With September workshops not that far off, I thought it might be useful to go through the method of painting that I teach. We can trace this method, through various master artists, back to late-19th century Paris. It reflects not only the way some major artists moved through a canvas but it embodies an attitude or a mentality that I doubt is taught at all today, let alone spelled out. The “mentality” thing is the key, at least it was for me and I will get into that a bit further on.
I will break this summary into two blogs. Part I addresses some fundamental ideas that are applicable to anyone painting from nature. Part II, in a blog that follows, is a consideration for the advanced student.
Fundamental Concepts for All Students
In the schematic below, you will find what was called, when I was a student, “The Mechanics of Painting.” I never liked that title. It suggests that the process is an assembly line, which it is not and was never taught as such. I have borrowed a phrase from Cèzanne for the name change. Cézanne would always say, even late in life, how he needed to learn the “means of expression.” This perfectly describes what the essence of the method.
There are 5 stages one moves through. The first, Composition (in charcoal) is wiped off when one is certain that one is on the right track, in terms of composition, and wishes to move on to oil. We tend to make our worst mistakes in the first ten minutes so it behooves us to spend a bit of time in charcoal to insure that the composition will work.
The four remaining stages are an oscillation between line and color, in oil, where one moves from a very light study that emerges from the white canvas, to a darker interpretation of the subject. In this way, the painting, always complete, slowly unfolds and affords the painter a good deal of control over what she wishes to say.
Complete In Every Stage
There are several key aspects to this method. For example, the Underpainting stage (where we begin by scumbling in the dark values, then the middles, and we leave the lightest values open, or bare canvas) may be the most important stage because it establishes the atmosphere or tonality of the painting and gives the painting harmony. In addition, the Underpainting, because it is a complete painting in full color, accomplishes a good deal of the work of a painting. Therefore, we allow some of it to show through when we return to color in the Painting stage. Thus our painting strokes can be lyrical and more expressive. Also by leaving the lights open in the Underpainting stage, we are able to let some of the white canvas show through when we eventually paint into the lightest lights. This helps the lightest lights sparkle and feel light and airy. More on this below.
Let me draw your attention to one feature of this method that liberates the painter from having to think about finish and enables the advanced painter to be more expressive (see the following blog for more on this point). I am referring to the notion that a painting ought to be complete in every stage or, as Pissarro taught, paint the whole thing at once.
Remember the old Polaroid film that began developing before your eyes, slowly unfolding, growing richer and deeper during its developing process? Here’s how it looked:
Each of the images above, after the first “blank canvas” so to speak, is complete in terms of color and value relationships. It goes from high key to a lower one, but notice that the top of the stove is always about the same value as the floor. The red pot is always a little more red or warm than the orange thing behind it (a radio?). If this were a painting we would say that it is complete in every stage. One doesn’t have to think about anything that is in the future (finish or meeting some preconceived standard). Why? Because the method asks us to see nothing but line and color: we never see the subject before us. We are encouraged to get lost in line or in color or in the darks or the lights but we never think beyond a particular sensual experience or sensation. We are always in the moment. And because the painting is always complete, we may stop anywhere along the way.[i] The concept “finish” is inappropriate. The idea embedded in this process is that making a painting is not about production or like making cars that roll off the assembly line.[ii]
Let me give you examples of this process for a still life (10”x 20”) and a large lake painting (36”x 52”).
Below I’ve added details of each of the above paintings to show you that I “build with the color.” Remember, I do not cover the entire surface of the painting with brushstrokes in the painting stage. It is important to allow previous layers (such as the Underpainting or the canvas itself) to show through so that as one places one stroke of color against the other, one is able to see past the surface layer and down into the painting.
With the white of the canvas showing through in the lightest lights, the lights shimmer and the painting feels more like light and less like paint. By layering the brushstrokes, the painting is able to breathe; otherwise it would feel “plugged up.”
In the following blog, I explain how the method serves the interest of the advanced student.
