Monday Morning Art School: brushwork

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. It’s personal, but it’s also something you can learn.

Dining Room in the Country, 1913, Pierre Bonnard, courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art. Bonnard used small brush strokes, intense colors, and close values.

Brushwork is, on one hand, the most personal of painting subjects. It’s also (especially in watercolor) highly technical. Much of what is called ‘style’ comes down to what brushes we choose and what marks we make with them. I wrote about that here.

Modern viewers are immediately captivated by bravura brushwork; it’s a sign of self-confidence and competence. It comes from lots of practice. It also must rest on a firm foundation of proper color mixing and drafting. Flailing around to fix something negates the freshness and decisiveness of good brushwork.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The motion in the painting is created by his brush strokes.

The best, most immediate, brushwork lies on a foundation of careful planning. Continuous modification, glazing, changing color, etc., make for diffident marks.

Let’s talk about how not to do it:

  • Unless you’re doing close detail, don’t hold your brush like a pencil. It’s a baton, and holding it to the back of the center-point (away from the ferrule) gives you more lyrical motion. Your grip can still be controlled by your thumb, you can hold it loosely, or even clutch it in your fist. The important thing is to let your arm and shoulder drive the movement of the brush, rather than just your wrist and hand. The farther back you hold the brush, the more scope of movement. To loosen up, blast some music and pretend you’re the conductor and that brush is your baton.
  • Don’t dab. By this I mean a pouncing/stabbing motion with the tip of your brush. It’s amateurish in oils, anemic in acrylics, and hell on your brushes.
  • Don’t use brush strokes that go in all one direction. Learn to apply paint in the round. This is a rule that can be broken, but make sure you’re doing so intentionally, not just because you don’t know how to paint in every direction.
  • Don’t bury your line. Much of the power of Edgar Degas’ mature work comes from his powerful drawing; he was the most accurate draftsman of his age, and he let that stand prominently in his work.

Self Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659, Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Pay close attention to the economy of the brushwork in the hair, and the expressive, unfinished brushwork in the face. In this way, Rembrandt was able to create a powerful focus.

There are many painters whose brushwork I admire, but there’s little point in trying to copy them in my own work. Brushwork is as personal as handwriting. It’s where the artist expresses—or suppresses—his feelings. There’s value in attempting to copy passages by great painters, and I suggest you do so with the samples I’ve attached to this blog. But don’t try to paint like Sargent or Van Gogh or Rembrandt; use what you learn to create your own mature style.

Waterlilies, c. 1915, Claude Monet, courtesy Neue Pinakothek, Munich. Monet makes no attempt to hide his drawing in this painting. The brushstrokes are wet-over-dry.

Style is the difference between our internal vision and what we’re capable of. We often don’t like our own brushwork when we lay it down; I think that’s because it’s too personal. Don’t continuously massage your brushstrokes hoping to make them more stylish. If the passage is accurate in color, line and precision, move on. You may come back to realize it’s wonderful.

Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, 1892, John Singer Sargent, courtesy Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh. Note that the transparent sleeves are not produced by glazing, but with direct, long brushstrokes.

Use your brushwork to highlight the focal points in your painting. Sharp, clean, contrasting marks draw the eye, where soft, flowing, lyrical passages encourage us to move through. Let there be dry-brush texture and unfinished passages in your painting.

Hard-earned ease

It’s a paradox: we achieve looseness by mastering the small, precise details of our craft.

Tom Sawyer’s Fence, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas

Painting students often express the desire to paint more loosely. That’s not easy to attain. Painter Tom Root described it best when he called it “hard-earned ease,” likening it to a ballet dancer with bloody feet.

It’s paradoxical, but dancers achieve grace and fluidity by practicing a bone-aching number of precise movements. It’s the same in painting: we achieve lyricism by mastering the small details of our craft.

That starts with drawing. It’s shocking how many people try to be painters without mastering this basic skill, and how many teachers let them get away with it. Drawing is the basic reverse-engineering process of art. It’s how we analyze an object before we rebuild it on canvas.

Clouds over Whiteface, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

You can’t develop fluid style if you can’t draw. You will flail around, guessing where things are, and then overstating everything with excessive, tight brushwork. You won’t be able to express depth or distance if you haven’t explored where depth and distance start and stop.

Conversely, if you take the time to learn to draw, your painting has room to be looser. In my class on Tuesday, a student drew a complex Anasazi pot with astounding fidelity. She was able to put the pot down in a few brushstrokes because she’d already done the hard business of figuring it out with her pencil.

Best Buds, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Drawing is actually easy. It doesn’t require ‘talent’; it’s for the most part a mechanical measuring process. There are many good books on the subject, and I’ve also gone into it extensively; just go to the search box to the right on this blog and type in “how to draw.” The investment is minimal; a mixed-media Strathmore Visual Journal is around $5 at our local job lots store. Use any #2 pencil with an eraser. Anything else is just refinement.

The second requirement for fluidity is process. For some reason, the arts have a reputation for attracting non-conformists, but I don’t know a single successful painter who doesn’t repeat a process with every painting. These have variations, but the components—at least in painting—are nothing new. The basic order of operations has been set in stone for centuries; only the materials get updated.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

If you want to find your true authentic voice, start by mastering the process. For most of us, the easiest way to do this is with a teacher, but there are fine videos and books out there as well. Practice your process so many times that it becomes second nature. Then—and only then—you will find your own, loose brushwork emerging.

Notice that I said nothing about style. It’s important, but elusive. It emerges when one has done the grunt work of developing good technique. Don’t try to pin it down too early, or you’ll box yourself into something you can’t grow past.

I’m off to Tallahassee on Sunday to teach my last workshop of the season. Next year’s dates (so far) are now on my website. Here’s hoping that 2021 is a better year for all of us!

