Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “realism”

8th International 2011-2012 ARC Salon Catalogue Now Available

Earlier in the year I announced that I was chosen as a finalist in the Art Renewal Center’s annual juried competition, in the still life category, for my painting “What Love Is.”  Though I was not selected for any of the grand prizes, my status as finalist means that my painting is published in the print catalog that the organization produces each year to commemorate the contest.

What Love Is, oil on panel, 2011, 16in x 24in

That catalog for last year’s competition is finally out, and available through the Art Renewal Center’s website.  If you order one, look for my piece on page 92!

The quality of realist and representational art in the catalog is astounding and truly inspirational for anyone who appreciates skill, technique, and humble craftsmanship in the visual arts.  Bucking the postmodern trend of concept over quality, the ARC gives hope that classical knowledge and disciplines are still alive, even when subject matter evolves to incorporate modern elements and motifs (as my own work does).

Being recognized by a group like ARC is an honor for me, as my own work attempts in part to honor the traditions of realism in representational art. In fact, my over-arching artistic goal is to achieve the combination of masterful old world skill with cutting edge commentary on the world I presently inhabit, and where we are headed as a species: the pinnacle of past, present and future.

“The 2011/2012 ARC Salon was our largest turnout yet with over 2,100 entries and over 800 artists participating. There were a large number of high quality works that did not make it into the finals. This was true even after extending the original 300+ expected finalist pieces to over 500. All 500 plus finalists are shown in this catalogue. To have become a finalist and be showcased in this catalogue is even more difficult than before and is a huge accomplishment.”

Secret Knowledge

BBC World Presents: David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge

Yesterday I was shown a fascinating and intriguing exposé documentary on the origins of the “camera obscura,” which is the first known use of optics in the creation of art. For those who don’t dispute the evidence of its existence, this primitive lens system (utilized several centuries before the invention of the modern camera) marked the birthplace of realism painting in 1420.


After about 15 minutes of the video, the phenomenal significance of this research dawned on me. Because although I’d previously known about the camera obscura, I had never investigated the full story in any depth–and never realized the profound implications it has on the placement of my and all other realist painters’ art, in the canon of art history. Thanks to this video, I’ve had a very encouraging revelation about the tradition I am participating in, and I’m honored to be carrying on a nearly 600-year-old lineage into the future, adding my drop of life’s work into this magnificent bucket.

Thankfully, some kind soul has uploaded the entire video on YouTube.  If you’re a nerd, an artist, or both you’ll surely enjoy:

Notes & Advice 3: Photographs vs. Paintings

The appropriate and effective use of reference material–notably, where and how to deviate from it to actually heighten illusions, ironically–has been an ongoing commentary of mine on this blog, being mentioned in a few past entries.  I consider this issue a central concern for any painter working in the realist genre, or who depends upon “fool the eye” illusions for the success of their images.  I’m always trying to increase my knowledge and refine my skill in this area, as well as find succinct and poignant ways of explaining it to others.
Austin-based, British-born artist Edward Povey, whom I’ve recieved valuable instruction and mentoring from over the past few years, had an interesting take on this concept in a recent email newsletter:
Artists and photographers are really both image-makers. The camera truly sees, and the artists could learn from its honesty. The photographers could learn from the artists’ profound sense of composition, knowledge of color, tonal value constructions, and expressiveness–relying less on the cleverness of the modern camera.
I believe that the wisest artists will be intimately aware of this dichotomy, and will strategically use the best of each world for the overall success of their images.

Notes & Advice 2: Darker/Grayer

There are certain tricks or techniques an artist can use to enhance the illusion of 3d form in their work. Picking any number of these tools from the mental drawer can drastically improve a painting, and they prove especially helpful in realism when an artist develops the intuition to deviate from the reference where necessary, in order to make a more successful painting (as opposed to a more successful reproduction).  One such tool is knowing where and how to reduce the chroma (or intensity) of an object’s local color as it recedes into shadow. In the words of classically-trained figurative painter Shane Wolf:

It’s crucial that the lighter value mixture be slightly higher chroma than the next darker mixture as this is how form works in nature. “Lighter brighter; darker grayer” is an old academic saying that explains that if an object is in light, it’s brighter; as it turns away from light into halftone, it gets darker and grayer.

