M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Painting From Photographs. The Historic Debate

Interior with Portraits, by Thomas Le Clear, ca. 1865, oil, 25 7/8 x 40 1/2. Collection the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

A interesting exhibition just closed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is moving to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (February 28-May 23, 2010). The show is called American Stories. Paintings of Everyday Life 1765-1915, and it includes major works by Winslow Homer, John Singleton Copley, George Caleb Bingham, William Merritt Chase, and dozens of other artists who commented on political, social, economic, and artistic issues in America during the time period.
One particularly amusing and relevant painting is a studio scene by Thomas Le Clear in which he expresses his opinions about the impact of the new technology of photography on fine art. At first glance it appears that the painting reveals two children posing for a portrait photograph in an artist's studio. The room is filled with sculptures, paintings, sketchbooks, an easel, and a mahl stick and yet a photographer is preparing to take a photograph with the subjects posed against an artificial backdrop. As art historian Margaret C. Conrads points out in the catalog for the exhibition, "at a time when photography was considered the more truthful medium and was a strong competitor of painting for portrait commissions, Le Clear unmasked the illusion, even deception, in the mechanics of both media, as well as the complicity of painters and photographers in their creation."
It turns out that neither of the two children posing for a photograph were alive at the time the painting was created (the young girl, Parnell Sidway, was 13 when she died in 1849; and her brother, James, was killed in a fire in 1865 when he was 25), and the setup in the studio is completely inaccurate. Le Clear seems to be saying that while photographer may be able to capture the truth of one moment in time, artists have the power to present a truth about life that transcends the limitations of time and random occurrences. This distinction would have been extremely important to artists in the 1860's when photographers were suggesting that their accounts of the Civil War were more significant that the drawings and paintings artists created on the battlefields. And when the market for painting collapsed during the recession that followed the war, artists like Le Clear felt that their very livelihood was at stake.
Questions about photography's impact on painting are still being raised today. There are those who feel artists must draw and paint from life in order to perfect their skills of perception, but there is a significantly greater number of painters who use photographs as supplementary resources or as primary references. The relevant issues are just as important today as they were for Thomas Le Clear in 1865.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Drawing & Painting Sight-Size

Steve Smith's photograph of Paul DeLorenzo (center) teaching a workshop at the
Long Island Academy of Fine Art (www.liafa.com).

DeLorenzo showing a student how to stand a measured distance from her easel so both the model and the image on the canvas appear to be the same size.

A student measuring each part of the model's head using a brush held horizontally. Note that he is trying to paint the head exactly as it appears from a measured distance away from the easel.

Another student squinting and holding a brush in front of her eyes while she makes decisions from a measured distance about the development of her painting.
I've written a number of articles on artists who use the sight-size approach to painting, but the method became more clear to me while I was writing an article on Paul DeLorenzo for the spring, 2010 issue of Workshop magazine (www.artistdaily.com). I explain that the procedure is to stand a measured distance away from both the easel and the subject being painted so that both appear to be exactly the same. That is, from 10- or 12-feet away from a painting, the image appears to be exactly the same size as the person or object being painted.
There are two principle reasons to use the sight-size approach. One is to train artists to draw and paint what they actually see rather than what they know about a subject; and the second is to impart "certain aesthetic and technical attributes to a painting, notably the broad handling that comes into focus when seen at the proper viewing distance," according to artist Nicholas Beer (www.sarumstudio.com). In other words, the goal of the sight-size approach is to increase an artist's skill to a level at which he or she is ale to eliminate unintended distortions in drawing or painting, and to create convincing illusions of reality on a two-dimensional surface.
Beer points out that great artists of the past (Titian, Hals, Reynolds, Raeburn, and Sargent to name a few) used a variation of the sight-size method in that they all walked back and forth from their easels to judge how to paint a portrait subject exactly as he or she appeared when the canvas and sitter were in view. He quotes one contemporary account of Sargent's methods which points out that he "placed his canvas on a level with the model, walked back until the canvas and sitter where equal before his eye, and was thus able to estimate the construction and values of his representation."
Darren R. Rousar has written a book that provides specific details about the approach (Cast Painting Using the Sight-Size Approach, Velatura Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota), and he maintains websites on the subject (www.Sight-Size.com and (www.christianchurchart.com). Rousar includes diagrams of how to position the model, easel and lights; and he recommends ways of progressing through a drawing or painting.
What I believe will be valuable about considering this approach is that one can adapt various ways of looking objectively at one's drawings and paintings -- something we all struggle with as we try to determine ways of improving our artwork.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Paint Landscapes From Sketches, Memory & Photos

9" x 12" oil sketch done on location near Ste. Stai church in Venice, Italy

Photograph of the location I painted.

The preliminary sketch done with diluted transparent oxide red oil paint on a 20" x 20" canvas.

