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.