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The breathing in the painting

November 18, 2014

‘…it is fairly easy to imitate his technique.’  Famous last words! (See previous post)

I’m in the completion stage of copying in oils, an Isaac Israels painting.

There are various ways to copy a painting. If you want to reproduce the subject perfectly, you can meticulously fake the paint strokes by using small brushes to get the desired effect. That is basically drawing.

But my intent was rather to learn how to paint the way Israels paints; to get inside the process and as spontaneously as possible, imitate his ‘handwriting’. Calligrapher,typographer Jovica Veljovic speaks of the ‘breathing in the writing’- the sense of rhythm, spirit, pressure etc, contained in the way the pen makes marks on the paper.

I used to do an exercise with my calligraphy and drawing students: sign your name quickly without thinking about it too much. Now, slowly copy that rhythmic, spontaneous form, trying to duplicate all the little twists, curves and changes of pressure of the original. You’ll see that your result looks awkward, it is almost impossible to capture the flowing unselfconscious feel of the original.

Trying to paint like the artist did is like finding the breathing in the painting. You are forced to be there, with him in his studio, at the moment he was confronted with this model, the lighting, the colours on his palette. And to understand how he was thinking, why he used the colours he did, what order were they put on, rubbed out, reapplied?

Working this way, you enter the search with him, because every painting is a journey of discovery with lots of wrong turns, and a lot of painting is simply correction. My husband saw a recent stage of my painting and said it looked to him ‘better’ than the original. By which he meant, perhaps, neater, less ‘splotchy’.  But that isn’t the point of the exercise at all! It is to try to get into a mode where I understand the artist’s ‘handwriting’, and though the aim isn’t to reproduce his signature, it is to ‘write’ in the same kind of rhythm.

To start, I prepared the canvas board with a layer of acrylic the same colour as untreated linen canvas because this shows through in places on the original painting.

I drew the figure freehand in charcoal, using a horizontal and vertical axis for reference (first having traced the magazine picture and added those same axes to the tracing).

First oil washes

First oil washes

The next one blocks in the colours.
blocking in color

A later stage develops this further, trying to keep the painterly strokes.Deepening colour

As I got deeper into the process of painting the face, I started to see what I had taken on. One way a painter works is by applying paint and then modifying it on the paint surface. So what I am trying to capture is often a brushstroke with either an adjoining colour on the edge of it, or one that picks up underlying colour. That’s why exact rendering with one brush and one colour at a time wouldn’t teach you anything about how the artist painted, nor would it give an alive result.

In the next images, you’ll see the limited palette I chose for this painting (details upon request); the brushes- in the end I had 12 different brushes going, with about 5 of them for just the flesh tones; and the skin tone part of the palette. This last one is important,- I found it easiest to mix a warm light, middle and dark skin tone, and a cool range of the same before I started painting. I almost never used them pure, but usually mixed a bit of cool and warm, or whatever I thought I needed at that moment. It helped come close to the streaky, painterly effect I liked so much in the original.

Here is a detail from the original photo of the painting,(I have to go see the original original sometime!)  It is hard to see here, but the dark strokes in and above the eye are mixed with the flesh tones surrounding it, and there is also blending and reflection of the daylight blue hitting the nose and the  burnt sienna defining the hollow area below the eyebrow. Also, when painting in the hair, you can see directly to the right of the eye, how the strands of hair also pick up some of that warm flesh tone on the cheekbone.

Close up of original

Close up of original

So here below is where I ended up a few days ago.

starting to look like something

starting to look like something

Even though the face is a bit blotchy, it captures the feel I wanted.

I worked on it more, and where I am now (below) may be closer in surface appearance to the original, but I feel it loses some of the spontaneity of the paint application.

201418nov_2425

Current version

 

Here are my two recent versions next to the original.

There are still a few things I want to work on, but this is more or less what I want to share of the process.

 

 

 

Sunday morning by Samuel Rosenberg  (source)

My parents were good friends with the respected American artist, Samuel Rosenberg and his wife Libby. When I was still a child, they asked him advice on how to encourage my love for drawing and he suggested that when I was old enough they should send me for lessons with Pittsburgh artist, Abe Weiner.

I’ve mentioned my dear teacher and mentor here in previous posts, but I’ve been wanting to write in depth about that relationship. Before I even had a blog, I’d written an essay on what those years meant to me, but it has been lost. So I will try to recreate that tribute to him here.

My father was a doctor and both my parents were anxious to move out of the little duplex in the crowded Jewish neighbourhood they had come to as immigrants from Ireland, into the more spacious suburbs. I’d grown up in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh from age 3-9, and was used to walking everywhere with my mom to do errands on Murray avenue or Forbes.