[i] I would like to show you a common way of painting that is quite in conflict with what I teach. This de Chirico painting is an example of a painting process that is more like manufacturing, where the painting obtains value only when the last piece is in place because that is the only time when the painting is complete. Then it is “finished.” Spontaneous moves are less available to him. He is not likely to allow himself to be carried away in a direction that he did not anticipate.
[ii] Look at Whistler’s Nocturne , San Giorgio. Would you say that the work is finished? The concept makes no sense, just as it doesn’t if were to say that the 8 year old child isn’t finished. It’s alive. It’s complete. It’s an expression of Whistler.
The following 27 slides represent a powerpoint presentation that I gave to my winter classes in the US where I explored the notion of painting as enchantment. The notion that there is a “mood” or “extraordinary moment” or “state of being,” often described as a “thrill,” a “rush,” childhood “innocence,” or a sense of feeling “larger” that enables a painter to feel “more intensely alive” or “see beyond the ordinary,” has been talked about by painters for quite some time. The notion especially intrigued me ever since I achieved the ability to produce correct paintings that were dead on arrival, decades ago.
For example, Manet tells us that we are not painters unless we are “moved.” Monet reveals that his orientation as a plein-air painter turned on a “total-self surrender” before the “sensations” of nature, so much so that he tried his best not to see the thing (as a thing) before him. Cèzanne explains how nature talks to him, how he “vibrates,” and at times, “germinates” before the “sensations” of nature and “realizes” who he is. Renoir and Matisse emphasize how the expressive process is driven by various feelings and pleasures. Picasso, Baudelaire, and Henri, in this regard, make reference to the sense of wonder one experiences as a child. Mallarmè speaks of the virtue of feeling “pure presence.” Henri goes so far as to suggest that entering into this mood makes art “inevitable.”
It was with delight, then, that I found Jane Bennett’s (whom I’ve referenced before in this blog) thoughts on enchantment. Although Bennett is not telling an art story but a story about the liveliness of matter and the “peculiar mood” of enchantment as it “erupts amid the everyday” in modern life, and especially as it relates to ethics, her descriptions of this peculiar mood, what might induce it, or what the experience might be like, struck me as instruction, reaching back across the decades: this is what you painters (as opposed to the writers) have been trying to say: “give greater expression to the sense of play;” “hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things;” become “enamored with existence;” stay in the “moment of pure presence;” and “you’ll discern details previously ignored.” Thus the powerpoint presentation (made into a video), before you now, contains a good deal of Bennett’s lush and nuanced use of language, unattributed, given that in the presentations I was able to explain Bennett’s contribution verbally.
One note of caution: Monet implored his followers to understand that the “excitement and ecstasy” he expressed, or “his passion for nature,” was not rooted in some sense of a “fairyland.” Rather, he emphasized that the “joy” that he derived from painting was not separate from a kind of “torment.” Bennett, herself, suggests that the experience of enchantment is both one of feeling “charmed and disturbed,” one of feeling “wonder and unease.” We will come back to why enchantment, when it is engaged with other orientations of modern life, carries with it a touch of discomfort.
 Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics, (Princeton University Press, 2001)
 Eugene Boudin (Monet’s primary teacher) and Edouard Manet both used precisely these same terms; namely, that “joy” and “torment” were linked.
I feel remiss in not writing more about craft. I worry that for the non-painter, the subject of craft may be boring. But alas, with workshops on the horizon, I feel compelled to wade into the craft-weeds, so to speak!
When I demonstrate the way in which I move from a white canvas to a complete painting, probably the one concept that students have most difficulty with is the concept that is called the “separation of values.” That’s a mouthful, I know. It’s painting jargon for the word “line.” Hang in there. I will tie this altogether in a moment, but let me toss in one other aspect to painting that is not talked about enough, if ever, especially in the context of craft.
The wonderful thing about painting from nature is that one is able to feel the liveliness and energy of the world in which we are born into and surrounded by, if only we take the time to examine the thing we are looking at with a degree of interest. If we slow down and open ourselves to nature, nature responds; it suggests things to us, reveals specificity that we all too often do not notice. This is what is meant when Robert Henri says, “Don’t draw a line, draw an inspired line.” But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s get back to the notion of values, first, and then move on to the lines that emerge when values separate.
