Monday, January 9, 2012

"Lise" (oil on stretched linen; 20" x 16") sold


Stephen's demo grisaiiles

"Sarah" (grisaille)

"Wayne" (grisaille 1 with lights blocked in)

The second grisaille with lights blocked in

One-hour grisaille with lights blocked in

Stephen's paintings under two different lighting conditions

"Wayne" (the first color study)

The second color study

Stephen with his long-pose demo painting

"Lise" (at the end of the first day)

"Lise" (at the end of the second day)

Last week I took a five-day figure painting workshop with Stephen Early at the Art League School in Alexandria, VA.  What an amazing and exhausting experience it was!  Stephen teaches at Studio Incamminati in Philadelphia, PA and has trained with Nelson Shanks, who is one of the foremost portrait painters today.  It was with much nervousness that I signed up for this workshop.  As you know, I am not a figure painter, but a landscape artist.  If I paint in a figure in a landscape, it is usually small and only gesturally.  But I have set a goal to become a better painter, and a good painter is supposed to be able to paint anything.  Right?

What I learned after five days of intense looking and trying to paint a figure is this: I am glad that I am not a figure painter!  Painting figures is too hard.  I noticed a different attitude among the workshop students from my watercolor and oil landscape friends.  There were twelve of us (like twelve disciples of Christ; Stephen has a beard to do the part, too!).  One was a beginner; I, of course, was a stray person in the wrong place. 

My friends generally participate in lots of shows and endeavor to sell their artwork.  Several of the workshop students I talked to were shocked when I asked them where they show and sell their paintings.  They were like monks who were in training to go deeper and deeper in their spiritual quest, and no more.  Their modest demeanor, I believe, has much to do with the fact that it takes a prodigious amount of work to reach the level in figure painting to be able to exhibit and sell with confidence and public esteem.

Think about it.  Drawing a figure convincingly itself is difficult enough.  Even a complete stranger to art can tell if something is wrong with the posture or proportion of a figure.  Add to that difficulty the dangerous issue of color.  You are pretty much walking in a mine field.  Let's say that I am painting a flower garden on a sunny day in late spring.  The sky is some sort of blue; there is a variety of greens (a horror for landscape painters!); and, of course, the color explosions in the flowers.  In other words, there are many colors one has to deal with, but you can see them clearly unless you are color blind.

But with a nude figure, there isn't going to be a splash of strong colors.  They are there, but they are so subtle that one has to be trained to look really hard.  At first, I couldn't see greens in mid-tones.  Purples in the shadows?  What purple?  As I continued to look as I was forced by the teacher, who would make an excellent drill sergeant, I began to see more colors, not just obvious reflected colors in the shadows.  Wow!  My eyes hurt, along with my feet, at the end of the day (the workshop ran from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm with a 45-minute lunch break, unlike most workshops that last from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm with a one-hour break).  It was, however, definitely worth the trouble.

The workshop went like this.  On the first day, we did many gesture drawings with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue--one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, and twenty minutes--for hours until our arms ached.  Toward the end of the day, we were allowed to add lights (with cadmium scarlet, cadmium green pale, and titanium white) to the grisailles.  We did several of those.  Stephen's demos were short.

On the second day, we started right where we left off--the same exercises, without any demo by the teacher.  Why waste time with a demo?  In the afternoon, Stephen told us to forget all about careful drawing and do color studies, which turned out to be very similar to what I did in Rick Weaver's opaque watercolor workshop in December.  The purpose of these one-hour exercises was to learn to mix colors.  In the workshop, we had a warm, artificial lighting.  If we had had the natural, cool northern light, things would have been quite different, as you can see in the above photo of Stephen's two paintings done under different lighting conditions.  The teacher threw in some wild colors in draperies to make it "easy" for us to see.  Yes, we could see those colors; but mixing them right was not so easy!

For the last three days of the workshop, we worked on a long pose, with longer demos by Stephen in the mornings.  On the first day of the long pose, we did a careful drawing in grisaille, then blocked in the lights.  On the second day, we worked on the darks (I also painted in the background and floor).  I asked him whether this was how he worked.  His reply was no.  He doesn't operate that rigidly; but he thought that this methodical approach would simplify the matter for the workshop students. 

On the final day of the long pose and workshop, we went back to the lights to modify and adjust them.  Most students had gotten their midtones and darks too light, so there was much recalibrating of the values going on in the class.  Stephen went around, working on each student's work directly, which was a huge help, I must say.  He could have told us to do this and do that.  But the question is always "how"?  He would make color "notes" for us to see what he was talking about.  Stephen Early is a wonderful teacher--passionate, knowledgeable, gentle, funny, modest, sincere, etc.  I can go on.  I highly recommend him to anybody who is interested in learning to see and paint a figure.  As for me, I am happy to go back to painting landscapes!

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