The products from Chelsea Classical Studio offer new opportunities for artists to work with ancient materials and techniques in ways that respect both the health of the artist and the future of the planet.
Since the time of the Renaissance, traditional oil painting has known very few real improvements. This is one of them.
Drawing Atelier – The New Book from Artist John deMartin
Arguably the most challenging of subjects for the artist, the human figure also offers opportunities for works of incredible beauty and complexity. In this book, one of today’s leading figurative artists shares techniques and approaches for drawing the human form. With a reverent grounding in the methods of the Old Masters and keen perspective developed over Jon DeMartin’s 20+ years of making and teaching art, this comprehensive workshop focuses on the power of line and how it can be used to achieve a convincing sense of dimension and life.
Beautifully illustrated with classical drawings as well as step-by-step progressions, these lessons explore the enlightening practice of copying, how to use proportion and measurement wisely, drawing the head and its features, rendering the figure in motion, short-pose exercises, and much, much more. Throughout, artists will master techniques for achieving a compelling “living force” in their drawings, while building a base of understanding that will ultimately make the process more intuitive and enjoyable.
Pre-Order Drawing Atelier – The Figure: How to Draw in a Classical Style from North Light Shop and Save 29% and help support this website.
[pix_dropcap]B[/pix_dropcap]randon Soloff, director of Chelsea Classical Studio in NYC paid a visit to the Academy of Classical Design this November. He presented a demonstration of the new line of Chelsea Classical Studio oil painting materials, plus a discussion of traditional materials and methods, the different types of oils and oil painting mediums. To learn more about this healthier alternative for both artist and planet see : Chelsea Classical Studio Fine Art Materials.
Exceptionally modest, reserved to a fault and largely unknown outside her immediate circle, Robin Smith is, nonetheless, one of the finest portrait/figure painters working today. Together with her instructors and mentors Harvey Dinnerstein, Dan Gheno and Mary Beth McKenzie, Smith has contributed to the reinvention of portrait painting in America, making it an infinitely democratic and individualistic art form. Life-sized and nearly life-sized figures cover every inch of her studio walls; with boundless energy, she has created a crosssectional vision of our contemporary world.
A Narrow Swath
Artistically, Smith has cut herself a narrow swath—she paints almost exclusively figures, whether clothed or nude, seated or standing—but that swath is incredibly deep. In this respect, she is much like the landscape painter, John Constable, who, in response to a comment that he stuck to basically one subject—the acreage constituting his father’s farmland—said, “I imagine myself driving a nail; I have driven it some way and, by persevering, I may drive it home; by quitting it to attack others, though I may amuse myself, I do not advance beyond the first, while that particular nail stands still. No man who can do any one thing well will be able to do any other different thing equally well.”
Historically, Smith’s work most resembles that of Thomas Eakins’s, who painted sympathetic, penetrating portraits of his friends and members of his social circle, as opposed to that of John Singer Sargent’s, who received payment from the sitter. Smith does not paint portraits on commission, her models being paid rather than paying. Thus she retains control over her artistic response, which is invariably insightful and sympathetic. Smith’s humanity and empathy come through, as did Eakins’s. Only rarely is she unable to find some point of interest in a model. If that occurs, she turns her attention to the space of the studio itself: its light, the “gray smoke” in the corner of the room or the common studio objects—easels, chairs, spotlights—that make up this familiar and much beloved environment.
At Home at the League
Crucial to Smith’s work is her deep connection to the Art Students League of New York. When she first signed up for Richard Pionk’s pastel class at the League, she felt as if she had “died and gone to heaven.” After having studied there for many years, she made it her working home by becoming a monitor for two full-time classes. This position satisfied all of her artistic needs: a huge inventory of affordable models, the companionship of other students, and the criticism and guidance of invaluable teachers. Smith has populated an entire artistic world with the models she has encountered at the League. “I have always been drawn to the human presence,” she says. “For instance, I don’t do landscapes. When I once painted in the park, I ended up painting the people on the park bench.”
Respecting the Model
In her cross section of the contemporary world, Smith addresses the entire range of humanity: male and female, young and old, lithe and obese, mainstream and its exceptions. Like Velásquez, she treats them all with dignity and empathy. She notes that they present themselves with personal energy that reveals who they are and how they face—or do not face—the world. Every gesture communicates character.
