The Rubens Project
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.
The Vermeer Project: Part Two
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.
The Vermeer Project
19, April 2013 § 8 Comments
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.
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.
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.
Student Post: Shanoor Seervai
18, November 2009 § 1 Comment
After spending a month in Italy looking at some of the greatest oil paintings in the world, I was both intimidated and inspired to start painting when we got to Paros. Learning to work with oil paints is something I have always wanted to do, and I am amazed at how much I have learned in just six weeks. I feel extremely grateful to be able to work with Jun and Jane: at each stage in a painting, their guidance has helped me to understand how to take the painting further and how to apply a range of techniques to my work.
We started with a monochromatic under-painting to set up the painting in terms of tonality. We used only black and white to paint in the first layer, paying attention to the relationships between the objects. In the next layer, we used the earth palette (ivory black, white, burnt sienna and yellow ochre) to further build up the objects. One of the most important things I am learning is to work on the painting in several layers. Instead of getting caught up in minute details in the first layer, I am learning to lay out general shapes and tones that provide a basis for the subsequent layers. While the first layer(s) are invariably covered up, if they are carefully applied, they glow through and enhance the following layers. If they are careless, they are detrimental and far more difficult to cover up in the future.
Using the earth palette has helped me to grasp the relationships between colors. For our second assignment, I placed a bright blue boot against a crimson bowl and an orange. With the limited earth palette, my challenge was to make the boot appear blue against the other objects. The “blue” I mixed using white and black did not match the color of the boot as I saw it, but the warm tones in the bowl and orange provided contrast and created a fairly convincing illusion of blue.
Incorporating reflective surfaces for our third painting helped me to observe objects more carefully so that I paint what I see instead of what I imagine. The transparent green glass of a wine bottle was luminous and filled with so many distinct colors and shapes that I needed to analyze individually and then bring back together so that the final product still looked like a transparent green bottle. I was anxious to paint the light and the dark details in the objects at the same time, but I am learning to be more patient and to use the first layers of my painting to give form and volume to objects instead of trying to do everything at once.
For “heightening with white”, we started with a dark imprimatura (a mixture of burnt sienna and black). We then used white to lighten areas on the canvas. Instead of starting with a white canvas and using dark paint in large areas, heightening with white allowed us to carefully use white to understand the interplay of light and dark. This technique has been used by several masters: we looked at work by Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Velasquez as examples. I chose to copy a Velasquez painting, “Head of a Stag”. I was initially very nervous about how I would be able to accurately mimic Velasquez’s delicate brush strokes, especially in the fur. As I used white to lighten the canvas, I felt the form of the stag’s head emerging. After this layer was dry, I glazed back the dark areas using black and burnt sienna. The technique of glazing (using liquin and transparent colors to darken the painting) allowed me to draw attention to the subtle transitions in the dark fur. I loved working on this piece: it gave me the opportunity to study Velasquez’s painting in depth and gain a better understanding of his technique and brushwork.
We then shifted from the earth palette to the prismatic palette (cadmium yellow, bright red, ultramarine blue and white). We looked at the work of the French impressionists to understand how they used color and looser, more distinguishable brush strokes to paint. From the religious scenes and lifelike portraits of Renaissance art, the impressionists favored landscapes and scenes of ordinary life. I gathered my painting supplies and went up to one of my favorite sunset spots in Parikia. Painting outdoors is a challenge in itself, with the wind threatening to knock white spirit all over my work. Painting the sunset added a whole new dimension to the challenge because the light changes much faster than I can paint. This made it difficult to apply the colors on my canvas because every time I looked at the sky, the color I had just used had changed completely!
I write this after having spent a significant part of the weekend in my painting studio. I started this painting with an imprimatura using the prismatic palette and spreading the colors over the canvas at random. We then set up a still life with brightly colored objects (mostly fruits and vegetables). The bright and arbitrary imprimatura helps us to see colors we would not conventionally think of using to paint a particular object: for example, my still life has a blue vase that I am painting over a bright red and orange layer. I would never have noticed purple tones in the vase if I hadn’t been forced to see it against my red canvas. As I stare at a seemingly green piece of Broccoli, I find blues and purples and reds and yellows. Paying attention to these subtleties has helped me to paint with a greater likeness to reality instead of using flat colors. I am also enjoying working on the fabric in this painting because I feel as if I am beginning to understand how to depict folds and movement in cloth.
With each painting, I become more comfortable facing a blank canvas, setting up the painting with some drawings and the under-painting, and then going back to it several times to add more form, color and detail. I find that my brushstrokes are no longer arbitrary and uninformed: I am able to think about what I want my painting to look like and then work to get there. Most importantly, I am inspired to keep working and keep improving, because every day I feel overwhelmed with how much there is to learn.
The Velazquez Project
13, July 2009 § Leave a comment
by Jane Morris Pack
Six students who returned to the Aegean Center for a second semester worked together on a project for the advanced painting class. The aim was to delve deeply into the great work, “Las Meninas” by Velazquez. This task afforded us the opportunity to understand his palette, his brushwork and his compositional methods: to see essentially what makes him an important artist.
We first constructed a full size drawing of the piece, which gave us a plan of the actual size to work from. The main figures were then divided among the group, and the students set to work drafting them in scale for the oil paintings. We talked about Velazquez’s paint handling and looked at Las Meninas in detail on Google Earth, which shows every brushstroke at close range. We discussed his use of space and his playful handling of the reflection of the King and Queen. Just one revelation the students experienced upon close inspection is that Velazquez’s brushwork and use of paint is thrilling and decidedly modern.
Copying the work of master painters used to be the norm in art schools. It has been out of fashion, generally regarded as a inhibition to creativity, but there is a great deal to be learned in apprenticing ourselves to past masters. Not only is there a new awareness of history but also an illumination into the mystery of what makes a great work of art.
The painters were:
Student Post: Melissa Henry
12, June 2009 § Leave a comment
The semester has ended and things have come to a close here in Paros. It’s hard to believe that I have spent two semesters studying with the Aegean Center. I feel incredibly lucky for this opportunity and in my time here I have met such wonderful individuals and learned so much. It has been a year of personal growth as I have had a chance to reflect and explore myself in new and unique surroundings. The beauty of Paros and the experiences I have had will be with me forever, and the magic of Paros will echo throughout my life and my art hereafter.
In Jane’s Velazquez seminar, we have completed the painting of our sections of Las Meninas. Painting a life-size replica of one of the figures was a great exercise to culminate our semester-long study of Velazquez’ style and technique. I really enjoyed working so large (120 x 75 cm). Studying how he painted has definitely influenced my technique and how I view the act and art of painting. He painted subjects ‘out-of-focus’ but included passages with more attention to detail, which is similar to our vision. We are able to focus on only a small area and all surrounding forms are more or less blurred. I now see how this gives a painting more dynamism than painting everything in perfect focus. Another idea I will continue to keep in mind when I paint is the potential for a painting to be both abstract and realistic. From a distance Velazquez’ paintings read as clean, smooth realistic depictions. Yet up close we see that they are merely slashes of paint splattered on canvas. Paint can create great illusion but is essentially just paint on canvas. This semester Jane introduced us to putty, which I have nearly become addicted to using. It gives the paint more body and sculptural form and helps me to loosen up my brushstroke. I plan on continuing to explore texture and putty for my senior honors project next year at Brown University.
Because putty lightens paint and preserves the luminosity of it without making it opaque or chalky like white, I have used it a lot in my work dealing with a particular lighting effect. I have always been attracted to and inspired by scenes where a distinct feeling of light creates a certain mood. Almost all of my paintings this semester address some specific effect of light, particularly cast shadows, as in my first painting of lamp-lit vegetables, the school courtyard walls, and the trash bin cats. In a more recent work I wanted to capture the mood of the storeroom/garage that we visited last semester at the local olive press. The strong, glowing light hitting the wall and illuminating the objects within intrigues me. I wanted to keep a loose drawing quality to it and I kept a primary color theme through repeating passages of red, yellow, and blue. I used these colors in many layers of putty and glazing.
