|Demo painting from the Canton Mississippi workshop|
Well here I am again, it's been a while! I have been traveling all over the country teaching workshops since last I posted. I went on tour, like a rock band. I have been in the White Mountains, Minnesota, Newburgh, New York and Mississippi and God knows where else. I can't even remember all of the places I have been. Most were three day gigs, but some were five days. I met a lot of students and had a lot of fun. I like doing workshops, and I love meeting the students. The workshop scene seems to select for an enjoyable group of participants. I run twelve hour days in my workshops, so I eat dinner and often breakfast with the students besides painting with them all day.
I think I will write about what I have seen out there. There seem to be common problems that many students have, and recently I have been aware of how most of the students have the same things to learn. I get a broad range of students in terms of ability and experience, from beginners to demi-professional, so some of them don't have these shortcomings. Most of them do. Remember, I am not talking about you, or anyone you know, I am talking about those "other" people who are far away. The common problems are these: (let me chamber a few bullets here)
- Failure to express the full range of values in the scene before them. Most of the students seem to paint in a few middle tones. I always seem to be telling them, "when you look out there, you see a dark and paint it a dark value. When I look out there, I see a dark and ask myself, which dark is it? I have several to choose from." The students use a single generic dark and a single generic middle tone, etc. They command too few values to explain that at which they are looking. I have been telling them this ;:" Did you learn to read from the Dick and Jane books? " (for you younger readers, Dick and Jane were drab children who said things like "look Jane! see Spot run! Run,run run. See Dick run!!" Spot was a dog. Dick was once a common male name. Jane was a girl's name then, much like Krystle or Brittney might be today). he teacher went up to the blackboard and wrote a list of about ten words on the board before she even handed out the book. You had to know about ten words to read even this simple story. The authors of this sorry tome couldn't tell even its banal story without at least ten words. They couldn't write the book with only say... five words, they needed at least ten. If you imagine your value scale to be words you will need about 10 or at least six or seven anyway, to tell the story that is in front of you in the landscape. You students don't have enough words (i.e. values) to tell the story of the landscape in front of you. I suspect that the best cure for this problem would be cast drawing under the eye of a master, but that is atelier training and most people just can't leave their real life behind and do that. I am trying to come up with a systematic approach to curing this problem, I do have an idea. I will get back to you on that.
- Inadequate paints and equipment. I see lots of mangled brushes, I pick them up and say "this was once a brush!" I will often see a student with two dozen brushes, none of which is in usable condition. They are as stiff as tongue depressors and worn into a point. I see a lot of hues too. Those are colors made for the student market that pretend to be the pigment but are not. Some cheaper pigment has been substituted for the necessary color. Usually this substitute is pthalocyanine plus some other pigment. I have seen a student with a pthalo pretending to be their ultramarine, their viridian and their cobalt, all on one palette. Half of their colors are really just one pigment, pthalo. I have seen whites with the consistency of joint compound and faux "cadmiums" no more powerful than fruit juice.These students have defeated themselves before they even touch their shattered, frizzled bristles to the paint on their palettes. I also see easels that wobble every time the student makes a stroke on the canvas, weird contraptions made of balsa and recycled aluminum that rock from side to side in the slightest breeze.They look like they were manufactured by someone who had heard of easels but had never actually seen one. A decent easel is going to cost more than a toaster at WalMart, that's just a fact of life. Pharaoh taught the Israelites you cannot make bricks without straw.
- Bargain canvas. I have seen students working on hyper absorbent canvas that sucks the life out of their paint. It is like painting on a loofah. The brush, instead of gliding sweetly over the canvas, scratches along like it is painting on sandpaper. You can buy a prestretched canvas at Michael's or Hobby Lobby for three dollars, but you shouldn't. If the gas it took you to drive to the store in your 25,000 dollar automobile cost more than the canvas you bought, you ought to walk there and get something that will actually work.
- A lack of knowledge of the history of painting. Students are constantly telling me about the artists they have read about in American Artist or some other magazine. Most of the time I have never even heard of these artists and when I see their work I am disappointed. I tell workshop participants that I never look to living artists as my models. These students know only contemporary painters, many of indifferent ability. To make good paintings it is necessary to know what the great artists of the past have done. If you told me you were learning to play guitar and I asked you what you thought of Chuck Berry and you answered "who?" I wouldn't think you were going to get very far.The great artists of the past dwarf ALL living artists. I know of no contemporary artist who is the equal of a Rembrandt or Rubens. It is absolutely essential to get up on the shoulders of the dead to see beyond the ordinariness of the art of our own time. Very few artists today could have cut it in the nineteenth century. We do a great job with technology and plumbing today, but our ancestors painted better. If you want to paint well read the classic texts and have giants for your heroes.