She observes the models closely from the moment they walk into the room, noting what they wear and how they stand or sit. There is a minimum of intervention on her part because she feels that direction leads to artificiality. “I used to be very controlling about poses,” says Smith. “I’d have a preconceived idea and try to force the model to conform. Over time, I’ve exerted much less control, letting models try their own ideas, doing what’s natural to them. It’s rare that they don’t come with something that really excites me.”
While some painters buttress their work with preparation and calculation, Smith’s work is deeply intuitive. Throughout her process, she uses her feelings as her visual and emotional compass, listening to the painting for feedback. Sometimes this internal dialogue is harmonious, sometimes acrimonious; sometimes it’s just a mystery. “I’m constantly checking in with my feelings,” she says. “Something either does or doesn’t feel like the model.”
Smith proceeds by trial and error, playing with serendipity. In this manner, she winnows out whatever is fake, whatever is done solely for effect. “I hate ‘techniquey’ things,” she says. “I try to experiment and take chances, even taking drastic measures when I feel they’re necessary. When I’m unhappy with something, I feel it’s better to risk ruining the painting than to stick with something I’m dissatisfied with.”
The Artist’s Touch
The thing that allows experts to distinguish one person’s signature from another’s is the same thing that allows us to identify even the smallest passage of a particular artist’s work—the artist’s touch. Whether the look of the work is hard or soft, clear or fuzzy, quiet or strident, it all comes down to this: the ultimate beauty of an artist’s work lies in his or her touch.
Smith’s feeling for touch goes all the way back to the way she prepares her surface. The extent to which a surface allows a brushstroke to glide, as opposed to offering resistance, is hugely important to her. She uses gesso-primed cotton duck or, when money allows, linen. She prefers acrylic gesso, not only because it dries quickly, but also because its absorbency offers resistance to the brush. She finds that her brush slides too much on oil-primed surfaces, which makes her feel out of control.
Starting with a roll of preprimed canvas, she adds more gesso with a roller and then flattens the gesso with a painting knife. “Invariably, there are ridges left,” says Smith, “but I’ve learned to capitalize on the added texture.” She then tones the canvas with acrylic, usually in a neutral earth color or something consonant with what will be the dominant tone of the painting.
Simple, Exacting Drawing
Once the canvas is toned, Smith begins by drawing broadly in charcoal. In this way she can work out all the major structural decisions—composition, proportions and gesture—before thinking about color. The charcoal drawing functions as a linear map telling her where her color will go.
Even though this initial drawing is broad and simple, its execution is rigorous. With a viewfinder made from a diagonally cut framing mat, she considers where to place the large shapes within the rectangle of the canvas. With a stick or ruler, she plots the shapes and corrects proportions. When the drawing is in place, she fixes the charcoal with hair spray so it won’t come off in the paint.
One factor that gives Smith’s figures such presence is that she gravitates toward the life-size. When the painted head is the same size as the real head, there is an immediate identification with the subject that is palpable.
Another distinction is that her primary goal is to create powerful form. “Structural solidity is what I am after most—I can’t stand things being mushy. Given the opportunity, I’ll make things into geometric shapes, and the fewer and more powerful these shapes, the better.”
Also of note concerning Smith’s painting technique is that, early on, she will identify the lightest areas of the figure, establishing them in broad passages of flake white (see Peter 1, below). Generally, she will eventually paint over this white, either with more colorsaturated opaque mixtures or with glazed-on transparent color. The white acts as if it were a light bulb under the surface, radiating light from below so as to contribute to the overall glow of the skin tones.
As Smith establishes the lightest areas, she also makes corrections to her drawing with straight black paint or another dark color, so there is a tremendous range of value right from the beginning.
While Smith feels confident about her value decisions, she admits she is much more tentative about her warm/cool judgments. “Hue,” she says, “has always been much harder for me than value.”
Smith has a marked preference for dry, “pasty” paint. “I like it so dry,” she says, “that I need to apply it with a painting knife or with sturdy bristle brushes—brushes tough enough for me to really bear down. I don’t like oily pigments at all. Like the oil-primed canvas, they are too slick.”
That being said, she will occasionally introduce a glaze into select areas of the painting. She prefers Winsor & Newton Liquin as a glazing medium because it dries so quickly. Liquin also helps her oil out (even out the oil content in the pigments on the painting surface) so she can make passages merge when she paints wet over dry. It was Harvey Dinnerstein who introduced her to Liquin to assuage her tendency to destroy her work. Before that, she would often erase days’ worth of painting she felt was going badly.
