A Plein Air Painter’s Manifesto
Remember when we learned cursive writing (back when it was taught!)? Our concentration was on the exactness of how we wrote each letter. The “a” goes up to the first line we closely observed, the “b” to the third and so on. In other words, we would be thinking about the results or the standard against which we were measured, as we wrote. Now, when we write, we think about what we want to say. As opposed to thinking about measuring up to a standard, we merely express ourselves.
The method is somewhat like that. The effort to scumble correctly(for example in the Underpainting stage) or to identify where values separate (in Construction and Reconstruction) eventually becomes second nature for the advanced painter as did her understanding of where the letters go in cursive writing. She doesn’t see the thing before her. She doesn’t think about the steps. She doesn’t think about how the work is coming out or finish because the process creates the work. She doesn’t even know where it is going or when she will stop (for me, this happens when I’ve said all I want to say or I’m tired or simply when the spell is broken, then I’m finished).
Matisse believed that “the invention of photography had released painters from the need to copy nature,” that they were then free to “present emotion as directly as possible and by the simplest means.” Van Gogh explained to his brother Theo: “Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself forcibly.” Monet wrote about his endless effort to “render his feelings” as he painted. These artists are telling us that our task is getting to the rush of feelings. Then we express those feelings. Rush first, painting follows. That simple order was the priority of late-19th century painting. But if we do not cherish our feelings, if we do not understand that the measure of a painting are the feelings we have as we do it, or we are clueless about being captured by sensations and carried away, then painting methods are stripped of their soul. They no longer are means of expression but the mechanical means of manufacturing “luxury items,” as Wolf Kahn reminded us. The point of painting, added Kahn, is to enter a realm where we feel “larger.”
Here’s the problem. Over the past 100 plus years, the self-understanding of many great painters who worked at the turn of the last century, why they inveighed rather sharply against a rising commercial culture, for example, has by the 21st century passed from consciousness. Notice the insight of Alfred Sensier, close friend and biographer of Barbizon painters Théodore Rousseau and Jean-François Millet, who wrote of the the way the Forest of Fontainebleau impacted painters: “They had reached such a pitch of over-excitement that they were quite unable to work…[they were] intoxicated….They were, in truth, possessed (emphasis added).” Now, if I were to say to you that you have a choice: in the upcoming workshop you can either produce and take home 10 saleable paintings or you can learn how to get possessed. Which would you choose?
Some of you will have figured this out; namely, that if you do learn how to get possessed, it is likely that you will have produced 10 saleable paintings along the way. Robert Henri, as stated in The Art Spirit, taught his students (Robert Brackman among them) that the key to painting was getting to what he called “extraordinary moments.” These moments drive the process, Henri argued. Brackman passed along this overarching concept to Schultz, and Schultz to me. To be honest, it took quite awhile before this larger purpose began to sink in for me. One reason is that such ideas, while always hovering about in the background of the classes I attended, were never really spelled out. So let me do that now. For plein-air artists who might see the advantage of learning how to enter realms of being where we see beyond the ordinary, the following points function as a manifesto:
- Understand That The Activity of Painting is Not About Production, That It Is About Expression: Painting is less about imitating what we see (making a “picture of”) or depending on the beauty of the subject matter for the beauty of the work and more about exercising and thus discovery our powers. We need to inject a life into a painting; otherwise, we might as well take a photo. Modernity turned on the notion that people are not defined by others (or larger cosmic orders) but are self-defining. Through the activity of painting, we demonstrate that we are capable of self-articulation. Through articulating what we find within us is to make who we are manifest. It is a bringing out of something to be.
- Use a Process That Produces the Work: Our loyalty to the work compels us to create a process that produces the work. This in turn allows us to slip into a realm of being where our sense of wonder is revitalized, where we are charmed. We journey into a set of connective feelings that lie just below the surface of ordinary perception. The painting just happens along the way.
- Don’t Master Nature, Surrender to It: When we attempt to master a living thing, we objectify it. We separate ourselves from it. When we surrender to a living thing, we become one with it. We allow it to speak to us, to capture us, to carry us away. And we do not know where the thing is going, where it is taking us. This is why we paint. (This is why I found it interesting that Sensier, above, observed that the painters were possessed by the forest.)
