Friday, May 12, 2017

Crossing the Line

Edward Jonas, Chairman

A university art student recently called my studio to inquire if I mentor student artists in sculpture. I replied yes, that I have and do mentor students, not only for sculpture but for all disciplines of art.  I told him the first step is to bring his drawing notebooks to the studio so I could evaluate if his skill level was at a point that he was ready for a mentor.  In a surprised voice he said, but don’t you want to see my sculptures, painting doesn’t interest me and so I don’t really do much drawing, I just make notes and then sculpt!”  Not being a person to turn their back on any art student asking for help, I agreed to look at the photographs of his sculptures. 

Within the first few minutes of our meeting, my initial hesitation was confirmed and even though the student was very sincere and personable, the work itself was painfully weak.  It seemed thrown together lacking any sense of movement, design or purpose.  Seeing the concern on my face he started asking, “Is the surface too shiny, what if I had painted it instead? Maybe if I put it up on a better base?”  The honest truth had to be faced.  To think that one color, placement or surface treatment gives a work fine art value is far too simplistic.  So I said, "Look, you can’t or at least you think you can’t draw, and in my view, that is a major handicap for an aspiring artist as it leaves you without a vital tool to record and develop your ideas.  You could continue to go on welding, shaping and assembling materials geared, perhaps, for the decorative or architectural market and become quite skilled in your craftsmanship.”

I wanted him to understand I wasn’t saying if he continued on this path he wouldn't be successful and able to develop a healthy business from his work, but craft alone is only part of being an artist.  An approach of bouncing from big idea to the next without any connections leaves little chance of aesthetic growth potential, and I believe that is central to the goals in fine art.  The real power in art is in the statement, that underlying fundamental idea that speaks from the work.  Good craftsmanship can aid in the visual appeal of the work but it is the profundity of the message that gives value. 

As an example for the student, I suggested that if you asked a person on the street to name a famous sculptor you would soon hear the name Michelangelo.  So well-known is Michelangelo’s over-thirteen foot marble statue, David, it has come to symbolize not only the city of Florence but the whole of the Italian High Renaissance period.  Michelangelo saw himself primarily as a “sculptor,” so it is not surprising to see it listed first after his name, followed by other disciplines in which he excelled such as “painter, architect and poet.”  When you study all the work extant today from the 16th Century, even though it is the “major” projects that garner the attention, it is his drawings that are by far more numerous. 

Above all other creative activities, this great master artist spent most of his time drawing.  In fact, it was his lifetime habit to start every project with an initial number of studies, as he worked through various changes and alterations to an idea.  Michelangelo would use any surface available at the time, sometimes it was the edge of a larger drawing or even the back, and when there was no paper he would resort to drawing on the walls.  Michelangelo always considered these drawings as only “sketches” rather than “finished” works, but consider if he drew on a daily basis throughout his 77-year professional career; how many of these priceless works there would have been?  I can imagine that the number would have been in the thousands, but today only a little over 600 of these sketches remain.  Fame had made Michelangelo a guarded man who was fanatically careful about protecting his ideas from his competitors, so whenever he left a studio, he would write or leave word for the house staff to gather all the drawings in his studio and burn them.  Once it took two days to complete such a request. 

Happily there are those artists who are not so haunted and take pleasure in generously sharing their sketches, studies and color notes in the hope it will clarify how artists work towards developing an idea.

Everett Raymond Kinstler, like Michelangelo, has made it a habit throughout his 70 plus -year career of making sketches and thumbnails for each new work.  These studies are a proven observational method for artists to identify those features and mannerisms that are unique in each subjects’ persona. 

Kinstler’s portrait of Mercury 7 Astronaut Scott Carpenter is a great example of how those earlier sketches helped set the tone in the final painting.  As an artist makes these lines and shapes, he or she is creating a memory of the key aspects that make up their sitter's character.  On the shelves of Kinstler’s studio sits several volumes of his sketchbooks that have recently been assembled into a book titled Impressions & Observations: The Sketchbooks of Everett Raymond Kinstler.  Many of these images have never been seen before and gives the reader a peek into his creative process.

