Sunday, April 23, 2017

Reflections on recent Going Dutch painting workshops in NYC and Chicago

My wife, Helen Oh, and I recently completed a Going Dutch oil painting workshop at the New York Academy of Art in TriBeCa. The workshop explores and implements an approach modeled on that of Flemish and Dutch figure painters of the 15-17th centuries. During two consecutive weekends, a group of talented and dedicated group of students put the course ideas to a practical test in painting the figure.

Soon thereafter, I taught the same workshop solo for three consecutive days at Chicago's Palette & Chisel Academy, with an equally interested and skilled group. 

Beginning with Jan van Eyck, painters of northern Europe mastered rendering the figure in linseed and walnut oils, then a new technology. They combined this novel medium with superb analytical skills applied in a systematically. Because of the objectivity of their approach, we believe it can be taught effectively. Examples of their ideas:

1. careful observation of nature reveals that light has color, e.g. north light is slightly blue and its shadow is faintly golden;
2. oil paint is effective in both opaque and transparent modes;
3. rendering in oil paint is best when applied in layers from dark to light;
4. dark transparent areas and light opaque areas visually correlate to the way we see things in terms of both color and form; i.e., under daylight, light on objects appear cool and solid, shadows on object appear warm and indistinct.
5. Color, form and space are related, and a painter can predict how the correlate based on information.

The value of the course is to share the achievement, in both process and aesthetics, of the Flemish and Dutch painters. They perfected painting the figure in oil, and created a systematic approach that captures the qualities of skin under natural light with great fidelity. Their way is truly 'oil painting as it was meant to be.'

What makes this approach so successful? First, its simplicity: natural light's cool color creates shadows that contrast by value and opposing warmth. Second, its systemic approach: These painters sought to preserve this dichotomy by beginning with a warm tone over a luminous white ground. The subsequent layers were intended to build cool light and form in illuminated areas, while keeping the shadows as thin, and warm, as possible. The transitional area between light and shadow—the half tone—was painted in a neutral color made by placing thick opaque paint over transparent warm color. This visual 'estuary' creates the illusion of form 'turning', (going around) so that the viewer believes it has weight, and an unseen opposite side. Third, this school of painters worked directly from observation, the traditional way figurative artists are trained, and one still valuable for building observational skills.

In both workshops, students worked under a cool light, much as the Flemish and Dutch painters did. Once a careful drawing on paper (sized to match the canvas) was made of the model, and a warm golden tone was placed over the canvas.  Students then attempted to discover the subtle alterations in temperature within both the lights and shadows prior to painting.  In this we were aided by the scholarship found in the book Art in the Making: Rembrandt by David Bomford, et al., (Yale University Press, 2006).

The drawing was transferred to canvas, and students began a three-layer painting.
Layer 1: Dead color with a limited palette of 4 colors: white, black, earth red and earth yellow. The aim was to lay in warm, transparent shadows, cool half tones, and slightly warm local lights.

Layer 2: the palette was expanded to include a greater range of hues, though primarily earth colors preferred by Flemish and Dutch figure painters like Jan Steen, De Gelder and Rembrandt. The shadows and halftones were reinforced, and the lights refined by painting more colorful local lights and finally, cool highlights.

Layer 3: Reflected lights carefully placed in the shadows and scumbles (opaque over transparent paint) and glazes (transparent over opaque paint) added to complete the painting.

Below are my demo images from both NYC and Chicago workshops, plus some examples of student work.

Drawing over panel. My demo in Chicago

After Second coloring. Chicago

Dead coloring. My demo in Chicago

Final. My demo in Chicago 20" x 13"


Drawing transferred to panel. My demo at NYAA

Dead coloring. My demo at NYAA

After Second coloring. My demo at NYAA

Student's completed work, Chicago

A student's complete painting at NYAA

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Acrylic 2.0

Among the many benefits of oil painting is the ability to add both transparent and opaque layers of wet pigments to produce a lush surface, varied in both texture and color. Until recently, Helen thought this approach was not possible in another painting medium. That is, until she took another look at acrylic paint.

Realist painters whose work we love, including David Hockney and the late Lennart Anderson, have used acrylic to spectacular and varied effect. Though, without directly knowledge of their working process, which bring out the naturally bright and light qualities of this medium, Helen knew this would be a challenge. She decided to try something different: to attempt to use the traditional oil painting process she has used and taught, in order to recreate the density and variety of surface as in her oil paintings. Here is how she did it.

First, she prepared a panel by coating both sides with acrylic gel medium. This keeps the humidity levels constant on both front and back of the paper surface.

Next, she applied a thin imprimatura on the front of the panel with a deep golden yellow, very like those in a typical Dutch oil painting. She did this since, as the Dutch did, she was working from a still life bathed in cool, north daylight, which tends to produce warmth in the shadows. As the painting layers pile up on the lights, the thinner shadows tend to reveal more of the imprimatura color, which helps maintain their warm glow.

Working directly from a still life setup, Helen sketched the motif in vine charcoal. She then squeezed out acrylic paint onto a Daler Rowney Stay Wet Palette®, which she likes because of its ease of use and clean up, and blocked-in the large shapes.  The charcoal was quickly absorbed into the paint allowing variation in edges between shapes, much as in oil painting.