Monday Morning Art School: how to be painterly

Bravura brushwork rests on a foundation of practice and skill.
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. It uses the paint itself to create movement and expression. It’s a quality found in every medium; even sculpture is sometimes described as painterly. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.
This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. It comes from experiencing the paint itself. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.
Does that mean it must be impasto? No. Peter Paul Rubens, JMW Turner and Joaquín Sorolla were all painterly painters, and none of them wallowed in paint. There are many fine contemporary painters who work thin and expressively.
Cloud study, watercolor over graphite, 1830–35, John Constable, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We don’t usually think of Constable as painterly, but he was in his plein air work.
The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.
That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estesand Sandro Botticelliare both linear.
Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. In plein air work, acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.
House in Rueil, 1882, Édouard Manet, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
How do we develop painterliness?
First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.
Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.
Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Beach at Valencia, 1908, Joaquín Sorolla, courtesy Christie’s
You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.
Many times, artists only realize their painterly styles in old age. That is when Titianstarted painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. “They cannot be looked at up close but from a distance they appear perfect,” wrotethe Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari. Rembrandt is another painter who started out painting precisely but ended up loose. Édouard Manet is still another. In fact, the list is inexhaustible.
Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness. He died at 37, but still managed to produce around a thousand paintings (that we know of).
Bravura brushwork simply rests on the foundation of all those paintings that went before.
I’m at Saranac Lake, prepping for Adirondack Plein Air, which starts this morning. I wrote Extreme Art: Painting inside the Blue Line just for this event. It’s not on my blog, so if you’ve ever been interested in what goes on at a plein air event, enjoy.

Missing the mark

Other people say it’s good, but you think it’s awful. What do you do with it?
Spruces and pines on the Brook Trail, by Carol L. Douglas. This is more or less where my mark-making is today.
Last week I listened to a fellow artist grumble about her painting. I really couldn’t see anything wrong with it; it was quite good, and I told her so. “But it’s not what I set out to do!” she answered. The wind, the rain, and the changing light had robbed her scene of the vivacity she’d first envisioned.
That causes a funny sort of brain cramp in artists. Our vision is so deeply overlaid with the pattern of what we want to say that the gap bothers us. We can’t see the strengths in our work because we’re focused on what is missing. In this case, my friend couldn’t see her strong composition and the brooding quality of the painting because she was mourning the light that had escaped behind clouds. “I can’t even remember what attracted me to this scene in the first place,” she said sadly.
Hedgerow in Paradise is from a time when I was hiding behind fraudulent brushwork. The only thing wrong with it was that it was fundamentally dishonest.
I was curious about this phenomenon so when I got home I asked a musician if this ever happens to him. “Oh, all the time,” he laughed. He told me that he’d just finished composing and recording an album and to him it was totally rotten, because he hadn’t achieved his goals for the project. Still, he published it, and then he started something new.
A long time ago, Marilyn Fairman told me that the longer she painted, the less satisfied she was with her work. I’ve noticed the same thing. If you’ve never been blindsided by the gap between your inner vision and the results, I suspect you’re not challenging yourself enough.
Spring Allee is another painting from the same period. The marks are better, perhaps because it’s a deeply autobiographical painting.
I struggled for many years with hating my own brushwork. I visualized long, sinuous lines of paint. Instead, my finish was always short, abrupt, and energetic. Because of that, I frequently overworked the finish in an attempt to obliterate my own handwriting. That invariably muddied what had started as a strong painting.
Finally, I realized this was a kind of self-loathing. It was akin to always hating yourself in photos (which, I confess, I do). I stopped fussing and forced myself to leave my brushwork alone.
Then I spent a long time in the wilderness. I eventually threw out this painting of Letchworth Gorge because it was so muddy.
If it were someone else’s, I concluded, I would be fine with it. I might even love its jumping energy. But it told me something true about myself that I didn’t understand and found uncomfortable. I felt as if I had to hide this unexamined truth. That’s ironic, because painting is supposed to be forthright, and that was the most authentically honest thing about my work.
Middle Falls at Letchworth, by Carol L. Douglas. I spent that entire season at Letchworth Gorge and eventually came up with two paintings I thought were credible. It wasn’t until much later that I realized I’d finally cracked the problem of paint application.
What do you do with that dissatisfaction? This is where wiping out bad paintings is a bad practice. It steals the opportunity to study what has just happened. I’ve learned to leave those canvases alone, carry them home, rack them to dry, and then revisit the work at a later date. By then, my memory of my ambition has faded. I can see the new painting in its own merits. Often, I’m shocked to realize that I love the ones I once hated, and the ones that seemed to be easy successes now bore me.
Join me for Sea and Sky at Schoodic, August 5-10. We’re strictly limited to twelve, but there are still seats open.

Not another brushstroke!

Chrysanthemums, by Sandy Quang, finished.
One of my friends posted a work-in-progress on Facebook. It was greeted with a chorus of “not another brushstroke!” “You’re done!” “Don’t touch it!”
I hate these statements for two reasons. First, they impose another person’s vision over the artist’s. Second, if a painter always stops before he addresses the defining questions in his work, he stunts his growth.
Everyone loves ‘free’ brush work, and that only happens in the passages where one is completely comfortable. But that doesn’t mean that one should never push beyond the easy parts.
I’ve resolved to never say it as a teacher. That resolution was challenged this weekend when Sandy Quang returned to a painting that I thought was finished. The picture on top is after her last session; the one on the bottom is before. I don’t think either is objectively ‘better’ than the other, but she was able to explore issues of reflection and lighting in the later one.
Chrysanthemums, by Sandy Quang, in progress.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.