Alexandra Tyng is a highly accomplished artist, and recently shared with me how she works out the complex compositional balance of figures and space for her large narrative paintings.  Her 56 inch by 48 inch oil painting, Possible Spaces, is about a time in her life when she had the opportunity to rehab an abandoned old house with a friend.  Alex worked out the development of her idea by starting with thumbnail sketches, then exploring different placements and combinations.  She was very dissatisfied with her first sketch as the elements were much too literal (measuring tape and paint brush).  The second composition is starting to get the atmosphere and feeling she wanted to portray.  In the third sketch she is beginning to firm up her composition, switching the placement of the figures, facing slightly outward and away from each other.  Alex underscores the importance of finding this compositional balance when she stated, “A slight change can make a huge difference in conveying an idea or emotion.” 

Painting and sculpture are like sibling disciplines and the parent to both is drawing, and every good painting starts with good drawing skills.  Another way to consider sculpture is that it is drawing in dimensional space.  But no matter what you want to do in art, drawing is where you must start.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Drawing Process by Susan Lyon

The 2017 The Art of the Portrait Conference welcomes returning faculty artist, Susan Lyon. She will participate in the Thursday evening Face-Off, Friday evening demonstration, Saturday breakout session and will on the main stage with Scott Burdick on Sunday morning. 

In a past article written for the Portrait Society, Susan shares her personal and artistic processes. She describes the gradual steps she takes in creating a drawing, and her progression during her art career.

I am so happy that the Portrait Society has included drawings into the competition since I believe this will go a long way in showing artists and collectors that it all starts with—and sometimes ends with—drawing. I want the world to see drawings as great examples of fine art, on par with an oil painting, watercolor, or sculpture. 

I am so moved by the simple gesture of a line or the soft edge of a scratchy texture on paper—rendering some parts to extreme finish and leaving empty or abstract spaces to challenge the viewer's imagination with that which has been suggested but unstated. 

Most of my drawings take me a long time, even if they don't look it. I put in and take out over and over and over again. I wonder if I will ever learn to get it right on the first take! But I know that this is my process and am resolved to it, frustrating as it may be. Maybe I oscillate back and forth between defining, then softening, and then redefining yet again because I am learning some deeper truth about the form and emotion of the subject through that process. As I draw, I feel myself slowly soaking up the story that I am attempting to convey through the shapes and values that are the simple, but surprisingly powerful, tools I have chosen to communicate with. 
It is difficult describing in words my technical process since it is so gradual. I use a light touch and build up the pigment slowly, constantly softening with my finger, a viva paper towel, or a paper stump as I go. The image comes into focus—then I blur it—then I bring parts into focus again—then I soften again—etc. I do this until I reach a point where I can't soften anymore and I have just the right balance of finish and sharp detail in the center of attention. I am still inspired by the challenge of creating drawings especially because I am still learning about that tension between what I should give the viewer and what I should hide from them. Very often in my work, what I decide to take out and simplify is even more important that the things I include since it is that editing that makes for a more powerful statement.

Watching the Flock
I saw this young girl while on a trek in Tanzania, Africa. She was tending to her flock of goats. I love the movement of the fabric and her far-off gaze. I worked with a very soft charcoal that made it hard to keep the darks dark enough if you rubbed them at all. It is always a little bit of a game to find the right fit between the texture of the charcoal stick and the tooth of the paper. Since I tend to soften my edges a lot working with super soft willow charcoal sticks, it can be tricky.

Masaai Girl
This young girl is also from Tanzania although she is wearing their traditional stiff necklace and tall white hat. She was part of a group of dancers who came to our campsite around dinner time to perform for us. The Masaai can walk up to 40 miles at a time with no thought—they must have heard trekkers where in the area and just showed up. I was so tired from the day's walk that I just sat on the ground while they danced around me. I kept this drawing very simple, leaving a lot of detail out—just focusing on the essential darks to hold the solidity of the figure together.

I also wanted to talk about my progression as an artist in the public eye. For years, I hid behind Scott since he was confident enough to share his work. He was great at doing public demonstrations and clearly speaking his thoughts. I would be asked to participant in paint-outs or demonstrations and I would nervously laugh at the suggestion—somewhere deep down inside I didn't believe I was worthy of that spot light. 

