September, 2015

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  • Teresa Oaxaca Class

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    I’ve had the pleasure of having Teresa Oaxaca sharing my studio for the past few days- she is running a charcoal drawing workshop out of my space while she is here.  It’s her first trip to Boston, and I’m looking forward to showing her the museums in town.  She’s a big Sargent fan, and we certainly have plenty of Sargent’s best works here.

    I know Teresa from Florence, she had gone to John Angel’s school and then transferred to the Florence Academy during her last year.  That always created a quiet uproar in town- when a student transferred it felt like a bit of a statement.  Plus, her work as a student was good, and if anything gets you noticed and remembered in Florence it is certainly that.  Being a hybrid between schools has created some of Florence’s best painters; thus Teresa has gone on to be very well-known in realist painting circles in a very short amount of time.

     

     

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    Here is Teresa’s block-in demo from the first day

     

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    Her class is going great- Oaxaca’s enthusiasm for drawing is infectious, and she goes around the room quickly, critiquing basically non-stop, taking breaks from talking to students only to demonstrate her techniques in charcoal on paper.  Besides of course trying to get the model’s likeness and general proportions, Teresa is helping the students with their technique: expressivity of line, directional hatching, calligraphic shading, and tonal control.  On a personal note, I very much like overhearing how each of these guest instructors I have brought to town have been explaining concepts that we focus on in my studio- but explaining them in a different way.  It’s great for my regular weekly students to get a different perspective on the same thing.

     

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    some of the student work 

     

    Additionally, Teresa has been doing charcoal portrait commission work out of my studio in the evenings.  The below one was accepted by the client last night.  She is here for a couple more days, if you would like her to draw a portrait for you just inbox me and I will set it up.

     

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  • That Whole Photography Discussion

     

    I will probably regret opening this can of worms.

     

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    Anders Zorn, inventor of the ‘selfie’ 

     

     

    Easily one of the most common issues of contention in schools of representational painting is the use of photography.  Every painting studio I’ve been to has some version of this discussion, and nearly every online forum I’ve visited has an ongoing argument between some of the members- although folks on the computer are generally more technologically inclined, with that, more amenable to the use of photography to aid their work.  I’ve heard painters deride people’s work far better than their own for using photos, time and time again.  I’ve done it myself- try as I might, it’s hard to divorce process from product.

    Some of the ‘atelier styled’ schools of painting out there object to the use of photography, and others embrace it entirely.  I went to a school that completely rejects the use of photography to aid the creation of paintings, but interestingly, many of the alumni and instructors end up using photographs for their work as soon as they leave- and some students and teachers do it half secretly behind closed doors.  I’ve never liked that needlessly duplicitous aspect of their painting process- it seems to me that whether or not you use photos is not the point- aesthetics and the painted image certainly is.  Other schools use photography as a central portion of their educational curriculum- a tool to get unflinching accuracy into the students’ work.

    There are a lot of painters out there to whom ‘not using photos’ is a badge of honor, that they can paint a final image using only their eyes, but their final image will make people exclaim ‘that looks just like a photo’; a somewhat uninformed comment which could be considered another badge of honor, or insult, depending on that painter’s personal predilections.

    We are surrounded by photographs- they have permeated our collective conscience as ‘truth’ in image.  Paintings were once the truth of image, and people went to exhibitions to see as the painter sees.  Today, you can’t avoid photography- and I take photos all the time, but rarely will paint from one.  I don’t find it enjoyable; I get bored quickly and would rather be working on something else.  I can look at a photo for one of my landscapes, but only if I have already made a finished study of the subject on location, so that the photo jogs memory more than calling for literal interpretation.

    For me, the joy of being a painter and draftsman is to translate the 3 dimensional world around you into two dimensions, the selection of what to focus on, include, accent or ignore.  Making something 2d out of something already flat I find to be much less personally gratifying and engaging, and the camera’s instantaneous nature makes it own selection of what information to focus on.  During Stapleton Kearns’ talk last week at the studio, he said something along the lines of “learning to paint from a photo is like trying to learn to swim on the sofa”.  That said, people that are already trained very well in observing the natural world around them can make deft use of photography.