- Make Sure the Painting is Complete in Every Stage:[i] When the painting is always complete we are able to live in the feelings of the moment. To look for results constantly is to hold feelings in. Looking for results, wrestling a painting into a preconceived notion of finish uses up our emotions. Then we have less energy to invest in the present moment. All considerations that relate to the future, all external measures that hover over us as we paint subvert where we want to be, in moments of pure presence where we suddenly notice the marvelous specificity of things.
- Become Who You Are Most: When you have a formula or brand that works, it becomes a style. It satisfies the demands of the agent but we die in the process. Each painter has an original path. Our obligation is to live up to our originality. We do this by continually risking who we are most.
- Let Go of the Work: We give birth to the work, but the work is not who we are. We have to be willing to let go of the thing we create. As we grow, older work no longer speaks to us. Paintings are the rocks we grab on to as we climb higher.[ii] We let go of them, as we move forward. We aren’t in the same place for long. Don’t repeat what you do well. That is posing. Constantly move forward – push, risk, reach, go deeper. Failure is in the posing, not the falling.
- Be One With the Subject: As we surrender to nature, each of our touches on the canvas with our brush are parts of a conversation. Allow your subject to propel you beyond the realm of ordinary perception. We are always asking the work where do you want to go? What do you have to tell me?
- Respond Only to Sensations: We do not see the thing in itself (a house as a house, for example). We see only sensations. Our task is to learn new ways to be free, to be open to sensual prompts. We are artists, not merely painters; therefore we break the sensations of our visual experience into sensual pieces, where each piece is a passage into the realm of enchantment. We go through that passage – that exit – and then we put the pieces back together according to the poet within us.
- Play: Give greater expression to play. This means that we need to get back to innocence so that we again feel our childlike excitement about life. After all, we have mastered the means of expression. Now it is time to let the world know and feel who we are.
- I’ll end with an admonition from my teacher, Bill Schultz: “From the first stroke to the last, be an artist.”
Let me conclude with a look again at the schematic of the method, which in the previous blog, I called the “means of expression.” But this time let us look at it with the above discussion in mind. You will see that we may now think of the activity of painting as a set of opportunities. Each stage of the painting process is an opportunity to exit our ordinary realms of perception and functions as passage to that realm of enchantment where we feel larger and more alive – and yes, with any luck, possessed!
[ii] This is a metaphor that was used by David Viscott, a psychiatrist, who gave a workshop on creativity in the 1990s. I don’t believe his thoughts on creativity have been recorded anywhere. He died in 1996.
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.
“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.
Okay, so now I’m standing on the shore of Lake Como looking at the water, mountains, and sky. My easel is set up. My palette is loaded with color. And I’m there with brush in hand, squinting at what is before me. Then what? Just what am I supposed to do?
Well, if I were doing this during my first ten years of painting, I would muster all the skill and knowledge that I possessed and I would basically make a copy of what I saw. Then I would, if I thought it were good, bring it back to my teacher for a critique – anticipating kudos, of course – and I would hear him say, with a tone of disappointment, “You need to get past the facts.”
What he meant, without having to say it, was that my painting, while correct, was dead. Way too literal. I realized, as time went on, that I would have a reasonable chance of creating something that is alive if I were alive, if instead of seeing water, mountains, and sky, I saw a tangle of line and color only, as would a visual artist opening to the music of visual sensations.
So why was not I getting this simple admonition during my first ten years? Because I just didn’t hear it. I assumed that what I was doing (and suppose to do) was making a painting, in effect managing a production process, with no emotion, and guided mainly by the desire to do well by some external measure. So naturally I focused on results and the method I used, which breaks the process down into line and color, became nothing more than an assembly line. My thinking, my assumptions, my approach were fine for making a cake, let’s say, or a pair of shoes, but in terms of injecting a life into my canvas, my approach was, to put it bluntly, ass-backwards.
Getting Past the Facts
Allow me to construct the necessary paradigm shift. The painting process is not an assembly line because the point of it all is not production. Think of each step as an invitation to – as Baudelaire implored – be drunk with visual experiences, the movement of things or the veils of atmosphere in which the subject is enveloped, for example. Then each step of the process is simply a prompt to look for visual pleasure. Each step is an invitation to not just express an emotional response but to realize a larger sense of self. That’s the payoff. I can illustrate this by showing you how great artists have responded to such prompts.