The first major demonstration I did was at the PSOA conference two years ago with Michelle Dunaway. Her serenity and calm manner really helped me get up on that stage. I want the next chapter of my life as a teacher to be of service to artists who are facing that same fear of putting yourself out there, so they can reach the full potential of the artists they can and should be. 

Conferences like these are a true blessing, but can be overwhelming at times, especially for people like me who live somewhat isolated and whose main connection with other artists is through Facebook. I hope that more people will share their journeys so all of us will become aware that we are not alone in our struggles as we enter our studios and that voice whispers you are not good enough into our heads. It was a great help for me to realize that every great artist has faced that doubt and overcome it over and over again.

I hope that more conferences, websites, books and movies will focus on how we can all lift each other up. Art is not a zero-sum competition and another's success can be the inspiration to finding your own as well.

Too often we concentrate only on the technical aspects of art and forget what the real goal is. Here is a quote from a book called, The Way of Mastery, that puts my thoughts on art well. "How can I look lovingly upon what my physical eyes show me, so that I discern or extract the good, the holy, and the beautiful, and therefore, give them to myself." 

With my new sense of transparency, I wanted to talk with other artists about their journey. I hope to participate in a larger effort of artists' bravely talking about why they are artists and why it's important to connect. I don't think it matters how polished or not each individual speaks while conveying their inspiration and struggles only that it is from the heart. My first attempt is a video with my good friend and amazing artist, Michelle Dunaway. The simple video Scott and I made of Michelle and I discussing art and our inspiration is freely available through the below link on YouTube. If you feel inclined, I hope you take a look.  To view Susan’s video click here.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Importance in Painting by Michelle Dunaway

We are pleased to welcome Michelle Dunaway back as a faculty artist for our 2017 The Art of the Portrait.  She will be painting in the Face-Off on Thursday evening and demonstrating on Saturday morning with Judith Carducci as well as inspire us on Sunday morning in the Inspiratonal Hour along with Daniel Keys.

Joan D'Arc, 16x12"
While talking with friend and fellow artist David Kassan about art and he brought up the subject “What is important painting?” What makes a work of art be deemed as “important” ? We agreed that first and foremost an important painting is one that has relevance, but relevance is a very broad term. It is more subjective than objective and that determination depends partly upon the artist and partly upon the viewer. We both agree that capturing an emanation of universal emotion is key for the viewer to connect with the painting. David said that to him relevance means painting the contemporary life that he sees daily and letting emotion resonate through that venue. Relevance to me means capturing a timeless quality, finding the unifying emotions within human beings regardless of time, place, or culture. The desire to capture that beautiful juxtaposition of individual aesthetic differences and emotional unity within human beings is what inspires me to paint portraits. Both of our views are equally valid and equally true based on our own personal experiences and inclinations. Although we didn’t get a chance to finish our discussion it left me thinking about the subject... 

There is a deep need within human beings to create something meaningful...whether it’s through creating art or pursuing a dream of any sort. I think the question to ask ourselves as artists, instead of whether what we are choosing to paint is important is whether what we are choosing to paint is honest. Are we choosing to create from a place of authenticity based on our own individual inclinations?

It’s a tricky balance to be the technicians we must be as artists and simultaneously be attentive to the more ephemeral aspects of life we are wanting to portray through paint. On the technical front we constantly must be comparing our painting to our subject (especially in portraiture so as to achieve a likeness) and assessing how it would appear to the viewer. Yet, we must keep in mind our artistic goals; the authentic representation of our intention as the composer of the piece of art. Just as a composer of music, we must make sure that each note is clear and in tune, but when combined result in a harmonious symphony of elements that inspires.

Many times I find that to capture an expression imbued with subtle emotion it is not enough to simply observe, but as the artist I must go further and embody the emotion I wish to convey. Then, within the composition of accurate shapes, color, value and edges there is a semblance of life. It is something I constantly have to remind myself when painting and structuring the elements of form, that the form in painting exists to provide a strong foundation to illuminate life. Capturing a sense of aliveness within the subject then must be paramount in our efforts. After all, it is the witnessing of a moment of life that compels us to paint in the first place.