     

     

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    Some of Zorn’s etchings with the reference images

     

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    Corresponding Zorn oil painting and photograph, from the Zorn MCMLXXXIX book

     

    Here is the larger point I want to make-

    To me, this ‘studio photography talk’ is a distraction from a much larger issue- that the camera’s aesthetic has permeated representational painting in general, through our dedication to the photographic image as truth.   I know many painters who refuse to use photos in their work, that will publicly denounce working from photography, but their work retains a ‘look’ which is ostensibly photographic, as if they’re using their own bodies like a camera.  I don’t think there is anything negative in their wish to render as if they had used a photograph– just that they are striving for a realism that is one and the same with the way the camera sees.   Conversely, I know painters who use photos for each of their projects, going so far as to trace them rather than drawing them out by hand- but their final painting retains a look that is painterly and non-photographic.

    The unintended consequence of the ubiquity of the photograph as ‘truth’ is that viewer and artist now often want the image to look just as real from up close as from far away…because of this, there are optical effects in paint that are nearly lost in today’s painting.  You see less broken color, less thick/opaque/transparent paint contrasts, less brushwork that looks mad and abstract from up close (but absolutely glowing real from 15 feet away).

    You could hardly have had the development of impressionism without each of these tools being employed.  Today, people call paintings impressionistic if they look kind of messy, not if they are painting a specific light effect.  The public equates highly rendered finish with skill, and of course; galleries take on what they think will sell.  New York galleries are dripping with this sort of thing.  The quick consumption of images on our phones and iPads hardly helps– as I mentioned in a previous post – optical effects in paint need to be seen in person, and do not translate well to tiny screens- what will get the most ‘likes’ is what presents best on a mobile phone.

     

     

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    There is plenty of documentation that Anders Zorn used photographs as the primary reference for many of his etchings, and for some paintings too- so much so, in fact, that the Zorn Museum in Mora has up an exhibition of Zorn’s work as a photographer.  I’d be interested to see that catalogue; just released.  I’ve seen a few John Sargent photographs that he worked up his paintings from -there was a great photograph of a gondolier in Venice next to one of his paintings in the Sargent Watercolors show at the MFA last year- I couldn’t find that image online, but the below image on the left is detail of a stereoscopic image, presumed taken by Sargent, and the corresponding painting on the right- taken from the catalogue of the watercolors show.

    This does not discount the incredible skill and draftsmanship that these artists achieved.  These guys could draw better with their left hand than nearly everyone alive today.  There is overwhelming documentation of these artists working from life, but I find these little anomalies of remnants of their photo references to be amusing.  In no way am I attempting to undermine these artists’ works in light of apparent occasional use of photography- quite the opposite- I am trying to make a point about aesthetics; their conscious decision to let brushwork, process and technique be evident throughout a painting.

     

     

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    At the beginning of this post I mentioned the commonality of derisive comments from one artist to another regarding their use of photography-  by no means a new phenomenon- see the below quote from Royal Cortissoz about Giovanni Boldini’s reaction to Joaquin Sorolla’s paintings:

     

    ‘I have always remembered with amusement what happened when I went with Boldini to the Sorolla exhibition at the Georges Petit Gallery in Paris. As we progressed from picture to picture Boldini seemed suddenly to get into the grip of some hidden excitement and for a time hesitated about telling me just what was the matter. At last he could stand it no longer. “This man must work with a camera”, he said. “They look like so many snapshots.” ~ Royal Cortissoz in Scribner’s (May 1926)

     

    During his day, Sorolla got a lot of grief about photography- I’d long heard that Sorolla painted from photos, but never seen any real photographic ‘proof’- instead I’ve seen an overwhelming quantity of pictures of him at work with his huge set ups and paintings outdoors with a multitude of live models, human and animal.  His father-in-law was García Peris, a major Spanish photographer at the time- and Sorolla’s first artistic job was colorizing photos for him, perhaps where the connection of Sorolla and photography started from.  It’s said that Sargent told his clients that Sorolla painted from photographs- maybe in an attempt to tear down his competition.  Who knows- perhaps someone can link me to something substantial.

