Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “renaissance”

Anatomical Study from Cadavers

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.

Leonardo Da Vinci, Studies of the Shoulder and Neck, c. 1509-1510

Leonardo Da Vinci, Studies of the Shoulder and Neck, c. 1509-1510

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:

Study of an Arm, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

Study of an Arm, oil on panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2016

Realism Techniques 3

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Here are two more quick paintings from my visit to Jeff Gogue’s studio last summer, which I’ve blogged about here and here.

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.

"Extinguished 1" Oil on Panel, 12 x 12 in, 2011

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.

"Extinguished 2" Oil on Panel, 12 x 12 in, 2011. These candles are a metaphor for the passing of time and worldly things, the aging of mind and body. The still-smoking wick represents the fundamental stillness of mind, accessible through meditation, which becomes clear once all thoughts, concepts and constructs have been extinguished. The half-melted candle represents the slow aging and decay of the body, our physical vessel.

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.