The initial block-in of the local colors

The finished painting done from the plein air sketch, the photograph, and my memory.

Ever since my trip to Venice in May, 2009, I have been looking at paintings of the city by 19th century artists like Sargent and Whistler, as well as contemporary artists like Steve Rogers (http://www.watercolorsbyrogers.com/) and Len Mizerek (http://www.leonardmizerek.com/). I've become more aware of how those artists exaggerated the color relationships, simplified the complicated spaces, and composed the shapes and values. I decided to respond to that new awareness by painting a studio picture using the oil sketch I did on location, a photograph I took at the same time, and my imagination. I did the oil sketch near Ste. Stai, one of the many Venetian churches that Sargent painted.
In order to emphasize the abstract relationship of shapes, I changed the format of my painting from the horizontal shape of the plein air sketch to a square, increased the contrast between the cool and warm colors, heightened the bright colors, muted the dark- and middle-value colors, and used a palette knife to apply thick layers of paint that would emulate the textures of the ancient walls. Using the palette knife really transformed the painting and I'm sure I will use that technique again in other paintings. My friend Urania Christy Tarbet (http://www.uraniachristytarbet.com/) is sending me a set of palette knives she is now marketing because I told her how much I liked the effects one can get.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Drawing Portraits & Figures: Starting with Gestures

Sherrie McGraw (on the left) teaching figure drawing at the
Fredericksburg Artists School in Texas.

Gesture drawings Sherrie created to show students how to focus on movement, not detail.

A drawing from Sherrie's Book, The Language of Drawing: From An Artist's Viewpoint (Bright Light Publishing http://www.brightlightpublishing.com/).

A drawing demonstration created on colored paper with charcoal and Conte

During the first four days of a workshop that Sherrie McGraw (www.sherriemcgraw.com) taught at the Fredericksbug Artists School in Texas (http://www.fbgartschool.com/), the New Mexico artist emphasized the importance of capturing the gesture of the model's pose, not just the exact measurements or details of the body parts. She explained that this would be one way to capture the "life force" of a person instead of an exact portrait likeness of the figure. An artist might want to go on to develop a portrait, she indicated, and the underlying gesture drawing would add character and personality to the finished drawing.
Sherrie demonstrated that when creating a gesture drawing one tries to make long, flowing lines rather than short, straight lines; and one usually draws rounded, convex shapes rather than sharply angled or concave shapes. To verify that, she asked the workshop participants to look carefully at the outer edges of arms, legs, hips, shoulders, jaws, and ears.
This emphasis on drawing the gesture of a figure's weight distribution, momentary action, and bulging forms rather than the exact, measured appearance of body parts can be traced back to a book published in the late 1930's that promoted the idea of making contour and gesture drawings. Kimon Nicholaides' book, The Natural Way to Draw, was published at a time when many artists were interested in creating "action paintings" or abstract expressionist works of art. They liked the idea of creating a personal response to the energy, expressiveness, and action of the human form rather than the precise appearance of the anatomy, musculature, or naturalistic form.
Sherrie strikes a balance between personal expression and direct observation, and her drawings and paintings offer responses to specific people at one moment in time. I wrote an article about Sherrie's workshop on drawing and painting for the spring 2010 issue of Workshop magazine (www.artistdaily.com) and described her approach to painting figures and still lifes in oil as well as her methods of creating gesture drawings.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sargent's Studio Props

Nelson Shanks painting in the Robert Henri studio on Gramercy Park in New York

Two of the ten pilasters Mr. Shanks rescued from the Sargent studio in London.

The exterior of the building that housed Henri's top-floor studio from 1909-1929

"Lord Ribblesdale," a Sargent portrait incorporating one of the Tite Street pilasters

"The Earle of Dalhousie" standing in front of columns used in a number of Sargent portraits
Artists often use the same studio props in portraits and still lifes, and it is well documented that John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) often used the same columns, scarfs, chairs, lamps, and backdrops in the portraits he created in his studios in Paris, London, and New York. Richard Ormond, Sargent's grand nephew and the leading scholar on Sargent's work, has cataloged most of those props.
In 1994, Nelson Shanks (www.nelsonshanks.com) borrowed a studio in one of the buildings where Sargent held a lease from 1887-1900 so that he could create a portrait of HRH Diana, The Princess of Wales. While working on the portrait, Shanks noticed that the building next door (that Sargent leased in 1900) was being renovated and the contractor was taking out about a dozen pilaster decorations. Shanks negotiated with the contractor to rescue the pilasters which appeared in the backgrounds of a number of Sargent paintings, and he shipped them back to the United States so they could be appreciated by students attending Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia (www.studioincamminati.org).
Recently, Mr. Shanks transported two of the pilasters to New York where he is renting the studio occupied by Robert Henri (1865-1929) from 1909-1929. I photographed them recently when I began working on a second special magazine on artists' studios that will be published in the fall of 2010 (www.artistdaily.com). The pilasters flank an unfinished portrait of Renee Fleming that Mr. Shanks is currently developing.
It's fascinating to look at Sargent's portraits (www.johnsingersargent.org) and pick out the props that he used over and over again to lend character to his depictions of lords, ladies, dowagers, and industrial barons; and it's interesting how the props were used to enhance the coloration, lighting, or composition of the paintings. For example, the pilasters certain emphasize Lord Ribblesdale's erect posture and aristocratic appearance. The columns next to The Earle of Dalhousie make him seem tall and imposing, but Ormond points out that white skin on his forehead -- probably from a hat that shaded his face -- was an inside joke that Sargent played on his insufferable client.
By the way, if you love Sargent as much as I do, you might want to join The Great Portraits Tour to London that John Howard Sanden is organizing from June 13-20, 2010 (www.portraitinstitute.com). Richard Ormond will be meeting with the group to discuss his life-long study of his great uncle. The tour will also include visits to the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Royal Academy of Art, and Windsor Castle.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Still Life Painting

