Monday, August 4, 2014

Paint like a Spaniard

It's been a while, but I'm pleased to announce a new project... and a new blog. Thank you to all who have been reading as I worked on the paintings for the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. This fall I'll be painting like a Spaniard with the Musicians of Ma'alwyck. What does that mean?

You have to click the link below to find out...

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer Plans

Big Bun I

I've just finished varnishing Saint Kateri Tekakwitha in God's Creation, and will be reinstalling that in the church at Rosa Road when the varnish is dry. But what do I do now with no saints to paint? I have a few projects lined up for the near term. I'll be participating in an invitational show at the Albany Center Gallery in July. On July 26th I'll be leading a workshop at the annual Tekakwitha Conference titled Painting St. Kateri Tekakwitha: Iconography and History. The conference takes place in Fargo this year, and I'm excited to see some of the great plains. Besides these events I'll be doing what I love: painting, sketching, and planning my classes for the fall.

In September, Katria and I will begin work on a commission for Terra Nova Church on the theme of the Last Seven Words of Christ, and maybe another portrait or two. I may start a new blog, and will post the details here. Plans are tentative at this point.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


If you weren't there, you missed a great party last night. Thanks to Charles and Linda Becker, who helped do the honors. For those of you that missed it, above you'll see the completed painting, which will soon hang in the 1803 Union Street church of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish. Below is an excerpt from my speech at the unveiling.

"I’d like to thank Charles and Linda Becker and the other donors who made this painting possible. I'd also like to thank the parish community for their involvement in this project, through the support and collaboration of the Art Committee, but also through the emails and comments I’ve received on my blog.

A while back I told a friend I’d be working on this commission. He was happy for me, but he asked what the appeal of her was: what miracles did she perform? She died in her mid twenties and he wasn’t aware that she had done very much during her life. The first miraculous happening doesn’t occur until after her death on April 17th, 1680. This is the change in her appearance asserted by her biographers: Pierre Cholonec writes, “Her face, so marked and swarthy, suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death and became in a moment so beautiful and so radiant that I observed it immediately.” This is after she’s died. But other would miracles follow. Within years of her death the site of her burial had become an important pilgrimage site. All of this is indicative of her character: her humility, her absolute dependence on God. This is a challenge to us. After all, nothing is less American than dependence. We are brought up to be independent. But paradoxically, it is in our poverty that we find true riches, in giving that we receive, and in dying that we find true life.

The gospels are full of this inverted value system. Christ is continually challenging his disciples to see the truth in spite of appearances. It is in response to the topsy-turvy value system of the Kingdom of God that prompts the disciples, in the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Luke to say to the Lord, "Increase our faith." Jesus replies, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to (this) mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you’

You see, we naturally compete. I have this much, you have that much. What Jesus is saying is that regardless of how little we think we have, it is more than enough to do marvelous things. But we hear Christ’s instruction to store up treasure in heaven, his description of faith the size of a mustard seed, and we think, “So! It is quantifiable!” How tragic is it that we can even become materialistic about faith. But St. Kateri calls us to renunciation and humility. It doesn’t matter how many miracles you perform, bible verses you memorize, people you convert, how many loaves and fishes you multiply. Trust God, and God will accomplish it. 

St. Kateri lived humbly before God, embracing a life of prayer and meditation, and displaying the love of God for all around her. She Trusted that the greatness God had in store for her might not even occur within her lifetime. In this she is an example to us. 

So what could I say to my friend who didn't think she had enough miracles? The love of god permeated her life to such an extent that her form could not contain it. It spilled forth beyond the expiration of her body in healings, miraculous appearances, and the edification of indigenous Catholics to this day."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Unveiling | June 2nd, 7pm at 1803 Union Street

We have about a week to go until the painting, St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the Children will be unveiled at the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Parish.  The parish will host a reception at 1803 Union Street in Schenectady on June 2nd at 7:00pm.  The event is open to the public. It would be great to see you there.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Haudenosaunee Beadwork Part III

Last week, I posted an excerpt from Leigh Graham's capstone paper on Haudenosaunee art. What follows is a third piece of Leigh's research into the history and tradition of beadwork.

