|Rob's first day demo, grisaille|
|Rob adding "finishing touches" to his demo of the Civil War private|
|Detail from "Wayne as a Civil War Private"|
Last weekend I took a workshop with Robert Liberace at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA. I signed up for the workshop--"The Painterly Sketch: Advanced Alla-Prima Portrait"--last September, because this popular teacher's workshops fill up fast. His regular classes on Fridays at the Art League School are so hard to get into that one has to camp outside of the school building on the first day of registration each term.
Alla prima, or "premier coup," is a way of painting that involves the direct application of color without an elaborate underpainting. Great painters such as Frans Hals and John Singer Sargent, or the contemporary master Richard Schmid, are often linked to this direct, daredevil approach to painting. The promise of learning to paint like Sargent, my hero, in three days was irresistible; I have been waiting for this workshop with eagerness for months. In particular, the workshop with Stephen Early in January was so exhausting and, I must say, tedious, that I was looking for a different approach more suitable to my temperament.
My head is still spinning with what I have seen and done for the past three days in Rob's workshop. This is how it went.
On Friday, Rob did a quick demo of a model dressed as a Civil War private. He started with a grisaille in burnt umber on a mid-gray toned canvas. It perhaps took about one sitting session of 20 minutes or so. With a relatively limited, modern palette of burnt umber, cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium scarlet, permanent rose, alizarin crimson, manganese violet, diozaxine violet, phthalocyanine blue, cobalt turquoise, viridian, phthalo green, and two whites (titanium and lead), he proceeded to "finish" the demo within an hour.
Get in and get out. That is the motto in alla prima painting. It is assumed that you are an advanced figure painter with a deep understanding of anatomy and a proficiency in color handling and drawing. Not a method appropriate to anybody else. Below is my first foolhardy attempt, which took about two hours. Yes, just that much amount of time is what I had and will have on each painting for the rest of the workshop. Rob's critique was kind, but blunt: dark shadows in the head were not dark enough with the result of a chalky-looking painting.
|"Steve as a Civil War Major" (18" x 14")|
|Rob's grisaille demo on the second day|
|Finished grisaille demo of a Revolutionary-era sailor (the "C" on the right is a cartoonish way of drawing a nose wing to be avoided at all costs)|
|My grisaille warm-up exercise on the second day|
There was a good reason for my wimpy shadows. Because I didn't have burnt umber on my palette (I acquired it for the last two days), I unsuccessfully tried to do a grisaille with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue. I pretty much skipped the crucial step of grisaille--painting executed entirely in monochrome or near- monochrome, usually in shades of gray. Apparently I wasn't the only negligent student. So Rob started Saturday's class with a grisaille demo and made us do a twenty-minute warm-up exercise in grisaille, which we wiped off at the end of the session.
I was concerned about the burnt umber underpainting turning the shadows too brown in the final painting. So, on the third day, I asked the teacher whether this bothered him. My question was met with his response that brown was not a bad color for shadows. He even added that, if he had had his own school, he would have made a burnt-umber grisaille mandatory! That is how strongly he felt about the grisaille. During the process, the painter becomes acquainted with the features of the model and lays down the solid foundation for the later stages of the painting.
|The second day color demo: "Steve as Revolutionary-era Sailor"|
|"Dominique in Turquoise Dress" (18" x 14")|
Now it was our turn to paint. I was, however, torn between the desire to watch Rob do a color demo of the model in a Revolutionary-era sailor's costume and the urge to get my own painting done. The former won out as always. I was there to observe a star in today's figure painting in action. Whether I came home with a masterpiece at the end of the day was neither possible nor important. As a result, I suffered much from a rushed feeling, which I wasn't supposed to, but couldn't help.
The practitioners of alla-prima painting work slowly and deliberately. Their brushstrokes may appear bravura, but they were not painted in a slapdash manner. Rob did not smear paints here and there just to cover canvas as quickly as possible. No, he painted methodically with knowledge and conviction. Unfortunately, I didn't because I lacked either.
|The third day color demo of a hand (the upside-down "U" on the left bottom is a way of drawing a curve to be avoided at all times; instead use a series of straight lines)|
|The third day demo of a more controlled alla-prima portrait, grisaille|
|Finished demo: "Dominique"|
On Sunday, the last day of the workshop, Rob did a hand demo in the morning and a more controlled alla-prima portrait demo in the afternoon. So I again had about two hours left for my own painting of "Southern Gentleman." I did get wiser, though. I brought a smaller (14 x 11" instead of 18 x 14"), better (double-oil-primed linen instead of cotton) surface to work on.
The wing of the model's nose turned out a wee bit too big. Rob recommended some surgery. The streaky hair was also problematic. Overall, however, Rob was impressed with my final effort; so was I. He liked the way I handled the forehead of the model and his costume. He said something about "sophisticated"! I was in heaven. I am hooked to alla-prima figure painting.