luck we leave that behind when we step off the boat from Athens. We search for something more meaningful in a world measured by ‘things’ and a vertical technology. We disengage from the cacophony of an incorrectly defined progressive era, step over the marble threshold and into a clear and quiet room. We put down what we carry.
– John D.C. Masters, Paros, 15 October, 2012