1. What are Values?
Above are six blocks of color. Below are the same blocks in black and white. You can see how the colors move from the lightest to the darkest. This is what is meant by the value of a particular color or thing; that is, on a black and white scale, how something is either dark or light in relation to something else.
2. Our Still Life (Note: it isn’t “still;” it is very much alive!)
This is our still life that we wish to construct; therefore, we need to see and feel where values separate. Value separations and lines are the same thing!
3. First, We Must Squint
Whenever we paint, we must squint and then compare one thing against another. This is because we need to see relationships: what is darker or lighter than something else. (The same is true for judging color, by the way). So I have made the image blurry to convey the sense of squinting.
Squinting also enable us to see the whole or the emotional dust called atmosphere. Squinting enables us, then, to pass into a different realm of sensory perception.
4. Seeing and Feeling Value Relationships
As we squint, we want to feel all the parts as one thing, the whole. In the image above I have eliminated color so that we can better compare values. With the letter “A,” I am pointing to two areas, for example, where I see values separating. We now see that a separation occurs where there is an abrupt change in value. It’s a kind of boundary. So, I place a line in these places, and the more intense the separation, the more intense the line.
In the areas marked “B” there are changes in value, but the changes are gradual; but there are no separations and hence no lines.
5. Placing A Line Where There Are Value Separations
6. The Construction: Where We Perceive the Subject as Line
The image on the left is the Construction; however, it is computer generated from the above photos so it reads rather mechanical; which is to say, without feeling. Keep in mind that each stage is also a way to move into a realm of seeing where we experience just one part of the subject before us.
7. An Example From Real Life
This is a photo of the still life I used in a demonstration.
And this is the final painting from that demonstration. Obviously, there were other steps along the way, but I want to show you that we begin with a line drawing based upon value separations. Once we understand the concept of value separations, the key is trying to be one with your subject.
Remember: our subject matter is lively. It is not inert. Therefore, it is possible to feel the lines that nature reveals or suggests to us. Don’t draw a line, draw an inspired line.
A similar discussion can be had about color. But we will save that discussion for another day.
A group of Renoir “haters” protested in front of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts the other day. The general thrust of the protest it seems was, simply, that “Renoir Sucks At Painting.” Above is a painting by Renoir. Value and color relationships are spot on. There is a wholeness, a harmony, a wonderful sensitivity to atmosphere. The brushwork is vigorous, fresh, and authoritative. But here is the key thing: Renoir was painting this when artists such as Meissonier (the painter of slick – or “licked” according to certain Impressionists – propaganda pieces) were winning medals by the cart load. He, Renoir, was just 28; and yet he had the capacity, the courage really, to allow us to see and feel how nature was touching him. He must have been intensely alive.
Let’s hold that thought – about being intensely alive. We all know that good painting is not just about technical virtuosity. I believe that good paintings are those that genuinely move people in unexpected ways and this, in turn, requires that the painter be moved in ways that most people are not, that liberate us in some way. It is in this realm of painting, of feeling intensely alive, that I think Renoir may have something to teach us. First, a slight detour is in order.
Are you familiar with George Carlin, the comedian? Well, by about the year 2000 he was a social critic –savagely so, I would say, and at least to me, very funny. If you don’t know him, you’ll have to google him, but trust me, he wasn’t what you would call “mainstream.” However, when he was in his late 20s (about the same age as the Renoir above), he had hit the big time. He was doing the late shows, first Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson, just as those shows were becoming big in the 50s and 60s. And when he hit the big time, George Carlin was, what we might call, “really straight.” In other words, he hadn’t found himself yet. Eventually he made the decision to dump the “success” that he had achieved because the real success would be (and I use this phrase all the time, I know!) for him to become who he was most. Okay, back to Renoir and company.
