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.
5, May 2014 § 1 Comment
by Jane Morris Pack
John Pack knows the topography of Paros and his Friday hikes are an important part of the program at The Aegean Center. They have been a tradition for countless years and introduce the students to the beauty and variety of landscape of the island. After several hours of walking in the hills amongst the olive trees or clambering the stone pathways the participants always return refreshed in body and spirit.
As important as it is to experience Paros in this way there is something deeper happening for the visual artist. The immersion in landscape is a fundamental human experience. All color begins in nature, all sense of volume, depth, texture and light. Whereas the city environment surrounds us with angular monochromatic walls and hard vertical facets the natural environment is varied and nuanced. Bright flat surfaces are uncommon in nature, nearly every color is graded and shifts in one direction or another. The color changes that sweep over hills and sea elevate our awareness and can take our breath away. Natural landscape echoes our emotions with drama or calm serenity. We feel a surge of something like love in a beautiful scene. The painter needs to steep in this colored world, to imbue the mind with harmonies and relationships, to cleanse the eye of the artificial colors of advertisements which manipulate our lowest instincts.
The first step in the painting program at the Center is to break the hold that the primary colors have on the students by experiencing the subtlety of the earth palette: yellow ochre, burnt sienna, ivory black and titanium white. In Greece this is the original tetrachromy of ancient painters and comes from pigments extracted from the land. The warm red and yellow balanced by the cooling white and black create every possible permutation which color can undergo: value, temperature and intensity. With clean handling the blues and greens are easily obtained by mixing. This palette often feels too limited to the beginner but opens a new world once experienced. No other colors are necessary for landscape and portraiture.
Closeness to the land revives knowledge which may lie dormant in the artist. The combination of walking in nature and painting with earth tones gives the beginning painter a chance to expand vision and skill, and rediscover beauty.
Landscape above by former Aegean Center student Cari Adams. For more visit her website at http://www.carolineadamsart.com/.
16, April 2014 § 4 Comments
by Jane Morris Pack
To celebrate Slow Art Day I give my reactions to the Bruegel painting, ‘Hunters in the Snow”.
Stendhal, the French author, fainted the first time he laid eyes on Santa Croce in Florence. The “Stendhal Syndrome” as it is now referred to, is an overwhelming emotional reaction which sometimes accompanies the viewing of great art. The opposite reaction might be called “The Mona Lisa Syndrome” which is the disappointment many feel in front of this small, dark portrait about which they have such great expectations.
Several years ago I went to see my favorite work of art, ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ by Bruegel now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. I had known it only from reproduction. In anticipating my response I wondered whether I would be like Stendhal and faint in front of the masterpiece. My son promised to stand behind me when I first encountered the work, should he need to catch me. Of all the possible reactions I imagined, I didn’t expect to experience the one I had. I entered the room, found the painting, noticed it was larger than I had thought and then… I couldn’t see it. It felt like there was a curtain between my eyes and the painting. It communicated nothing to me, I felt no relationship to its story or its characters. I almost couldn’t see the colors or surface as though I was wearing dark glasses. Other Bruegel’s in the room were powerful and compelling. “The Gloomy Day” seemed to smell of loamy soil and an approaching storm. The yellow coat of a man in “The Conversion of Saul” made my heart thump, but “The Hunters in the Snow” was invisible to me. After six hours in the museum we left with no change in my response. The next day I returned to the museum and at last, the painting opened to me, the surface receded and the distant mountains shivered in the winter light.
The whine of tired dogs, the pitchy smell of wood smoke and the crunch of brittle snow fill the air. Dark trees etch into the grey green sky as ice skaters group and scurry across the frozen river. The hunters tramp through the crusted snow, pushing their exhausted legs toward home and warmth. Outside a nearby inn, a glowing fire melts the ground snow as peasants singe boar bristles in the flames. Nostalgia pulls on my memory, but for what place and what time? The scene is timeless and could be anywhere. It is said to be one of the earliest depictions of pure nature without religious overtones nor moralizing principals. Bruegel’s love of life, his catalog of human events and emotions, are here before us. How does this painting make me feel so much that is so hard to put into words?
The second day, I was finally able to see the painting as paint. The snow is not white but a warm grey brown. The figures are dark and mysterious, mostly silhouette, rounded though few details show. The yellowed branches in the foreground are far more important in the true painting than I had thought as they establish the plane on which the viewer stands, everything else sliding down the hill into deep perspective. The figures on the ice become progressively more transparent as they recede. Black birds rend the air, creating motion. The geometric shapes of snow topped roofs lend abstraction. But all of these elements do not explain the hold this painting has on my soul.
30, January 2014 § 2 Comments
In the spirit of sharing our brush stories here are some of my own. This post will focus on my watercolor and ink brushes. You can follow Aegean Center for the Fine Arts painting teacher Jane Pack’s brush stories here.
I get very attached to my brushes. Like actors in a play each brush has its own role. Some are used far more frequently than others, but if I’m missing a specific brush for a specific task I may just scrap the piece altogether. When a brush starts to wear down or even fall apart it can bring an irrational amount of stress and dismay. At times I talk to my brushes like a coach would to his players, alright kiddo, go out there and get the job done. What can I say, they are more than just tools, they’re the means to express myself. I usually take them for granted but I love my brushes. Here are some descriptions of my main team.
A 1 inch Hake brush. Soft and wide, it’s great for washes: skies and seas. The softer the brush the easier it is to move a watery wash over the the paper without affecting the surface.
A goathair Chinese ink brush. It’s a very versatile brush, useful for washes and moving the color into small tight corners: negative space!
My Taking Care Of Business brush. Like “Big Timer” another Chinese ink brush, but because of it’s smaller size I use it very often for washes, tight detail work, and just about everything else. I could do a whole painting just with this brush.
I love using this brush–The point can get very fine and the bristles splay out in a very natural manner, perfect for leaves, water, rocks, hair, etc.
A half inch square brush with a firm shape and bristles. I mostly use this brush to lift color off the painting. Useful for editing and lightening up a passage of color.
A plastic brush with synthetic bristles that you could fill up with water. Holds a great shape and makes a very thin line. Very effective for detail work.
I never use this brush but I like that I have it. Rigger brushes are traditionally used to paint the riggings of boats in maritime paintings.
A round brush that I once used very often but has since been worn down a bit. I almost never use it anymore but when I go out to paint I always have to bring it out of habit.
Do you have brushes that you love? Share them with us on Twitter, @aegeancenter, #brushstory.
24, January 2014 § 2 Comments
Every painter has their favorites. Here are Jane Morris Pack’s:
1. This soft flat is my favorite glazing brush. I often cover a large area with a transparent color and it can apply the tone without brush strokes if you flip it quickly back and forth.
2. My favorite Nepalese brush had a weak ferrule. It was given to me by a fellow travelling artist and bought in Katmandu.
3. A great scrubbing brush almost down to the end. Who doesn’t have pieces of hair trapped in the paint? See the eyes in Durer’s self portrait.
4. A luscious softy. I couldn’t resist it. I’m saving it for some future project.
5. I always clean the brush but not always the handle. Hog bristles don’t like water so better to clean them with just solvent.
6. Square flat brushes have only been around since the Industrial Age. They are great for getting those corners and creating angular forms. Most paintings could use a few more sharp corners.
Do you have brushes that you love? Share them with us on Twitter, @aegeancenter, #brushstory.
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.
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.
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.