That intimate relationship with the city stopped when we moved to Churchill and everything was done by car. Our shopping focus shifted from the city to the malls and we became suburbanites. I only went into town via carpool to go to temple, and later to go to my lessons with Abe.

But those lessons were what reconnected me to my city in a way growing up in my affluent family never could.

Abe Weiner was a quiet, humble man. He must have been in his early 40s when I came to him as a 10 year old. I only every remember gentleness from him, and humour, and the most all encompassing belief in me as an artist with ability.

Every Saturday for 6 years, except for summer vacation, I went by bus from Temple to the Weiner’s home in Squirrel Hill. In the first years we drew in and around their home. Abe and Anne’s 3 children were often present in the house, sometimes sitting down to draw with us. Friends would drop by, and since Abe’s studio was on the ground floor between the living room and kitchen, we were always at the heart of whatever was happening in the house.

After a few lessons when my teacher got an idea of what my stage of development was, we started to venture farther afield. Pittsburgh’s rich cultural heritage opened for this child, as Abe took me and often Shari his eldest girl, to draw at Phipp’s conservatory or the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. First I drew Greek statues in charcoal and pencil, when I could handle values well we graduated to my first box of pastels. I remember opening it for the first time, and all the colours took my breath away.

Abe’s method of teaching art was……

continued in part 2   (scroll down)

Picture

Untitled, Abe Weiner,  acrylic and dry pigments
source

Abe Weiner’s method of teaching art was to present the student with a subject to draw which would be familiar enough to provide security at the beginning, but complex enough to challenge them to go beyond their current level of ability.

It was a classic way of teaching,- perspective, chiaroscuro, proportion, composition were all handled. And when we worked with colour, complements, colour wheel, colour theory all were addressed. But none of this was presented as theory. It all came up naturally during the course of drawing; when I’d hit on a problem I couldn’t solve, only then would a piece of information be offered which I could use right away to go to the next level.

The lessons went like this- I’d arrive and we’d gather some materials and in the later years,almost always go directly out in the car with one of more of his kids (Shari the eldest- just a bit younger than I, Jonathan, and Kim, the youngest) . We’d arrive at the museum (admission was free in those days), and seek out a subject to draw. I remember spending several consecutive lessons on one dinosaur skull. When I revisited the museum 30 years later, I went right to this particular skull out of dozens displayed, because I’d come to know it so intimately.

What did he do during the lessons? He’d talk, make jokes, he was totally present without ever interfering or steering too obviously. He might give a few pointers while I was doing the first sketch if I was going horribly wrong with the composition or had missed an important element. But he usually simply held the space unobtrusively and was there when I got myself into a pickle, to help with kind suggestions as to how to dig myself out. He guided quietly, he observed, he didn’t praise or cut down, he was with you during the process and his total trust in your own abilities was palpable. If I was pleased with the result, so was he. And he also knew how to navigate my increasingly stormy teenage moods when things went wrong.

I learned through doing, through being supported in a safe space where the ante was upped a little more every time I made a step in my own development. So that learning to draw with Abe and paint with pastels was a slow, gentle curve to increasing skill and confidence.

My family life in those teenage years was chaotic. My father was bi polar and had a personality disorder; he’d been institutionalised a few times, but no one outside the family ever knew about that.  And I only knew he’d been ‘ill’ and had to ‘go away’ for a few months. When he was home my mother and I were at the mercy of his manic moods and depressions and rages.  That is why for 6 years, my weekly 3 hours in Abe’s home and even-keeled presence helped me through that turbulent childhood, and is why I am probably less scarred by it all than I might have been had I not had that refuge.

And I learned to draw, really draw. And to see, which is the heart of being able to draw.

On the days when we stayed at their home, Abe would occasionally work on one of his paintings while I was drawing. Looking back I see how much effect seeing his art unfold colour by colour, had on my own artistic vision. That merits another post.

My dear friend and mentor died in 1993. Luckily, I’d had the gift of another series of lessons from him after I was married and gone to live in Holland. I came back to Pittsburgh for several months and revisited his home with lovely Anne still there as well, and I learned to paint.

This man was a key person in my life, he not only grew me as an artist and influenced my vision and work, but his generosity and his family’s provided a haven for a sensitive child surrounded by the emotional turmoil of her own dysfunctional home.

And together we went and drew the still mills from the Hill. We went dahntahn and drew skyscrapers, we went to East Liberty, to Schenley park and drew the cherry trees in blossom, we lost ourselves in the tropical green houses of Phipp’s conservatory, we drew  animals at Frick Natural History museum. Through Abe’s eyes, I learned Pittsburgh in a way my parents never saw it,from their dinners at the Park Schenley or Concordia club, or dos at Montefiore where my father practiced.