Initial shapes were blocked-in differently, depending on value and temperature: for example, darks were mixed with acrylic medium and no white, conferring them a transparent depth, while the lights were thicker and enriched with white, covering the imprimatura and lending solidity to forms.

Where the acrylic really shines, is the ability to layer paint almost immediately. This meant that fresh flowers could be fully rendered by building up shadow to highlight within a single session, and fine details added without the risk of disturbing layers, as can happen in oils. Helen also opted for a palette that, like her oil colors, ranged from dark, transparent pigments to bright ones, and she created a ‘medium’ as in oil, by filling a small cup with a mix of acrylic gel medium and water, and adding this to the darks which were then layered over the block-in. This produced an effect similar to that achieved by glazing in oils, again, without any time delay.

Adding details in the colorful Blockitecture® pieces was also easier in acrylic. To maintain the crisp window details, Helen taped around them, masking off the walls, and filling in the windows with bright color. This type of masking is more difficult with an oil painting, since the surface often rejects the tape adhesive.

Detail showing taping process. The window color was painting between the masked areas.

Finally, additional coats of acrylic thinned in the medium completed the reflections and other highlights.

Background and details added. Completed work. Still Life with Blockitecture, 16 x 16 in., acrylic on panel.

❧ ❧ ❧

Helen also used a similar approach in acrylic to painting a figure on linen.

Portrait of Dancer, 28 x 20 in., acrylic on linen.

Detail of above work.

You can learn more about her approach at her upcoming workshop at Chicago's Palette & Chisel Academy of Fine Arts. The three-day workshop runs from August 16, 17 & 18. For more info, visit

Thursday, April 28, 2016

August Sander's Dora

The work of German photographer August Sander has long fascinated me. One facet of his career was to document artists of his generation. Among these photos is a strange image of known as Hans Heinz Luttgen and his Wife Dora, taken in 1926. Here is the image from the National Gallery in London.

The juxtaposition of physical differences between the May/December pair is striking and the image provocative. The look of Dora, in particular, caught my eye, and apparently caught the eye of Sander, since he also photographed her posing without her husband.

I thought I might try to capture her likeness by painting from this photo reference, something I hesitate to do, since I prefer to work from life whenever possible. I find the information I need as a painter is often lacking in photo references, no matter how large or clear they are. In some cases, however, I have no choice, as in this one. So I began:

First, I simplify the image and crop out Hans in Photoshop.

Transfer a simplified outline to unstretched linen and reinforce in graphite pencil.

Setup with computer and painting

Block in darks and halftones

Complete the face. I decide to put her in a fencing jacket.

Set up jacket on a mannequin.

Paint the jacket.

Transfer her name (Dora Delfs—I used her maiden name, found on German Wikipedia). I did this because it turns out Luttgen divorced her before his move to New York City.

Final painting.

Painting in Frame.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Helen's Painting: Lily Posing on Pluff Chair

After my New York art school days were over, and I was painting on my own for several years, a friend invited me to join a weekly painting group that met in SoHo on Greene Street. The sessions of this informal, but highly accomplished gathering of friends of the arts, and of one another, and known in fact, as The Painting Group, were headed by the portraitist Aaron Shikler and painter and illustrator David Levine. 

Every Wednesday evening, we members, plus a model, would gather and paint in this large, formerly industrial space. It was there that I got to know, and observe David Levine, who fascinated me with his continual experimenting with paint media, as he sought to express the persona of our model. Meanwhile, Aaron impressed us with his sensitive and skillful drawing and paint handling in compositions that focused on strong design and flattened local colors. 

Recalling those days, I set to work painting Lily, who recently posed for me, to create a type of homage to both of these very inspirational teachers from my past. I posed Lily in a black and white dance costume to create strong graphic appearance to the design. Under soft daylight, I was able to keep her skin colors fairly unified in value, while flattening the black, gray, cream and white areas. After that, I focused on catching her expressive gaze and the slight curve of her mouth using a few quick brush strokes.

I would like to think Aaron and David would be pleased.

Transferring the photocopied drawing to glue-sized linen canvas

Canvas with transferred contours (in blue Saral)

Blocking in darks—bringing out the graphic qualities

Adding darks and light in skin

Modeling the facial features with expanded color palette

Helen Oh,  Lily Posing on Pluff Chair, oil on linen, 20" x 16"

Andrew on a visit to Aaron Shikler's apartment & studio

Helen and Aaron talking in his studio 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Model Muse is Moving

Recently we learned from F.C., one of our favorite models, that she was soon to leave our city for a new adventure out West. Before she left Helen decided to preserve something of her spirit by having her pose a few last times. From those sessions, I made a sketch, while Helen produced a large mixed media drawing and a life mask.

Helen's drawing of F.

Andy's oil sketch of F.

Helen learned the process of making life masks from a talented colleague here in Chicago. Helen made the life mask using plaster-infused gauze, available commercially.  First she had F. cover her face thoroughly with vaseline, then cut the plaster gauze into strips of varying sizes, which were soaked in water before being applied to the model's face.

