I just got back from teaching a workshop in West Vancouver, right on the waterfront, it was lovely. Vancouver is a spectacular city, esp when the sun is shinning. It is almost always sunny and warm when I am in Vancouver – even in the winter. How unusual. I even got to play tennis at Stanley Park with my good friend and tennis buddy who happened to be in town as well.
It was a lively and informative session for everyone involved for sure, and the excellent group of painters that came out to learn were so engaged that we fell behind by a couple of hours with the material that I wanted to cover because of the many questions and conversations that sprung up around how to be a better painter. We got it all in by the end, but it was a stretch.
north shore artist’s guild – workshop, oct 2015
One of the topics that came up, as it often does when I ask painters what they hope to get out of a workshop, or what they would like to improve about their paintings, goes something like: ‘I want to be more loose, more ‘painterly’. We all seem to admire the ability to say much with little, to suggest, and to have the casual and fluid technique that allows the skilled painter to make complex elements of a painting seem simple and effective without being over worked or stiff looking. Often people will marvel that a painting looks messy and random up close but when you step back it looks fantastic. It is quite a skill indeed.
Monet was a confident painter, but he got even more ‘painterly’ in his old age as his eyesight was failing and he started painting on larger and larger canvases with bigger and bigger brushes. Indeed, that is often suggested as a way of getting more loose in your painting, use bigger brushes and canvases, step back and squint or maybe borrow your friends prescription glasses.
monet’s ‘water lillies’, close up
The only way to be really good at it though is to spend a whole lot of time painting. I don’t know of any shortcut. Perhaps it is because it is not a goal to be reached or to aim for but rather a side effect of reaching a destination called being a really experienced, good painter. I don’t think it is a particularly good thing to focus on or try to accomplish, it happens automatically and naturally when you have been painting for a long time and you have developed your eye to see what is essential and leave the rest, and then with a skillful hand, to improvise and to suggest. It is like the ability of a very good speaker or writer to communicate a complex topic in a simple and concise way – that takes a lot of study and practice. I am reminded of story of the person that asked Micheal Jordan how he made his jump shots look so easy, he replied with something like “that is because I do 3000 a day.”
Moreover, the product of all that work – the ability to paint with confidence and abandon, flowing and spontaneous – is the antithesis of efforting, of trying to be ‘loose’. Its like working hard at trying not to work too hard, or trying to be relaxed. If you are trying, you are not relaxing. Sometimes our personality does get in the way, and well, for that, you will need a different kind of help.
I think the same can be said for finding your personal style, which is another major concern for amateur painters – don’t bother trying to find it, just keep painting, it will happen on its own.
That said, I am aware that there are instructors, and workshops, and coaching tips to help someone be less ‘stiff’ with their painting technique, and more focused on what might separate them and distinguish their art, but I cannot imagine that those things would be sustainable, or particularly rewarding or fulfilling in the long run. I could be wrong about that, I am open to that possibility, but I am certainly not interested in teaching that sort of thing.
Anyway, back to being painterly. Vasari, the famous biographer of the great artists of the Renaissance, remarked on Titian’s work from his later years stating that he had adopted a manner of ‘painting with splotches’. Perhaps due to his age and failing eyesight it was speculated.
Titian – self portrait
The 17th century term used to describe this phenomena was ‘sprezzatura’ which is roughly translated to mean ‘looseness’ or a casual approach in the handling of the paint. Of his paintings Vasari declared: “They cannot be looked at up close but from a distance they appear perfect” It can certainly be said that Titian’s later style did indeed change the course of the history of painting.
Rembrandt started his career with a relatively precise and careful execution but ended his life painting in a ‘rough manner’ as it was called during his day. A contemporary was quoted as saying ‘up close it looked as though the paint had been smeared on with a bricklayer’s trowel’. Rembrandt himself declared that the paintings should be viewed from a distance and it is said he would pull people away from getting to close to the painting, claiming the odor would be bothersome,…
Below are two self portraits done many years apart that illustrate how Rembrandt’s painting style became more ‘loose’ in his later life.
Rembrandt – self portrait
Check out that brushwork!
We cannot discuss being painterly without featuring a painting of perhaps the most popular of all the messy painters, below is a close up peek at some of the brushwork in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. It is noteworthy to mention that we generally admire Van Gogh’s paintings from his later years and even though his life was cut short, he had produced nearly 1000 paintings. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I will say that Vincent did not have the natural talent or excellent training of someone like Rembrandt and his early work does betray the mark of an awkward and amateurish hand compared to the early work of Rembrandt. But Van Gogh just kept painting feverishly. For anyone who is familiar with his life story you will likely agree that he did not have anything better to do with his time.
When I am asked for tips on how to make a better painting, I generally like to suggest that people ask me again after they have done 200 or 300 paintings.
That looseness and bravado with the brush is an admirable quality. As I was doing the demo of the texture mediums on the tree painting at the workshop I remarked on that very thing – that the effective application of the mediums comes down to being skillfully messy, or deliberately random, and that takes a lot of practice. Here is a close up of a painting I did of my own night stars a few years ago. The stars in this sky are actually shinny mica flakes:
Below is a close up of a section of a painting I did of some poplar trees. Almost all ‘painterly’ effects have some element of texture in them and it is the reason I started using the gel mediums all those years ago; I love the look and feel of the tactile paint and mediums. Who doesn’t want to run their fingers over a Rembrandt or Van Gogh painting? That might get you into trouble, but you are welcome to feel my texture, uhh,…
Don’t forget, you can click on any of the images to enlarge them to get a better ‘feel’ for the texture and quality of the painterly effects.
Now, as for that demo painting I was working on at the workshop. I did complete it, and I did promise to post the results here so the good people in West Van could see how I finished it. Here it is:
this is how we left it at the workshop. after the first 2 glazes and the black ‘stain’ I had started to block in the background veils and the purple and green on the tree.
I finish the blue and purple veils and the warm white tint on the background then I glaze the whole painting with blue and wipe most of it off. I use the warm white tint to create highlights on the tree trunk
I lighten the blue veil at the top, glaze the highlight on the trunk with transparent red oxide, put more opaque yellow highlights on the bows, then glaze transparent yellow oxide and quin red on the background.
I finish the trans yellow glaze, put a phthalo green glaze over the tree and a bit at the bottom, put another blue veil at the bottom and then some black shadows and contours.
I again boost the highlights in the background with a warm white, tinted with yellow.
another trans yellow oxide and nickel azo yellow glaze over the background
finally, I add a trans red oxide and an Indian yellow glaze over the light areas in the background, then add more blue and purple tints as well. the title of the painting is: ‘don’t leave anything out’
I know, what a process; and what’s the point of it all? I painted stuff and then painted over it again. It is said that Titian and Rembrandt would sometimes put up to 30 layers on in different parts of the painting, often wiping off as much as they put on. I like to do that sometimes too, it just ends up looking so much more painterly!