In the image above, we see how Degas responds to the movement or gesture of the model. Notice that he cares not about results. There are two heads, several arms and legs. And yet the lines are varied and lyrical. I can feel his feeling. The drawing is alive because he is intensely alive as he gets lost in gesture. Does he go further? into color? No. He stops. He has realized feelings that he wishes to leave in place. Is it finished? Wrong question. He’s not making shoes. The only appropriate evaluative question for a work of art is, “Is it alive?”
The work above is by Manet. It is a painting of Monet and his wife. Look at the face and the hand of Monet. They are messy because, for Manet, there is no face or hand. Manet is squinting, not looking for results, getting past the facts. He seems to be lost in the tonality (atmosphere) or harmony of the thing. In the detail on the right we see reconstruction lines. They are done with verve and authority. Clearly these lines are not mechanical, or assembly line steps to the painting stage. They are pleasure driven. Is the work unfinished? Wrong question. It’s complete and it’s alive. It’s a realization of who Manet was precisely in that moment of intense feeling.
The work above is by John Singer Sargent. On the left is a drawing of an orchestra pit and on the right is a painting that follows. Is he copying the facts? No way! In both, he simplifies the darks, the middles, and the lights into three distinct values. He gets the orchestra pit through line, both with gesture and with value separations. He also is captured by the sense of atmosphere: the people farther away are a bit lighter and they melt into the space around them. Does he get into the painting stage much? Not at all. The variety of color is played down. Could he have gone further? No doubt, but he chooses not to. It’s not about finishing a product or about producing a picture of the facts. It’s an expression of the feelings of the artist. Therefore, it’s not a painting of an orchestra pit. It’s a Sargent.
The above painting is by Robert Henri. He has gotten well into the painting stage but a literal fact cannot be found. The faces are just barely faces. The people further back are executed in the same way as are the flowers to the left: just strokes of color. Do you suppose he was bored when he did this? Or was making a product to please someone or to sell? Or did the visual menu before him simply invite him to get high?
The above image is a detail of a painting by Joaquin Sorolla. When the method invites him to reduce everything into three values, he doesn’t see a barrel, bushes, or flowers. He sees shapes of color, which then makes it easy for him to place these colors on the canvas in a scumbling-wash type manner. The darks are greenish but notice the subtle variety of the greens: some are slightly warmer or darker. Could he have seen those subtle differences were he not delighted by them? The red flowers are just spots of color. The bright yellow flowers are not flowers but simply a mass of light. Simple. Simple. Simple. But I don’t think he could simplify like this unless he got past the facts and got into opening himself to what nature was whispering to him. If he were not moved, do you think he could have reassembled the parts of his vision in such a powerful way? If he had simply copied the facts, do you think the work would compel us, not just to look at it, but to stare?
The above landscape is by Wolf Kahn who is now in his late 80s. Given his unusual use of color, I asked him if he made it up or if it were based upon what he saw as he painted in plein-air. He said it was the latter. As with so many painters he has made it clear that his work is not driven by external concerns or career. “I don’t need a feeling of success,” he once stated. “I just need an appetite to work to feel alive.”
The floral above was done by Jacques Truphèmus. He is a living French painter who is over 90 years old. I suspect that for many of you, this painting may be a tad too messy. But if that is the case, understand that the flowers were only a prompt for him to show us the feelings he had and that he realized as he looked for color.
Let me end with Monet. The image above is a detail from a painting which itself is 10 feet high and the full painting is also 30 feet long. What is it a painting of? Well, on one level I think the appropriate response would be, “What does it matter?” But for the record, it is a painting of his lily pond. Notice how Monet is combining line and color. His strokes of color (the last stage) are also gestural lines (the first stage). This makes the important point that a painting method is never an end in itself but a vehicle that empowers us and sets us free.
 William J. Schultz
Alice wrote to me seeking advice on how to paint trees: “ One thing I really struggle with is trees. I have no idea whether to do an underpainting or in the construction stage if I should add lines or not. For example, in Monet’s painting, I can’t see an obvious color for an Underpainting.”
Image No.1 is the Monet painting that puzzles Alice. I can see why. The value changes throughout are subtle and the tree doesn’t really separate sharply from what is around it. We don’t know exactly what Monet was looking at, but let us assume that the painting is a faithful representation. Using Photoshop, let me create what I think might have been the stages of the painting.
First, let’s squint so that we can’t focus. Squinting and comparing helps us to see things simply. Also, because the first two stages (Composition and Construction) are line stages, let me remove the color. At this point I’m only interested in value relationships.