    The closest thing to photographic reference I found regarding Sorolla is below, and it’s by no means a ‘smoking gun’- though the groupings are similar, the positions, negative spaces and perspective are all totally different.  You could not arrive to Sorolla’s painting without an encyclopedic knowledge of light and color, inside-out awareness of the human body, and certainly spending a lot of time with hot tuna in the sun.  Here is a link to the blog post that I sourced this grouping of images from.

     

     

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    Here is a closing thought:  each of the artists I chose to include in this post were working long after the advent of photography, after the advent of high realism of the 19th-century, after Gérôme, David, Bouguereau, and after the availability of the pocket camera.  Each made a conscious decision to paint in a style that celebrated paint itself, over pure rendering.

    Similarly, today it is a conscious decision to let the physical presence of paint feature in an artist’s work- and personally, I hope that the effects of thick/thin paint, glazing and scraping, and the optical effect of broken, opalescent color relating to one another on the canvas return to people’s interest in painting.  The big galleries certainly aren’t interested in showing much of that kind of work today.

     

     

    Reading List:

    Clicking here is a link to the Zorn MCMLXXXIX book

    Here is a link to the ‘Zorn the Photographer’ book accompanying the exhibition at the Zorn Museum

    Here is a great post from James Gurney on Shiskin, the Russian titan of landscape painting’s views on photography

  • Stapleton Kearns Demonstration

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    This past weekend, Stapleton Kearns was kind enough to do a long talk and seascape demo for a crowd of some thirty-odd guests in my studio.  Having seen a couple of his talks, I was very happy when he accepted my offer to come and do one for the folks in my studio.  Kearns is an interesting character; besides having ~40 years of experience painting and selling his pictures, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of art history and a particular affinity for late nineteenth-century century American Impressionism.

    Perhaps what he’s most known for on the internet is his blog: he set out to do a post on art every day for a year, and instead continued uninterrupted for over a thousand days, a three-year torrent of information that became the best free resource on outdoor painting on the web.  One of the students that came on Saturday told Stape that his blog changed her life, got her started.  I thought that was touching.  He was also kind enough to bring in a couple of 24×30″ (~65x80cm) recent paintings, so that everyone could get a glimpse of actual finished pictures while watching him sketch and talk.  Paintings below:

     

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    Since starting to turn my studio into more of an art center than just my own space, I have been making a concentrated effort to invite guest artists to Waltham who bring something unique to the table: either top-of-their-game artists who haven’t ever taught in New England (Dalessio, Fenske, Oaxaca and Bodem), or in Stapleton’s case, a New-England based artist who is doing something outside of the ‘plein air’ paradigm of today.  Stape does not do 8×10’s, and does not do your standard demo.

    Most artist demonstrations you see are straightforward: an artist paints a model that’s in front of them, a landscape or a still life, or paints from a photo.  In each of these cases you can see the subject as well as the demo, and oftentimes these days the artist demonstration is the central portion of the workshop, then auctioning off the demo to the highest bidder.

    Stape does not do his demos like that.  He almost always will paint a seascape, from imagination and memory.  His only reference was a lump of anthracite coal (which only marginally looks like a rock, to be honest) and a glass of saltwater which he would glance at and jokingly slosh around while he worked on his wave.

     

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    A couple of progress shots and Kearns’ finished seascape demo

     

    Seascape painting is a different animal than studio or landscape painting.  Observation can only get you so far- design, invention, and memory are how some of the best seascapes were done.  If you look at some of the outstanding paintings by Frederick Judd Waugh or William Trost Richards, there’s no way they could have actually set and easel up in that vantage point- they’d be washed out to sea.