About a year ago I visited Sorolla’s studio in Spain for the first time and gleaned immeasurable inspiration. I was on a painting trip with friends and artists Susan Lyon and Scott Burdick and we visited the house/museum twice during our stay. The first time I was immersed as an artist in seeing the brushwork in person and the color nuances of the original paintings. The technician in me was soaking in as much information as possible. During the second visit I was emotionally struck by what this man did with his authentic and unique voice through painting. He traveled the world studying the masterworks of other artists in museums and then returned to Spain to paint the people and places that he loved, that were relevant to him and unique to his experiences. Seeing the portraits of his wife and children took on new meaning, I had appreciated them as an artist, now I was appreciating them as a human being. Walking through his studio I could feel the intense love and passion he had for his chosen subjects.

We, as artists, might vacillate between painting our own inclinations for individual inspiration or painting commissions, but I believe there is a way to dive in and find the resonance no matter the subject. It comes from the artist’s intention to connect on a deeper level. When we enter into that place of creation that exists between the subject, ourselves, and the painting, and just determine to be honest and attentive, there is an authenticity that becomes palpable and that results in a painting that is relevant and important to this world.

Faithfulness, 16x20"

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Portrait Society welcomes Casey Childs to the 2017 The Art of the Portrait conference faculty. Casey will participate in the popular Thursday Face-Off event and the new Friday evening Masterful Drawing program.  In this great article, Casey shares his thoughts about finding a balance between the use of photographs and working from life and finding that balance in your own work.

Finding a Balance between Working from Life and Photography - Casey Childs

There has been an abundance of talk about using photographs for artistic reference, and perhaps you have heard that if you want to be a serious artist you should avoid using them. While photographs have their drawbacks, advances in image technology qualify photographs not only as an acceptable replacement for life, but in some cases a better option. However, we cannot dismiss the importance of working from life. The artist's choice of photographs or life as a basis for their work cannot, in itself, account for the quality of a painting. We could not say definitively that all painting done from life, for instance, is superior to painting from photographs. The question then is, when and why should I paint from photos, and when should I stick to the "real thing?"

Simply, the choice comes down to being educated about what each method can and cannot give you. Photos are a great continual reference resource and effective economical tools for artists, but if copied directly can make your work appear flat and lifeless. Working from life gives you a vast visual library to apply to any subject you are portraying, but limits the artist's ability to capture certain ideas or scenes. The best option for the painter is to strike a balance between the two resources.

Let’s discuss photos first. The cameras of today are far superior to anything film could produce. The problem is that even the best digital photographs can lie to us. Think of the four elements of a realistic painting: drawing/proportion, values, color, and edges. Three of the four (values, color, edges) are always wrong to some degree in a photo, and sometimes all four.

Distortion from the lens can make perspective and proportions incorrect. Two or three darkest values merge into black and the lightest values become white (this is what photographer’s term “blowing out” the lights). The color temperature relationships are limited by the dyes used to make the prints or the phosphorus in our computer screens. Furthermore, unlike the human eye's ability to focus on a sharp area in the center of our visual field, the camera's eye "sees" edges as equally sharp. In order to most effectively use images produced by a photograph, one must be familiar with the ways in which the photograph misrepresents reality and compensate for those misrepresentations.

It’s no argument that photos make things much easier for the artist. They are convenient and you can capture your entire painting in one shot. But that’s another main problem--photos can make us lazy.

Let’s consider the process of the Old Masters. It all began with sketches—lots of them. From thumbnails to fully rendered drawings, they used studies to compose, design, and lay out all aspects of the entire work. Then, color studies on location or in the studio were used as reference for the final piece. Countless hours of work would already be invested before ever placing a mark on the final canvas.

Photos allow us to skip all of those steps, which can be a mistake. If the Old Masters had access to modern equipment, I believe they would use it, but not to skip steps by copying the photo. They would still go through their same process of studies and sketches, but instead use photos as a resource for inspiration for concepts and ideas. Leonardo da Vinci said, “The painter who draws by practice and judgment of the eye without the use of reason is like the mirror which reproduces within itself all the objects which are set opposite to it without knowledge of the same.”

