Blog posts tagged “alla prima”
About 10 years ago I leveled up my artistic practice in all areas after discovering the classical atelier system of art education.
Before that time I had been piecing together my own slow, winding learning trajectory in the realism painting genre, unintentionally slowing my progression with an over-reliance on photographic reference. In contrast, the atelier system is based on working directly from life, whether it be a live model, a still life, or a landscape.
In short, observing directly with one’s own eyes forces the brain and the artist’s hand to convert the 3 dimensions of real life into the 2 dimensions of a flat canvas.
Over time our eyes-brain-hand feedback loop becomes seamless, and we learn how to reproduce exactly what we see. The real-time, real life mental calculations of angles, lines, curves, planes, perspective, light and shadow, and millions of color possibilities have a measurable result: if the drawing or painting looks indistinguishable from what we’re observing, then those myriad calculations are overwhelmingly correct. Of course, eventually, an artist needs to learn how, when, and where to diverge from absolute accuracy in order to create a work of art that transcends the mere replication of reality…but the learning process that we submit to in order to reach that point is surprisingly valuable in its own right.
Arguably the single most important artistic discipline or skill, simple life drawing is actually a fairly complex amalgam of skills, requiring at least a rudimentary working knowledge of geometry, physics, optics, and the ability to plan sequentially. True life drawing begins as little more than primitive map making–the plotting of coordinates in space–and ends ideally with an incredibly nuanced understanding of the physics of form, mass, and light.
This great article I stumbled across got me thinking about drawing; what it forces our brains to do, and how it benefits our brains. While intended for the non-artist reader, it makes great cross-disciplinary connections and serves as a nice reminder and motivator for anyone who is an actual practicing artist, of just how valuable drawing is to our art.
Something I’ve never been a fan of doing is revisiting older paintings after some time has passed. The process of reconstructing or even merely re-approaching the original mindstate, inspiration, and vision for the painting feels spiritually regurgitative in some unclean way. Like digging up a dead issue in a relationship with your partner. I’ve never been one to want to dwell in the past, favoring the pursuit of new goals and the exploration of new territory over the retread of old ground.
But since embarking on a landscape painting journey over the past few years I’ve seen some of the masters of the genre doing just this–picking up old plein air studies to breath new life into them, perhaps making them more presentable as a truly finished piece to a buying audience–and had stared at some of my early plein air studies long enough to realize how I too could push the sense of drama or atmosphere in them.
Not to mention, more hours logged in the practice of landscape painting, more hours logged studying weather and outdoor light with more intention and discernment, has had the natural and inevitable effect of expanding my critique ability of what I’ve previously done as well as eased some of my fears about ruining those original results. This shift is the tangible, or at least quantitative, proof that learning is happening–awesome!
So in a brief fit of discontented boredom lately I pulled a few early landscapes off the wall and put my glazing knowledge learned from many hours of studio still life painting to use on some formerly alla-prima studies that looked a little flat.
Oil glazing truly does replicate the phenomenon of translucent–but not completely transparent–atmosphere that we live in and see through every time we gaze into the distance. Which makes it a perfect tool in the landscape painter’s skillset. For advanced stages of realism in any genre I find it to be absolutely indispensable, and enjoyed the practice of applying it to my new pursuit of landscape painting mastery.
I’ve been so busy painting in the studio for an upcoming exhibition of all new still lifes (announcements soon!) that I forgot to post about my spring and summer landscape painting fun.
Part I: April
At the beginning of April I was in Arizona, where as soon as I get out of Phoenix, I’m reminded why it’s one of my favorite nature states: so much variety of vast and mentally cleansing wild terrain! On this trip I had the good fortune of being able to paint the low desert in the south and then venture north of Flagstaff to paint the completely different high desert plains.
Part II: May
In late April I headed to the motherland of classical art for some work and pleasure. First stop was Venice, where I was too busy to paint, but caught some great iPhone snaps (not hard to do basically anywhere in Italy) with my now-antiquated 5s .
As the calendar turned to May, I traveled with friends to the lush hills of Tuscany, where I had the opportunity to experience the best views the entire region has to offer–from the mountains further inland (overlooking Leonardo’s birthplace Vinci) to the stunning Mediterranean coast–and produced these two plein air studies.
