Friday, August 30, 2013

The Laying-In

The second half of my undergraduate education was spent studying with Jonathan Puls. I was at a small school, so he was the only show in town. He taught drawing, life drawing, painting, art history, and figure painting. Somehow he found time to paint as well. Among the many aspects of painting he taught me was that the painting only begins when the entire surface is covered. A painting is a lot to navigate, and it is important not to lose sight of the composition as a whole. So earlier this week, I pulled out my largest brushes and put as much color onto the canvas as I could. The paint is thin, so as to be ready to receive additional layers. The color is intense, to lend luminosity throughout the process. The bold colors are always exciting. As I began to paint I could feel myself jump a little, especially with the bright yellow. It's good for a person to be able to use such opulent and life-affirming paint.

Back to the painting. The laying-in, or dead-colouring, as Sir Joshua Reynolds termed it, is a very important stage of the painting. The idea is to say something about every area, from the darkest darks to the lightest lights. I need to know where the light will fall, where the shadows will lurk, and how the temperature will change through the composition. I've painted a number of smaller studies, so there aren't any real surprises for me here, although as I look at it completed, I've noticed a few adjustments in the body language I'd like to correct. You can see a bit of this in the photograph. She sees to be shrinking away due to the concave line of her form.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


"Grisaille" is a fancy word for an underdrawing in monochrome. It is derived from the French "gris" and means "grey." It traditionally describes first step of the practice of the medieval and flemish masters, which involved creating an elaborate underdrawing, in a monochromatic higher key, which was then overpainted with glazes and scumbles of greater chroma and intensity. This unfinished painting of Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Peter Bruegel the Elder is an example of the technique. As is often the case, necessity was the mother of this invention. The lack of intense opaque pigments meant that artists desirous of bright coloring, must take advantage of the optical properties of transparent pigments to achieve their goal.

As artistic practice evolved and more opaque colors were introduced this function of the grisaille changed as well. Baroque painters like Velazquez and Titian employed orange and red ground for the purpose of modeling flesh by varying the opacity of their lights and darks. The effect of the red ground is masterfully employed in Velazquez's Vulcan's Forge, where many of the warm notes in the flesh are nothing more than the ground showing through his brushwork. His contemporaries would see his work and exclaim: "It is made of nothing... but there it is!"

My use of a grisaille will be similar to this last example. Most of the painting will be opaque, but especially in the flesh, this underlying warmth will give the painting more vigor. I use raw umber to draw out the composition, and to model the values in the shadows. As cool color, the umber allows me to develop the temperature relationships in the flesh and establish the greys, greens, and blues that often show up in shadows on the human form.

Friday, August 23, 2013


I get to play with a lot of fun toys. It is a matter of personal pride and good craftsmanship that artists have often sought to make beautiful paintings with beautiful materials. The finest, and most expensive materials have traditionally been reserved for the most important subjects. The blue of the Madonna's robe is one such example. Few artists today use gold leaf and genuine lapis-- $170 for 5 grams.  

I know I probably get more excited about these sorts of things than most. Consider that I wrote three posts about preparing a surface upon which to paint. For those who are interested, a word about what I'm using to make the painting.

Some artists are very mysterious about their materials, as if a neophyte bought a jar of the right stuff she might but the master out of business. It's ridiculous that the any substance, like a philosopher's stone, could transform a mediocre painting into something great. I suppose that the difficulty of painting, its slow learning curve, and the transubstantial beauty of the great works of art do provoke such speculation.

I use very little besides oil paint and mineral spirits. When painting into wet paint I like to use Gamblin's Neo Megilp. Sometimes I make my own medium with stand oil and mineral spirits. There's nothing special about my mediums. Grumbacher, Winsor & Newton, and probably every other company makes something similar. I like Gamblin because they make high quality products which are as non-toxic and environmentally friendly as possible. Rather than send the pigment dust from their air filters to a landfill, they make paint from it, and hold a competition. Come by my classroom on September 27th to participate. Materials provided.

I use Williamsburg paint. It's made in the US. It used to be made by hand by Carl Plansky. Now they're a Golden brand, but are still made in small batches according to Carl's recipes. It's the best paint. The Cadillac of paint. I don't tolerate differences of opinion on this subject. I will concede that Old Holland and a few others might be as good. Winsor and Newton I have a soft spot for, as a watercolorist. But I've used a lot of paint, and nothing compares to Williamsburg Cadmiums. Their Cerulean is like the singing of the angels. Of their Viridian, Guignet would be proud. Even their Yellow Ochre is spectacular. To use other paints after using these is depressing. Concern for my students finances compels me to include a less expensive paint in their supply kits, but do try to make a good case for buying the best.