Just like at the gym, resistance builds strength. Without the continued reps of our artistic muscles we can plateau as artists if we simply copy a photo. Norman Rockwell wrote in his wonderful instructional book, Rockwell on Rockwell, “People always seem astonished at the amount of preliminary work I do, but I believe that in the long run I make more and better pictures this way.” We grow and become better when we continue to push our abilities and ourselves. Rockwell, who both used photos and worked from life, talks extensively in his book about finding ways to make the work you do your “own” and not the work of the camera. We want our work to be our own and not a copy of the camera’s work.

That brings us to the topic of working from life. The cost of paying and scheduling a model is just not feasible for most artists. Young children, certain expressions and poses, and fleeting lighting conditions are other challenges of working from life. But you will develop and grow your skills as an artist more quickly and efficiently if you work from life as much as you can. A poorly conceived painting from life, however, is no better than one copied from a photo. Merely working from life is not the answer. Hard work must be invested to learn and understand the basics of drawing, form, and color.

Some of the best painters working today only work from life. And I’m convinced that if they needed to work from a photo they could get nearly the same results as they do from life. This is because these artists have a deeper understanding of key elements—i.e., spatial relationships, atmosphere, form, color, value, edges, etc.—gained from working from life that help them better translate the information provided, or lack thereof, in a photo. So we must learn how to translate what we see in the photo from our knowledge of working from life.

Look at the great works of Jean Leon Gerome, who used photos extensively in his work; they’re no less wonderful because he used photo references. He effectively achieved a level of illusionistic atmospheric realism that had not been seen before. But what made Gerome great was not his use of photos, but his mastery of the human form gained from working from life BEFORE working from photos.

Most artists, especially beginners, are apprehensive about working from life because of the challenges associated with it. They think using a photo is much easier because the subject doesn’t move or lighting doesn’t change or whatever else, and once they’ve mastered working from photos THEN they will work from life. In reality, one advances as a painter from taking the opposite route.

Working from life is often easier than working from photos because the eye sees in a more comprehensive way than the camera. Our eyes are constantly adjusting to subtle shifts and movements in value and hues, and both eyes work together as two cameras to view an object in a three-dimensional space. The camera can only see two-dimensionally and does a comparatively poor job of capturing nuances in light and shadow. When working from life, we learn to see the elusive, sparkling color in half tones. Our shadows start to have a sense of light and air in them instead of being dense, opaque blobs.

This is why images from cameras can appear flat and less vibrant than we remember seeing them. If we want our paintings to appear how we see them and not how the camera sees them, we can’t simply copy a photo. Working from life makes nuance much easier to capture because we can just copy what we see instead of having to translate what we see from the camera.

Here are a few tips that might help maintain the balance between photos and life and get the most out of using photos:

1. Take your own photographs:
Get the best camera you can afford, and learn how to use it. There’s no reason to work from bad photos. Shooting your own photos allows you to get references of your models from multiple angles and views to help you better understand form and structure. If possible, avoid working from photos that you have not taken. Your painting will be more authentic if it’s conceived and executed entirely by you.

2. Proper lighting:
Learn to take pictures that appear as close to the way the world appears to the naked eye. Learning to light your subject properly, it will go a long way in helping get rid of the misconception that using photo reference results in flat, mundane images.

3. Learn how to adjust your own photos:
Using a good camera and shooting with proper lighting are the key ingredients of good photo reference. But the icing on the cake is knowing how to adjust the photo digitally once it has been taken. Computer programs such as Photoshop and Lightroom allow you to adjust shadows for more depth and fix the blowing out problem in the highlights, as well as adjusting colors to more accurately match the color of your model. If you do not know the programs, learn them. There are many classes out there to teach you how to use these programs. Your paintings will improve if you can get the best reference possible.

4. Work from the largest image possible:
When I was in college, before anything was digital, I remember using 5x7” prints as references for my paintings. I was trying to paint a life-size portrait from a reference that was about ½-inch tall, and my results were not good. The work was little better when I blew up the prints as large as I could. My best work at the time was from life simply because I could see more information. You’re only as good as the information you have in front of you. I now work from a high-resolution digital image on a large monitor where I can zoom in as far as I need. Granted, once you have built up a visual library in your mind you won’t need as much information, but working from the largest images possible will help add to your visual memory.