By the time Renoir was 28, he had exhibited in 4 Salon exhibitions. What Parisian artist wouldn’t kill to be at that level in 1869? But Renoir and the other “intransigents,” while they could have focused strictly on making it within the institutions they had inherited, painted what Salon jurors were looking for, and served the interests of the powerful, they didn’t. They threw away their careers so that they could find, not medals, fame, and wealth, but fulfillment in feeling larger, more powerful, more beautiful (to paraphrase Emma Goldman) in becoming who they were most. That’s painting!
Now, allow me to frame this more tightly. As anyone trying to make a living today as a painter, I investigate various “opportunities” and marketing gambits. Oh my god, they are so depressing. For example: one I was looking at just today uses language like “make your dreams come true…learn, grow, and improve….” Not bad, I’m thinking. I could go for that. Then they spell out what “learn, grow, and improve” means to them: you will be able to “secure your first major client contract, convert more visitors into sales on your website, launch your next product and make 5 times as much revenue as you did in the previous quarter….” But wait, there’s more: “Go on a round-the-world trip while running your business.” That’s the freaking Jack Parr show! I don’t want it. I want to be who I am most as a painter. I’m not interested in empire building, even if I can go on a world trip while my elves crank out the product.
Okay, now here’s where Renoir can teach us something: he confronted the same dilemma we all face and Renoir and his group came up with a solution, the only group of artists in the history of the world to do so. They took control over their process (of making paintings) away from the art elites of their day and they largely took control of the distribution of their work as well. They created a way of painting and exhibiting that enabled them to become completely independent. They were free, and poor for a time, but they turned the tables on those above them. They got control of the goose that laid the golden egg. Now, they were painters with a capital P! Sigh! This amazing historical achievement was not to last.
Fast Forward: Artists in the Age of Finance Capital
“There’s been a seismic shift in the past 10 to 15 years,” notes Tom Eccles, executive director of the curatorial studies program at Bard College. “Art is seen today as an equal asset class to stocks, boats, houses and jewelry, and people don’t want to give their assets away.” Of course they don’t, not in a world where American corporations sit on $1.4 trillion dollars in cash and where the main source of profit in the American economy is asset price inflation. In fact, the new “masters of the universe” are art masters, buying (and buying control over) and manipulating every aspect of an unregulated system of art production, marketing, and distribution:
Hedge-fund managers, who play a vital but disruptive role in the broader financial markets, are increasingly throwing their weight around the art market: They are paying record sums to drive up values for their favorite artists, dumping artists who don’t pay off and offsetting their heavy wagers on untested contemporary art by buying the reliable antiquity or two. Aggressive, efficient and armed with up-to-the-minute market intelligence supplied by well-paid art advisers, these collectors are shaking up the way business gets done in the genteel art world…. Nearly all are applying their day-job tactics to their art shopping, dealers say.
So welcome to 2015. This is the institutional setting that we painters inherit. This is where we are. We could go the Jack Paar route: we could lock into the logic of the entrepreneur, focus on the latest ways of self-promotion, and, to paraphrase Robert Hughes, chase after external rewards with the voracious single-mindedness of a feeding bluefish. But then painting would be reduced largely to a process of production. More and more of our energy would be spent in self-promotion. We would start thinking about things like productivity. And our self-worth would be linked to all the external measures – sales, expert endorsements, prized exhibitions, and all the rest. Given that only a few are going to be anointed as “blue chip,” our sense of self will sink to whatever marketing level we reach. And we will believe that it is all legitimate. It’s just. It’s how the world works. How dreadful is that?
Let’s go back to what a real painter can teach us. Let’s go back to the disobedience of Renoir and the members of his group who proudly stated, quite explicitly actually, “I know my self-worth.” Of course they were concerned about sales. They thought about it all the time, but they refused to be defined in terms of some larger power system, some set of economic interests not their own. Renoir and company thought that if you really want to be a painter you need to have the freedom to be self-defining. To be honest, I really don’t have the energy to get that big client contract. I know that if I want to grow as a painter I have to really buckle down and keep right in front of my mind, night and day, the idea that my first need is to enjoy the exercise of my own power for its own sake. I can’t be the person who is consumed by trying to get 5 times more sales this quarter than last. I’d rather dig ditches. Sorry! I have all I can do to understand and then practice what Baudelaire urged Renoir to value, “the presentness of the present.” I don’t want a world trip while the elves crank out – whatever. I want to stand on the shores of Lake Como and try to see beyond those obvious colors again. I want to stand before nature, with brush in hand “vibrating with nature” as Cèzanne did, trying to do the impossible as Monet did, or as Mallarmè counseled Renoir and Morisot to do, and that is to get a thrill by embracing “the untouched alive now.”