In between travels I managed to squeeze in a plein air session while home in Austin, on the occasion of a few artist friends being in town. We made the short drive out to one of the city’s little natural treasures, McKinney Falls State Park, which boasts some active waterfalls and a variety of interesting rock formations with a kind of outer space vibe.
Part III: June
In June I ventured to the altitudes of Lake Tahoe for the first time, and got roasted by the deceptively strong summer sun while painting the beautiful vistas of Heavenly Mountain and Emerald Bay.
On the eve of my departure I caught an ultra-quick sunset session as the haze from California wildfires filtered out some magical orange and pink rays. Since I only had time to block in a quick impression of the scene, I revisited the piece after I returned home in order to smooth everything out and push the atmosphere.
Part IV: July
In July I visited Ireland for the second time, but first as a plein air painter, and was excited about the opportunities for new environs. The Emerald Isle did not disappoint as I found my way into the mountains south of Dublin for a quick session, then to the picturesque Howth coastline just north of the city, which had me most nostalgic for my boyhood summers on Cape Cod here in the States.
One major artistic discipline for which I have the least formal study is anatomy. I find the human figure and its underlying structures infinitely challenging in all of the complex shapes, sizes and movements they’re capable of. I’ve logged many hours of figure drawing practice from live models as well as a few painting sessions but never have had the opportunity for long term, in-depth study, starting from the inside out. Which is why I jump at the chance for any opportunity to briefly work on this artistic area, and recently was given a rare and unique invitation to observe and paint a cadaver dissection at a local training facility for medical school and EMS students.
Knowing about the rich artistic tradition of anatomical study from cadavers, which began in earnest during the Renaissance in Europe, I was thrilled to uphold and carry forward this practice as a contemporary artist. In recent times the tradition has mostly faded, and I relish the privilege I was given for a day to revive it and link my artistic practice to that of the old masters and forefathers of modern Western art, like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Titian, among others.
Which isn’t to say that I regard myself to be in their rarified company in any way whatsoever, especially artistically. My accomplishments and artwork are quite meager in comparison with their mastery and all they left us with. What I mean is that, they started and passed on a beautiful tradition of deep artistic study melded with science–a tradition that I, in some small way, have been able to carry on, by practicing in a similar manner.
This day of training, although completely fascinating and enthralling, was not easy. We were set up in an examination room kept around the temperature of a refrigerator, due to, of course, the presence of a draped cadaver in the center of the room. Needless to say, these temperatures are difficult to be in for long periods of time without a lot of physical activity to keep one’s blood flowing and core temperature at a comfortable level. So after a while, painting with cold stiff fingers and shivering chest became the biggest challenge…and amusingly, allowed me to relate in a strange way to the severed and dissected arm of the cadaver perched on a crumpled medical drape in front of me, cold and stiff in its own way.
After observing the technician peel back the layers of skin and fascia on the forearm, all the while listening intently to his explanations of the detailed anatomy and its functioning, my friend James and I then watched in amazement as the arm was severed at the shoulder joint (quite easily) from its cadaver, and placed before us for further study. I gloved up and made a pleasing arrangement with it, and then got to work for a short hour and a half oil sketching session. Here’s the final result of an amazing day of learning and painting:
This past month I unearthed a bunch of tiny frames from my studio storage for the purpose of painting little gifts for friends and family this holiday season. I’d been collecting these things at various vintage stores and yard sales for the past several years for just such an occasion. Looking to tap into the peace and simplicity of painting outdoors during this colder (mostly) indoors season, I decided to attempt some miniature landscapes for these frames.
For the first time since embarking on my landscape painting journey about a year ago, I worked from photos rather than “en plein air.” Although unable to immerse myself in the atmosphere and unique light properties of the setting, I found the photos an incredibly effective practice modality due to the minimum of mental conversion needed in the controlled studio environment. The unchanging two-dimensional photo and the optimal lighting conditions were a great way to narrow down the variables in the artistic equation, freeing up my memory to attempt to rekindle some of the original vibe of these landscape locations, as well as focus on fundamentals like color matching and painting technique. I imagine this being somewhat similar to what the Hudson River School masters experienced in their studios, working strictly from memory and their plein air field studies.