(Wolf, Shane. “Alla Prima, Three Hour Sketch.” The Artist’s Magazine. November 2012: 38-39)

We all know that shadows make colors darker, but what we often forget–myself included–is that to complete the illusion in a painting, it may also be necessary to dial back the brightness/chroma/intensity of local colors to avoid shadows that compete for depth-space with foreground surfaces or objects, to the detriment of the overall image.

Notes & Advice 1: Stepping Back

Words of wisdom, from the astoundingly skilled, 26-year-old, San Fransisco-based painter Hsin-Yao Tseng:

“It’s important to squint your eyes while studying your subject and to stand back from your painting frequently. Squinting simplifies the details so you can see the big shapes and value patterns of the subject. Also, you get a sense of the lost-and-found edges. Standing back from your painting lets you evaluate the unity of the piece. Seeing the unity prevents you from overworking detailed areas or making unnecessary brushstrokes.”

(Seidner, Rosemary Barrett. “Born To Paint.” The Artist’s Magazine. October 2012: 44-51)

Great advice for perfectionist, detail-obsessed realism painters. Although aware of this advice long before reading Tseng’s feature this week, I too often forget to practice it. It was a timely reminder, as I was just about to put the finishing touches on a new experimental painting.

The more experimental or unfamiliar the territory that an artist is navigating, the more important it is to have his trusty fundamentals and basic skills by his side, like a compass, should he suddenly realize how lost he is.

So, Inspired by this painter wise beyond his years, I spent a recent afternoon in the studio focusing on this teaching. Being mindful to step back and gaze loosely at the overall image every 30 minutes or so, I found it a very refreshing practice. Note to self: do more of this.

Realism Techniques 7

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:

“Sacrificial”, oil on panel, 12 x 12in, 2012


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.

Look at the purple shadow area first, then the off-white knuckle wrinkles, then the orange and deep red under-lighted areas.

 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:

The scalpel was a final addition to the already heavily-Photoshopped reference image, replacing a much more modern cauterizing scalpel, whose unsatisfactory look of a Lego toy betrayed its badassness. See this blog post for more on the intricacies of reference usage.

Realism Techniques 6

After a few experimental forays I returned to the studio recently to continue work on The Apostasy series, which has been my major ongoing project for the past year.  Due to time and size constraints, only the first 10 paintings in this series debuted at Last Rites Gallery for my solo show in May and June.

I’m still very inspired by the themes and subject matter of these images, so it was great fun diving back in–I felt like I picked up right where I’d left off before my show.  The most recent painting I completed was a perfect example of the realism artist’s need to deviate from a strict reproduction of the reference material in order to maximize the intended symbolism or desired aesthetic qualities.

Using Reference Effectively

In this case, my reference image, which in itself had been highly manipulated from its original photographic state with Photoshop, featured a metallic instrument rather starkly silhouetted against a harshly lit background of tender skin.  I was faced with the artist’s “executive decision”: to ride the simple, graphic power of the flat black silhouette, or to increase the nuances of its surface texture in order to emphasize the effects of the hard light behind it.  Either choice works just as effectively within the overall composition, but caters ever so slightly to a different level of meaning within the piece. Power of steel instrument to manipulate the fleshly realm, or power of the light of truth usurping man and all his manipulative tools?

I chose the latter. So, this involved the invention of some extreme lighting effects on the surface of the instrument. These I hoped would more fully express the metallic nuances and form of this foreground object, as hard backlighting bends around it, creating a bit of a warm flare.  In general, I thought this increased action would add some more life to the piece. You can compare these deviation attempts in the provided sequence of photos, which starts with the specific area of my reference image, and ends with the corresponding section of the completed painting. (Image of the full painting coming soon…)

Intentionally painting the instrument too light at first allowed more control in creating subtle variations of lighting on the object.

Ultimately this entire issue is of minimal impact to the outcome of the entire image, and for those unfamiliar with the quirks of extreme realist painting, may seem like an exhaustingly trivial matter.  However, I enjoy it as yet another example of the myriad opportunities for creativity in a genre often mistakenly deemed uncreative.  Often, the creativity in ultra realistic styles simply operates at an unexpected and far subtler level than most viewers are trained to recognize.

Far from a mere copy-machine, the experienced realism painter works often with fully premeditated intention on every minuscule aspect of the painting, making a countless number of creative decisions and unique departures rarely noticed by the undiscerning eye. In fact, if the artist’ technical skill is strong enough, there’s no way that these aspects can be noticed. Like a magician, full acceptance by the audience signifies completion of the ultimate illusion.

