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  • More on Copying Paintings

    As an artist you should never really stop studying and learning.  Doing master copy was among the first things I attempted when I was learning- and I’ve continued to do them, every few years or so.  Copying a picture gives you an entirely different perspective, a view into the process that you just can’t get otherwise.  It continues to be a tool I use in the development of pictorial concepts, looking for new color and technical ideas.

    One thing I would mention is the importance of doing master copies in person- copying from a reproduction simply doesn’t cut it.  Particularly in oils, you’ll need to see yours next to the real thing so you can see the technique as well as the image.  Plus, reproductions really aren’t to be trusted when it comes to color.  You don’t necessarily need to finish the thing, or even copy it in the same medium, but spending a period of time analyzing a picture like that is invaluable.

    Over the years some of the things I’ve attempted copying: a Rembrandt (failed miserably, way above my pay grade at the time), an Edmund Tarbell, a silverpoint of Raffaello Sanzio’s around the time I was getting into metalpoint, a portrait of Antonio Mancini’s (that one came out great, hangs in my dining room), an Edgar Payne classic high sierra’s view… and this week, an interesting project.  I spent the past few days with Stapleton Kearns, studying a seascape by Frederick Judd Waugh.  I made a timelapse of the whole process, see video below.

     

     

    This is my first attempt at making a video of any kind, so excuse the excessive jitteriness- but it does convey the frantic nature of trying to copy a picture this size, full of impastos and glazes in just three days.

     

    Since the video is a bit shaky, here are a few snapshots of the copy’s process along the way:

     

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    I’d love to put some more time into the copy and really ‘perfect’ it.  Though I have a lot done here, there is much to be gained by continuing to bring something ever closer to the subject.  Maybe I’ll get some time to do that later this year- in the meantime I can study my copy in the studio.

     

    Click here for a link to Realist Art Resource‘s page on copying pictures- a (still under development) trove of information on which institutions allow copying.

    Click here for my previous post on one of my painting students copying at the MFA Boston

  • Copying at the MFA

    The other day I went to critique one of my painting students, Nadine Geller, at the Museum of Fine Arts as she worked up her copy of Werner van den Valckert’s ‘Portrait of a Man with Ruff” (click here to be taken to a link on the MFA’s website).  She’s been doing a great job and  I thought I would share a few images of her at work here.

     

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    I’m a very big believer in copying pictures as part of the process of painting, in fact periodically I still do copies myself (I’ll be doing a master copy next month).  Copying was once an integral portion of a painter’s course of study, a window into the process of your heroes.

    Logistically, copying is difficult- it takes a lot to figure out permits, one has to develop a bit of a thick skin to the audience you attract (notice Nadine’s headphones to politely block out the passers-by) and in simple terms, copying is humbling.  Spending that much time with a picture, you see it in a different way.  One makes realizations that you can’t by simple observation.

    Incidentally, you can find copies that were made by the masters themselves.  One of my favourite still life painters, Fantin-Latour, cut his teeth in paris as a young man copying every day at the Louvre, and selling his copies- I’ve always thought that the copying informed the varied techniques of layering, impasto and glazing that he would utilize in his later works.

     

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  • Harvey Dunn and his Students at NRM

    This weekend I saw a show at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA that really knocked my socks off.  It was a pleasant surprise- I had never been to the NRM, and I know but a little about the ‘Golden Age’ of American Illustration.  I do like NC Wyeth’s pictures and have seen more than a few in the flesh, and have seen many reproductions of Howard Pyle’s work; but I’ve never really gone deep into the stuff: to be honest, strict ‘narrative’ pictures are not my cup of tea.

    Personally, I’ve always been more drawn into the pure aesthetic aspects of painting – what does it look like, how is it painted, how do the colors interrelate. But more than that, frankly I find it hard (in what must be a current ‘golden age’ of visual effects in cinema) to focus on narrative in painting – how can you compete with hollywood?  No one reads ‘story’ magazines that would necessitate illustrations, and the public has the attention span of gnat; images fly by them on Facebook and Instagram, consuming more visual information in an hour or two than people 40 years ago would have in a year.