It is Abe’s and my Pittsburgh I carry in my heart, and in my art.

Creative drawing classes

November 17, 2013

These were made by one of my course participants after our pen & ink sessions. They are particularly heartening because she had a hard time getting a handle on the medium most of the session. Then right in the last 5 minutes she totally  ‘got’it. The next week she came in with these sketches from a recent outing. Aren’t they lovely.

The last session this season, we combined collage and oil pastel to create a drawing from our imagination. We leafed through magazines for pictures which suggested a story, cut those out, then pasted them on white paper and worked into them with oil pastels. The results were free and colourful.

Silver teapot   pen, brush and ink

Silver teapot         pen, brush and ink

It seems like some of my best drawings happen during demonstrations for my ‘Creative Drawing’ class. We worked on reflections recently. I wanted them to get a feel for ink line combined with wash tones; and silver shiny objects seemed to lend themselves to this. It was a complex assignment, but they did really well. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures of their work this time.

The next week, to continue with the technique and work on perspective as well, we worked from old IKEA catalogues. They chose an interior or part of one, to draw, then work with in pen and ink and wash.

Cozy chair    pen, brush and ink

Cozy chair         pen, brush and ink

This chair was a nice challenge, and since in the first lesson I emphasised loose, rather non-chalant application of strokes and wash, I wanted to demonstrate with the chair that pen and ink wash work can get detailed and precise if wished.  The teapot was done quite quickly and directly. The chair was built up out of light, then subsequently darker layers of wash which were left to dry between layers. It took the better part of an hour.

If you keep a sketch book or are interested in trying these for yourself, they are nice exercises. In this first demo below, I let the wash bleed as I added subsequent layers.

Camping cup     pen, ink and wash

Camping cup        pen, ink and wash

You might find that the tendency with this technique is to blend too much or begin ‘scrubbing’ the paper. Try to avoid this and work staccato, leaving out too much detail and applying cleanly separated areas of grey. Where there is a subtle gradation from light to dark, you could add some wash while the first layer is wet. But for the velvety sharp darks which define the silvery surface, it is better to let previous layers dry before adding the darkest tones.

Have an extra clean damp brush at hand to soak up unwanted sharp edges if necessary.
I used India ink, but Pelikan fount india is also nice, and normal fountain pen ink can give some unexpected effects by breaking up into blue or green tints when water is added.

I briefly worked into the bottom cup drawing with coloured pencil. This technique forms a great base for multi-media work.

During my stay in Pittsburgh, I was privileged to work with 6-12 year olds in conjunction with Braddock’s Carnegie Library activities program. This story is about D (photos of the children and using their real names are not allowed without parental permission).

Rachel, the children’s librarian, introduced this little girl to me – saying she was very creative.

D was a gorgeous child, very shy, and avoided eye contact. There was one other little girl participating, so to start with, we made a magic book. Then I suggested we fill it in- the theme was, ‘My favorite…’ and they could choose whatever topic they wanted. The other little girl, B, was sitting  with her mother, and chose,’My favorite person”, a book dedicated to her mom.

D looked away, deep in thought. I was sitting right next to her and felt it best not to interfere or prompt, I had thrown out a few suggestions at the beginning, and evidently one of these eventually did take. She wrote carefully on the front:

Dsbook1

Then she worked drawing a tiny hand in the middle of the next spread- and I asked her what that was. It was a hand, and she clarified just what type of hand it was by writing this:

Dsbookhand

Since she didn’t offer any other explanations, I said, great, might there also be a home sweet home leg? At this one tiny corner of her mouth twitched a fraction up.  And the ‘Home sweet home ear’ soon followed,  bringing with it a delightful suggestion of a grin.

Dsbook2

She continued further, absorbed on her  own, except for me asking if she wanted a pop- up house. That was affirmative. I also asked her where this house was- in a forest, by the sea, in the clouds?  ‘In the clouds’.

Dsbook3

Here is the rest,

Dsbook4

and finally the topper, the revealing of this wonderful personality just underneath the shy exterior.

Dsbook5

Wow, would I have liked to stay and do more art with her to see what else she had to say!!

collage 1

collage 1

We did a collage session in my drawing class this week and I worked along with my students. I use collage a lot in my work generally, and I was pleased with this result, it opened up some new ground.

I used photos of paintings only (no landscape photos), from a cultural events page in a magazine. I started with the large painting of the nude and cut various shapes out of it to suggest a landscape. The ‘sky ‘is also made up of paintings of nudes.

The ‘discoveries’ for me were the houses and churches silhouetted in the background- they were simply fantasized and cut out of the dark foreground of another painting. Also, the two houses and the paths in the foreground are from other paintings.