This Is What I Teach In My Painting Workshops: Part 1
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.