5. Pretend you are painting from life:
Try practicing painting from a photo like you would from life. Set a timer and pretend you only have a set amount of time to paint the subject in photo. This helps give a sense of immediacy to the painting and helps avoid the overworked look that can happen when working from a photo.

6. Work from life as much as possible:
The best thing you can do, and you will hear this over and over at this year’s conference, is to work from life—it will make you a better artist. You will develop and grow your skills as an artist more quickly and efficiently if you work from life. It is so much easier to develop good edge control working from life. And your sensitivity to subtlety of color and temperature will improve drastically. We just cannot see those nuances in photos. After you have the experience of working from life, you will see a noticeable difference in the works you produce from photos. I found that my own work didn’t improve until I made an effort to consistently work from life.

Becoming a great artist requires time and effort whether you work from life or a photo. Michelangelo said, “If people knew how hard I worked to achieve my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.” Photography can be a great resource if used correctly. Working from life is the best method to grow and develop as an artist. So find that balance, embrace both, and let’s all make the next painting better than the last one!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Knowing Your Subject by Scott Burdick

We are pleased to announce that Scott Burdick will be joining the 2017 The Art of the Portrait faculty. Scott will be part of a Friday afternoon panel and on the main stage Sunday morning demonstrating with Susan Lyon.  In the following article Scott shares his thoughts on knowing your subject and the importance of the emotional connection, including this quote, "One of my favorite aspects of portraying the human species is the excuse it provides to travel and explore the world and people within our marvelously diverse planet. This is what being a 'portrait painter' means to me."

On a three-week trip that Susan and I took over Christmas and New Year to New Mexico is a perfect case in point that illustrates the process of getting to know your subject and how it both enriches one as an individual as well as informs the larger work that results in the studio from the studies and photographs.

For the first two weeks we rented a north-lit studio a few blocks from the main square of Taos and painted a steady stream of people from the area. Here’s a photo I took of Susan and Sherri McGraw painting a wonderful Pueblo Indian woman named Rhoda in the studio/apartment we rented.

Yes, it was fun painting and a valuable experience to study the colors and values from life for the larger studio paintings we’d later tackle back home; but the most important thing, by far, was the emotional connection we established with the people themselves.

There’s nothing like spending three or four hours painting someone, hearing their stories, later having dinner at their house, and even going to the Pueblo at midnight for a bonfire celebration, and then shivering through a traditional sun-rise ceremony that has occurred annually for a thousand years.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but I firmly believe that these are the emotions that make the studio portraits from my references more than mere technical exercises. When you get to know a person, a culture, their struggles, dreams, family—it intensifies your desire to portray them as real people, rather than mere models for a painting to decorate a wall; and the best portraits convey this sense of humanity as a result.

Pueblo Boys, 60x30", oil
Here is a studio piece I recently completed of two brothers of a Pueblo family we spent a few days with. Though there were no photographs allowed during the religious ceremonies at the Pueblo, I decided to photograph these two boys near a window in their home as I’d seen them do outside at the dances. I especially loved the timeless quality of the setting, but hope their faces convey their individuality as well.

My goal in doing any portrait is to convey something characteristic about the subject, both through their unique features, as well as the objects of clothing and surroundings which accentuate the sense of who they are inside. I feel that the entirety of the painting is the portrait, and not merely eyes, nose and lips.

And here’s a larger studio painting I did from some photos I took of her after we finished painting in the gallery. I could try and describe what I was attempting to convey about Janira, but my hope is that the painting does a far better job than I ever could in words.

Janira Cordova, 60x30", Oil
Janira, detail
So spend the time getting to know the people you want to paint. You will have your horizons expanded, even some of your assumptions challenged, but you will certainly grow as a person and an artist—and hopefully share those insights with the rest of us through your paintings. Isn’t that the point of being an artist, after all?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Painting Close to Home by Mary Whyte

Persimmon, 2012, watercolor
40 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches
Our 2017 The Art of the Portrait conference will open with Mary Whyte and Jeff Hein demonstrating on the main stage.  An award winning artist and teacher, Mary previously shared her thoughts on painting subjects close to home and the wealth of opportunities that surround our everyday life.