Each of these tiny paintings were completed with the alla-prima technique over the course of a single 2-3 hour session, including the lone non-landscape study of the inside of an apheresis blood cassette (random, I know…more on this in the coming months, hopefully…), which was a gift for my phlebotomist friend.
Earlier this month I traveled to Peru, where I trekked to majestic Machu Picchu for the first time, documenting the epic Andes landscape throughout the journey with some plein air studies.
Being new to plein air painting, I took a few months before the trip to dial in my portable painting setup, experimenting with different materials and products in order to arrive at something as travel-friendly as possible.
Not only did everything need to clear foreign and domestic customs, the intense hiking aspect of the forthcoming journey required it to be as small, lightweight, and efficient as possible. After getting the initial inspiration from my summer workshop teacher Thomas Kegler‘s novel and ingenious modifications to the traditional plein air pochade box, I searched the internet and local stores for a few more ideas and products. In the end I devised something very functional, fairly efficient, not terribly expensive (as far as high-end art and travel equipment goes), acceptably small, and certainly lightweight.
- Tripod: The most important part of a plein air easel is the tripod, and to get one that is (1) reliable, (2) sturdy, (3) small, and (4) lightweight, you have to spend some money. It’s not worth the headaches later on, out in the field, to mess around with the cheap stuff. So I read reviews online and settled on the Manfrotto Befree, which seemed to intersect all of the 4 criteria above at an optimal place. After buying the tripod, I modified it by drilling a hole through the center stem a few milimeters from the bottom, in order to be able to hang a weight (my backpack) from it while working outdoors, which is crucial for keeping the very lightweight tripod sturdy in any kind of wind. So far it’s working out great, I just wish it went just a few inches higher like their studio tripods do, but, you can’t have it all when you’re concerned about size and packing space. (Grade: A).
- Pochade Box: Ethically, I strongly dislike Walmart, but when it’s the only large store in your small Texas town, sometimes you go there for the one random thing you want that they have (and comfort yourself afterwards by remembering that the entire world is headed for doomsday anyway because of capitalist greed causing global warming, and your minuscule nonsupport of Walmart wouldn’t do shit to stop that, really). In this case, it was the unlikely and unexpected score of a lightweight, plastic, 3-part folding notebook holder thing (with perfectly placed interior velcro elastic straps?!). For around $10.00, and requiring only a few small tripod-mounting holes to be drilled into it, this was an absolute bargain. …and wait, that’s not all!! It’s perfectly sized to fit two 9 x 12 inch panels in such a way that it doubles as your take-home wet painting carrier when you’re done with your session!! Call now, and this product can be yours for only 4 easy payments of literally $2.99!! Seriously though, I’m so pumped about this thing that I want to make an infomercial about it to spread the word. (Grade: A)
- Paint Carrier: Just a small bait holder from the hunting and fishing section at…Walmart. Or probably most hardware stores. It worked well enough, but I’m still on the hunt for one of equally small size, but with an airtight seal and divided into cubes instead of just rows. The paint mixed together somewhat during transport and higher temperatures, and began to dry out as well due to airflow (a rag soaked with moisture-enhancing Clove oil placed into the container drastically delayed drying time, though). Customs/TSA ProTip: If asked to explain what your oil paint is, never say they are paint! Always refer to them as “artist colors”! “Paint” tends to get lumped in with the general category of industrial, toxic materials banned for civilian flight, and they try to take those away from you, or at least tend to give you a hard time about it. Flying with as few “artist colors” as possible, and always packing them deep in your checked baggage rather than carry-ons, will also minimize hassles. (Grade: C+)
- Umbrella: At first these seem frilly and wasteful but after a few nasty plein air session sunburns, you realize how crucial they are when you’re standing still in any kind of direct sunlight for any length of time. I’ve been happy so far with my very first umbrella purchase, the Multi Mount Collapsible Umbrella from Guerilla Painter. It packs very small, and doesn’t weigh much. I wish the fabric wasn’t black though, because that can make your workspace very dark. And I also wish the mounting clamp had more angle options but that might be wishful thinking given its price range, size and weight. (Grade: A-)
- Crucial Miscellaneous Supplies: (1) Cheap zippered cloth bags from