    In spite of all that, painting is still here- the public again appreciates things that are hand-made, unique, artisanal, and artistic (insert any number of other hip buzzwords here).  I believe paintings that are ‘painterly’ have an important significance today- to celebrate with abandon the materials with which something is crafted: to make it clear that the image is not a photograph,  is in fact a painting, and is not even trying to play the ‘I can render as well as a photograph’ game.  People at times lose sight of the fact that we can keep painting as truth, without attempting to make it relate to the aesthetics of the advent of photography, or the high academic 19th century art that came in its wake.

     

    Because of all these thoughts swirling around in my head these days, I was so happy to find myself surrounded by Harvey Dunn’s work this weekend.  Yes, his work is ‘illustrative’ (a term used often in the pejorative by fine artists), but it is also flat-out brilliantly painted, and much of it bizarre experimentations.  I found his work unique, and thought I would share closeups of his work here.

     

     

    An introductory short film on Harvey Dunn by artist James Gurney, compiled from archive footage shot by Frank J. Reilly, a legendary artist and teacher in his own right.

     

    Here are a bunch of close-up details from the show in Stockbridge – all images are cropped, so while these won’t give the best idea of his compositions, you can definitely get a sense of Dunn’s breadth of technique.  I found his variety of styles, different applications, thicknesses of paint, unabashed bravura and utter fearlessness stunning.

     

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    And here are details from a few of my favorite works by one of Dunn’s highest regarded students, Dean Cornwell.

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    There is much more to see in the show than this, and the museum itself is pretty amazing- though Rockwell’s studio is not open for visits until spring.

    Masters of the Golden Age: Harvey Dunn and His Students runs until March 6, 2016

    Here is an amazon link to the best catalogue on Harvey Dunn- I picked it up this weekend, tons of good writing, very much worth it.

    And this is a link to Amazon’s only book on Dean Cornwell, ‘The Dean of American Illustrators’

     

    Click here to be taken to the exhibition’s page on the museum website

  • 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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    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.”

     

     

  • Thoughts, and a visit to an exhibition.

    I’ve written before about what I think is one of the larger issues affecting the current ‘traditional’, ‘representational’, ‘classical realist’ or whatever you want to call it movement: the utter accessibility of (often poor) reproductions of paintings.   I remember pre-internet, paintings had to be sought out and researched in person at museums; in books, large and small.  Reproductions weren’t better, they were most often worse, but there was an immediate understanding that you you had to see the painting in person to ‘get it’.  As everyone says now in this globalized world, it felt more regional than today- when I met an artist from another area I looked forward to discovering whatever obscure hometown heroes they might have, and how the historic painters had affected the current taste in painting and sculpture.  When visiting another artist’s studio the trip to their bookcase was often more educational than seeing their paintings.

    Today, taste has gone more global.  Through the influence of blogs and online magazines, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, books and print magazines about art – and (perhaps most notably) the advent of the ‘art convention’ we are beginning to arrive to a sort of global taste; modern masters, tastemakers of our day who set the standard of how swathes of students aspire to paint.  This in itself is not a bad thing- except the students often have no contact with them except seeing their work reproduced online, or perhaps if they are fortunate, a workshop which lasts a few days.  This is a marked difference from how people learned to paint and draw in the past.  Sculptors are lucky.  There is no argument that a sculpture can be adequately judged by a photograph.

    As concisely as I can muster, the issue in a few words is this: in my experience, the work that looks good in a photograph may often look weaker in person.  Work that does not necessarily speak to you in a reproduced image sometimes, just positively glows in the flesh.  Of course, there is no set ‘right or wrong’ taste, so in eliminating this crucial step in our appreciation of painting we can cheat ourselves out of finding the peculiarities of our own personal attractions in paint.  We look at more images in a day than someone 100 years ago saw in their lifetime, but we see most of them on iPads and cell phones.  A painting that looks ‘painterly’ online may only look like a block-in when seeing it in person.  And so on.

