Monday Morning Art School: it’s all in the preparation

The Pine Tree State, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed includes shipping in continental US.

When I’m teaching workshops and classes, I frequently ask students, “What’s your takeaway lesson here?” Last week my workshop students got a deep dive into two artists’ working method: Andrew Wyeth‘s, through a guided tour of the Farnsworth Art Museum, and Colin Page‘s, from the maestro himself.

“Painting is easy,” Colin said. “It’s the preparation that’s hard.” I smiled, because that’s something I frequently say as well. Wyeth didn’t whisper it from beyond the grave, but his methodology is spelled out in the museum. For his studio paintings, he was a consummate draftsman who made many sketches and paid meticulous attention to detail.

Bracken Fern, 12X9, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Students frequently ask me how to achieve loose brushwork. My first question is why they want that, as it’s not a universal value. Rather it’s a question of style. Linear painting is based on line and boundary; the artist sees in clear shapes and outline. Painterly painting focuses on the interactions of masses, shadows, and merged shapes. An example of a contemporary linear landscape painter is Linden Frederick. An example of a contemporary painterly landscape painter is Kevin Macpherson. Neither style is ‘better,’ they’re just different. And there are many painters (including me) who work in the middle somewhere.

When Arthur Rubinstein was asked if he believed people when they told him he was the greatest pianist of the 20th century, he replied, “Not only I don’t believe them, I get very angry when I hear that, because it is absolute, sheer, horrible nonsense. There isn’t such a thing as the greatest pianist of any time. Nothing in art can be the best. It is only… different.”

What is a universal value in art is assurance, and that rests on the back of solid preparation. Rubinstein joked that he was lazy and didn’t like to practice, but he still spent 6-9 hours a day at the piano. “And a strange thing happened. I began to discover new meanings, new qualities, new possibilities in music that I have been regularly playing for more than 30 years.”

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

The same thing is true of painting, as is its obverse-the less preparation you do, the more you’ll fumble in performance. And the more you must redraw, reposition, reset values, or restate, the less immediate and assured your brushwork will be. That’s as true in oils, acrylics and pastels as it is in watercolor.

What does that mean for the emerging artist? At a minimum, you should do a carefully-realized sketch, considered in terms of compositional patterns of darks and lights. This sketch should be moved to the canvas or paper accurately; if that requires gridding, then you should grid. Colors should be tested first for value, and then to how they relate to the overall key of the painting.

Sea Fog, Castine, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

Yes, I know artists who don’t do these things. They can be sorted into two groups. The first are those who are very experienced. They’ve learned what corners they can cut (which are not the same for everyone). The second are impatient beginning and intermediate painters. They almost always fail in the preparation, and then they wonder why they’re flailing around in the painting stage.

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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:

Monday Morning Art School: what’s the point of a three-hour painting?

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Near the wonderful, loose Andrew Wyeth watercolors at the Farnsworth Art Museum is a small room dedicated to his painting practice. You are surrounded by his careful investigation of details, compositional sketches, and studies. “When I was painting Christina’s World I would sit there by the hours working on the grass, and I began to feel I was really out in the field. I got lost in the texture of the thing. I remember going down into the field and grabbing up a section of earth and setting it on the base of my easel. It wasn’t a painting I was working on. I was actually working on the ground itself,” he said.

Edward Hopper, who mined similar veins of alienation as Wyeth, was known for meticulously storyboarding his major paintings. He drew thousands of preparatory sketches. A comparison of one of his final sketches for Nighthawks with the final painting shows just how important his drawings were in cutting things down to the bone. He used drawing to shake off the burden of representational reality.

Failed attempt #1 at Chauncey Ryder trees. I’ll go back up the hill and try this again if it ever dries out. Dialing back the chroma will help.

Modern plein air painting

On the flip side, there’s contemporary plein air painting, dashed off in alla prima technique in a matter of a few hours. I love plein air painting myself, but a recent conversation with a student had me wondering about its lasting value. She is frustrated with her local painting group, which never works more than two or three hours. “What’s the point of rushing like that?” she asked me.

There are hundreds of plein air events in the United States every year, each of which has around thirty juried artists, each of whom in turn produces 5-10 works per event. That means the art market is flooded with tens of thousands of paintings from these events alone. Not all of them are good. I’ve produced more than my share of duds.

These events create a commodity that’s affordable to a middle-class audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s what drove the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, which gave us Vermeer, Frans Hals and Rembrandt.

Failed attempt #2 at Chauncey Ryder trees. Boring composition and I made a messed up stew of the buds on the branches.

But it’s equally true that mass movements give us our share of dreck. The paintings done at plein air events are often safe (read ‘boring’) and dashed off without a lot of thought. That’s because plein air events are a production grind.

Loose brushwork has become the norm of plein air painting. But there’s no law that says that plein air must be quick, or that loose brushwork is the apotheosis of outdoor painting. These are just tropes of our times. Leaning into them too heavily just makes you a copier of other people’s ideas.

This start I like. Luckily, it’s steps from my house, so I can revisit it the next time there’s a break in the rain.

Go outside and take your time

This spring in the northeast is miserably cold and wet. I’ve painted outdoors just twice. Out of the three things I did, the one I like is the least-finished (above). In the other two, I was tinkering, trying to feather trees like Chauncey Ryder. Everything else in my paintings suffered. I don’t care; I’ll wipe out the boards and try again.

I have my eye on another stand of trees, small spruces. I want to see if I can mimic the soft brushwork of Anders Zorn in them, since to me he’s the only person who ever painted baby evergreens convincingly.

“You’re going to confuse yourself with all this mimicry!” Eric Jacobsen chided me. Well, no, because I don’t really want to paint like Ryder or Zorn. I want to figure out how they did this specific soft-focus thing on trees. I could never do this if I was still rushing around churning out three-hour paintings at events. The cost of failure is too great.

My 2024 workshops: