William works in oil and pastel. He views figures, landscape, or still life as opportunities to explore the effects of light on form. Painting from life, he seeks to capture the emotion of a particular moment and place. Sargent, Zorn, Fechin, and Sorolla have been his influences.
Athletes lose strength, speed, and agility as they age…there are no 60-year-old pro-bowl quarterbacks. Artists, however, can (and should) keep learning and growing their entire lives! Leonardo da Vinci on his deathbed said, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have!” He was still intent on learning.
Given that the quest for mastery is never-ending, it’s probably a good idea to find the most efficient way to learn. Bryan Mark Taylor calls it chunking. The idea is to isolate and master one “chunk” of information at a time before moving on to the next.
For example, if you have trouble seeing and mixing color, work on that for a while; don’t worry about drawing or value or edges. A self-immersion course might include: reading the color section in Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima, taking a workshop. (I periodically teach a “Color Boot Camp;” Camille Przewodek teaches several per year), trying the Henry Hensche block exercise. (Google him,) and making color charts (mixtures of every color on your palette done in five values. Here’s a chart of the “Zorn Palette” – ivory black, permanent red medium, yellow ochre, and white). In short, learn that chunk!
It’s all in our heads
This leads to another issue: the way we think about each painting. If we view each attempt as a potential “masterpiece,” the painting becomes too precious…and we become too timid. Better to think of it as a study…a way to practice and improve our skill set.
If you steal ideas from one person, it’s plagiarism; if you take from many, it’s research. I encourage students to try any approach or technique that seems in the least bit intriguing. The worst thing that can happen is you’ll ruin a piece of paper or canvas. For example, I read an article about “dayturnes” – daytime pieces that were altered to make them look like they were done at night. Hollywood routinely shoots night sequences in broad daylight then lowers the value, changes the overall color to blue-green, reduces the saturation, and increases the contrast…voila, a night scene. Another arrow in the quiver! Here’s my experiment, “Midnight on the Bayou.”
Try subjects, media, or techniques that are out of your comfort zone. I spoke with an artist about my upcoming portrait workshop and she said, “Sounds interesting, but I don’t paint portraits.” What I heard was, “Portraits are too hard and I’m afraid to try.” As Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” When asked how to become a great portrait painter, John Singer Sargent replied (and I paraphrase), “First, become a great painter, then worry about portraits.” The great masters painted everything: figures, landscape, and still lifes…maybe that’s why they became Masters.
This brings us to my final point. The 10,000-hour rule: to master anything, it takes that many hours of practice. So paint or draw the same way the Chicago machine votes – “Early and often!”
Alphonse Mucha (the inventor of Art Nouveau) was an unparalleled master of design. You may not recognize his name but you’ve seen his work.
Mucha wrote, “There are certain proportions which serve as principles according to which all organic nature appears to be built.” He observed that the ratio of 3 to 2 appears over and over. (The first bone of each finger compared to the second, the second compared to the third, the segments of insect bodies, the structure of flowers and leaves all seem to fall into that ratio.) So Mucha adopted that simple principle as a way to design pictorial space.
For example, one can place a center of interest (COI) 3/5 of the distance from the left side and 2/5 from the right side of the canvas (or vice versa) and 3/5 from the top and 2/5 from the bottom. But it rapidly becomes more complex. You can then place a second focal point by dividing the space from the first COI to an edge also in the ratio of 3 to 2. In fact, unlike the rule of thirds, or the armature of the rectangle (see my last blog), Mucha’s 3 to 2 strategy is almost impossible to reverse engineer. You have to know the sequence of each subdivision of space. So the compositional principle is not readily apparent. However, the resulting layout looks right…even though the viewer can’t explain why.
Look at these illustrations by Mucha. Take a few minutes to understand the sequence of the subdivisions of space. Then draw a few of your own. (You can also combine this principle with other methods such as the armature of the rectangle).
I use this in my own work and I’ve seen examples of the 3 to 2 division used by Sargent and Waterhouse. Give it a try.
In art schools and workshops, we learn (usually in this order) drawing, values, edges, and color temperature. If we’re lucky, we are given some exposure to composition or design principles…but it’s almost an afterthought. The truth is that composition is probably the most important element in a painting. A painting with wonderfully painted objects that are poorly placed will probably never sell, but a piece with killer design and mediocre rendering will still fly off the wall!
When I first went to art school at the University of Illinois, I had a design class but the textbook dealt with abstract concepts that weren’t pragmatic enough for me. Our paintings were supposed to have “unity and variety and balance”...without explaining how to achieve those. It took me YEARS to unearth what I believe are the foundational composition principles:
Placement of centers of interest
Designing using a dominant value
Designing using a dominant color
Where do you place your primary and secondary centers of interest (COI) on the picture plane? We’re told to avoid putting them in the exact center of the canvas. But where can you place them?