Walmartfor carrying whatever. (2) Tiny bungee cords from the local hardware store. I use the Cords to keep my pochade box setup sturdy and still–just hook them anywhere, to anything, for some instant tension. These things have been really handy, and surprisingly one of the most indispensable things I bought for the setup. (3) Large industrial rubber bands, also surprisingly useful, in this case for making sure the pochade box doesn’t come unlatched unexpectedly and spring open, and ditto for the paint carrier. (4) Tiny glass vial for carrying solvent. Juuust big enough to hold enough solvent to dip your brush into and sort of clean them after you’re done, until you can give them a thorough cleaning at home. Carrying solvent around really sucks, it’s the worst part of plein air oil painting for me. It’s a health and safety hazard, of course, and not healthy for the environment that you’re trying so hard to appreciate. So, “as little as possible” has been my goal ever since beginning oil painting, and certainly since starting my plein air journey. Customs/TSA ProTip: Because I am a bad person, I have forgotten about and accidentally flown with this single tiny vial containing a mere several drops of solvent, buried deep in my checked baggage, a few times before. Obviously doing this isn’t advisable, and obviously I procure solvent at my destination whenever feasible, and properly dispose of it there as well. So my tip is to scout out in advance where you can get mineral spirits at your destination, and always keep it to an absolute minimum quantity. While on the go, wrap the jar or vial thoroughly with plastic and then double-bag it with ziplocs or anything else you can think of. (Grade: A-)
- Backpack: I’ve been so happy with my Osprey Comet 30L over the past few years of heavy, rugged use. It’s comfortable, durable, has enough pockets and compartments for everything I tend to carry, and is also Camelbak compatible, which came in handy during this trip, because carrying separate water containers is a drag. I was able to stuff my 2.0 liter reservoir into my backpack along with every single other supply needed, including energy bars, and the whole pack wasn’t unbearably heavy. It was certainly doable over short periods for someone of average to slightly above average fitness range (and not to mention at an elevation of, in this case, 6000-10,000 feet).
So as for my portable painting setup criteria mentioned earlier, here’s how I rate my current setup overall:
- Functionality: A
- Efficiency: B+
- Cost: A-
- Size: A-
- Weight A-
Being new to the plein air community, I’m sure there’s further improvements to the system I can make and of course, much more experience and knowledge to be gained, but this recent journey was successful enough that I wanted to share and add to the body of helpful knowledge out there.
As for the experience and the work itself, here are some photos.
Three location shots:
Three finished studies, 9 x 12 inches each, oil on panel:
And some iPhone 5s photography shot throughout the trip, for good measure:
This summer marked my first serious foray into true outdoor (plein air) landscape painting, in an effort to deepen my knowledge on the visual effects of atmosphere and natural light. This endeavor also conveniently bridged a longstanding divide between my love for exploring the outdoors and my love of painting.
Until this year the two had been almost always mutually exclusive, routinely prompting an internal conflict on beautiful days over whether to satisfy the urge to paint in the studio or the urge to go outside. But I finally confronted my fear of alla prima painting and began the difficult process of learning this completely contradictory painting technique to the one I’ve trained in for over a decade.
Although discouraging at times, I couldn’t be happier with my experience so far; it feels like a whole new artistic world has opened up to me…the proverbial kid in the candy store phenomenon. I feel reinvigorated creatively, which any artist knows is a joyous feeling, and I’m excited to see how this new painting discipline evolves my artistic vision.
For now I’m still entrenched in the learning curve, looking forward to each new (and challenging)
outing, where I’m slowly gaining the experience needed to bring this vast new body of knowledge back into the studio for larger and more ambitous works in my usual indirect layering technique (ala the Hudson River School methods).
So here are my favorite plein air studies from this summer, a few of them completed at an incredibly fun workshop taught by Thomas Kegler in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. All are oil on panel and sized either 8 x 10 or 9 x 12 inches.
I finished painting #12 in the Apostasy series, now tentatively titled Sacrificial, a few days before my recent galavant to Galapagos. Didn’t get a chance to post anything about it before I left, but let me just say: That trip was crazy. So crazy that re-entering the studio upon my return was like landing in a time warp to a long ago era. Like a cat in a new home I sniffed out the place to make sure it was still real, still my life(?), in this current place and time, and then gratefully got the fuck to work on some prints for an upcoming group show (more coming soon on that).