    Today, competitions are judged from low quality JPEGs.  Galleries solicit artists based on their online persona and perceived picture quality.  On social media, artists can amass thousands of fans in a matter of weeks.  The combined effect of this becomes a veritable marketing machine.   Thus, the marketing machine in turn validates the artists whose work presents well in photographs.

     

     

    Let me try to drive this point home with some images and close ups.  The other day I visited a show called ‘The Boston School Tradition’ now up at Vose Galleries on Newbury St. in Boston.  The show is full of paintings by artists I admire, many works new to me, fresh out of private collections onto the market.  These are some of my own ‘hometown heroes’.   When I was a little kid I had postcards by some of these painters on the wall in my bedroom.  This Paxton was on my wall for years.  It’s my favorite painting by him.  I am not including Paxton’s images in this post- to be frank, the paintings in the show look better online than they do in person, so that wouldn’t really illustrate my point.

     

     

     

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    Winged Figure 36×35″ Frederick Bosley

    The above by lesser known Bostonian Frederick Bosley, is a nice painting.  Nearly Abbott Thayer like in theme, Whistlerish in design and color arrangement, seen in person this painting is a master class in the context of the late 19th century-20th century boston academic impressionist continuum.  From the above image, however, I know many today may gripe at awkward drawing in the neck, arms and hands, the lack of focus on the face and simply put, they may swipe right past it on their iPhone screens.  Look at the below details, though (the above is a professional image, I took some closeups in the gallery):

     

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    This is a painting in which every passage of paint is meaningful.  There is no ‘use big brush here, small brush there’ trickery, no magic medium, only a bold, calligraphic use of unabashedly thick paint and color to describe very soft delicate forms.  As he explains his subject, it’s as if he’s written poetry, not an essay.  In my eyes, the greatest tool the painter has is the optical illusion of something that appears real slipping into an abstract arrangement of beautiful bits of color when observed up close .  But I’m fully aware, that may not be to everyone’s taste.

     

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    The Blue Kimono 25.25×30.25″ Frederick Bosley

    Here’s another Bosley. Professional image above from Vose’s website, couple of closeups below.

     

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    You can really see the influence of Tarbell and Benson in Bosley’s work.  He took over for them at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts after they left.  Here are a few of their paintings below.

     

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    My Daughter Josephine 48.5×36.5″ Ned Tarbell

     

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    Blue and Gold 26.25×26.25″ Frank W Benson

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    I marvel today at how well educated people are about painters; hard to imagine that everyone now is aware of who Antonio Mancini was, or that Isaac Levitan is becoming a household name in the plein air painting community.  Of course, these things come in waves: speaking with older painters, say Daniel Graves or Charles Cecil who were painting throughout the 70’s, they’ll talk about the rediscovery of Meissonier- or the fact that no one knew who Sorolla or Zorn were.  Paintings can live a lifetime in the stacks of museums before they become relevant again, brought back to the public.

    Technology has brought some amazing things to painting – a less obvious one, perhaps, is the adherence to universal vocabulary: few (if anyone) called a one-shot oil painting ‘alla prima’ many years ago, that was a term reserved for fresco technique.  Here in Boston, the older painters still today use the french term ‘au premier coup’- however no one used the french term ‘plein air’, it was just painting outside or landscape painting to them.  Now both ‘alla prima’ and ‘plein air’ are basically universally used.  I find these little developments to our syntax interesting, and they are very much the result of our immediate forms of global communication.

    One thing has not changed, however- painting still absolutely needs to seen in person to be experienced, and I’m afraid people are slowly forgetting this.  The discussion repeated ad nauseam in schools, painting studios and interviews is whether or not an artist uses photography in their work- rather than what the collective influence of high-resolution photography is doing to our appreciation of paintings.