Haudenosaunee Beadwork, Part III
From, "Contemporary Social Issues Through Haudenosaunee Art" by Leigh Graham
Until the 18th century, beads were mainly used to ornament personal garments. In the 1790s, Haudenosaunee bead workers began sewing designs onto pincushions, mirrors, and other small objects to be traded to non-natives. In the 1850s Haudenosaunee bead workers developed an original style of raised bead working. The beads were sown in an overlapping pattern, until the pattern was raised about a quarter of an inch off of the fabric. Haudenosaunee beadwork remained a small business until the 1880 New York State Fair where raised beadwork was exhibited to the public. By the 1890s, the beadwork had become a common New York souvenir. By this point new colors of velvet had been introduced, and glass beads came in red, blue, green, yellow, and white. Calico was used as a backing and the interior was stuffed with sawdust and natural plant fibers.[1] 
Tourists from all over the world traveled to New York to purchase a piece of “authentic artwork, straight from the Indians.”[2] The designs varied from simple patterns to motifs of flowers and animals. These nature symbols appealed to the non-Native population at the tail end of the Romantic Period. Beadwork was the one of the only traditional art forms that survived the reservation system due to continuing commercial demand.. Bead workers have been considered to be the keepers of the keepers of the culture.[3] Some were viewed as craft workers, churning out bead work in a production line, while others used beadwork to create true art, each piece unique and carefully thought out by the artist in order to carry out a concept.

[1]  Dolores Elliot. Birds and Beasts in Beads: 150 Years of Iroquois Beadwork. (Hamilton: Colgate University Press, 2011), 10.
[2] Ibid, 17.
[3] Ibid, 15.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Haudenosaunee Beadwork Part II

Last week, I posted an excerpt from Leigh Graham's capstone paper on Haudenosaunee art. What follows is a second piece of Leigh's research into the history and tradition of beadwork.

Haudenosaunee Beadwork, Part II
From, "Contemporary Social Issues Through Haudenosaunee Art" by Leigh Graham
The tradition of beadwork of North Eastern Native Americans precedes the Haudenosaunee confederacy itself. The earliest beads found in the New York region are dated to be over ten thousand years old. Prior to European contact, the Haudenosaunee created beads using bone, stones, shells, clay, and other natural resources. Using string made from animal sinew, beads were carefully sewn into jewelry, onto traditional regalia, and into belts. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish began importing Venetian glass beads to trade with southern tribes, which were traded up the coast until they reached the Haudenosaunee. In the 1600s, French explorers introduced glass beads from France.[1]
These tiny glass beads were on average less than an eight of an inch in diameter. Rather than having to carve out each individual bead, flawless glass beads could be traded for by the strand. This convenience, and their bright coloring, led to their quick adoption by the Haudenosaunee. In the 19th century glass beads from Bohemian were introduced. These remain the primary type of bead in Haudenosaunee art to this day.[2]

[1] Gordon, Beverly. “Souvenirs of Niagara Falls: The Significance of Indian Whimsies.” New York State History 57, No. 4 (1976): P.389.
[2] Dolores Elliot. Birds and Beasts in Beads: 150 Years of Iroquois Beadwork. (Hamilton: Colgate University Press, 2011), 6.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Haudenosaunee Beadwork Part I

One of the unique aspects of Siena's Creative Arts major is its culminating capstone project.  Every spring our students complete a project incorporating elements from their entire course of study.  I've had students create bodies of artwork for exhibition in a gallery, create graphic novels, and even engage in some environmental activism through their art.  This past term I had the pleasure of working with Leigh Graham.  Leigh spent the term researching Haudenosaunee art.  The focus of her paper was the use of treaty language and imagery in contemporary Haudenosaunee art.  Of course, to understand the contemporary work, she spent a lot of time exploring the traditions and culture of the Haudenosaunee. 

I've invited Leigh to share some of her research on this blog. What follows is an excerpt adapted from her paper. Additional excerpts will be posted in the days ahead. Since St. Kateri Tekakwitha herself was a skilled beadworker this subject, I hope will be of interest.