I continued my personal exploration with olive trees with a second painting dealing with the wrinkly, knotty, and aged quality of olive trees. I learned things from my first painting that I applied to this one. I chose a different, more static composition and I included more surrounding landscape.
We also did a ‘white painting’ using a limited palette of white, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. I really enjoyed working with such a limited palette. I find it easier to be creative when there are stricter constraints to work within. We pushed our palette as far as we could to create a variety of hues, tones, and temperatures. It was a good exercise to focus on the art of subtlety. Working with whites was a peaceful process and I like the feeling of my finished piece so I would like to do more work with a limited palette in the future.
Now that the beautiful summer weather has arrived on Paros, we went outside to paint on-scene at the bay port. I did a 2-hour study of some boats and it was a good exercise in synthesizing a large amount of information and detail. I used a limited palette similar to my white painting: only white, blue, and burnt sienna. Painting outside has its challenges. The light changes, the subjects are often in movement, and the weather conditions can be tough to work in (it was a sweltering hot day when we painted.) I learned to work with my immediate surroundings and should continue to do these quick nature studies.
I finally painted a self-portrait, which has been somewhat of a dread of mine. Jane has taught me the importance of choosing a ‘system’ and working within the parameters of that system to paint. This helped my tackle the portrait because it involves picking a method to break a painting down into manageable steps. I was getting overwhelmed with the many subtle colors and tones in the face but I worked in a series of layers that built up the form gradually. I began using the Velazquez method I have become so accustomed to: drawing with paint and adding in the dark tones then heightening with white. Then I went in with many layers of red and blue glazes. With just these two colors I was able to get many hues and tones. In places the blue and red mixed to make purple and because my imprimatura was a yellowish orange, I created a green tone when I put blue glaze on top. I found that using these layers interspersed with whites allowed me to get so many colors, temperatures, and tones without having to mix each shade of paint separately.
During our week-long semester break, I traveled to Santorini and Crete with a few other students. While in Crete, I was inspired by the geometry of the fields we drove through and the overwhelming variety of green. I was interested in how orderly and systematic they appeared, with the cast shadows of each individual tree forming a pattern across the landscape. In an ‘ode to putty’ I painted a tactile painting. How often do you see a painting labeled “please touch”? Not so much, so I decided to have some fun with layers and make a painting for the eyes and the fingers.
As a final painting of the semester I decided to do one last olive tree. After working on a large canvas for Las Meninas I wanted to do another big painting (70 x 100 cm). I went with a few other students to look at the olive trees that we pass on our way to Lefkes for hikes. I have always wanted to go up close and look at them and I am so glad I finally did it before leaving Paros! For me, these trees are incredible symbols of Paros. They have so much character strength; some have been alive for a thousand years. I feel that this painting is a good culmination of my year with the Aegean Center. Half is alive, half is dead. There is new growth and hope, yet there remains the dead wood of many years past.
My time studying at The Aegean Center has come to a close but I am excited to take with me all that I have learned to share with others and apply to my own work. The memories of the Aegean Center, and the sand, salt, and olive trees of Paros will be with me forever.
Student Post: Melissa Henry
13, April 2009 § 1 Comment
Since writing my previous post, we have made a lot of progress in Jane’s Velazquez seminar. We began painting with a putty mixture, which is a technique that Velazquez and many of the Old Master painters seem to have used. We made our own putty out of marble dust and oil. Jane purified the marble dust that she got from a local construction yard through an extensive process of rinsing, allowing it to settle, pouring out the impure water, and drying it out. With the clean, dry marble powder, we experimented with adding various mediums to make putty. We tried three different consistencies of oil, liquin, and egg yolk. Each medium gave the putty a different structural quality and drying time.
Making putty was something new to me and I found it very satisfying. New research into many old paintings (by Velazquez or Rembrandt for example) shows that artists often mixed putty with their paint pigment. Using putty in this way instead of oil is a way to make the paint more transparent, more sculptural, and quicker to dry. Linseed oil will yellow with age and crack on the canvas’s surface, but putty will not. We found that using putty doesn’t make the paint chalky and opaque like adding white does, but it does make a little pigment go a very long way.
When I experimented with putty, I immediately loved it. It is a very economical way to prolong your oil paint since it is extremely cheap and easy to make – just mix marble dust and oil together! I chose to paint a knotty old olive tree that I saw in Lefkes on one of our hikes. One of the wonderful benefits of living in such a beautiful place as Paros is that nature is everywhere and it serves as a constant inspiration for artwork. Putty is especially great for painting organic shapes and it helped free up my brushstroke, which is usually more tightly controlled. I felt like I was sculpting and molding the paint as I applied it in thick gobs. I went in with several layers of paint and subsequent glazing into the knots and dark shadows. I am pleased with the final effect; the paint quality, particularly in the sky, has a unique semi-opaque yet luminescent feel. Because I had so much fun with this painting, I plan on painting another olive tree using putty.
In Jun’s painting class, I have done several new paintings. I chose to paint a scene of rather pissed-off cats perched on a dumpster. It is an image that we see on every street corner and I find it quite humorous. Cats, which I traditionally think of as cute cuddly animals, lurk threateningly around big trash cans and I can’t help but wonder what goodies they are gruffly guarding. I wanted to dramatize the scene so I used a slight worm’s eye view to look up at the cats who glare down at me, enhanced by a harsh sense of light with raking cast shadows. The background was a struggle because at first it flattened the sense of space and felt artificial, like a wallpaper that the cats were stuck on top of. I tried to subtly gradate it, which helped but I am still not pleased with it. I played with various textures on the cats, the trash cans, and the landscape, and worked up gradually with many layers. I enjoy people’s reaction when they look closely at the cats’ expressions; it’s a painting that’s ok to laugh at.
I also did a reflection painting. I began it much like the portrait I did of St. Paul, with a burnt sienna monochromatic, then heightened and darkened the details. My still-life set up was dominantly black so I went over everything with a black glaze but that left the fabric feeling very transparent so I added positive paint on top of it. This was rather frustrating because I had gone into so much detail in the underpainting and I ended up covering it over with the next layers. Having the framework laid out so thoroughly did help because I had studied the folds and crevices so intently that I understood the fabric’s form and how it was draped, thus making it easier to paint. For me the painting was a concentrated exercise in breaking down a complex subject into shapes and forms.
While I was working on the more arduous reflective study, I did a smaller side painting for fun. In Liz Carson’s photo history class, we were looking at early photographs of hazy cityscape scenes. I was attracted to the symmetric forms and shapes and I wanted to create a simple city line and play with blurry abstracted reflections. I have been meaning to experiment with letting watery paint drip and blend together since this is a texture I want to incorporate more into my work. It was a good way for me to loosen up and focus on paint quality rather than on form. I used many layers of glazing and a limited palette consisting mostly of pthalo blue, burnt umber, ocher, and black.
In keeping with geometric forms and combining watery paint and dripping methods, I painted the view from our school’s courtyard, looking up at a studio window. I sketched the scene in Draw Club one morning because I was drawn to the harsh morning shadows cast on the wall and all the sharp architectural angles that went off in odd directions yet all seemed to flow harmoniously together. I also found the simple color planes soothing and liked how they juxtapose the sinewy wire forms. I built up my color carefully and gradually with several layers of paint scumble and glazing on top. I integrated dripping on one of the walls and I painted the sky with very watered-down paint. The final piece conveys a rather simple relationship between shapes and colors. Next we are working with a limited color palette, setting up still-lives with only white or grey objects. This will force us to focus on subtle differences in hue and tonality.
Student Post: Melissa Henry
25, March 2009 § 5 Comments
This semester the returning painting students are meeting with Jane Pack for a weekly seminar where we are delving into the work and style of Velazquez. We are learning a tremendous amount about both the process of how he painted and his techniques. Our long-term goal for the semester is to produce a replica of his masterpiece ‘Las Meninas.’ Through learning step-by-step about his painting methods, we will each do our own portion of the painting ‘in his style.’ There is a lot of preparation to do before that point, and we have begun with learning how he went about creating a portrait. Using this method, we are painting one of his portraits ourselves. I chose to replicate St. Paul from his painting of Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Paul the Anchorite.
Velazquez worked with the strategy of starting from a ‘middle ground’ and building up from there by adding darks and lights. I began learning about this method of working last semester and I am beginning to really understand its benefits. It is a way of working that allows the artist to be economical with his use of layers, paint, and brushstroke. For me, it makes the various steps in creating a painting more manageable because as Jane says, you break down a complex subject (like a face) into various layers, and in each layer you deal with a separate issue.
Velazquez began his portraits with an underlayer of paint, or ‘imprimatura.’ I used yellow ochre mixed with a bit of black. When dry, he would make a rough sketch of his subject with dark brown paint (I used raw umber). This should be loose and to get it correctly modeled, I used a rag to constantly wipe out and mold the shapes in St. Paul’s face. I was intimidated at first but this method of blending, wiping, and re-applying over and over allowed me to get a facial form that I was happy with. In a way it took the pressure off of getting it just right the first time. And since it is the first layer, any mistakes can be fixed in succeeding layers.
In the next stage, we “heightened with white” like Velazquez. Jane taught us how he would mix chalk with his pigments to get a certain silvery-opaque quality. We are adding zinc powder to our white to help quicken the drying time, which is very slow for titanium white paint. I applied an ochre and white combination instead of straight white so that I can bring up the darker tones more gradually. I found this step of “heightening” very enjoyable. The major ‘decisions’ had already been made when I used brown to sketch out St. Paul’s face and shape his features, so in this stage I was building on top of the framework I had laid.
On top of this white, Velazquez would apply a layer of glaze to bring the tones back closer to the base color. He would repeat this process of heightening and glazing back down, using different colors of glaze within the earth palette (yellow ochre, a red pigment like burnt sienna, black, and white) to achieve a rich skin tone. I too did this, and found that my slow buildup of the canvas gave me time to contemplate and think about the process, planning out several steps in advance. Working in many layers allows me to get a feel for the subtle nuances of the forms and their shadows. In the process of heightening with white, I began noticing little details that I hadn’t seen in the initial sketch, like the indentations within cavity of the eye socket. I also added some ‘positive paint’ into the wet glaze. This gave St. Paul’s face more body and form. I found that I also had to go back in and darken select areas and add more white to brighten other places. In the final step, Velazquez would put the finishing highlights in with thicker paint. Looking at close-ups of his portraits, we can see the movement of his brush and how he used brushstroke to model his figures with incredible skill. I added some last touches also, and when I put in the highlights of the eyes, it made St. Paul come alive on the canvas.
Aside form Jane’s class, I am working on other paintings with Jun’s painting class. for the first painting, I chose to take a quirky spin on the traditional still life setup. I had the idea of poking fun at the traditional ‘fruit still life’ by mimicking a police lineup and hanging my subjects on the wall under harsh spotlight, as though they are suspects for committing a crime. Fittingly, the spotlight is an artist’s lamp. I had fun with this idea and I tried to create a dark and dramatic painting yet have it be silly at the same time. For this piece, I knew the lamp would be a challenge so I began by sketching it out, first with a loose gesture drawing, and then with a more detailed sketch in which I carefully examined the tones and reflective qualities of the different parts of the lamp. Doing this sketch helped me tremendously. I had the image of the lamp, it’s proportions, and the shapes of its reflections already worked out in my head, so I was more confident depicting these qualities in paint. Completing a detailed pencil sketch of challenging objects before tackling them in paint is something I am definitely going to more often.
I love painting vegetables and I found it enjoyable to build up in layers much like the Velazquez portrait I am working on. I used many layers of glazing with burnt sienna, black, blue, and green to get a sense of depth in the shadows. Last semester I learned a tremendous amount when I replicated Vermeer’s Woman with a Balance and I applied those lessons to this painting. I wanted a similar sense of atmosphere and space so I used a light scumble over a dark ground and applied subsequent layers of glaze on top of that.
Coming up in Jun’s class we will be looking into reflections, literally. I am going to study the complex reflections on glass objects which will be a great challenge and I am looking forward to it. Stay tuned…
Student Post: Melissa Henry
15, December 2008 § Leave a comment
It is hard to believe that my time at the Aegean Center has ended for the semester. What an incredible opportunity it has been. From Pistoia to Paros, I am so lucky to have lived and learned with such amazing individuals and experienced such magical places. In my time here, I have grown and developed as an individual and as an artist. With the mentoring and guidance of our brilliant professors, we have been taught to see the world differently. As I look around myself I am more observant of the ‘art’ in our daily lives: the temperature of the shadow cast across the wall, the negative space between the tree’s leaves, or the subtle gradation between the colors of the Aegean waters. Our instructors have shared with us the beauty of the natural environment through examples from art and with our favorite ‘Friday hikes’. Many of us have been inspired by the paradise of our surroundings and have incorporated it into our own art.
In my last two paintings of the semester, I was inspired by the delicate play of light and shadow in spaces that I am so fond of. The first of these depicts the student apartments, where the side terrace to my home is. I am intrigued by the white, geometric simplicity of the local Greek architecture and I find it a refreshing breath away from any of the structures I am used to from home or our visit to Italy. The way the shadows bounce off the forms attracted me and I decided to convey this in a painting. It was a huge challenge and honestly, I am not completely happy with the result but I must see it as a ‘learning’ piece.
Achieving the subtle differences in the white walls was difficult. I used scumbling for most of this effect. Where I wanted to convey a sense of depth, as in the staircase, I used glazing techniques. I enjoyed painting the stone tiles in the ground since I find repetitive actions like this rather meditative. The reason for my discontent with this painting is that there is little ‘personality’ in it to me. I see nothing that is ‘me’ and feel there was and perhaps still is something lacking. Maybe it needs some highlights of color, or personal objects that say something about who inhabits the space. Instead I feel as though it may seem a bit depressing and empty. I hoped to add a little ‘life’ with the vibrant (yet tiny) geraniums. I am working more on personalizing my work so it is not merely a recreation of what I see.
Ironically, I feel as though my final painting may be missing something as well, and again I wonder if it is something personal to make the painting more of a narrative. I painted the printing press and easel outside my studio. I wanted to capture the wonderful afternoon light that streams into the space and creates beautiful shadows on the walls and the press. From the outset this was a more enjoyable painting to paint. I worked with countless layers of glaze and made a point to save the whites of the canvas like I did in my reflection painting with the onions so many weeks ago! This gives all of my light areas a luminous quality that cannot be achieved by using chalky white paint, since white paint creates a cooling effect. One tricky part was sketching out my composition from life. The press is such a complicated, intricate contraption with many angles. The precise perspective was difficult for me to depict and there are parts of it I wish I could re-sketch.
I found that the major constraining factor was the short time period when the daylight fell at the appropriate angle, which was only for about one hour each day, and that was only if we were lucky enough to have a beautiful sunny Paros day which ironically did not happen too much when I was working on this painting! This was actually quite good for me to learn to be less dependent upon the ‘model.’ The way I am most comfortable painting is when I have a setup that allows me to control the lighting and movement. But this is rather limiting so I need to begin to try to capture transient effects more. I began using my own judgment and asking myself what would ‘look or feel right’ in terms of temperature, color, and value. My favorite parts of the painting are the light effects in the lower left region, the wall with the paper reflections, and the back of the canvas. I painted these passages using my own judgment more than direct observation and found that these came out the most relaxed. The reproduction here unfortunately doesn’t capture how the light shows the many transparent layers of glaze.