The Second Week
Almost all of Smith’s paintings are completed within three weeks, or 45 hours, with the model. Smith’s allegiance to “what’s in front of her” does not allow her to do much work without the model. She tends to work out the faces first, fulfilling her need to get a “hook” on the painting—to feel “right” about one part of the piece—before moving on.
Even when paintings get off to a strong start, Smith admits that the second week of work is usually the most difficult. “There’s always a crisis—I feel I have to make major changes, to try something radical, and then I either accept it or move on. In the second week there is the realization that the painting is never going to be what I set out to do. I always hate the painting during that time because I invariably realize my own limitations. Then, by the third week, I give over control and don’t try to fight it.”
Finished and Unfinished
What makes Smith’s work so enduringly satisfying is that it juxtaposes several opposing states and then reconciles them. One of the most apparent of these oppositions is finished and unfinished. Smith places a finely rendered area of form next to an area of raw, unmodulated paint. Such juxtapositions are not just visually exciting—they also allude to a deeper opposition, that between the image and the process. Smith is torn between the desire to render things to a high level of verisimilitude and the need to keep the viewer from forgetting that he or she is looking at a painting, something that’s ultimately built up of nothing but marks, lines and colored shapes. She insists that the viewer remember that any finished image is the accretion of hundreds of small and large decisions, stops and starts, and changes of mind. Smith builds and then defaces; she wants the viewer to sense her moving forward, but also retreating, to regroup and push up another avenue of thought. “This is why I love Degas so much,” says Smith, “because of the way he melded so many conflicting views. He loved Ingres and he loved Delacroix—fusing those two styles was one of his life’s great projects.”
In fact, Smith expresses a deep appreciation for all of her teachers. “Anytime anyone gives me something, I love him,” she says, and she passes on this warmth and generosity of spirit to her models through her paintings. Robert Henri, one of the Art Students League’s greatest teachers, was thinking about what went into a great painting of the model when he wrote, “To start with a deep impression, the best, the most interesting, the deepest you can have of the model; to preserve this vision throughout the work; to see nothing else; to admit of no digression from it.” Henri could very well have been talking of Smith’s work.
Ephraim Rubenstein’s work can be found in numerous public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He’s currently on the faculty of both the Art Students League of New York and Columbia University. His most recent previous article for The Artist’s Magazine is “Life is a House” (January/February 2014). Learn more at http://ephraimrubenstein.com.
Meet Robin Smith
Robin Smith studied at the Rhode Island School of Design (Providence) and, while working as a graphic artist, at the State University of New York at Purchase College.
She’s also studied in New York City at the National Academy Museum and School and the Art Students League of New York, where she currently monitors two classes.
Her work is in several private and public collections, including the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut. Alex Adams Gallery in New York City represents her work. Visit Smith’s website at http://robinsmithartist.com.
I first heard of Brandon Soloff through my good friend Ed Bienstock. Instead of going for a Masters of Fine Arts degree, Ed decided to follow the path of the old Classical Art Masters by directly study with accomplished Contemporary Realism artist, Michael Aviano. After Michael retired, Ed joined the Art Students League to study under Dan Thompson and Jon deMartin. It was when Brandon substituted for one of Dan’s class, that they met.
Brandon himself is a classically trained painter who has studied extensively in Italy, France and the United States. His work has been commissioned and exhibited throughout the United States and Europe. In 2013 he founded the Chelsea Classical Studio (CCS), a small fine art school located in Chelsea, NY. CCS is run in the atelier tradition, with the primary focus on the human figure. To create a dynamic, non-competitive learning haven that fosters a solid growth for seasoned and new students alike, Brandon was able to gather his colleagues Jon, Dan, and Rick Piloco to instruct classes. As Brandon admitted in our interview, “It’s a healthy community where people improve.”
Chelsea Classical Portrait Rally
Last May I attended the Chelsea Classical Portrait Rally, a painting rally where Brandon, Dan, Jon, and Rick, did a portrait of a single model within three hours. Since all four instructors are known New York Realist painters, the small Chelsea studio was jam packed with roughly eighty curious art students and painters. I must admit it was my first time attending such an event. There was an exciting buzz in the air as all remained quiet while the four painters diligently worked. As the night progressed, the difference in style and execution became clearer. And to me, as I observed them paint in front of a crowd, it seemed that each of their personalities became transparent. At the end, you could see everyone was exhilarated from the experience. The rally was so successful, Brandon decided to hold one for his students, and is planning yet another student rally this coming Sunday, April 12, 2015. He also teaches at the Art Students League of New York, The National Academy School in NYC.