Image No. 2 is what I see as I squint. It’s a little blurry and I am able to see how the values relate to one another. I see that the tree is somewhat like a ball. One side is struck by the light; the other side is shady and the transition from light to dark within the tree is gradual, so there is no separation of value, hence no line, within the ball-like tree. I notice, again simplifying, that apart from cast shadows, the ground area is basically one value. There also appears to be a smaller dark bush in the lower left hand corner and a very small tree,that is darker than the ground. The sky too is nearly one value but gradually gets lighter near the horizon.
So I draw lines (in oil, following the Composition in charcoal that was brushed off), not much darker than the white canvas and I place lines only where values separate (refer to image No. 3). Remember I am making this as simple as possible. The light side of the tree seems to separate ever so slightly with what is behind it as does the shady side. But because I see the shady side separate less strongly, my line there is less intense. The bush to the left as well as the tiny tree seem to separate. So does the horizon. I do not construct shadows (or reflections) because they are just air. If I were to construct shadows they would look like a hole in the ground.
Image No. 4 is my photoshop-ed version of an Underpainting. Alice states that she can’t see “an obvious color” for the Underpainting, but recall that an underpainting is many, many layers of color or veils of atmosphere. We use a technique called scumbling and we begin with all the dark values, then we move on to the middle values, and we leave the light values open or that part of the canvas blank.¹
Image No. 5 is my Reconstruction. I purposely use a very dark line because I want to “undo” the Underpainting. I don’t want the dark lines (again, placed where values separate) to belong to the Underpainting. This way, when I return to color in the next stage, the Painting stage, I will be forced to go richer and a little darker in order to bring the painting back into balance.
In image No. 6, I have begun the Painting stage. Again using Photoshop, I have simulated brush strokes, placing one stroke at a time against another, building with the color. I have painted the darks, then into the middle values (image no. 7). Notice that I am allowing the Underpainting to show through in places. I try not to “plug it up;” I want to be able to look through the brushstrokes in the Painting stage – to a degree – down into the underpainting.
Image No. 8 is my photoshop-ed version of the final painting. Notice that I saved painting into the “lights” until last. In the Underpainting stage I scumbled into construction lines and, similarly, in the Painting stage, I painted into the lines. One doesn’t have to obliterate construction lines. The bits that remain after painting into them will do the job of signaling a value separation; in other words, the bits of line that remain from the Reconstruction will still help create form.
The photoshop look, as it were, is rather mechanistic; however, I hope that you can see how one moves through a painting. Now Monet advises us repeatedly, “don’t see the object before you.” In other words, don’t see trees or fields or skies as trees, fields, and skies. Don’t be literal. Just see color and where values separate, or line. So the method he used was an oscillation between line and color. The whole thing is an unfolding; it is complete in every stage. There is no point called “finish.” One stops when one has nothing more to say or when one wishes to say nothing more.
¹Many people think that when I say “lights” that I am referring to “whites” or “highlights.” No. Remember that when we begin and we squint and compare, we also simplify by reducing everything, in our mind’s eye, to three values: darks, middles, and lights. This can be tricky, especially when we are painting outside. Generally, if the light is striking one side of an object, it falls into the “light” category even if it is not one of the lightest values in the painting. It is similar to sorting laundry. If I ask you to sort all your clothes into three piles, one for the darks, one for the middles, and one for the lights, it may be difficult to decide where the light blouse with a light flower pattern goes. But in the end, you must decide. And everything you decided was in the “light” pile, as it were, is left open or blank – only to be painted in the final step of the painting stage when we “paint the lights.”
I’m often told by students, particularly when I do a demonstration, that they don’t see the colors that I place on the canvas. Part of this, I suppose, is due to the fact that I’ve been painting longer and, therefore, I’ve been looking for color longer – which means I probably see more color. But there are two more important possible reasons.
One is that many students assume that part of the painting process is simply painting colors that one thinks will be good. In other words, they assume that part of painting is making up colors out of one’s head. Given that the method I teach turns on the joy and fulfillment of discovering one’s powers, I never make up colors and I discourage such practices (at least for the first 10 years). It’s not about getting certain results; rather it is about getting a rush from seeing. The results take care of themselves. But the second reason is what I want to address: painters often paint not what they see but the expectation or what they think they should be seeing.
For example, above is a photo of the scene that we used to paint from my studio terrace. I would say that 9 out of 10 students would paint the mountains farthest away and the peninsula in front pretty much the same color. A typical color would be a kind of viridian green and white.