I used very few colors in my painting and I think this helps me achieve a harmonious unity. The underpainting is in burnt sienna and ultramarine blue in various combinations. Even the over layers of paint, all glazing included, is essentially these two hues. I did introduce green in back of the press and after this I chose to add very subtle green glazes throughout the painting. As with my apartment painting, I again felt there is perhaps something personal missing but I am fairly pleased with the way I captured the luminosity of this special space.
I have many goals for my future in painting, but currently my major goal is to loosen up and be less focused on the exact depiction of my subject. I have more fun when I am freer with my color and brushstroke, which I learned from my impressionist painting (bowl of oranges and pitcher). I need to remind myself that I am not creating a photo but a painting. I want to involve the viewer in an interactive dialogue with my work. This could mean doing things like including exploratory or playful marks that aren’t necessarily in the scene, using more open, less controlled brushwork, or including colors that may not be there (or making subtle ones more prominent). Most importantly, I need to keep an imaginary ‘veil’ up between my subject and I so that I must constantly ask myself how I WANT to express/convey it in paint, regardless of what I see in from of me. I have learned a tremendous amount but I have a lot more to discover, experience, and explore. I am excited to share that I will return to the Aegean Center this spring to continue my studies. I am looking forward to another semester on Paros, experiencing the local culture and environment, and learning from Jane, John, Jun, Jeffrey, and Liz.
An Open Letter to John Van Buren
4, December 2008 § 2 Comments
Dear Mr. Van Buren,
As the end of the semester approaches and we are all working diligently on finishing and preparing final pieces for the exhibit, I am moved to write you a letter to express my gratitude again for making the last few months possible. You have not been far from my thoughts through this experience, as I am aware that it was your generosity that helped manifest this. As I mentioned in my past email to you, the decision to attend the Aegean Center was a heart-centered and passion-filled one — a departure from my anticipated next step of attending a master’s or law degree program. Reflecting on these amazing months, I cannot believe that I could have continued my life without having lived this! As a result, I would love to share a long-awaited update on how I have been.
I had never been to Italy before, and considering my Italian-American heritage, was so excited for our time at the Villa. Apart from the amazing food (from which I have acquired many new recipes!), the art history component was the most effective and sustainable way that art history can be taught. I wrote home to my family saying that I felt like all of my childhood art books had come to life! We recently had a discussion in my painting class about the important connection that new artwork has to tradition. If my time in Italy was demonstrative of anything, it was the importance of understanding the ancestral artistic mastery in the Mediterranean. I feel confident that I can walk into any church and assess its history based on time period, architecture and the intention for construction. In addition, I feel comfortable with my ability to identify the defining characteristics of most 12th-17th century Italian art — such an amazing amount of material taught to us in just one month! I particularly loved Bellini’s works (I am spending one night in Rome before I depart to the US and am hoping to go to the Bellini exhibit!), especially his ‘Sacred Conversations’ in Venice. In addition, Simone Martini’s ‘Annunciation’ and Donatello’s wooden sculpture of ‘Mary Magdelen’ were very memorable. The Sistine Chapel was exciting to finally see in person — I actually attached a drawing I started of one of the Sybil’s. I am planning on turning this into a painting or pastel piece one day. I know I will return to Italy again in the future, and hopefully at that point will be able to speak a bit more Italian!