Realism Techniques 5

My Black Sauce

In order to add richness, subtlety and depth to the darkest areas of my paitnings, I avoid the use of the color black entirely (i.e. Ivory Black, Lamp Black, etc.), opting instead for my own dark color blend.

I’ve found through my experience that the mixture of several dark colors creates a new color approaching the solidity of true black when applied in enough thick layers, yet yielding enough translucency in thinner applications to open up a much wider range of subtle color variation.  This flexibility and translucency in turn creates the possibility of much more realistic shadows and a truly convincing “absence of light” that the viewer can still see into.

Mixing up my special black sauce at the start of a new painting. This recipe consisted of Ultramarine, Burnt Umber, Veridian, and Alizarin.


I use a simple demonstration during my instructional seminars to prove the necessity of what I call “translucent shadows.”  I find a well-lit patch of space in the room and hold an opaque object in front of my outstretched arm, casting a prominent shadow across it.  I then invite the audience to answer the following rhetorical questions:

  1. Did the colors of my arm magically change into the colors of the shadow, like a chameleon’s skin changing to match its surroundings?
  2. Assuming not, did the colors of my arm therefore stay the same as they were before being cast in shadow?
  3. Similarly, were you able to still see the shadowed area of my arm, or was it completely swallowed up by an opaque, black, absence of light?
  4. Assuming it was visible, would you conclude that there was still a percentage of indirect light still present within the darkened shadow area?

What this demonstration makes obvious is the need for mimicking the processes of physics and light in the natural world within our paintings, as a method of making them accurately replicate that world.  This means painting objects or spaces close to their fully lit appearance and then obscuring them by using translucent shadow glazes, to the proper degree, and with the necessary color hues.

Of course, with experience, shortcuts can be taken on this process and this rule of sorts can be effectively broken for even further nuanced results.  In my own work, I don’t paint every single object or space in its fully lit colors before glazing it into shadow–instead I often aim for a middle point, knowing that after one or more glaze layers it will have the same appearance as if I hadn’t taken the shortcut. This saves time and effort, while maintaining the high level of control necessary for realistic illusions.

Logically, it also follows that if you take too big of a shortcut by matching a shadowed object’s final color during your underpainting, then glaze a translucent shadow over it to create the convincing, full-bodied richness of a realistic shadow, the cumulative effect will obviously make it darker than you had originally intended.  Simple trial and error yields the correct steps, shortcuts, and glazing formulas to achieve the exact results you had intended.

Translucent shadows place the objects within the murky depths of the space without completely obscuring them. Immense amounts of time and sanity were saved by glazing over whole areas of completed forms (“indirect” painting) rather than precisely matching every shadow color contained within each object through “direct” or opaque painting methods.

Art & Life 2: Artistic Karma

(The following is an excerpt from a longer text I wrote a few years ago, posted here in order to explain in detail–with helpful hints–the concept of Artistic Karma mentioned in my previous post.)

Finishing What You’ve Started: Your “Artistic Karma”

One all too common obstacle for artists, especially beginners in a particular medium, is abandoning projects before they’re completed.  We’ve all done it from time to time, but some more than others, and it can become a hindrance to our artistic progress.

What commonly happens is that the painter’s vision exceeds their technical skills at that time.  Whether they’ve set their expectations too high, attempted something too difficult and got stuck with a technique problem they couldn’t solve, or improve so fast that they dislike what they’ve previously done to the piece, the end result is often frustration and discouragement.  This type of failure is unnecessary, and it pains me to see talented artists hold themselves back with lack of follow-through.

I call this “artistic karma.”  Unfinished paintings and abandoned projects accumulate bad artistic karma; they’re like a book with a bunch of incomplete sentences.  Imagine trying to read that book and learn something from it—it’d be so much harder with the author withholding all that information from you, just teasing with partial thoughts and no conclusions.  With our art, we are that author, and we’re constantly reading our own book—our completed work—in order to learn via hindsight and grow as artists.  We need to have finished paintings, no matter how unsatisfactory the end result, to be able to critique (and have others critique), so that the lessons of where we need to improve can fully sink in.

Direct experience is the quickest and most profound way to learn something, because we live that lesson firsthand.  By abandoning paintings and losing sight of the ultimate goal, one can only learn the artistic lessons of that attempt conceptually, through the incomplete means of “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”  The knowledge and insight of where to go next don’t sink in as far this way.  The classic example to illustrate my point is the child told not to touch the hot stove who remains skeptical, versus the child who actually touches it and learns the lesson directly and beyond a doubt.