One (albeit a very simplistic) method is to divide the picture plane into thirds, like a tic-tac-toe board. The idea is that you can put a COI at any of the intersection points. However, if you’re not careful, this can lead to a painting that feels out of balance…like it’s tipping over to one side or the other.
A more interesting method is to use what Juliette Aristides calls “the armature of the rectangle”. If you connect the opposite corners of the rectangle, the centers of each side to each other, and center to corners you create a “cats cradle “ of lines and intersection points. The idea is that a center of interest can be placed at any of those intersection points (usually avoiding the exact center) or in an area bound by those lines. Hint: you don’t have to use them all.
Look at the famous painting, “Baking Bread," by Anders Zorn. You can see that the head of every figure touches one of the construction lines. The main figures’ heads are also bound by two or more of the lines. Although the painting looks very unposed it has a feeling of rightness to it.
We see the same sort of approach in “Hylas and the Nymphs” by J.W. Waterhouse. These artists used conscious construction methods to place the subjects in these paintings. Masterworks don't happen by accident!
Yesterday I had to talk one of my students “off the ledge”. She was feeling discouraged and depressed about her art. Most of us feel that way once in a while but some artists seem to live in that place.
The problem is that humans constantly talk to themselves (if you don’t believe me, monitor what you’re thinking right now). We have an endless stream of subject, verb, object going through our heads…and all too often it’s negative: “Idiot” “I started too late.” “I just can’t draw.” “I don’t have what it takes.” “I always mess up the values.” “I just can’t see color temperature.” “This sucks! Etc.” We say things to ourselves that we would NEVER say to someone else!
I don’t know if we’ve internalized overly critical parents, teachers or peers or if it’s a natural result of childhood. (We all start out small, uneducated and powerless.) But it’s no wonder that we often feel demoralized. Worse than that, the negative self-talk slows our progress. If we’re busy beating ourselves up we can’t ask the questions that might actually help.
If our paintings don’t look the way we’d like, it probably comes down to errors in shape (drawing), value, color, edges, or design. We should be asking ourselves “Is the shape right?” “How is it off?”
If we ask ourselves the right questions, the answers are usually apparent. It often helps to ask “paired” questions: “ is that stroke too light or too dark?” “Is the edge too sharp or too soft?” “Too warm, or too cool?” “Too saturated or too grayed” etc. NOW we’ve got something to work with!
Here are some other ideas:
Make a gratitude list – all the things about your art that you’re thankful for
Acknowledge your accomplishments i.e. what have you learned in the past six months?
Set two goals for the next six months and tape them to your bathroom mirror so you’ll see them every day. I bet you’ll accomplish them!
“Attack your weakness”. Find a skill you’d like to improve and work on it (see the blog on being a perpetual student.)
Don’t just compare yourself to Sargent or Zorn. Think about this: there are 7 billion people on Earth; half are just trying to survive. But of the 3.5 billion that are above the subsistence level at least 1% call themselves “artists”…that’s 35 million! The fact that you’re even reading this blog means that you’re probably in the upper half. So remind yourself “I’m already better than at least 17 million other artists… and I’m improving!”
The great illustrator, Norman Rockwell, once commented, “They’ll forgive anything …except heads and hands”…It’s absolutely true!
Viewers grant artists a lot of leeway on other body parts, but the proportion and gestures of the face and hands must be reasonably accurate or the work looks amateurish. In fact, some portrait artists like Boldini habitually lengthened the proportions of their painted figures…their clientele delighted in the elegant distortions!
Painting the head is tricky enough, even though it only has two masses:
The fused bones of the cranium and
The lower jaw.
The hand has 27 bones and a number of tendons and muscles easily seen beneath the skin. The hand is as expressive as the face! Early on, I had to make a decision: I could avoid painting hands or I could “attack my weakness”. I bought a copy of George Bridgman’s Book of a Hundred Hands ($9, Dover Press) and spent six months copying every illustration.
Here are a few tips:
Use straight lines rather than curves, you will be more accurate…and the work will look more powerful.
Think of the middle finger; the distance from the wrist to the knuckle is equal to the distance from knuckle to fingertip. (Beginning artists tend to make the fingers either too long or too stubby.
The fingers taper.
The back of the hand is arched from side to side. The palm is concave.
Your palm has two muscular mounds: the hypothenar eminence on the little finger side and the thenar eminence on the thumb side. If you don’t show those mounds, the hand will look salamander-like.
There is space between the fingers where they emerge from the palm (they don’t form a sharp V).
The fingers aren’t parallel; they radiate from a point on the wrist (otherwise they wouldn’t fit when you make a fist).
I just finished filming an instructional video on painting heads and hands. Liliedahl Video Productions should release it in late 2018 or early 2019.