Once the whole mask hardened (the plaster tends to warm slightly as it sets) the mask is carefully pried off the model's face. This negative mold is left to completely dry. To make a positive, powdered plaster and water are mixed to a paste, which is then poured into the negative mold and left for many hours, until the compound is hard and cool to the touch. At that point the mold is removed and discarded. The results can range from good to incredibly detailed, with every pore and lash showing.

Helen actually made several molds from our patient F., and the completed and colored mask, shown here, was from the first, less detailed plaster mold. Because it was rough, Helen sanded it lightly to unify the plane transitions. She then painted it to resemble terra cotta clay.

The photos show something of the process described above. I suggest the model remain upright in order to create natural looking cast. If you would like to try it, check out the many YouTube videos on this topic.

This leads us to recall a debate among representational artists, well-documented in the Renaissance, about the 'truth' of capturing nature in 3D vs 2D. As painters, we were trained in the many ways to depict the what we saw on canvas, including scale, perspective, effects of light and atmosphere on the recognition of space, not to mention figure anatomy, color theory and paint application techniques that connect to creating effects of form, weight and volume. Of course, while sculptures learn many of these essentials, they rely on other concepts and techniques not necessarily used by painters.

In this 15th century debate, known as the Paragone, painters and sculptors in Italy competed to prove the superiority of their respective media, at conveying the reality of nature, for want of a better term. We can't say which of these two is better; perhaps neither is a great as architecture or drawing (which Vasari claimed), but we do know that Helen and I find that the tactile process of cast-making and pouring plaster to create a life-size model helps us imagine the texture and weight of the human head when working from photo references.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Whitecross vs Thames radial easels

While the painter relies primarily on the quality of his or her brushes and canvas, other materials and equipment are also vital to creating and maintaining a good working environment, so that, like all good design, they essentially 'get out of the way' and let one focus on the work at hand.

To this end, an easel can either help or hinder the working process. In my experience, the most useful easel I have is one I bought just after my painting studies at the National Academy of Design. I believe my instructor, Ron Sherr, recommended a Whitecross easel because of its great versatility: it was light, strong, able to hold a range of canvas sizes, even those up to seven feet high, and could fold down to a mere 5 feet tall by 5 inches wide!

Whitecross easel

Folding the Whitecross

I ended up buying the floor model at New York Central Art Supply, since it seems that was all they had in stock when I visited with Helen, then my girlfriend, on our frequent rounds of the downtown art stores. The easel has literally supported my art — at least while in progress — ever since.

The Whitecross is a radial-style easel, made of a pale, tight-grained wood, and held together with solid silver hardware. To operate the easel, one turns a very large, heavy butterfly nut at the small base. This releases the trio of short legs, allowing them to rotate down from the telescoping mast. After splaying the legs, and tightening the butterfly nut, the easel stands upright, or can be tilted at whatever angle is desired.

The shelf, well-designed to hold the canvas and a few brushes, can be lowered or raised along the front part of the mast, allowing a the artist a great range of canvas dimensions. The back part of the mast, which slides within the fixed front part, can be extended vertically up to 8 feet high.

One convenient aspect of the Whitecross easel's shelf is that the screw is long enough that the wingnut can be reversed enough to rotate the tray vertically while still attached to the mast.

Atop the adjustable canvas holder that slides within the back mast is a brass label that declares proudly:

Handmade by Craftsmen
Cornwall, England

In the first of a series of paintings I did in New York that focused on Artists and Models in the studio, I included the Whitecross easel at the far left.

Artist and Model I, oil on canvas, 48" x 72"

For many years, I searched for another Whitecross easel without success. Just recently, though, Helen came across a variant on this type, called a Thames easel, sold by Winsor & Newton (though I don't know where it is made). It is available in the States at

Thames easel; Extended at right

This easel shares much in common with its older brother, with a few small differences, these being:

1. The wood is a bit darker with a slightly more pronounced grain. (Beechwood, apparently). The Thames hardware is gold; the Whitecross, silver.

2. Slightly different dimensions. (See diagram)

The Thames easel is 1 inch shorter with the back mast retracted, but the same height (8 feet) when extended. Both easels weigh about the same,approximately 15 lbs or 7 kegs.

3. The Thames mast contains an additional sliding wooden clamp, so it can hold two canvases or panels simultaneously.

4. The Thames's large butterfly nut is asymmetrical, being designed to be adjusted with a foot as well as a hand.

5. The tray screw is too short to allow the tray to be rotated vertically in place. Instead, the tray must be removed to reduce the easel to its thinnest dimension (See image.)

6. A noticeable design difference between the two easels has to do with the radial mechanism holding the legs. I like the simplicity of the Whitecross, with its flush front, as opposed to the raised profile of the Thames, so that the legs, instead of resting against one another, don't meet:

Differences in design of the Whitecross (left) and Thames

Both are useful, convenient, and elegant. While I prefer the Whitecross (something about the way the proclamation on the workers' label tracks perfectly with the soundness of their product) the Thames is a welcome resurrection of this singular type of easel.

Check out this brief video on YouTube demonstrating the easel setup.