The Authentic Impressionist Method
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.