If Renoir sucked at painting, he at least found fulfillment in a process where both visual sensation and feeling came together. He once recalled, apparently fondly, his slow, somewhat painful process of becoming who he was most as “a gentle madness.” I suspect that the discovery of his ability to create himself through the expressive activity of painting was, for him, fulfilling. I also think that it is precisely that fulfillment that very well may be the measure of what it means to be a free human being.
So why would I be so foolish as to give up the chance to be who I am most or the rush of being carried to some new magical place when I finally connect in order to win some kind of market-directed success, my mind divided from my hands, and my time easily gobbled up by the endless and intense efforts to get the attention of people who have assumed the role of experts but who have never painted in their lives?
Here’s what I get from Renoir: first, paint, express who you are, think deeply about painting, get as good as you can, and then paint some more. I like to tell the story of when I first tried plein-air painting. I brought my little 8x10s back to show my teacher. He said, “I’m glad to see that you are going out. Now, after you do two or three hundred of these, go on to 9×12.”
I don’t know. I think Renoir did some really good work. Maybe those haters out there ought to go out and do two or three hundred little paintings en plein-air and feel the rush of exercising their own power. I bet they would change their minds. Who knows? They might even become disobedient and protest outside of universities and demand that art departments teach something about serious painting.
 http://money.cnn.com/2015/03/20/investing/stocks-companies-record-cash-level-oil/; also see http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/09/11/the-age-of-finance-capital-and-the-irrelevance-of-mainstream-economics/
 The Impressionists, A Retrospective, ed., Martha Kapos, (UK: Hugh Lauter Levin Associates, Inc., 1991) p.33.
“Without atmosphere a painting is nothing.” – Rembrandt
I would have to agree with Rembrandt. Unfortunately, ever since the teaching of painting passed from the studios of master-artists to the university during the 50s and 60s (in the US), the emphasis shifted from the visual experience per se (and what it did for the painter) to “language” (and the painter’s social commentary).[i] Plein-air painting, along with easel painting generally, fell by the wayside, at least in terms of what art industry elites considered “important.” So it is not surprising that even among today’s very good plein-air painters, the sense of atmosphere, all too often, is woefully lacking. The teaching of how to see atmosphere or what to look for with regard to it is, for the most part, gone with the wind. Let me, then, provide you examples of work, both brimming with and in need of a sense of atmosphere.
First, let’s clarify the term tone or tonality. Tonality refers to the sense of atmosphere achieved in a painting. As you can see in the image to the left, we, on planet earth, live within atmosphere, forever and always. There is no escaping it. But depending on the angle of the sun, the moisture in the air, and other conditions, the color of the tonality varies. And even in a given setting, the tonality is dynamic, which means that it is always changing. Think of tonality, then, as a color term.
Monet emphasized this extensively. He talked about “rendering the feeling” of seeing “the same light spread over everything.” “For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right,” said Monet, “since its appearance changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life – the light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding atmosphere which gives subjects their true value…. what I want to reproduce is what exists between the subject and me. ”
Here’s an illustration of what it means to say that the same light is spreading over everything. In the two still lives on the left, I used the same apples, cloth, and leaves. The only change (apart from the composition) is the light. In the top still life, I used a warm spot light to illuminate the still life. I was not able to see the apples, etc. except by seeing them through the warm light. In the bottom still life, the light was natural north light; thus you can see a silvery light bathing everything. Bottom line: it is impossible to paint on planet earth without having to see through atmosphere. In fact, we never actually see the subject. Rather, we see the surrounding atmosphere envelop the subject.