The above image might be the typical colors that students would use. The peninsula and the mountain range are greenish. But when I would give a student a square piece of plastic with a little hole in the middle and when I would ask them what the color of the mountains farthest away is, they always came up with the right answer: a light bluish color.
In the above image we see first the little circle on the mountain. Keep in mind that by looking just through the little hole, the student can’t see that he or she is looking at a distant mountain. Therefore, the artist can’t possibly think “mountain” or “trees” (which equal green mentally). All that they are able to see is just the color in the little hole. In other words they have isolated the color from what the color is part of (mountain, sky, clothing, whatever). “Oh I see it. The color is bluish!”
When we use the blue we saw through the little hole to scumble the color of the distant mountain (I used photoshop to give you the sense of an underpainting, but notice the simplification: big simple shapes and relationships), we have the correct color and value relationships.
This is what Monet meant when he said “don’t see the things before you.” Just see the color. The trick of course is to squint, compare, and train your eyes to see just color (or line) and not things with names. As painters, we must understand that concepts in our head undermine the seeing of color (or sensations). We think we are seeing but actually we are reading. Skies are blue, apples are red, trees are green and so are mountains. That’s what it means to be “literal.”
It is helpful to use a piece of plastic with a little hole in the middle in order to isolate colors. You will be surprised that you will have no difficulty seeing color. You can do it already. But don’t see the thing before you. Just see the color. Not only will your work improve. You will get a rush and your paintings will be alive.
I am making a few instructional videos to convey the ideas and practices that are part of the workshop I teach. I now have the first video ready to go. It’s not free, so this is a commercial of sorts. But I do have a preview to help you decide if you wish to purchase it. And I don’t think it is very expensive either. I think these videos will be especially helpful for those students who have already taken a workshop and wish to continue. At the same time, I think that there is enough information presented that it may be useful for all painters, but especially those who love Impressionism.
In the first video, I basically explain how I go from the still life on the left, to the final painting shown below. I do not make up any colors. I see the colors. And there is a particular order to the process. It isn’t for everyone, but I think it can help anyone who paints to learn to see more.
I emphasize the phrase “the authentic method” because there are dozens of people who claim to do or teach and write books on Impressionism and after decades of study I simply have to throw down the gauntlet and say, I’m sorry but this is the method.
The method, it needs to be pointed out, is more involved than “the mechanics” or the “how-to” steps. It’s really a point of view about art and painting, a philosophy. In fact, the aesthetic is not the defining characteristic. This is why artists like Manet, Whistler, and Sargent were part of the Impressionist circle (and were invited to exhibit with them) but did not adopt – at least not always or fully – what might be thought of as an Impressionist aesthetic. But I thought it might be appropriate here to give you a glimpse into my early experience with the teaching of Impressionism, back when I had no idea or intent of ever becoming a painter.
In 1964, at the age of 16, I walked into the studio of William Schultz. Little did I know then how the teachings of this man would forever change my life. It didn’t happen all at once. I studied with him for a brief time and then returned in the mid-70s for regular classes. But as much as I was drawn to his work and his teaching, I was, to put it mildly, rather clueless about what painting meant to him, even after years of taking classes.
I really didn’t take it seriously until 1981. I remember the year exactly because Bill asked me to be a “monitor,” which basically meant that I would become somewhat of an assistant. Even at that point, I still didn’t get the philosophy of the approach he taught. Not at all. I really wasn’t ready. I was too busy hoop-jumping in an entirely different field. But I knew enough of the “how to” mechanics to help out. I was so honored that he asked little ole me to assist in teaching that I decided to take painting seriously and from that point to now, I have.
Bill represented the tail end of the studio system of teaching. That is, if some young person had aspired to be a painter, he or she would study in the studio of a master artist. Bill’s primary teacher was Robert Brackman. Brackman studied with Robert Henri (and George Bellows, a student of Henri) and Ivan Olinsky. Henri studied in Paris during the 1880s (and was a distant cousin of Mary Cassatt). And Olinsky studied with John Singer Sargent, who in turn was a close confidant of Claude Monet. By the 1960s, this studio system had been displaced by the university. Henceforth, a young visual artist would seek visual art instruction not within the studio of a master artist, but at an institution of higher learning run by a Board of Trustees, who in turn were part-time representatives of corporations appointed by various governors. A different system indeed.
