I have a number of landscapes on show at the Friendly Society in Berlin to 17 September.
Every year in June, artists across south east England open their doors to the public. It is a great opportunity to meet, talk to and see them at work. From 9th to 25th of June as part of the South East Open Studios project, my studio will be open at weekends and on Mondays from 10am to 5pm. For more information please visit the website: www.seos.org.
A few weeks ago, a student of mine brought in her violin to paint as a still life. As the instrument was a splendid Degani, I joined her and painted it myself. I remember some artist telling me that in the early days of oil painting it was considered a mark of a master if an artist could paint a lute realistically (violins were yet to be invented). Well, the drawing of the violin was difficult enough and I needed quite a bit of adjusting and readjusting of the various parts (fingerboard, scroll, upper bout, lower bout, waist and tailpiece) in my painting to make the instrument look symmetrical and thus playable. To produce a believable effect of polished wood I used a number of reddish glazes to give a sheen to the main body of the violin. My student, who is a very talented violinist was satisfied with my rendering of her violin but I have yet to see if the painting would pass muster with a luthier.
“Go for the tout ensemble!” At art school, my teacher, Charles Cecil was keen to drum into his students certain aspects of our training and this phrase was often repeated like a mantra. He would exhort us in our painting and composition never to become the “past master of the piecemeal” and aim for the “tout ensemble” or the unity of effect. I have written about this concept a little in an earlier post but I think it is worth elaborating.
Unity of effect. It sounds esoteric but the idea is simple. Painting piecemeal is painting a picture that does not quite hang together but is more a gathering of vignettes. It is often tempting for the beginner to try to finish one part of a painting before going onto another e.g. on a portrait, the nose, and then the left eye and after that, the mouth. The painter ends up with a set of body parts that look fine on their own but together do not produce a credible likeness. Similarly, a still life of beautifully painted disparate items of various colours equally spaced apart will look awkward – it will be piecemeal and lack a unity of effect.
For unity of effect, the painter must stand back to get a full view of the picture and have a coherent idea of how it should look in its entirety. The artist should work the painting up as a whole so that it comes together, almost emerging from the canvas, gradually becoming clearer. If he sticks to a limited palette i.e. a handful of colours that too will help unify the image. Furthermore, he needs to keep his tonal passages together i.e. not have a dozen spots of darkness or lights dotted around the picture pulling the viewer’s eye in all directions.
Above and below are a few paintings which I feel have particularly strong unity of effect.
Gassed by Sargent above has unity particularly in colour (very limited palette) and tone.
The picture above by Seago has unity particularly in its composition – the boats seem to hang together and the artist lets us know very clearly what his painting is about.
In his portrait of the Wyndham Sisters above, Sargent at first painted the dress of the central (and prettiest) figure, Pamela, a light blue. He then painted it over in a tone and colour similar to the dresses worn by her sisters as he felt that the eye would be overly drawn to Pamela ‘s dress and the picture would thus lose its unifying theme. Some of the blue is just visible underneath. I believe the correction shows Sargent’s understanding of well balanced composition and the effect a picture should produce as a whole.
In the portrait above, Zorn has provided unity of effect in the tone (the light falls on Isabella Stewart Gardner almost exclusively) and in the brushwork (there is a sense of brisk movement conveyed in the handling of the dress and arms).
Some of you may have worked in film, photography or product design and some of you may have been architects or fashion designers: in these fields of work, just as in art, what a thing looks like matters. The concept of unity of effect is neither new nor limited to art: it is the Parthenon, a Kurosawa film shot, a Chanel suit or the VW beetle just as it is also Gassed by Sargent.
A few weeks ago, I went to an exhibition of French portrait drawings at the British Museum. Among them were a few drawings by François Clouet and Ingres whose works I admire for their accuracy and Ingres in particular for his elegance.
Before I went to art school, I would copy drawings by Michelangelo, Holbein, Ingres, Francesco Guardi, Canaletto and Edward Lear among others. I disliked the walls at home staring at me blankly and longed to cover them with drawings so I worked hard to produce very accurate copies. It was great practice as it allowed me to understand each artist, work out his methods and have a greater appreciation for materials. I also had a better grasp of an artist’s way with line, edges, tone, colour and handling. I made sure to produce a drawing close in size to the original as it gave me an exact appreciation of the draughtsmanship.
At art school we were not encouraged to copy old masters but to work from nature. This is correct as a copy is derivative. All the same, I found the exercise useful for the reasons I have given above and would recommend anyone trying to improve their skills to choose an inspiring artist and copy his work. Here are a few tips: try to copy from the original – a printed image is rarely a good substitute and a computer screen image is often a poor substitute – some museums will allow you to do this; if you can not copy from an original then get a high quality print – this works better for drawings than for paintings; plot a few reference points or grid out the drawing to avoid any tiresome mistakes which would be time-consuming to correct; take pride in your work and be as accurate as possible; use high quality materials.