Regarding brushes, the bigger the better, says Da Vinci. The best brushes are made in Germany, of the hair of the finest Chongqing hogs. Don't worry: they're being slaughtered for their pork. So painters need not worry that animals are being harmed. It's good to make use of the whole animal. The Czech Republic used to raise some pretty good hogs, but no more. With brushes, brands don't matter. If a company is buying high quality materials, they're not going to spoil them with shoddy craftsmanship. If it says Chongqing bristle, you're getting the good stuff. I also like sable brushes and lettering brushes for more delicate work. Dick Blick makes a scholastic "one stroke" and Utrecht a Sablette, both of which I use a lot. They're so cheap you can just throw them out rather than clean them if you like. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Head Studies

Sargent is reputed to have said that "a portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth." I used to think that he meant that is it hard to paint a face. After having painted a head or two I understand that there is something about a face that is unique, but that there is a lot more that we all share in common. If a painter captures the former, without the later, the viewer thinks the face looks wrong, regardless how successful a likeness has been created. Think about it: have you ever had a photograph taken of yourself and thought "I don't really look like that, do I?" The truth is that you don't and that a photograph isn't you, simply because an image frozen in time has little relationship with a dynamic reality. It is the portrait painters job to understand the anatomical, emotional, muscular, and chromatic components that constitute a person's visage, to orchestrate the unity of those elements, and to communicate that unity through paint.

In order to begin making a portrait it is essential to understand the human form, especially it's more complicated components, such as the head. It's very common for painters to make multiple studies of the subject's head either from life or from photographs. Returning to Sargent, a great many studies for his audacious portrait of Virginie Gautreau (Madam X) are visible in Volume VI of his Complete Paintings. Many of the studies are most understandable a rehearsals of the brushwork.

Below you'll see in process photographs of the second study I've painted of Lauren's head. Compared to the first I'm getting a much better understanding of the architecture of her form. The modulation of warm and cool tones I'm starting to explore in greater depth. I painting pretty fast, and working on these as I finalize my preparations for the real painting. I'm happy with the color and modeling in this sketch.

In-process photographs are visible below

Thursday, August 15, 2013


Modeling is kind of like acting I think. It requires an awareness of ones body and a kinetic memory. It's great to work with someone who who understands this. If I try too hard to cajole and prod a person into the right pose the results are rarely any good. Those wooden artist manikins come to mind. Everyone has them, but does anyone use them?

I've been fortunate to have found a great model for this project. Lauren has agreed to work with me over the next 6 - 9 months on an ad hoc basis for the portraits. So.. without further ado, I'd like you all to meet Lauren:

© Katria Foster Photography
Lauren is a native New Yorker and resides on Long Island with her parents. She has just returned from a semester abroad in New Zealand, where she spent time exploring Australia and Fiji. She is very excited to begin her senior year at Siena College, where she is studying Business Management. She plans on working in the Entertainment and Event Planning Industry when she graduates. Lauren has been a member of the Siena Dance Team for the past three years and was elected Vice President of Finance of her dorm during her junior year.  She is an accomplished pianist, an avid reader, and enjoys riding her motorcycle. She also enjoys health and wellness, the beach, cooking, and spending time with her family. Lauren is of Italian and Cherokee descent. She is honored to be a part of this project and to be a part of the visual representation of St. Kateri


Monday, August 12, 2013

The Canvas Part III

I'm entering the home stretch... by that I mean that I'll soon be able to paint on the canvas I've been assembling over the past month. The last step in the process is the application of the imprimatura. That's a fancy way of saying that I'm tinting the white ground with another color. This is the fastest drying component of the priming process, and probably the most fun. I get to smear and scrape paint over canvas. It helps to be aggressive and grind the paint into canvas. This allows for a very thin and fully bound paint film. Over dilution with solvent (OMS) or an oil medium will lead to a cracking, or "alligatoring" paint film. It goes on pretty glossy, but will dry flat. 

The purpose of the imprimatura is mainly to obscure the white (making it easier to gauge color mixtures) and to provide unity to the composition where it breaks through.

On another subject, you can see a bit of a head study I've painted of Lauren in the photograph above. I'll post pictures of a completed study at a later date. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 9, 2013


Color is one of the more exciting aspects of painting. But in treating a historical subject, it can prove troubling. It is difficult to dial back the clock to apprehend what was meant by what people have meant by terms such as "red" or "blue." It is the apparent simplicity of of such terms makes such an inquiry so surprising. For example, consider that, despite poetic and beautiful descriptions of the sea and sky, there is not a single word for the color "blue" in Homer's Odyssey. An interesting program on the history, perception, and development of color was produced by Radio Lab in 2012. Listen to it here.