    Below are a few books Stape recommended- he said there is no ‘one book’, a comprehensive study like John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting (which my friend Marc has somehow put off reading all these years) but that between the below books you could certainly learn a lot.

     

    Stapleton Kearns’ Seascape Reading List:

    Here are a few books on Seascape Painting by E. John Robinson

    Click here to be taken to Amazon links of Harry Bollinger’s books on painting the sea

    Here are a couple of books on William Trost Richards

    Click here to see the instructional seascape books by Borlase Smart

    This link will bring you to one of the only catalogues on Frederick Judd Waugh

    Here is ‘how to paint’ Walter Foster’s book on Frederick Judd Waugh

  • Thoughts on Process

    As an artist, being an armchair art historian has become sort of a hobby.

    A couple of weeks ago in the studio I had a long conversation with a group of students about how to go about making a finished painting of a fleeting subject.  The easiest way to understand how to go about making such a painting is to study the genesis of a successful picture, if you can track down all the sketches and studies that preceded it.

    When you’re dealing with an uncontrolled lighting situation, you may have as little as 15 minutes to observe an effect, yet we work on our paintings for hours, sometimes weeks, (or in my case, months).  Even on days with perfect conditions, when working outdoors the movement of the sun limits the amount of time you can paint.  Continuing to work for hours outside, you’ll weaken the initial effect that you intended and end up chasing light effects instead of clarifying your initial effect.   Doing sketches for a larger picture allows you to bring those impressions into the studio for long-term projects.  Also, perhaps most importantly, doing initial sketches and studies gives you an opportunity to change the tone and scale, redraw and redesign.

    So, in this post, I will attempt to reverse-engineer the development of an important picture by one of my favorites, Isaak Levitan.  Like many of the Russians, his work really stands out to me, probably partially because we weren’t able to see much of it in the west until after the fall of the Iron Curtain.  I remember in the early 90’s the huge popularity of the Russian Ballet, it was the first wave in the flood of the Russian Arts that moved internationally. Books in English and posts online about Russian painters followed.

    *Excuse the quality of the images in this post, but they are the best I can find online.  They all look a bit off to me

     

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    ‘Deep Waters’ 1892 150×209 cm (~60×83″)

     

    Nice painting, to say the least.  The issue with paintings of this sort is that they are achieved at a near insurmountable height, an altitude of picture making that most landscape painters today would get the bends from.  There are very few people alive today that can make a painting that is anywhere near this good, but there are a lot of people trying.

    This is certainly a studio picture.  It has a very strong sense of design and rhythm, a clear sense of distance from the foreground to the background, and a shimmering, golden light effect.  This was not done outside- at this size, the careful arranging of shapes, study of differing textures is near impossible to do on location.

    We know from our studies of old Isaak’s career that he was painting in the Tver province in 1891 and visited the Bernovo estate, which ended up being the estate of a Baroness Wolf.  This is well documented.  As we call it in English,  ‘Deep Waters’, the important final picture above was done in 1892- so a number of studies must have preceded it (at the bottom of this post I’ve included an excerpt from an article that speaks a bit to the significance of the title of this work in Russian)

     

     

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    У омута 1891 25 x 33 cm (~10×14″)

     

    Here’s what I believe is Levitan’s initial sketch, his first foray into the subject of the dam’s division of calm and turbulent waters, the yin/yang diagonal meandering line which remains the theme the final studio picture.  This study was done in 1891.

    This is a great sketch, even if the image above is probably a lot  too yellow.  It has the golden light and motif of the final painting, but even Levitan is human, he made what he clearly perceived to be errors in the above sketch.  We know that Levitan also perceived them to be errors, as he changed them for the final picture.