Mohawk Style Beadwork

Haudenosaunee Beadwork, Part I
From, "Contemporary Social Issues Through Haudenosaunee Art" by Leigh Graham
Today there are three styles of raised beadwork being practiced by Haudenosaunee bead workers. The Niagara tradition was developed around Niagara Falls, and has been used primarily by the Seneca and the Tuscarora in that region. The Mohawk tribe developed the Mohawk style. These bead workers tended to travel with medicine shows and are currently primarily working in the Montreal area. Finally, the most widespread modern style is the Thomas-Hill style, developed in the 1960s by a mother and son team, Lorena Hill and Samuel Thomas.[1]
[1] Karen Ann Hoffman, interview via phonecall, March 11, 2014

Friday, May 9, 2014

Unveiling: June 2nd, 7pm at 1803 Union Street

Thanks for your patience while we have worked out a new schedule. Please join me and the community of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish as we unveil the painting Saint Kateri Tekakwitha and the Children on Monday, June 2nd at 7pm. The parish will host the reception at 1803 Union Street, Schenectady New York. 

My contract at Siena says that summer begins in June. I can't think of a better way to celebrate than by sharing this painting with all of you.

Monday, May 5, 2014

SUNY MFA Thesis Exhibition Reception May 9, 5-7pm

While a new date for the unveiling of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the Children has not yet been scheduled, the unveiling of the artwork of this year's MFA candidates at the University at Albany has been. My wife, Katria Foster, has work in this show, and will soon graduate with her MFA degree in Fine Art. The exhibition runs until May 18th. Please celebrate with us at the reception on Friday, May 9th, 5 - 7pm.

Museum hours, parking information, and details about the show can be found on the Museum's website

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Unveiling Postponed

Dear Friends,

I'm sorry to announce that an unexpected event has necessitated the postponement of the unveiling of the painting St. Kateri Tekakwitha and the Children. I will post the rescheduled date as soon as the Parish leadership and I are are able to work one out.



Monday, April 21, 2014

Framed and Ready to Go

Everything is set for the unveiling. I picked up the painting last week from the framers. It was raining, so we covered it in plastic, and for a good measure, wrapped it in a shower curtain. I'm looking forward to seeing you all there.

Thursday April 24th, 7pm
1803 Union Street
Schenectady, New York

Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday

Rubens' Deposition
A theme throughout lent is the paradoxical freedom that comes from renunciation. The life in death. It's a theme that runs throughout Christianity, and indeed all contemplative faiths. So for Good Friday, I'd like to dwell upon that, and better than my own words are those of T.S. Elliot in this fragment of "East Coker" from the Four Quartets:

The wounded surgeon plies the steal
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.


The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of what we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Head Demonstration

My friend Liam has his priorities straight in life. He's in preschool. When his mom asks him how his day was, his response hinges on whether or not he was able to paint. I was able to paint the other day. I did a brief demonstration for my advanced painting class. I worked on the painting above while talking about my process, and other important topics, like the Spanish origin of certain Irish surnames, medieval glazing, the best meal I've ever eaten.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Easter is just around the corner, and it's time to mark your calendars. We'll soon be unveiling the painting Saint Kateri Tekakwitha and the Children. The parish will be hosting a reception at 1803 Union Street on Thursday April 24th, 7pm. The reception for the first painting was great. Since Lent will be over, those of us who have given up things like snacks, cheese, wine, etc. will be able end their fasts in style.

For here's a teaser. Some of my favorite brushwork from the high resolution photograph by McGreevy's. In the image is an architectural detail in the background of the painting. It's always exciting to see an image that really captures something of the physical qualities of the painting. A great book came out about a decade ago when I was in college titled "Seeing Through Paintings," in which the authors lay out for all to see, the "secrets" of the masters. It was amazing. Entirely changed the way I thought about painting. Who would have guessed that Gilbert Stuart painted on his tablecloth, or that Da Vinci glazed with his thumbs?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Geometry and the Human Body

Invariably, when art teachers begin a unit of portrait drawing, or figure drawing, they say something to the effect that it no more difficult to draw a human being than it is to draw a jar of flowers. There's a great deal of symmetry and regularity about the forms. As a student I was always slightly dismayed by these statements. Have drawn and painted a bit more since then, something I've come to appreciate about the human body is it's geometry. Of course it's a very complex form, but the body has major planes, and some degree of regularity that is very useful to a painter. Previously I've mentioned Loomis' planar treatment of the head. It's very useful, when drawing or painting a clothed figure to visualize the core geometries, as this is often expressed in the fall of fabric. Details and nuances of form will obscure this form, but it's presence at the heart of a painted form yields dimension. I struggled to establish his body for a few hours, painting, scraping, and repainting, before I returned to the geometry. For example, as I painted the boy's leg and foot I thought of the leg as a triangular prism with a dominant side plane, and the foot as a wedge. His shoulders are a cube.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Head Painting Demo

On Monday, April 7th I'll be conducting a head painting demonstration and workshop at Siena College. You can join me in Foy Hall room 105 on the Siena College Campus. I'll paint a demonstration at 10:00 am. In the afternoon, from 12 - 3pm, I'll provide supplies for anyone who wants to make their own painting. I'll have paint and canvas, but you have to bring your own head to paint.