Painting what you feel strongest about can be one of the most important ingredients to a successful work of art.  Although it’s possible to produce appealing paintings of subjects you care little about, you are more apt to create a dynamic work when you feel a palpable response to your model.   This sensation of heightened emotional familiarity can produce greater freedom of expression and give way to paintings that are more original and earnest.  I call this being “close to home”, and have discovered that a wellspring of creative avenues can open up and surprise you along the way.

Twenty-one years ago I moved from Philadelphia to a small barrier island near Charleston, South Carolina.  It was there that I met a group of senior Gullah women, many of whom were direct descendants of slaves.  Although we had little in common, I felt a strong emotional response to these women, and a compelling desire to tell what I saw and felt in watercolor.  One painting lead to another, and then another, until two decades later I discovered that I had done hundreds of paintings and drawings.  More recently, I spent three and a half years traversing the south painting blue collar workers in vanishing industries, completing fifty works for a museum tour.  I learned that as an artist you can never grow bored with your subject matter when it speaks to your heart.

Tips, 2007, watercolor on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 3/4"

Beekeeper's Daughter, 2008, watercolor
28 3/4 x 21 3/4 inches
As artists, we all share this compulsion to explore, feel and create. Unfortunately, along the way many artists get mired in the trappings of everyday mechanics, are unsure of what to paint, or feel stifled by the conventions of what is popular in the market place.  If this is the case for you, I urge you to read The Art Spirit by Robert Henri.  In this collection of the Art Student League instructor’s critiques and letters you may find many inspiring lessons about finding your true creative voice.  Henri admonished his students that if they don’t feel strongly about what they are painting, then neither will the viewer.  And that, above all, artists have to know themselves in order to know what it is they really want to say in their work.  So, get to it.  Read the book, visit museums, perfect your craft, and paint what is truly “close to home”. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Jeff Hein - Three Other Reasons to Put Away Your Camera: Spirit, Growth and Fulfillment

In this article, Jeff Hein discusses his artistic journey and his transition from using photography at the beginning of his career to now solely painting from life.  Jeff will be demonstrating at the 2017 The Art of the Portrait as well as serving on a breakout panel with fellow artists discussing the creative process.
 After teaching a workshop in Houston, a few fellow painters and I visited the Museum of Fine Art Houston for a few hours. Walking through the museum, I saw a number of breathtaking paintings. Among them was “Portrait of a Young Woman”, by Rembrandt. While studying the Rembrandt piece I became enthralled with the subtle rendering of form, the variety of hue and temperature in the skin, details in the clothing and hair and the amazing illusion of depth that he was able to create. While these technical and aesthetic features might have been enough to hold my interest, something else about his work moved me. I felt something that I can only describe as the spirit of the model. I imagined the many hours, centuries ago, that Rembrandt spent with this woman as he painted her. Perhaps during breaks they would discuss their personal lives, Rembrandt’s past or future projects, her life as an aristocrat, or maybe they discussed their families or the weather. I can imagine her peaking around the easel to see the progress and perhaps even making comments such as “is my nose really that big” or “it's interesting how you see me”. To me the events that took place in the studio while this was painted had been infused in the paint in much the same way a historical event can seem to infuse to its place. As a child growing up in Hudson Valley, New York, I would occasionally visit such historic sites as Washington Headquarters and Knox Headquarters. I found it fascinating to imagine the revolutionary war period civilians, solders, generals and etc. going about their lives on that very ground. It was as though they left something of themselves in the buildings; as though the events and people were permanently connected to the place. A few years ago I visited a “historic” site here in my current home of Utah. As I stood in one of the buildings, I asked the tour guide if everything in the building was the property of the historic figure whose home this was. She said, “No, in fact the home itself and everything in it are replicas of the originals. He never actually lived in this home”. She followed by saying “but it is exactly like his home would have been”. While the site was still very interesting as an educational tool and even as a work of craftsmanship and historic detail, it now lacked the spirit of the man. 