The painting to the left is by Monet, of course. The haystack is practically eaten alive by atmosphere. But notice, too, that the tonality is not just one color sprinkled about. The tonality consists of “ishes,” that is, greenish, pinkish, purplish, etc. colors. They are veils of atmosphere and they are moving. This is something that a photograph simply cannot capture. Photographs are paper, not photons.
The two details below are taken from the Monet painting: the one on the left is a piece of the sky, horizon, and field. The one on the right is just the field, on the edge of the cast shadow. Notice how whether we look into the darks of the haystack, the grass within cast shadow, or the sky – the colors are similar for the simple reason that Monet had to see through “the same light spread over everything.”
Some Good Bad Examples[iii]
Let us take a look at the work of contemporary artists where there is no tonality. These are just tiny details of much larger work:
The above three images are details of the work of anonymous artists. They are all strong painters with a good sense of color. In the image to the left, one sees the peak of a very distant mountain, the color of which is very different from that of a closer tree line and cacti. The sky while interesting in color also feels separate from the mountain and the foreground (in terms of color). They cannot be in the same light. The painting lacks harmony and unity because it lacks tonality. In the center image, the problem is the same. The red barn does not feel as though it were in the same light that bathes the green trees and grass.
The image to the right suggests to me that the painter does have a sense of atmosphere. There is a softness that lends a kind of harmony, but it also appears to me that the painter is seeing the separate elements as separate parts. If the sky is pinkish, some of that pinkish ought to be found in the mountains and the field. If there is a blue coolness to the mountains, that same coolness ought to be evident as well in the field and the sky. In attending to these challenges, there is no formula, of course; it is simply a matter of feeling the whole and of allowing oneself to be captured by the light that is spread everywhere.
Tonality may be the most important element in plein-air painting and yet in our post-visual visual art world, it is largely absent for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that painters today, as opposed to 130 years ago, see themselves as entrepreneurs.[iv] Whereas the Parisian artist of the late 19th century may have been obsessed with “rendering” what he or she felt, the obsession of the contemporary painter is more likely to be with marketing, productivity, and sales. So what, you say? Let me then give you a glimpse into the minds of two great artists who worked 100 years ago (Matisse and Monet) and who both believe that the entrepreneurial turn tended to subvert their create power.
Matisse noted that there was a “rift between the dealer and the painter, even if they are chums. The dealer has goals of his own. He’s not on the same side as the painter.” (When have you heard that lately?) Continued Matisse: when a painter is “…concerned with success, he works with just the one idea: pleasing people and selling. He loses the support of his own conscience and is dependent on how others are feeling. He neglects his gifts and eventually loses them (emphasis added).”
I’m fully aware of the constraints that the contemporary painter, who wishes to make a living with her work, confronts. My effort here is to suggest pathways of escape from such corrosive pressures, or avenues that might enable one to cross over into another realm of being, in order that our “gifts” are not lost as we go about putting food on the table. Monet is suggestive here: “People who hold forth on my paintings conclude that I have arrived at the ultimate degree of abstraction and imagination that relates to reality. I should much prefer to have them acknowledge what is given, the total self-surrender.” Standing before nature with brush in hand in a posture of total self-surrender, I am soaring. I am honing my gifts. And marketing? Please! Don’t disturb me. You’ll break the spell. The last thing I want to be is a dumb old fish that doesn’t know it swims in water. My first priority is to strengthen my gifts and this requires an absolute dedication to the honing of the marvelous specificity of things or a total self-surrender.
For those of you who wish to see more examples of tonality, I add the following images with annotations.
The above sequence depicts a pastel by Degas. When we look closely (center and right image), we see greenish, bluish, and grayish marks covering areas of the flesh and cloth. This is the air (atmosphere or tonality) that exists between Degas and the model. Can you see how it lends harmony and value to the whole?
The above images are Cèzanne. In the two images to the right, one can see more easily a warm bluish veil between Cèzanne and everything – grass, sky, flesh, cloth – as the atmosphere pervades or bathes everything.