Monday, March 31, 2014

High Resolution Photography

Currently the painting is out being photographed. I told a friend I that after I finished the painting I'd be taking it down to McGreevy's. It was around St. Patrick's Day. He thought I was going to go out drinking with a large canvas is tow. McGreevy's is a local photography lab that has a camera capable of photographing large artwork for reproduction at full scale. That results in a pretty large file. A single uncompressed image of work on the scale of the two St. Kateri Tekakwitha Paintings might get as large as a gigabyte. What results is an image in which every brushstroke is visible, and which can be reproduced at a large scale. Above is a 6" x 6" section from the first painting.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Representing the Iroquois

© Howard Terpning
Back during the research phase of this project I was given a paper by Dr. Stephanie Pratt titled "Iroquois Portrayed: Images of The Haudenosaunee from Three Centuries." As the title indicates, the author surveys the visual portrayal of the Iroquois (in European/American media) beginning in the 1600s. The paper notes the development of how the Iroquois were "seen" by western Europeans through visual artifacts ranging from the fantastical and romantic illustrations in the Codex Canadensis and Historia Canadensis, to the more objective paintings of George Catlin. A documentation and fidelity to the indigenous cultures became more important, the images become very different. While today the culture of the United States is more sensitive and appreciative of cultural diversity than it used to be, we still have a long way to go.

I recall learning about the Native Americans in 4th grade; how they migrated over the land bridge in the Bering Sea; moved across the American continents; and built civilizations. Naively I think I assumed that all tribes were all quite similar, in respect to culture and physical appearance. I'm not sure if that is a defect of our public education system or a defect of my imagination. The point is that in this I was dead wrong, as I learned later in college when I took a seminar class in American Studies. We can't help our initial ignorance, but we can strive to be better educated.

The image above is a detail shot of a painting by Howard Terpning, an American artist who dedicated much of his later career to painting the plains tribes. In the piece Talking Robe is dressed in the clothing, and wears ornaments typical of these tribes. Although there are always individual variations, the structure of his face is typical of the plains tribes: sharp geometry; firm jaw and mouth, high cheek bones. The Cheyenne, Soiux, Crow and Blackfoot are tribes most familiar to Americans, as they are often depicted in cinema. Nicolai Fechin paints the Southwestern tribes in California, New Mexico, and southern tribes in Florida. In the painting, through the previous link, the individual reflects general characteristics of his tribe. Since we're more familiar with the plains tribes, Fechin's depictions might seem out of character.

Throughout this project I have come to appreciate the unique aspects of Mohawk appearance, dress, and culture. They are unique among the North American Tribes. They are unique even among the tribes of the Iroquois League. Granted, they also share many aspects of their society with their Oneida and Onondaga Iroquoian neighbors, and their Algonquin neighbors to the east. One often realises this about any culture looked at in depth. I've previously written about the Mohawk dress, but what about physical appearance? Much more typical of the Mohawk is this sculpture of a young Mohawk woman from a century and a half ago. Notice the rounded face and full features. These are characteristics that I have sought to capture in my paintings of St. Kateri, thereby reflecting her identity as Mohawk.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Painting Demonstration

Last week I did a quick painting demonstration for my beginning painting class. Further proof that I have a great job. I'm planning another demonstration during which I'll demonstrate painting a head. I'm still working out the details of who and how. It will be on campus at Siena, in my classroom. It will done with my advanced painting class in mind, but anyone with an interest in painting will be welcome to attend. Ordinarily a demo is not too hard to plan, but I'm hoping to have some materials on hand for general participation after my demonstration.

Monday, March 17, 2014

How to be an Artist Today

Mark Tansey, Action Painting II

Growing up with relatives in the art business, I never experienced the discouragement that many do when they express an interest to pursue a career in the arts. In fact, I think it was decided around the time I was in third grade that I would be an artist one day. After that it was just a matter of figuring out what that would look like.

The vagaries of the art world can seem intimidating to the outsider. Yet, the changes in the global and domestic economy means that many industries are looking more and more like the arts. What I mean is that it's rare to go to work for a company and stay there until retirement. It's getting rarer to have the protection of a union. Employees are encouraged to cultivate "transferable skills" that can make them an asset to any firm. Average tenure at an employer in 2008 was 4.1 years. More and more, Americans are required to map their own career trajectory. The career ladder of the 20th century has become more of a jungle gym today. Survival today requires creative thinking, communication skills, and strategic planning. But artists are used to these sorts of things, so as colleges change their curriculum to focus on divergent thinking and interdisciplinary collaboration (essential art-making skills) working as an artist becomes more attainable. The bottom line is hard work and creative thinking.

Essentially, being an artist today is being able to see things in new ways--and this is entirely learnable. Consider Beethoven. We know a lot about his creative process since the publication and translation of his notebooks. Beethoven was nuts about recording his ideas. He would keep them and refer back to them, reinterpret them and tinker with them. What's more is that many of his initial ideas were pretty lousy. In fact, scholars and commentators have puzzled over how he could do so much with such unpromising material. But he kept at it doggedly until he was able to shape them into something great. I think that's the key. Beethoven knew enough about himself and his abilities to know that his first ideas wouldn't be very good and would need some major work. Many think that if a person has talent, then music, art, football, or international finance should come easily and naturally. If that's true, then I would like to go on the record as saying Ludwig van Beethoven was untalented. To see a musical idea appear once, twice, three times, or more, makes it clear that Beethoven didn't have a knack for music. He had to work at it. I think that should give hope to anyone studying the arts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Drapery and Patern

I completed the young girl a few days ago. The final touches were the pattern that graces the border of her skirt. I've adapted the pattern from a doll to which I've previously referred. Now part of the collection of the National Maritime Museum, it was made in the early 19th century at Kahnawake. The connection to St. Kateri's own village makes it very valuable to this project.

Students of painting often have trouble with drapery, especially when it has any sort of pattern or embellishment. I think the difficulty comes from trying to tackle it all at once. An unfinished painting by an unknown Flemish Master at the Met is instructive. The Flemish Master doesn't bite off more than he can chew, and so paints it in stages, accomplishing the value first in the grisaille.  Second comes the color, and finally the pattern. When I paint I accomplish the color and value in one go. After that is dry, I create the pattern, although during this stage I make continued use of the base color. This is useful for promoting overall unity in the fabric.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Liturgy and Creativity

Witold Wojtkiewicz, Meditations Ash Wednesday 

Creative thinking isn't the ability to make a painting, sing a song, or write a play. It's the ability to find a solution to a problem in an unexpected place. The appreciation of beauty--regardless of the context--is an important component of creative thinking. We see it in nature, hear it in music, but there is also beauty in math and the well-turned phrase. I remember being very young and knowing God as a very beautiful thought. That beauty is expressed in our churches through the liturgy of worship.

With Ash Wednesday behind us, we've entered a new liturgical season. The solemnity and quietness of Lent makes Easter all the more exciting.  John Kebble's poem expresses the journey through the season:
...let us keep our fast within / Till Heaven and we are quite alone...
The liturgical calendar provides a rhythm to life and has served as rhythm to creativity as well. The cycle of the Stations of the Cross has as rich a visual history as it does liturgical. The Mysteries of the Rosary provide is another. One of the best example of this series can be seen in the Sint-Pauluskerk in Antwerp. It features Rubens' Flagellation and Van Dyk's Bearing the Cross, among many other paintings. The scale and drama of the work draw in the viewer and encourage a level participation that words often fail to invoke. In terms of dramatic beauty, it's hard to out-do Rubens. But there are two paintings by Velazquez, made in competition to two works by Rubens. But Rubens' flair for the dramatic is hammy in a single figure. The Spaniard's storytellers however, Aesop and Menippus are quietly and stately beautiful in the way a single figure should be. It's this contemplative beauty that Lent brings to the liturgical calendar.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Kahnawake Wampum Belt

Reproduction of the Kahnawake Wampum

In one of his best known books, the historian Ernst Gombrich wrote that "There really is no such thing as Art. There are only Artists." It is later generations that will decide the important works human craftsmanship. Moreover, judgements are subject to revision. Anyone familiar with the life and work of Johannes Vermeer or Rembrandt will no doubt be familiar with the vicissitudes of an artist's notoriety. So to speak of the Art of the Mohawk is difficult because the artwork they created was not intended to be conceived in the way a western European conceives of a Rodin, or a Picasso.