    For me, visiting an exhibition of lesser-known paintings like this is hugely important- in order to find your own masters, you have to see the works up close…and you’ll make discoveries.  I had never heard of Bosley before this show.  Benson did few still lives but in my eyes, he was the best out of the Boston school group- far better than Elizabeth Paxton who is known as the still life artist in this group of painters.  But make your own decisions, you have to get out there to find your own hometown heroes.

     

    Below a few more images from the exhibition.

     

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    Portrait of Edith, the Artist’s Wife 24.24×20″ Joe DeCamp

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    Our Nanny  24.25×20″  Joe DeCamp

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    Schooners Sailing in Winter 20×30 Theodore Valenkamph

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    To see all images from the show click here.

    If you are interested, Vose Gallery has catalogues of the above exhibition for sale, they are $25.00.  To see it click here to be taken to a PDF of the entire catalogue.

     

  • The Giust Gallery (Caproni Collection)

    “The quality of a reproduction is of the greatest importance. In an original work of merit there is a subtleness of treatment- a certain feeling which, if captured in reproduction, places the finished piece within the realm of art itself.”

    – Pietro Caproni, 1911

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    Years ago, museums, schools and galleries were not filled exclusively with originals, they exhibited large collections of copied (referred to ‘cast’) sculptures.  These days, it’s not common to display reproductions alongside original works, but for anyone that’s seen the cast sculpture collection in the Victoria and Albert museum in London, you know what massive weight a collection like that can have.  Ancient Egyptian obelisks and columns right next to Michelangelo’s David and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.  Collections like that used to be more common, and there were sculpture houses dedicated to the careful reproduction of important works of art for pleasure and study.  Perfect copies of Ancient Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and 19th Century, all standing right there next to one another.

     

    For the first time, I recently went out to visit The Giust Gallery here in Woburn, Massachusetts- and brought a group of my students with me. It’s a special place, as inheritor of the Caproni Collection; one of best-documented, successful and well-known American reproduction houses, it’s one of the only remaining reproduced sculpture collections in America.  Here’s an excerpt on the history of the collection, from the book The Historic Shops and Restaurants of Boston by Phyllis Meras- I found it on google books, but looks like you can get a copy of the book for around 9-10 dollars.  It’s also got a section on Vose Galleries, which is the oldest gallery in the states, and like Giust, another family-run business.

     

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    The person that was handed down Lino Giust’s collection is Robert Shure; an artist that has done many public and private sculptures and monuments in the Boston area, and works with the conservation and restoration of many of Boston’s historic sculptures.  He was kind enough to spend time with us, explaining not only the unique history of his studio, but many of the current projects that he is working on.

     

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    Above, Shure is showing us one of the original Caproni Collection catalogues, from which plaster casts were once ordered.  Below, a placard outlining some of the lineage of his sculptural training, and the cast collection’s.  Before Giust, or Caproni, the collection was once called the Francis Chickey Company- an americanization of Francesco Cicchi, the tuscan artisan that started the company.

     

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    Being at their space felt awfully familiar after all the time I spent at the Florence Academy’s Drawing program.

     

     

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    Above, one of Shure’s assistants is showing is the molds they use- below, a couple of shots of their plaster curing room.

     

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    For anyone in New England, I would really recommend going out to visit and see what they do.  The allow students to come and draw, and keep aside some ‘seconds’ that they sell to students at discounted rates.

    The collection is huge, and you can order many more casts than these from Giust’s recently redesigned website.  There aren’t many places in the world today that you can buy a full-sized Nike of Samothrace (I’m saving my pennies).  That said, they are still rebuilding the collection after it had fallen into misuse and disrepair after Modernism had eclipsed the attention a collection like Caproni once received.  The work that Shure is doing at Giust and Skylight studios does not only preserve a bit of sculpture, it’s an important piece of shared cultural heritage.

     

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