Since arriving to Greece, I have continued the Ancient Greek part of Art History which has been fascinating in the context of the Renaissance work we observed in Italy. In addition to Art History, I am taking Basic Drawing, Oil Painting, Life (Figure) Drawing, Photo History and Greek Literature. Since I had never oil painted before, the first day of painting was exciting and also a bit reminiscent of being younger and trying something new for the first time — I realized how long it had been since I had been a complete beginner at anything! My first painting assignment was spent largely trying to understand how to control the paint — how to thin it, what brushes to use, how to do an under-painting. Afterwards, we started using color and I learned how to mix paints effectively and to stretch a palette to its limit by just using 3-4 colors. Since I have recently started feeling more comfortable with the paint and mixing colors, I am trying to pay more attention to things like brush stroke and composition. I have attached four pictures of the paintings I have done, since unfortunately you will not be able to see them at the show! The attachment is the third oil painting I did and is a study of how ‘reflections’ can be rendered, using the earth palette. The next painting is the first that I did using the prismatic palette (so much brighter!). I chose a zoomed in composition of the familiar chairs at the school, specifically because of how nostalgic they will be for me after leaving here. I was a bit worried that they looked too graphic, but after playing with shadows and negative space, I hope they have a bit more character to them.
The next painting I attached is a study we did of a master by using a method of modeling our painting from a dark background up with whites. I originally intended to do a self-portrait, but found this John Singer Sargent painting and felt instantly excited about it. Sargent uses so many glazing techniques and is fantastic at rendering the form with simple and deliberate strokes — a technique I would love to achieve! It was a great study to attempt and a very important exercise in understanding glazing.
The last attachment is my landscape assignment. I wanted to depart from my more controlled and tight initial paintings and attempt something with larger brushes. I bought 2 large brushes and a roller and really enjoyed this one — I am struggling now, however, with whether or not I should add more rocks in the bottom right corner to make the composition more interesting.
I recently had a conversation with Jane about how to improve my artwork and we discussed that while I achieve clarity in my work, my next challenge is not to just ‘illustrate’ something as an exact copy, but to learn how to render an image that provokes an emotion in the viewer. Today we did a portrait of a classmate and I spent time making choices about shadows, definition and mood and I actually feel positive about the outcome. I will forward along a picture of that when it is finished, if you’d like, so you can see the progression of my work.
It is so apparent to me how much I have learned here and also how much learning I have to go still. I never imagined where this experience would lead, but I knew it felt right… I realize now as the semester concludes what an incredible turning point it has been. I look around and notice light and color differently– the negative space between objects, the shapes that shadows make in a composition, the temperature of color. I have in the past compartmentalized art in (and out of) my life. When I began this program, I had the fear that my time here would be a departure from myself and after 3 months, I would return and revert back to the ‘Aimee’ I was before, scared of embracing and creating art. This time has awakened a familiar part of myself that is both natural and true. The delight and gratitude I feel to wake up every morning and have nothing else to do but paint and draw is very revelatory for me in terms of understanding what makes me happy! I am in the process of integrating this experience and realize how much I want this learning process about art and the Self to continue — as they are largely part of the same process. For the first time in my life, I see a long-term commitment to develop and foster this passion. I cannot imagine a better place to learn than this program. John, Jane, Jun, Jeffrey and Liz are a remarkable group of teachers — who extend beyond the classroom and understand the importance of self-improvement, self-love, building community and becoming better in touch with the land and nature. It is truly admirable that you take such an interest in the Aegean Center and its students — I can confidently say that you are not only supporting people’s artistic journeys, but also allowing them the opportunity for the larger journey to the Self. Paros is a magical place that inevitably awakens a sensual and archetypal connection to the earth that I will forever take with me.
Thank you again for all of your support, well-wishes and practical generosity. I apologize that this email has come late in the semester, but it seems like a great time to reflect, integrate and share all I have learned. Please let me know if you would like me to send any more drawings along to you. I am actually in the process of writing a blog post about Basic Drawing class and will be attaching more of my drawings to the entry. If you check the website, keep your eye out for it! In addition, I have some video footage of me stretching canvas and painting. I am scrambling to cut and edit it into something small, but if I get a chance to, I will send it along. It will probably be a great way for you to see a personal view of the students that you support here at the center!
I am hoping all has been well with you and that this email finds you healthy and happy.