That is not to diminish the beauty they created. Their artwork was meant to be experienced intimately. Their creations gave color and joy to the life of the community. Consider the wampum belts made by the Haudenosaunee. These were not merely decorative. They formed an important part of clan, tribe, and league diplomacy. Early communications between the Mohawk and the Dutch describe a wampum belt that ties the two societies together.

In 1677, the Mohawks of Kahnawake were given a wampum belt by the Hurons of Lorette. The belt was given, according the the Jesuits, as an encouragement to the faith of the Mohawk community. Iconographically, it is important because it marries the symbolism of European Catholicism with Haudenosaunee tradition.

Friday, February 28, 2014

2013 Artists Mohawk Hudson Region Invitational Exhibition

© Scott Nelson Foster
Last fall I was the recipient of a juror's award in the 2013 Artists of the Mohawk Hudson Region exhibition at the Hyde Collection. Part of the award was the opportunity to participate in an exclusive three-person show at the Albany Center Gallery. The show will come down in a few days, but a review, written by Amy Griffin, was just published in the Times-Union. Follow the link to read the full article.

Monday, February 24, 2014


In grad school I acquired a large frame on the cheap with the intention of using it as a huge palette. I was pretty proud of it and showed it to my professor. With an affected Australian accent, he said, "that's not a palette--THIS, is a palette" as he showed me a photo of his own palette, roughly the size of a dining room table.

I don't know if all that paint mixing space is truly necessary, but it sure is nice to never be offended with the site of one mixture bumping up against others. In one of his many self-portraits, you can observe Rembrandt's palette: a wooden rectangle balanced upon the artist's forearm. It wasn't critical for it to be large, as one's colors were ground on a separate slab (often by students or assistants), and the variety of hues was limited. In the nineteenth larger and more curvaceous palettes came into vogue. 100 years later Kurt Wehlte wrote
Today's painter rejects all kinds of palettes. They are for him merely an unbearable reminder of passe styles. Instead he has adopted a small steel table on casters, squeezing his tube colors onto a glass plate, which serves as a top. A drawer beneath holds his supply of tubes. Artists today find that continually holding a palette during painting is merely tiresome. 
He's right. It's rare to see someone balancing a palette today. Even among plein air painters this is becoming rare. Painting from the ground up, in Robert Henri's phrase, I find I need freedom of movement to work and step back from the canvas. But I prefer a wooden table. Steel would just seem so industrial. You'll see a slide show my palette above, filling with color as I paint.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Color Temperature

What color is a white shirt? There are quite a lot of colors in a white hue actually. Consider what you know about light. I'm thinking of Newton's prism. In the 18th century Sir Isaac demonstrated that white light was composed of a wide spectrum of hues. The implication being that we see an apple as red because the skin of the apple absorbs light in all wavelengths but red. A black object absorbs much of the visible spectrum, but not all. A white object reflects a greater proportion of light, but not all light. In a white shirt it is possible to see yellows, blues, reds, greens, etc. Of course, few of these colors are very intense, and taken as a whole the are subsumed into the unity of the white garment.

This is a complex concept to get your mind around: that a white object is not white. But it is essential to representational painting. In fact, the concept has led to the creation of some of the best known paintings in the last few hundred years. From narrative paintings of Lawrence Alma Tadema, to Georgia O'Keefe's floral compositions the creative possibilities of the "white" composition have long inspired artists. The same could be said the the "black composition" or the "red."

What makes these paintings so engaging are temperature variations is color. Temperature is more of a metaphor. A more technical term would be chromatic variation. Think of a green. Think of a sea green and a lemongrass green. Both are still green. One would be impure toward yellow, the other toward blue. That contrast can be thought of a variations in temperature: warm = yellowish greens; cool = bluish greens. Returning to our white shirt, I've painted with with orange whites, blue whites, violet whites, and yellow whites.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


The most difficult thing about this painting has been the complexity of the clothing. In the mission village of Kahnawake, the Mohawk and Huron populace wore garments acquired through trade with the French. The blouses and shirts would have fit very loosely. Clothing my models in similar garments helps me to better capture the period look, but billowing fabric can easily obscure the shape of the figure. For it to make sense in a painting, the complex folding and twisting of the garment has to be simplified into something relatable. In the image above you can see how the painting is developing, and how I use the underdrawing and dead-coloring to highlight the key forms in the fabric.