Curious about this conceptualized way of teaching art, to teach students to teach themselves, I decided to interview Brandon and a couple of his students at his atelier, which shares a space with CCS.
Interview Mica D’Orleans: Is there a certain approach you have towards teaching art?
Brandon Soloff: For the students to learn how to better apply what they already know, and figure out what they need to work on and how to learn new things.
MDO: How so?
BS: I studied with a lot of people and am open to a few different approaches. I look at what each individual is doing, and how they can improve upon it. For example, I would ask, “Do you see what’s not working?” and go from there. Have them ask themselves lots of questions… Like, someone may know a lot, but only apply a fraction of what they know, so I show them how to better use what they already know, and mix it in with newer things [so they can] better understand the problem.
MDO: Like the Wizard of Oz…
BS: Well, people sometimes have trouble noticing problems in their own work, but once you explain it to them, they can suddenly see it. And, since they already have some tools, it lets them become aware of what to work on, hopefully in a more efficient, direct, and thoughtful manner.
MDO: How does it differ from schools that try to drill their signature into their students?
BS: I explain how they can do more than they think they can if they think about it a bit differently, and let them figure out what’s working or not, and what they can do to try and fix the problems.
MDO: So, you’re more like a catalyst.
BS: I wouldn’t say that. Maybe help them apply themselves… better than they normally do. To be self critical, constructively, not by beating themselves up for not following a rule or making a mistake.
MDO: Like think out of their box?
BS: More like asking, “What do I know? Is it possible to improve?” Rethink things through to get a different view.
MDO: That should make them more confident.
BS: Maybe it lets them build more confidence in themselves, which allows for growth and willing ness to change and try things. I think this approach is a more natural way for people to learn.
MDO: You somehow motivate them. My friend Ed had been studying for years, but when he began studying with you I saw him grow in leaps and bounds.
BS: Now people can get a Masters in art (getting a Masters in Fine Art is a post WW II concept). Before then you would have an apprenticeship with an artist, or study in academies with clear pedagogies. Instead of using a strict methodology based on obligation, [my approach] is a motivation based on need instead of being forced to learn. I think learning to draw is more like learning a foreign language. You gain the motivation by experience drawing and painting, and coaxing people to expect more out of themselves, push themselves and avoid being overly satisfied with results.
MDO: What is your next step?
BS: As we are getting more students, I’m looking into a slightly larger space to give us more options.
“Brandon teaches individually. He adjusts to your level. He easily finds things and is able to break down how to apply them into components. He’s very good at teaching students how to apply in a practical way, while others talk about the technicality of things. Beginners to advanced find it good. Common sense vs. academia.What do you think? It’s too big. So, when it’s said, you can see it. The fundamentals.”
“I didn’t ever take any art class. Before that, I drew by myself, but I never took any actual classes. I’m more critical now. I take more time to think about what I’m actually doing, whereas, before I had no idea of what I was doing.”
“I feel art is a way for other people to experience the same visual experiences that you have, like a portal into your own experiences. Besides the fact that he’s an awesome painter, Brandon helped me organize my thoughts when painting: How to fix things and not to cut out too much, but to see things more as a whole picture. I like his approach because there is no one set way of painting, so that makes him more open than other teachers in helping you find your own potential, and your own style.”
“I found that Brandon teaches his students with their natural ability instead of force feeding them, because, ultimately in the end, you only have yourself to rely on. It makes you accountable for your own results. He definitely guides you, but he wants you to find your own way through experiential learning, the fact of doing the same exercise over and over again. Doing a lot of painting and drawing helps you find solutions quicker. It makes you a better and faster painter. I’m actually constantly doing a lot more than any other place without any fear or pressure. Well, I can’t say without any pressure at all, but I’m painting a lot more than I ever have been. I think I’ve come to the realization that the only growth that occurs, you are ultimately responsible for. You have to set your goals and realize them. You have to tailor exercises to yourself so you can achieve your own goals. We have a very solid core group and everyone in supportive of the other.”