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.

Monday, February 3, 2014


Rublev's Triotsa
Many of you with an interest in sacred art probably already know about the Contemporary Icon show at the Art Center of the Capital Region. I was able to view it the other evening during Troy Night Out. Upstairs at the Art Center, you'll find the work of Christine Simoneau Hales and her students. Each image is meticulously rendered in luminous egg tempera and gold leaf.

Icons, while made with painting materials are very different from other forms of painting. In fact, nobody "paints" and icon: icons are written. Giotto is often credited with beginning western art's preoccupation with a painting as a window into the world, but the iconographers of the east were creating a window of another sort for five to six hundred years before Giotto. Rather than a window into the world, icons are a window into heaven. To borrow Heraclitu's phrase, an icon is a finger pointing at the moon. They are purposefully abstracted and stylized, so as not to distract from their meditative purpose. Even the means employed to painter them has been carefully developed over the centuries to harmonize with their liturgical use. Egg tempera is employed as the oil medium has been known to be too sensual.

If any readers would like to know more about the art of iconography--and create an icon yourself--Christine will be teaching a class on the subject at the art center. You'll learn to make your own paint, and do a little gilding with 23k leaf. The class will run from March 20th to May 29th. Details can be found via this link