Tonality is not a feature only of Impressionism. The above image is a detail of a painting by Sorolla. Notice the light bluish gray strokes in the leaves and the light bluish and greenish strokes in the flowers. Yes, it is subtle. But great art is in the subtlety. And yes, most people will see, in this case, only pretty flowers, not the defiant reach of the painter, seeing deeply. So it goes.
The above work is a “pastel drawing” (as opposed to a “pastel painting” in which the entire sheet of paper is covered) by Robert Brackman, my teacher’s teacher. The artist who does a pastel drawing must be very adept at tonality.
It goes like this: the paper is the atmosphere and, therefore, the subject matter must exist within the color and value of the paper. The artist chooses a passage of light, the colors of which must be translated into the harmony of the given atmosphere (the paper). Here is where it gets tricky: in order to do this, the paper, as a middle value must be integrated into the subject where there are middle values. So in parts of the headscarf and the bottom portions of each breast, for example (as shown in the left and center images above) only the paper is used (that is, left open). Notice in the image on the right, how Brackman allows the right side of the subject matter to simply melt back into the paper by using tender lines, but no color.
This is the work of a true master. As with much of the other examples above, most people will not appreciate the accomplishment. So many drawings, even by very good artists, show the artist working right to the edge of everything and it ends up looking like a cut-out glued to the paper.[v] Notice the color, too: the purple in the headscarf, the bright red ear, which when seen from a distance (look at the full image), are wonderfully and properly related. Notice too the “prismatic edges” (colorful edges) – which must be seen, not made up – that help the subject matter turn back into the paper in the passages receiving full light.
Here’s the kicker: yes, Brackman was a master tonalist (but not a tone painter) and when he first began studying painting with Robert Henri, among others, he did nothing but underpaintings for seven years! Extreme? Well, you be the judge.
Finally, let me end with this. As I just mentioned, Brackman’s study of atmosphere was undertaken in the underpainting stage. So here’s an example of an underpainting stage by yours truly:
This is the stage where one “scumbles” a very dry and thin application of color using a sweepy scrubby method. Applying the paint this way makes it possible to get the feeling of “veils of atmosphere” or as Whistler (another master of tonality) said, “It is like breath on glass.” One scumbles in the darks and the middles and leaves the lights open. It is high key because it is the first application of color on a white canvas, so one must creep toward darker colors. But the painting in this stage is complete as is, or if one chooses to go further, it invites the application of paint more thickly, one stroke at a time, building with the color, over the top of it but not totally covering. One allows the underpainting – the tonality – to come through, even in the painting stage.
[i] This is what is meant when “experts” say that paintings that turn on social commentary, as opposed to visual experience, have “content.” Plein-air painting, from their point of view, is devoid of content.
[ii] The term tonality is often conflated with values. But this is an error. “Values” refers to the relative lightness or darkness of something whereas “tonality” or “tone” refers to the color of light in which the subject matter is located. While it is true that values and tonality are linked (a painting whose values are incorrect will not have a true sense of tonality), value can be demonstrated in a black and white photo, for example. Tonality cannot be demonstrated by any photo; it is the very color quality of light, shimmering, twinkling, changing – think veils – that envelops and surrounds everything.
[iii] I debated whether to scan the internet and find the work of artists which I would then label “good bad examples.” Sigh! All is fair for educational purposes. I did select little details so as to hide the identity of the artists. And for you educationally minded bloggers out there, my work is fair game!
[iv] When one reads the letters of the Impressionists, for example, one finds an endless stream of invective directed at the “bourgeoisie.” It is instructive to note that in all the literature on Impressionism that I have seen, nowhere does anyone explain this hostility carefully. It is beyond the scope of this little blog, but suffice it to say that the institutions that cohere in any given society encourage certain beliefs, relationships, and practices while discouraging others. With the rise of the bourgeoisie (whom we would call entrepreneurs) most of the Impressionists believed that the rising set of bourgeoisie (whom we would call entrepreneurs) believed that their sense of freedom and their approach to painting was being discouraged. Hence, you have painters like Matisse saying, a few years later, that the dealer and the painter are not on the same side.
[v] This is graffiti from Mexico. It’s pretty impressive. I wish I could do it. But there is no tonality.