That process of simplification is called abstraction. The term typically calls to mind cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso, or non-objective works by Hans Hofmann, but it encompasses a wide spectrum of work. Proponents of Abstract Expressionists Pollock and De Kooning argued that the antecedents of their work could be found in the work of Vermeer and Velazquez. That sort of historical continuity was very important in the middle of the 20th century, when art was seen as an "onwards and upward" process, but today it's less important to critics. It is, however, extremely relevant to painters. To be able to identify the key components of a complex form, and abstract them on the canvas is the skill that makes successful representational painting possible.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Brushstroke Part II

Writing around the same time that Chauchetière and Cholenec were penning their biographies of St. Kateri, a master painter in China, Zou Yigui was writing an instructional text titled The Little Mountain Painting Manual. An except from that text recently appeared in Dr. Martin J. Powers' essay "The Cultural Politics of the Brushstroke" in Volume XCV of The Art Bulletin. Zou Yigui writes
Westerners are good at geometry, therefore when it comes to shading and spatial depth, their painting is exact in every detail... Students can learn a few tricks from them, by way of catching people's attention. But they have no brushwork to speak of, and their skill is that of a craftsman. Consequently it cannot be classified as art.
It's quite paradigm shifting when you consider that he is speaking of the work of Raphael, Caravaggio, and Bellini. Michelangelo cannot be considered an artist because the Sistine Chapel ceiling has no brushwork to speak of.

It's hard to agree to the whole of Zou Yigui's arguement, but he certainly has a point. Brushwork can be one of the greatest parts of a painting, but it is only recently in western art, that this has been recognised. Perhaps not as recently as is related in Dr. Powers' article. The admiration for Titian's later work in the early British Royal Academy and the criticism of the "liney" quality of American work at the same time would seem to indicate at least a healthy respect for the gestural mark in British art at the time of Yigui's text. This notwithstanding, Dr. Powers' is right in that it is not until the early 20th century that brushwork is truly seen as the mark of the artist.

To close: aphorisms of the brushstroke by Robert Henri from The Art Spirit
Strokes that started bravely, but don't know where to go. Sometimes they bump into and spoil something else, or they may just wander about, fading into doubtfulness.
There are rich, fluid, abundant strokes 
There are strokes which laugh, and there are strokes which bind laughter. 
Strokes carry a message whether you will it or not. The stroke is just like the artist at the time he makes it. All the bigness of his spirit and all the littleness are in it. 
He paints like a man, going over the top of a hill, singing 

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Brushstroke Part I

I'm pretty happy with some of the brushwork in this area. The form is established pretty efficiently so that the subject retains a certain lightness of form. Too much brushwork gives the subject a heavy look. A.P. Laurie, the british paint chemist wrote of the need to ensure that one's colors can breathe.  I'm reminded of something that happened when I was in college. I had just done some painting and was feeling pretty good about it (my professor disabused me of this notion a few days later... but that's another story).

Anyway, I was talking about it with the college chaplain. I told him how exciting was one passage of painting. "It was like God bumped my elbow!" I said. An exciting sentiment surely, but not one unique to my experience. The idea occurs in writing about art pretty regularly. Salvador Dali says it in the last sentence of his instructional text, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship. The practice of all that is written herein, he says, amounts to little if the angels do not guide your brush. This sort of thinking, while it certainly captures the romance of art, and preserves the mystery that occurs in the artists studio, can be very discouraging. More tragically, it can lead to the idea that, art making should be easy to those that have "the gift" or "talent." Then, when difficulties occur--as they inevitably must--the artist despairs. Painting is hard work. I'm more exhausted after 8 hours of painting than 8 hours of manual labor.

Back to the conversation with the college Chaplain. "No," he said, "God did not bump your elbow." He told me that I was painting then as I was meant to paint. What I understand from his statement is that was that Eye, Brain, Hand, and Heart were all working in unison. I like to think that I experienced something of a reality that will become more tangible as I continue to paint. A reality that artists like Rembrandt or Sorolla lived in daily, in which paint and the brush are the natural tools for expression.