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  • More on Landscape Painting Process


    Peters Hill, 20×24″ oil on canvas

    The above painting (just a quick raking light snapshot image to show some of the technique I’ve been using) is 95% done. As I’ve been talking about process a bit on the blog over the last year, I thought I would continue that here.   This is a link to my previous post where I tried to deconstruct the design of one of my favourite Isaak Levitan paintings.  Unlike some of my other work, this is a painting that was done 30% outside, 70% in the studio.


    Here is the above landscape as I started it outside, nearing the end of two days of work- about three hours the first day and 2 hours on the second day.  I spent a long time on the drawing and scale of each of the trees, arranging the design of the picture into a pleasing set of rhythms.  I worked to get the painting as true to what I saw in nature, while being somewhat interpretive with the color (the second day was overcast, but I held on to the blue sky and shadow patterns from the first day)





    I knew at this point I wouldn’t be able to finish this picture outside.  The kids use my central hill as a sledding hill, and the snow was getting pockmarked with all their little footprints- and no more snow on the forecast, as it’s been really, really warm this winter.  What’s more, I wasn’t entirely pleased with the overall composition as I drew it outside.




    After letting the picture rest for a few days, just to let it dry and to give myself a fresh mental perspective I spent an hour or so drawing on top of it with charcoal and white chalk.  I moved trees around, added a cloud, changed the foreground mass, started to turn the trees on the left into birches, and came up with a more unified pattern of light and shade on the snow.




    Above was my first pass in oils on my newly studio-ized snowscape.  I’d filled in the center-left tree a bit, removed the one next to it, and adjusted a bunch of the big rhythms.  Most of the work took place getting me to this point– as you can see, the final image below is nearly identical in design.  I then spent many sessions arranging broken color, glazing, and applying short, stiff impastos.

    I will probably rework the painting a bit when I get the frame for it (I nearly always do), and will update the image at that point.



  • Snow Painting at Drumlin Farm

    I really look forward to painting the snow each year.




    Last weekend I ran my yearly snow painting course at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln- I almost always run it during the last week of January, a period during which New England typically has plenty of snow.  This year, the weather has been weird to say the least- yesterday was over 60 degrees, and currently there is up to 8 inches of snow coming down outside the studio window.   We have not had much snow yet to speak of this year, this is only the second small storm, so I am working on still life in the studio and taking my snow paintings very slow- trying to really make them count.

    I have been thinking a lot on process and am preparing another blog post on this topic: that when approaching nature, the obvious truth is that representing something exactly as it is in front of you, however ‘correct’ it may be, will at times make a boring painting.  You may find a view outside that composes perfectly from time to time but that’s the exception, not the rule: the truth is that typically some editing needs to happen to arrive at a strong design that pleases the eye.  Lately, I’ve started to edit more and more, to figure out what each individual picture needs to create a satisfying image, not just chase the tactile minutiae of the scene.


    Here’s a few shots from this weekend’s demo, with broad strokes of what we discussed- I painted much slower than usual, spending a lot of time working in monochrome, moving the drawing around and talking about why I made each choice:



    initial composition


    I approached this weekend’s class from a more advanced level- each of the students in my winter painting class had also done Stape’s marathon painting class back in November, and one of them had previously attended my landscape classes.   So, rather than talking about the basics I wanted to spend a lot of time discussing composition- since we didn’t have tons of snow to speak about the opalescent color shifts within it, I instead tried to paint simplified examples of both what would and would not work into my painting.  In the above image I am laying out the painting in a very simplified design, outlaying the big rhythms and proportions- notice on the left centre canvas I have started to place the very large horizontal barn that in nature competed with the barn in the center- potentially destroying my focal point, through the competing nature of its scale.



    Tree Line


    You can see in the above and below image I have scaled down the barn on the center left, sent it from foreground to middle ground/background, and reduced the pine tree line which meets the sky.  Both of these were moved to give proportional interest to the central barn- and especially the central tower.  Additionally, I painted examples of the road in incorrect perspective (so that it looked uphill) and moved the road’s design and fence around until it gave interesting lead in to the picture.


    sky brush


    So- now that we have plenty of fresh snow outside (it’s really coming down out there), I should be able to take this painting out again and finish it, as my intention is more of a winter view than autumn scene.  Below is the way the painting looked at the end of the workshop- still quite unresolved, with a lot of that cobalt violet underdrawing still coming through, but the scale of the barn and design of the sky are starting to work well.  There is still lots left to do in that foreground, though.  I’ll add it to this post whenever (and if) I finish it.




    *edit April 26th 2016* finally did finish this piece

    Drumlin Farm 22x28%22

    Drumlin Farm 22×28″

  • 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.





































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












    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.



    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.




    svanen-1000-1283 forlaga-svanen-1000-1283

    Some of Zorn’s etchings with the reference images



    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.



    zorn och 2 honszorn- po themsen 1883



    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.



    IMG_4008 IMG_4007



    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.



    4 R




    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

  • 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


    У омута

    ‘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)




    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:


    u-omuta-study copy


    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.



    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:


    isaak-levitan-by-the-dam-(study) 10.5x16.5 cm

    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



    u-omuta-study copy


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






    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.



    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.”



  • A couple of Paintings

    View from the Mill 28x36

    View from the Mill, 28×36″ 2013


    Often, I don’t get a chance to properly photograph paintings until they’re leaving the studio.  I have a toddler, and his schedule trumps mine- when I get to the studio I either have a backlog of painting or emailing to do, and photographing work often waits.  Here are two that I shipped off to their new homes this week.  The above winter scene was one of my favorite ‘New England’ views shortly after I had moved back to the states and was becoming increasingly interested in American Impressionism.  Though it may look rapidly painted, this is a very layered painting, easily worked 20-25 sessions on it.  My wife finally grabbed me and said it was done, and time to stop.  She was right, I still think of it as one of my favorites.



    Natalie Sketch 24x24

    Portrait Sketch of Natalie 24×24″ 2015

  • 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.





    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):







    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.



    The Blue Kimono 25.25×30.25″ Frederick Bosley

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





    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.



    My Daughter Josephine 48.5×36.5″ Ned Tarbell










    Blue and Gold 26.25×26.25″ Frank W Benson





    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.



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


    Our Nanny  24.25×20″  Joe DeCamp



    Schooners Sailing in Winter 20×30 Theodore Valenkamph





    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.


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