Good to get outta here for an adventure, but good to be back in the creative womb with some new entries in that cluttered/overflowing filing cabinet called mind.
So, to get myself caught up, here’s the now foreign-seeming latest:
For anyone actually reading this blog on the regular, the technique of layering to achieve high levels of realism should be at least somewhat familiar by now. Yet, within this broader process of applying paint in separate layers lies the specific technique of applying paint in small amounts, during the progression of a single painting session, or layer. In other words, a wet-into-wet paint application which mimics classic Alla Prima techniques, yet occurs within the quite contradictory process of indirect (or layered) painting.
For example, the basic form and colors of the gloved fingers shown below had been established after one opaque paint layer (which I usually call the block-in). After that first layer of opaque paint was dry, subtlety and detail were added in the subsequent layer shown, but this increasing complexity, not surprisingly, requires increasing care during application. Towards this end, paint is added sparingly, in thin amounts, and blended down to join it seamlessly with the dried block-in. I move through an area, micromanaging approximately 1 inch square sections of the painting, each receiving the same apply/blend treatment.
I use Galkyd Slow-Dry medium with all of my paint mixtures, and pay close attention to the viscosity of the paint when mixing on my palette, since overly fluid or thick consistencies can make this stage of the painting process incredibly difficult.
Finally, where mini-layers come into play is when the application and blending process is repeated during the same painting session. I revisit many of the 1 inch square areas while the paint is still wet, and re-apply another thin layer of color, blending that out very carefully so as not to destroy the first application. …And so on, until these wet mini-layers have accumulated thick enough that I deem the layer no longer workable. At this point, the session is finished and I wait for that layer of paint to dry before revisiting the same area again.
The sequence below shows some of these steps. If you look carefully, you can see tiny areas of paint being applied and then smoothed out. These same areas were worked over once more in the same fashion, with certain areas receiving a third pass during that same day’s work.
And lastly, a studio shot of my reference for the piece, which was perhaps the most complex and densely detailed of the series thus far:
Working Smarter, Not Harder
These paintings were executed (almost) entirely in Jeff’s very direct Alla Prima working process, with his stripped-down palette of Titanium White, Alizarin Crimson, Prussian Blue, and Transparent Orange.
The goal during the several hours it took to paint each of these was, first and foremost, to let the spontaneity and expressiveness of each brushstroke remain apparent, to let the paint breathe in all of its wet, visceral uneven glory. In other words: not turning into a self-indulgent artist and over-brushing everything to death. Or, in other, other words: not using my normal sharp-focus realism techniques or process.
The theory behind this approach is that over-working the paint takes you out of the moment, masking the raw emotion that may be transferred from body to brush to canvas, that infuses a picture with a sense of life and mystery. Emphasis is placed on accurate and efficient reproduction of what you’re seeing: hold brush confidently, make your mark with discriminating force, leave it alone. As a realist, this exercise is a valuable lesson in efficiency, allowing you to access the ability to commit the most information with a single stroke. More accuracy with the least amount of physical brushwork or artistic manipulation.
Its simplicity is quite beautiful, really, like Buddhist meditation practices.
It’s also quite painful for the neurotic who wants everything to be smooth and perfect, everything resolved and solved so that the final illusion is primary while the physical surface of the painting melts into oblivion. The working process I’ve developed over the years is patterned after many of the Renaissance masters who used many layers and subtle glazes to achieve convincing illusions. These results are often dependent upon a process of highly refined brushwork, and arrived at through precise technique, planning, and strategy. So, needless to say, each of these candle still lifes were a monumental struggle from start to finish, as I forced myself to make marks and then leave them alone–moreover, to make “mistakes,” and then leave them alone.
Ultimately, I’m pleased with the results as well as the experienced gained from the exercise. When I returned home and began painting again in my usual manner, I found myself able to loosen up my brushwork to achieve illusions more efficiently. Incorporating the ‘observe, make mark, move on’ attitude helps me, as a painter of realism, focus on committing only the necessary information, more accurately and more quickly. I see this as the next level of learning, after an artist learns simply how to work with paint. It’s the process of learning how to work smarter, not harder. To achieve greater results, in less time and with less struggle.