I still have many of my copies on my walls. They remind me of the skill of these artists and how hard it was for me to emulate them. All valuable lessons.
A few weeks ago, I painted a nude. I do not paint or draw the figure much as pictures of nudes are difficult to sell and can be quite expensive to produce (you have to pay for a model and heat the studio enough to keep the model from turning blue with cold).
Most of us are naked only either when we bathe or go to bed, so to my mind a reasonable and natural composition is limited to these two situations. Below is the Rokeby Venus by Velazquez which I used to find an acceptable composition (mirror, divan and back view)
Velazquez here painted his Venus with very soft edges giving her a particularly feminine look.
In his Valpinçon Bather below, Ingres paints his model sitting on a divan having had a bath or perhaps about to have one. As with all of Ingres’ work I find his rendering of the flesh tones very fine and delicate. I tried to emulate this effect but feel I still have plenty of work to do to produce as subtle a finish as Ingres’.
Anyway, here is my work below. It took six days of painting and weeks of thought and preparation. Many thanks to my model who was very patient.
Above is a recent self portrait. There are pros and cons to painting self-portraits:
Pros: The model is always on time. He keeps still. He takes a break and comes back to work at your bidding. He wears the right clothes. He does not waste time. He is quite good company even if he does not say much. He works for free.
Cons: You can not measure him up with a paintbrush or plumb line (if you start to do so, he rather irritatingly measures you back). He has a tendency to look at you intensely and occasionally appear a little cross or slightly crazy. He will appear to be holding his paintbrush in the wrong hand, have his parting on the wrong side of the head and his mole on the wrong cheek. You have to position him carefully in the light.
Now the direction of the light in a self portrait is particularly tricky. Below is a self-portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds which demonstrates succinctly the problem of having the light straight-on when you are trying to paint your image in the mirror.
Here you have a young Rembrandt painting himself with the light behind him, thus avoiding the problem Reynolds had to face (pun intended). The effect is dramatic but we see precious little of the artist.
Below is Sargent placing the light to one side. This is sensible and means we can see at least half his face and he could also see what he was doing.
I decided to be sensible like Sargent.
There is one other downside to painting self portraits – they do not sell well unless the artist is young, beautiful and preferably female. I imagine my children will inherit mine.
When we have no model in the studio my students and I paint still lifes. I tell them to bring objects they find beautiful, inspiring or just have happy memories for them. I paint or draw alongside my students so that they can watch me and learn while they work on their own picture. Here are a few of my paintings of objects the students have brought in.
This conch came home from a trip to the West Indies but as it smelled really awful, my student had to leave it outside her home for several months to let the stench dissipate before it could be brought in to decorate the house. She now has the souvenir and a (very accomplished) painting of the souvenir.
These simply but strikingly arranged sedums and jug were brought in by a student who has an elegant eye for interior design. To capture this image we painted the sedums pretty quickly – most cut flowers tend to wilt or fluff up after just a few hours – hence the loose handling in the painting.
These organic pears lack the uniformity of colour, shape and size to conform to the ideals of most supermarkets but they looked more interesting with their little blemishes.
A tip when painting still life – stick to an odd number of items in the composition e.g. one apple, three apples, five pears. Even numbers do not work well.
The greatest influence on my work has come from Charles Cecil whose school in Florence I attended. Charles would often talk about his teacher back in Boston (R.H. Ives Gammell) and how the sightsize method we were using did not just go back just to Ives Gammell but had a longer genealogy: Ives Gammell was taught by William Paxton who was taught in the 1890s by Gérôme and Bonnat (who taught the likes of Sargent in Paris).
In late 19th century Paris it was the work of Velazquez that had a profound influence on these artists – some of them, like Sargent, actually went so far as to copy some of Velazquez’s masterpieces. That influence (limited palette, loose handling and the use of blacks and greys) over the years, and through all these teachers, forged the essentials of the methods and techniques that I learnt and use today in my portraits.
Below are a few paintings by these artists which I have placed in inverse chronological order to show how both the essence of Velazquez and the sightsize method, which is mostly detectable in the handling, has been passed on in a long chain of influence.
All the paintings above have in common what I call the Velazquez touch. The brushwork is loose (well, a lot more loose than the photorealism we see today) but skilled, the palette is limited to little more than five or six colours and all make use of blacks and greys.
The other common theme is the unity of image (what Charles, my teacher called the tout ensemble) which is also found in Velazquez’s paintings. This is when a painting works harmoniously as a whole. The effect is best achieved when there is quite a bit of space between the artist and the sitter, allowing the artist to see the subject as a whole and paint accordingly. When artists use the sight size method they are obliged to put plenty of distance between themselves and the sitter. Charles, who taught me the sightsize method, was so keen on getting me to stand back, he once pulled me out of the studio into the hall to about eighteen feet from my canvas and model to view the effect. It worked.