What was nice about Bill’s studio was the sincerity and love of painting and the reverence for the previous teachers who preceded him. I can remember a zillion little axioms, stories, and admonitions that were passed down from teacher to student across the decades. Here are a few:
Sargent: “Begin with a broom, end with a needle…[and] begin everything, finish nothing.”
Henri: “The point of painting is not to make a picture but to experience an extraordinary moment.”
Brackman: “You’ll make all your mistakes in the first ten minutes…[and] you need to learn how to caress the canvas and to attack it.”
Schultz: “If I can only reach you mentally…it’s about the thrill…not the production…[and] do you know what it means when a human being makes a mark on a canvas? It’s a miracle….From the first stroke to the last be an artist.”
And so it went. I tried to put all of this down in a self-published book, as many of you know. The very fact that it had to be self-published tells you a good deal about Schultz’s studio and his teachings. They cut against the grain. In a fast-food art culture, Bill was slow food. In an art industry with groups like the YBAs¹ being pushed by the billionaire-investor-collectors, Bill’s teachings are disallowed; far too subversive. And can you guess now what the thrust of his teachings might be?
Well, on the actual making-of-a-painting side of things, it was about a way of seeing and feeling and expressing that requires years of study and doing, much like any other pleasurable work activity where the payoff is in the growth and fulfillment that the activity delivers (as in growing-up, or learning a language or becoming accomplished at playing a musical instrument). His philosophy, in other words, undermined notions of production (the manufacturing kind), where one is evaluated by the thing produced. Yippe doo – you win a prize or get a gold star. I can remember him – and he was one gentle, kind, and sweet man – passing by me muttering (he would do this only in front of people he trusted): “Rembrandt, PhD.” We, on the inside track as it were, would all chuckle.
What he meant was that categories signifying hierarchy are blasphemous to art. Until he found a great teacher (Brackman), he was an illustrator but not a terribly accomplished artist. That eventually took Brackman’s guidance and decades of work. He once did nothing but draw for a year because he was frustrated with his line. But here’s the thing: I would hear him say the following over and over and over: “If I can do it, you can do it.”
Bingo. End of story. Nothing could be more true and nothing rocks the art establishment as this rather humble but searing, historically verifiable truth.² He didn’t mean it would be easy for any of us or that everyone will persevere; rather he was saying what so many artists have said: we are all born with the gift to create. Few will get there, but we all start out with the capacity. Which brings us back to the first sentence of Henri’s great book, The Art Spirit, “The province of art, when properly understood, is the province of every human being.”
Art, painting, whatever – is simply a means for each of us to express who we are and in the process discover our power and our beauty. That’s it. Forget all the hoopla – the awards, the degrees, the measures, titles, medals, gold stars. That all junk food. It’s all petty. It’s all worthless.
Beethoven, when he learned that he would eventually become completely deaf and for a moment contemplated suicide, finally pulled himself together and declared, “I shall grab fate by the throat and choke it….Ah, but for art – for art I would live a thousand times.” But why? So he could get a gold star or medal or name in lights?
It’s never about the product or the measure that the product confers on the maker. This is not to minimize great art but rather to suggest that great art follows from processes where the maker becomes more of who he or she already is. If you “can’t draw,” (as Manet said of Cèzanne) then go with the lines in which you invest your feelings anyway (as Cèzanne very much did). Sincerity. That’s more of an Impressionist hallmark (and one that was repeatedly articulated) than was broken color or plein-air painting (think of Degas).
This is what I never understood for decades: it’s about the joy of discovering my power and beauty, not how the results of what I do measure up to some external standard. Ain’t that something! Only then will my work have life and it will have life because I will have been more alive. This is not an insight that is easy to embrace, and truly understand, because while it is tremendously valuable, it calls into question much of what we are suppose to do with our lives in our culture. But if Bill Schultz could do it and if I – the clueless monitor from 1981- can, so can you.
¹ Young British Artists are artists such as Damien Hirst (rotting cow’s head with maggots in a glass box, sliced up shark in formaldehyde) and Tracy Emin (drawings of herself masturbating or unmade bed, stained sheets, and condom as installation) who make works often described by branded art agents as “challenging,” “difficult,” and “important.”
² Remember, the indictment by elites of rebellious artists in Paris circa 1860 who advanced this position back then was primarily that they were “democratic artists” or artists who wanted independence and freedom to be themselves, as opposed to abiding by top-down dictates as to what artists should be and do.