Phillip Otto Runge's Color Sphere (Farbenkugel):

For this painting, I have consider the coloring agents that would have been employed by the late 17th century Mohawk and their european trading partners as I plan how to paint St. Kateri's clothing. What the primary sources identify as reds, yellows and blues, would not necessarily look the same as the colors we are familiar with today. Before the advent of aniline dyes in the 19th century, only pigments and dyes of mineral or vegetable origin were available. The natural blues extracted from the Dyers Woad plant were different from the synthetic indigos developed in germany by Baeyer and BASF in the late 19th century. These in turn are very different from the mineral based ultramarines and cobalts known in Europe, and the Phthalocyanine based blues of the modern era. The Jesuits, writing in their Chronicle spoke often of the brilliant hues employed in the native dress. However, their understanding of brilliant color was conditioned by the colors they knew from Europe. Contrast the 17th century colors and Modern colors.

For the tribes of the Northeast, Iron oxide and carbon black were the most important colorants, used in rituals and tree paintings (see Neil B. Keatings chapter on this in Iroquois Art, Power, and History). Fabric dyes came from a number of naturally occurring plants, such as the Sunflower. While relatively brilliant initially, many of these dyes were fugitive, and faded when exposed to water or light. Practically, for making this painting, I need to remember that the reds and yellows of their fabric would have had more in common with the natural iron oxides and plant dyes than modern synthetic colors.

Monday, August 5, 2013


Last Friday was the first shoot for the portrait. My wife Katria (Visit her website here) is a very skilled photographer, and often assists Mark McCatry on advertising shoots. I was very blessed to be able to rely upon her expertise in this area. I had planned to do most of the work in the studio, but I wanted some idea of the effect that the light and landscape would have on the face and clothing, so Katria and I spent some time over the past few weeks scouting possible locations.

My model, Lauren, drove up to Albany to spend a few hours in the studio and in the landscape, so I could gather some visual reference material for the paintings. Everything went well, and we couldn't have had better weather. The bugs were worse than we expected, but they didn't bother Lauren much at all. Clearly the Mohawk dressed the way the did for practical as well as aesthetic reasons. I had planned to do a lot of the painting from photographs taken in my studio, but things worked out so well in the woods, that I've decided to use this material instead.

In a few days I'll create a post introducing Lauren, my model.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Canvas Part II

The glue sizing is dry, so I've started priming the canvas. The primer is lean, and made of very little oil, a lot of pigment, and alkyd resin to speed the drying. Today Titanium white is the most common primer pigment. It's durable, lightfast, and brilliant--reflecting up to 98% of visible light. But Titanium white was only made available to artists in the 20th century. Zinc white enjoyed a brief spot in the limelight in the late 19th century. Zinc is very brittle. Before that Lead Carbonate was used. But unlike the hide glues that are rarely used today, Lead White (or its variants: Flake White, Blanc D'argent, and Cremnitz White) still enjoys wide usage. The reason has to do with its drying properties. Lead is a progressive drier, and a catalyst to the oxidation reaction that causes the "drying" of the paint film. Unlike other colors, lead white dries internally as well as externally. While this is desirable in the paint film, it's actually pretty bad in the priming layers. Because the lead white undergoes a rapid expansion and contraction (caused by the acquisition of oxygen molecules, and the heat generated by chemical bonding) it's best not to paint on a lead primed canvas for at least 6 months. Fortunately, this is something I don't have to worry about with more modern Titanium white and alkyd resin primers.

When priming, it's better to do multiple coats rather than a single thick coat. This leaves the canvas more flexible, and ensures that the pa inting will dry more uniformly. The primer is very sticky, but I've gotten pretty good at keeping it off of my hands and clothes. Each coat of primer has to be scraped on with a knife. It's a slow process. The first coat takes a couple hours to apply and at least a week to dry, but after that things speed up. The whole process is pretty hard on my palette knives. In fact I've broken a few from the pressure. But a while ago I switched to a Holbein knife--the Cadillac of palette knives. They're expensive, but they're hand forged, allegedly by a samurai sword smith. I've found the primer coats applied with this knife to be more even--and I've never broken a knife.

While I'm getting the large canvas ready, I've also built a number of smaller canvases for sketches and studies. Next week, when everything is dry, I'll paint a small head study of my model.