John Bosquet-Morra teaching a workshop at the Grand Central Academy of Art in New York

Workshop participants first did quick sketches (on the right), then they created detailed paintings (center) from the sketch and the actual set-up (at left).

Bob Lenz underpainted a grisaille and then glazed colors to capture the appearance of the metal object in his still life.

I just finished writing an article on John Bosquet-Morra's (www.johnmorrapainting.com) recent workshop at the Grand Central Academy of Art (www.grandcentralacademy.classicist.org) for the spring, 2010 issue of Workshop (www.artistdaily.com), and I enjoyed writing about an instructor who encourages students to expand their ideas about still lifes. John suggests using non-traditional materials like small appliances, bricks, and hardware as well as standard fruits and flowers; and he shows how artists can select items that all relate to a story, recipe, or theme. For example, he recommended painting a still life of all the items listed in a cooking recipe so they have a practical relationship to each other.
John also demonstrated several painting techniques, include alla prima direct painting and glazing over a monochromatic grisaille ("gray painting"). That is, he showed how to paint wet-into-wet to develop an oil painting without having to wait for each layer of paint to dry; and he explained how to first paint the dark, middle, and light values with a limited palette of colors and later glaze over thin, transparent colors. Bob Lenz, one of the workshop participants, found the grisaille method appropriate for painting a metail object in his still life.
John recently switched New York galleries and is now represented by the Eleanor Ettinger Gallery in Soho (www.eegallery.com).

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Watercolors by Architects

"Greek Steps, Sifnos," by Thomas W. Schaller, 2008, watercolor, 12 x 9.

"Arabella Street Driveway," by Stephan Hoffpauir, 2008, watercolor 24 x 36.

"Canal Study 3, Venice," by Stephan Harby, watercolor, 17 x 13.
I just finshed writing an article on Thomas W. Schaller's (www.twschaller.com) watercolor paintings for the April, 2010 issue of American Artist, and it occured to me that Thomas is the third licensed architect whose watercolors I have written about in the past year. I described Stephan Harby's (www.stephanharby.com) art in the May, 2009 issue of the magazine, and Stephan Hoffpauir's (www.colepratt.com) in the January, 2010 issue. And if I were to search back through issues published over the past 20-30 years, I could probably come up with three dozen other architects whose watercolors were featured in American Artist or Watercolor magazines (www.artistdaily.com).
Why do so many architects paint watercolors? For generations, architects were trained to make drawings and paintings from their schematic plans so that clients could visualize how their completed buildings would look. When the fine art departments in colleges and universities were discontinuing their drawing and watercolor painting courses, the schools of architecture was still teaching students to use graphite, colored pencil, gouache, and watercolor to create believable visualizations. Harby, Hoffpauir, and Schaller enjoyed drawing and painting so much as students that they contiued to develop their talents after joining the profession. Hoffpauir and Schaller wound up writing books for architects on watercolor techniques; and all three men taught courses and workshops on the subject.
I've been attracted to watercolors by architects because they often show the medium to it's best advantage. There is usually a strong, accurate drawing underneath the flowing blends of transparent color; and the white of the paper is expertly used to bring the viewer's attention through the picture and directly into the center of interest.
Another reason these three architects now focus so much of their time and attention on fine art painting is that computers have all but eliminated the market for handmade renderings. Most architects are now trained to use computer software to create visualizations of their designs, and only a small number of high-end architectural firms commission original drawings or paintings for their clients. Schaller is fortunate to still have a thriving business working for some of the best known architects in the world.
All three of these artists create studio paintings from sketches and photographs, but they also enjoy finding subject matter when they travel. Hoffpauir is inclined to rely on his camera when scouting subjects while Harby and Schaller prefer painting small watercolors on location. Not surprisingly, buildings often figure into most all of the watercolors.