Is this the age of bravura brushwork?

Fogbank, oil on archival canvasboard, 14X18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

The pinnacle of baroque music composition was in the persons of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Both were so late in their genre that they nearly missed the bus. Since the term baroque music didn’t come into systematic usage until the 20th century, I’ve often wondered what Bach and Handel thought they were playing at. I doubt they thought of themselves as being in the same compartment as Henry Purcell or Johann Pachelbel, although this is how Baroque music is usually described to us amateurs.

In 19th and 20th century painting, we see much finer divisions, from the realism of Gustave Courbet to the transitional work of Édouard Manet through the flowering of Impressionism and then the post-Impressionist modernists. A ridiculous amount has been written about what these dead artists were doing, thinking and eating. However, we still can’t know what they saw as their place in the continuum of art history. Or even if they cared about that.

Larky Morning at Rockport Harbor, 11X14, on birch board, unframed, $869 includes shipping in continental US.

In the 20th century, we saw a kaleidoscope of isms: Fauvism, FuturismAbstractionBauhaus, Orphism, ExpressionismSymbolism, Modernism, Synchromism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Regionalism, Precisionism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Photorealism and probably twenty more that I’ve forgotten. I didn’t list them just to bore you to death, simply to note the absurdity of so many labels. It’s possible that all those isms can be rebranded in the future as one topic: Experimentism.

A large section of the field has returned to realism, and is painting it in a style that could be loosely called post-Impressionism. Does that negate the work of the whole 20th century? Hardly, but it does leave us with the question of what we’re doing now.

In my few decades of teaching painting, I’ve noticed one request over and over: “I want to develop looser brushwork.” That tells me it’s important.

Brilliant Summer Day, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435, includes shipping in continental US.

Contemporary viewers are immediately captivated by bravura brushwork; it’s a sign of self-confidence and competence in an age beset by anxiety and doubt.

Mark-making can be loose and gestural or very controlled. On one hand, it’s the most personal aspect of painting. At the same time, it’s also 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.

It is never an accident; it comes from practice. It also rests on a firm foundation of proper preparation. Flailing around to fix things that should have been resolved in the drawing or underpainting will negate the freshness and decisiveness of good brushwork. Continuous modification, glazing, changing color, etc., make for diffident marks.

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed.

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, but don’t try to paint like Sargent or Van Gogh or Rembrandt; use what you learn to create your own mature style.

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. Future generations may think it’s wonderful.

My 2024 workshops:

Escape from Pleasantville

Mary Day on Camden Harbor, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

“I’ve escaped from Pleasantville,” Cassie Sano excitedly told our zoom class. “I’ve always been afraid to step out of Pleasantville, but now I’m exploring outside of it.

Later, I asked her about this transformation. “It’s not that my paintings were awful. I was just painting too tightly and too carefully with no detail left undefined,” she said. “They were pleasant, but somewhat boring. Afraid to step ‘out of bounds,’ my paintings reminded me of the movie Pleasantville, and I began to jokingly refer to them with that name.”

That’s a 1998 comedy about two siblings trapped in a 1950s sitcom, set in a small town populated by ‘perfect’ people.

Shadows and Tracks, Mount Vernon, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

“I left nothing to the imagination of the viewer. I wanted to get the heck out of Pleasantville, but I didn’t know how.”

Cassie is somewhat handicapped in that goal by being one of the most pleasant people I know. Behind her gentle demeanor, however, is a fiercely-fit single-mother and grandmother; she once bounded up Bald Mountain to keep me company while I was painting. And then bounded around the summit to keep herself amused.

She studied graphic design at Salem State University, Elementary Education at Boston College, and cartography and journalism in the military. “In 2018, I retired as a mail carrier for the US Postal Service, and then began focusing on my art. I spent a few years doing pottery, but then shifted to watercolor and oil painting, writing and illustrating picture books, and teaching watercolor painting to beginners.”

“When I first started painting with oils, I was focused on the technical aspects of painting– how to set up my palette, when to use Turpenoid or medium, how to apply the paint on the canvas, and effective use of values and composition. As I became more comfortable with these technical matters, I began to think beyond them.”

Corea Harbor, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

Transformation from journeyman to master

That makes sense; we must figure out technique before we can dig into meaning and expression. But at some point, technique becomes automatic and we start thinking about deeper issues.

Cassie’s most recent class with me was on bravura brushwork, and that seemed to be what she needed to get past literalism-especially the class where I asked her to paint like Vincent van Gogh. “I could feel myself loosening up and finally seeing how to sneak past Border Patrol… I felt a lot of joy after that class and shouted (to myself), ‘I finally get it!'”

“My goal is to continue practicing these techniques with an emphasis on making my paintings more exciting and joyful for the viewers, and leaving a lot to their imagination,” she told me.

Vienna Mountain Road, Cassie Sano, courtesy of the artist.

Cassie is represented by Eye Feast Art. She is a member of the Kennebec Valley Art Association, River Arts Gallery, and Maine Arts Gallery, and the organizer for the Kennebec Valley Plein Air Painters. In June, she will have a solo show at McLaughlin Garden and Homestead, 97 Main Street, South Paris, ME. The opening will be June 3 from 2-4 PM.

My 2024 workshops:

Contemporary impressionism done right

Banks of the Oyster River, Eric Jacobsen, oil on panel 16 x 20, regular $2300, sale $1150

I brought my laptop with me intending to write my blog on my vacation, only to realize the combination of camping and nine people has outdone me. (Not my dumbest move yet this week; I also brought my summer nightgown. To camp. In the Nevada wilderness. In February.

Orange and Blue, Eric Jacobsen, oil on panel 16 x 20, regular $2300, sale $1150

I’ll be taking off, but meanwhile I want to alert you to a Truly Great Deal. Eric Jacobsen is one of the best impressionist painters of our generation, and also my good buddy. He’s one of the few painters I’d like to study with right now, to steal all his secrets of brushwork.

Rocky Beach, Eric Jacobsen, oil on panel 16 x 20, regular $2300, sale $1150

Eric’s having a half-off sale on selected works on his website, which you can find here. Some of them he painted with me around, lucky fellow.) There’s not a huge selection, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Enjoy!

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Eric Jacobsen, oil on panel 16 x 20, regular $2300, sale $1150

My 2024 workshops: