Painting Like the Old Masters
In October of last year I started taking painting lessons from a teacher here in the Netherlands who specializes in the techniques of the Old Masters. I think he's what you could call a 'national living treasure.'
This is part of a plan I have to 'go back to basics.' After many years of creating at my computer, I'm craving the physical, tactile, emotional 'whole-body-and-mind' experience of painting with 'real' paint again.
From the first 20 minutes, this class has been a revelation for me. At the time I started, I was working on 'Still Life with Shadows,' and I'd hit a road block with it. I now know that this was because I was working from collaged photographs and painting what I saw. This is what I was trained to do in art school 15-20 years ago.
The problem is, this results in a design that looks busy and mechanical. Each part of the composition is painted with equal attention to detail, and with equal shifts in color value and equal shifts from dark to light. Working on a screen, it's easy to zoom in and focus on each and every area of a piece with equal intensity.
What I'm learning in this class (and what helped me finally resolve my nearly year-long struggle with 'Still Life') is that the Old Masters made conscious choices about where to concentrate detail, color shifts and shifts from dark to light, resulting in a more dynamic composition and experience for the eye. They used color and contrast perspective to create an intensified experience of space and depth, while simultaneously calling out the areas of the painting that are of primary importance to its meaning. Color and contrast perspective means painting objects in the foreground with dramatic, detailed shifts in color and contrast while objects in the background are rendered with relatively limited shifts.
This is not how photography works of course. But it is how our eyes work. Whatever we focus on has an intense amount of contrast and a broad range of color, while objects beyond the periphery of our focus sort of blend together.
So Rembrandt and Vermeer used this understanding of the way we see to create paintings that seem realistic, but in actuality manipulate light and color to serve the composition and the artist's intention, to direct our gaze toward what is most important in the scene, and to create a heightened sense of depth and dimension within the frame. They painted light and color behaving in ways that are actually physically impossible, but at the same time appear completely natural and believable to the eye. Genius!
While this makes perfect intellectual sense to me, applying this knowledge has been more difficult than I'd hoped. It is, after all, a totally different approach to the one I've been applying since art school. Basically, as are 98% of art students, I was taught to paint what I see (often in photographs), which is by comparison an easy feat! This new technique requires me to think 'What do I want to spring forward? What do I want to recede?', and to dare to put down on paper/panel/canvas something that I don't actually see.
In short, it requires intention. And imagination. Which is what, in my opinion, makes painting (and maybe everything, for that matter) worthwhile.
This means that I've gone back to the beginning, in a way, but I'm pretty sure it will be worth it, long term.
Last Saturday I had class again, and spent the day on an underpainting for a study of an architectural element.
Perhaps you can see from this image juxtaposing the subject of my study and the study itself what I mean by manipulating contrast. I'm definitely not on a par with Vermeer or Rembrandt but I hope I'm fortunate enough to have a few more years to practice and get better. The point is that you might be able to see how instead of painting what I saw, I painted intensified contrast in the areas of the object that were closest to me, and subdued contrast in the areas that were farthest. When you see this on the panel, you see that it does in fact direct your eye and create a heightened sense of depth and dimensionality. My hope is that by learning to paint and think this way, I can create images that feel more human and emotional, as opposed to mechanical. And hopefully the effect will continue to develop in the coming weeks as I persist in building upon this underpainting.
In the next class, I also get to start a painting with the subject matter of my choice. For that exercise, we were asked to choose from a collection of photocopies that have been collected and saved in a binder of 'still lives.' You won't be surprised to hear that I chose a still life of flowers, one by Jan van Huysem (1682-1749). This is the tulip I'll be attempting to render in the next class.
Jan van Huysem and Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750) are considered to be the most accomplished floral still life painters of the Dutch Golden Age. I get totally inspired when I look at his portfolio of floral still life masterpieces! And now I can really appreciate on a deeper level what he's doing with color and contrast perspective to create a composition that is interesting, dynamic and that feels 3-dimensional.
Aside from these formal qualities and the amazing skill with which he paints, I fall every time for the movement, energy, messiness, vibrance, wildness, symbolism of the life cycle, and pure human emotion that I see depicted in these still lives. I find it ironic that they're even called still lives, when there is so much animal and plant activity going on in these scenes. It's like the flowers, as subjects, just refuse to sit still and behave! And I think that's exactly why van Huysem and Ruysch so loved painting them.
Anyway, this is what I'm looking at and thinking about these days. I'm close to finishing up a new piece, and I'm really happy with the way this new insight and understanding of the Old Master techniques is helping me to create a dramatic sense of 3-dimensionality, even if I am still (for the most part) creating at my computer ...
The long-term goal is to combine the advantages of traditional and digital media into something completely unique! Onward ...