    Starting at the bottom left corner, it is very awkward compositionally to have that plank going straight into the corner.  In fact, the whole foreground is a bit too symmetrical, a central triangular clump of grass.  Also, the floating extra log to the right of the dam is a bit distracting, and is sort of creating an awkward tangent on its bottom side.  On the horizon, the two large backlit trees are too central, it’s making the composition have a lack of balance on the top.

    Compare this color study and the sketch below:

     

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    I had seen this juxtaposition of the sketch and final painting before, but there is still a huge jump in the composition of the final picture and the sketch.  I have been able to track down a couple of drawings which really flesh out the process that Levitan went through.

     

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    У омута 32.5 x 24 cm (~10×14″) pencil on paper at the tretyakov

     

    The above drawing further develops the scene, but still retains some of the compositional issues of the initial sketch.   He has moved our view point a few steps over to the left, to address the issue with the plank, and that’s given him an opportunity to explain some of the dam’s understructure- that design will remain to the final painting.  He has fixed the tangent issue on the log to the right of the dam, but it still feels a bit awkward.  He has moved the central horizon trees over, but it still feels overall a bit too centered, equally divided.  See the below image for another pass at it:

     

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    by-the-dam-(study) 10.5×16.5 cm (~4×6.5″)

     

    Here we have a small study by Levitan that came up at auction in 2004.  As an overall composition, this one ‘feels’ the most like the final picture.  He’s come up with an entirely new rhythmic solution for the horizon trees, introducing two large clumps on the right that add balance, but also a much needed reflection in the water’s right foreground.  He’s finally just gotten rid of that pesky fourth log, allowing him to concentrate on the movement from foreground to background uninterrupted.

    As I hope you can see, all of these considerations played a part in the final picture.  There are a couple other drawings for this I have found online, but I wasn’t 100% sure they were Levitan’s.  There are probably more studies, but this, at least, tells the bullet points in the development of the overall story of the picture

     

     

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    Here’s  a blurry image from flickr which gives you a sense of the color, if not the crispness of the one up top.

     

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    Below is another field study by Levitan I saw back in 2008 at the Royal Academy in London.  At the time, I remember being struck by the simplicity of the painting, and its clear, singular light effect.  It was painted on cardboard, or some cheap canvas, I was really surprised to see that the whole painting was one layer, excluding a redrawing of the horizon line (you can see the pentimento as a bluish haze in the below image).

    I’ve always wondered why the below study didn’t become another large studio picture, maybe Levitan thought it was perfect as is, an outdoor study, who knows.  He certainly knew what he was doing.

     

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    Summer Evening  49x73cm (~24×29″)

     

     

    Let me close this post with an excerpt from an article by Paul Debreczeny in the Pushkin Review: Pushkinian Elements in Isaak Levitan’s “By the Mill-Pond”

     

    “…a new wave of anti-Semitism swept the country, and since he had already had to leave Moscow once to avoid deportation as a Jew, he had every reason to fear renewed persecution. All this caused the mood in his paintings to shift from the lyrical to the dramatic. This shift is clearly reflected in his 1891 picture “By the Mill-Pond” (У омута).”

    “By the Mill-Pond” was begun in the summer of 1891, when Levitan and his companion, Sof’ia Kuvshinnikova, stayed at the village of Zatish’e in Tver’ Province. When they first arrived in Zatish’e, there were some rainy days, which they spent reading aloud from a couple of collections of Chekhov’s stories. The story “Happiness” particularly captivated Levitan, and he praised it highly for its nature descriptions. (2) The weather soon cleared up, however, and they set out to roam the countryside in search of motifs for painting. Levitan’s imagination was captured by the site of an erstwhile mill on a small river, where they stopped for a picnic lunch. Remnants of the mill were still visible, and the weir was blocking the flow of the water, forming a deep pond. The Russian word for such a deep pond, omut, brings to mind the saying V tikhom omute cherti vodiatsia, whose literal meaning is “Demons lurk in a deep pond.” (The closest equivalent in English may be “Still waters run deep,” in the sense that silent conspirators are the most dangerous.) As Levitan started sketching the scene, the Chekhov story he had just read, which recounts peasant superstitions, must have been on his mind, and he reported to Chekhov that “some interesting motifs have emerged.” (3) In another letter to the writer he signed himself as “Levitan VII of the Nibelungs,” hinting that he was dealing with the stuff of legends. (4) He and Kuvshinnikova came back almost every day to the mill-pond, which turned out to be on an estate called Bernovo, belonging to a certain Baroness Vul’f.”