It's in part because of experiences like these that in 2008 I chose to discontinue the use of photography in my painting process. I don't want another one of my paintings to be a “replica of the original”. I want my work to be a record of a direct interaction between me the subject(s) and the medium. When I look at the work that I had done from photos, years ago, they seem emptier to me. My memories of the process consist of me, alone, with a monitor. No experiences, people or place are infused into these works. I may be proud of the design and craftsmanship of some of these paintings but they will never be whole to me. Don't misunderstand. I’ve never ‘copied’ photos. This is not an issue of creativity or departure from the reference material. I don't even ‘copy’ when I work from life. A good artist always edits. It's about creating paintings that are one with the subject being portrayed by building a collective history between the artist, the work and the subject.

An extreme example might be two portraits of the same loved one. Perhaps both are done by the same artist but one was done from life and the other was done from a photo after his/her death. If all other aspects of the paintings are equal which do you find more interesting?

For a variety of reasons, it wasn't until the age of 26, in the year 2000, that I tried my hand at painting. By this time I knew how to draw quite well, and painting came very easily to me. For the first few years it seemed that every painting I made was twice as good as the last. By 2004 I was able to support a family of four with my painting sales. Things continued to go well until 2008 when I began to feel burned out with my current body of work. I had been very successful but had plateaued. Long gone were the days of quick and steady growth as a painter. I began to think about how I could bring my skills to the next level. I wasn't taking any shortcuts. “Why wasn't I growing like I used to?”, I thought. As I assessed my situation, I asked myself what was different about me and my work habits than that of the masters, such as Rembrandt, who I admired. It didn't take me long to conclude that I was using photography in my work and he never had. I also concluded that it wasn't the photos themselves that were contributing to my dissatisfaction in my work. I knew this because neither I nor anyone else could tell the difference between a painting I did from life and one I did from a photo.

A few years earlier a very well respected art historian challenged me that he could tell the difference between any painting done from a photo and any done from life. I took his challenge with a few of my works and won. To this day I believe that photography is a very useful tool and if used appropriately can only serve to simplify and improve an artist’s work. In fact, almost all of the nineteenth century masters used photography with amazing success.
So if all of this is true than how could photography be hurting me? I wasn't sure at the time but believed very strongly that photography had become too good. It wasn't hurting me at all but rather helping me too much. With digital photography, editing software and other tools, ones reference could be made as good as or better than life itself. This is because with some training and tools one could make an exceptionally accurate photo with virtually all of the value and color information of a live model but without the movement, cost, inconvenience and etc. Also, with Photoshop, decisions such as color scheme, design and composition can be entirely resolved before painting even begins.

So, if photography is ‘too good’ why not use it to improve my work? Because I believed it had become my spell check or calculator. I didn't have to be as smart as those who didn't have these modern tools to do similar work. I wasn't being challenged enough mentally. I believed that to move to the next level I had to make my work harder. I'd painted many portraits from life up to this point. That was relatively simple. To push myself beyond my comfort zone I set out to do children, animals and multi figure composition without photography. I believed that, as with exercise, strength only comes with resistance. Since 2008 I've put this to the test. I haven't used a camera even when the task at hand seemed almost impossible without it. I believe that I have proven my theory beyond my expectations. I've had plenty of failures along the way because it's hard. Some aspects of my current work may not look as natural as if I had used a camera, but my skills as an artist have grown dramatically. As long as I can afford to I will continue to challenge myself in this way because it has opened up so many more avenues for personal growth.

I've already admitted that giving up photography has made some of my work look less natural then I'd like. I hope to conquer that in the future without a camera. Despite feelings of inadequacy, I am more fulfilled now than I was when I used photography. Before I was a painter I made custom furniture, all by hand. I wasn't the best furniture maker in the world but I thrived on the personal satisfaction of making something by myself, with my two hands and a few tools. Due to the slow nature of making furniture by hand I didn't make much money but I knew that if I invested in fancy tools, to increase productivity, I'd lose some of that personal satisfaction that I'd grown accustomed to. In my early painting career fancy tools, like cameras, were stealing a little of that satisfaction from me. I never felt like I was cheating when working from photos, only that I could put more of myself into my work without them. I was missing out on the high that comes from making something from nothing. I think I'm a lot like my daughter. “No Daddy, I’ll do it” is a phrase I've heard many times from her over the past twelve years. She always understood the thrill and fulfillment that comes from doing things by herself.