     

     

  • August 2015 Workshops

    The end of August was action packed here in the studio in Waltham.  After we spent time painting together in Maine and Canada, Marc Dalessio and Ben Fenske came down to Boston to teach 3 workshops; Marc taught two 3-day courses in Landscape Painting on the Charles River Esplanade, and Ben taught a 5-day Constructive Portrait Drawing course in the north lit studio.

     

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    We also had a little welcome party/get together here, so we could all have a relaxed drink and show the students some of our work from Nova Scotia and Marc’s Cape Cod pictures in the studio.  As an added bonus, Michael and Karyn Harding from Michael Harding Artists Oil Colors were kind enough to come out to speak and show off their wares to our group of students as well.  I hope to have Michael back sometime soon to do a proper talk and demonstration here in the studio.  His colors are great, and I finally picked up a couple tubes of his lead tin yellow, a color I haven’t been able to find for a few years.

     

    Here’s a few notes on each of the classes, and how they were structured:

     

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    Ben Fenske’s portrait course was divided into two- a morning and afternoon session.  Each morning, Ben would give a talk and demonstration of exercises in conceptualizing forms, and schematic drawings of the simplified structure of the head and its features.  On the first day, he began with a long talk on perspective and the basic forms we are confronted with: Cubes, Spheres and Cylinders.  Every morning afterwards, he would apply these shapes and concepts to the features- a day on the nose, one on the eye, one on the mouth and ear, and a final day tying it all together.  After Ben’s demo, the students spent the remainder of each morning working one the exercises, referencing 3D sculptures that Ben had made for the course, or casts from my collection here in the studio.

     

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    Here is the planes of the nose in perspective

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    Ben’s Planar Head Demo

     

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    and Ben’s more advanced planar head 3d demo

     

     

    Here are a few of Fenske’s boards from his talks:

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    Then, each afternoon, after a short demonstration by Fenske, the students would work from the live model, applying the planar construction concepts to their specific facial structure.

     

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    Here’s one of the demonstration paintings Fenske did for the group:

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    Marc Dalessio‘s classes began with the best demonstrations I’ve seen him do.  Often in workshops, the instructor will knock out a quick sketch, almost like performance art, brush moving at a speed much faster than they would normally paint, and certainly faster than a student should try to paint during a course.  A quick demo has a certain ‘wow’ factor, but is counterproductive, in that it sets the students pace much faster than it should.

    Marc likes his students to devote as much time to their painting as possible, working on the same sketch over a number of days rather than working only an hour or two- so he didn’t paint quickly to give them the wrong idea; instead, Marc spoke at length and painted more or less at his normal pace.  In both the morning and afternoon, his demo lasted about two hours, and there was still white canvas.  That set the pace for his class, and was a great example in helping the students slow down.

    If there was a single concept from Marc’s class that seemed to stand out,  it was the reminder that if you are able to paint precisely, though slow, you will get faster while maintaining precision.  If you paint quickly, but imprecise, that does not lead to eventually increasing your accuracy, only your speed.  Most of the students worked three solid days on their landscapes.

     

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    Here are Marc’s demo paintings after touching them up throughout the course-

     

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    I am hoping to have Ben come back this winter for another construction class, next time focusing on the full figure- and Marc and I are talking about when to schedule his next landscape course in New England.  Head over to the classes tab on my website and join my mailing list to find out first about these upcoming courses (get to it early though, as Marc’s first landscape course filled in under 24 hours)

     

     

     

     

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