So having the discipline, patience, and work ethic to put our minds and abilities to the task of making the best of a painting that we hate, will help us much more in the long run.  We can ensure our growth and progression by “finishing the thought,” completing the piece at hand in order to give ourselves a necessary sense of accomplishment and closure, a building block to the next artistic step.  By keeping a few concepts in mind, this kind of laziness and resulting discouragement, frustration, and hindrance to progress can be largely avoided.

  •  The most important thing to remember is to pace yourself. It’s crucial for your long term success not to take on more than you can handle when just starting out.  We all want to paint the next great masterpiece, but we have to remember to be patient—achieving greatness takes time!   Learn to set yourself attainable goals for each session, each day, each week, or each painting.
  • Similarly, it’s often wise not to have more than one painting in progress at a time, especially if you’re tattooing full time or have some other kind of day job.  After taking care of all the other tasks of your life, you can be more effective with the time and energy you have left if you concentrate more intensely on a single goal rather than spreading yourself too thin.
  • Being able to make changes on the fly during the course of a painting, based on what your progress is presenting to you, is a skill you will develop with experience.  Each and every painting is an experiment, even more so as a beginner.  Sometimes when things don’t go according to plan it’s necessary to re-evaluate and come up with a new plan, or two.  Constant critique combined with a goal-oriented mentality will serve an artist well in addressing problems that arise, and in never giving up.
  • If all else fails and a project becomes too frustrating or bewildering, instead of abandoning it, put it aside temporarily.  Do so for a long enough time to get a fresh perspective on what you need to do, but not long enough to lose interest and motivation.
  • For paintings that may take weeks to complete, keeping your momentum is crucial.  To ensure this happens, keep it displayed in a place you’ll have to see it every day.  Walking by it and glancing at it briefly may yield an unexpected, spontaneous flash of inspiration.  Sitting in front of a painting for hours on end, staring at it from up close, and working logically and deliberately the way sharp focus realism often demands, causes our thought process to tighten up and dulls the immediacy of our creative urges and artistic intuition.   So it can really help with any piece of art, to literally take a step back, look at it from 5 or 10 feet away, and “see the forest for the trees” once more.
  • Another way to loosen up and regain your focus on “the bigger picture” during this break is to have some fun messing around with a different medium, or just fling some paint around on a different canvas or board and see what happens.  “Happy accidents” may occur that give you new insights, ideas, and fresh energy to get back to completing the original task at hand.  Although this bit of advice contradicts the “one painting at a time” guideline, it may still be appropriate and productive at times, so use your best judgment.  Some people do great with multitasking on several paintings at once, while others get hopelessly distracted and might maintain their focus better with the other suggestions.
  • What often works for me during a longer painting session, is to take a break to do something active like a short bike ride, walk, basketball in the driveway, or something similar.  This brief activity releases endorphins, shakes out the tension from sitting or standing still for hours, clears my mind, and allows me to come back to painting with a fresh focus.  At this time I often re-critique the piece and figure out whether to stick to my original plan for the session or layer of paint, or make some adjustments and set a new goal.
  • It’s worth repeating that you need to be self-motivated in order to succeed in the arts, and of course with demanding mediums such as painting realism.  If you’re not capable of being your own drill sergeant at times then all of these tips for sticking with a painting will be for naught.  Having a community of artists you’re involved in helps with this, but sometimes you just have to push yourself if you want to have any hope of being an artist whose work really stands out.

My Palette

There’s this thing that happens when I’m preparing my palette at the beginning of any project, when fresh paint hits freshly-scraped, pristine plexiglas. It’s a moment of reverie and deep satisfaction sprinkled with a faint crackle of nervous anticipation.

Arranging the colors in just the correct sequence is the code that opens the gate. The familiar smell of Linseed Oil is the painter’s incense, an invitation do dive right in. Sometimes, though, the untouched cleanliness of the whole setup is religious like an altar and I’m afraid to touch it, to muddle the perfection. So, recently I decided to preserve the moment.

My usual palette, for the last 10 or so years.

I’ve arrived at the following palette through a natural distillation of my working process over the last 15 years of making paintings:

  • Titanium White
  • Flesh Tone (Gamblin)/Buff Titanium/Naples Yellow
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Raw Sienna/Burnt Sienna/English Red
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Napthol Red/Grumbacher Red
  • Cadmium Red Deep
  • Alizarin Permanent
  • Burnt Umber
  • Ultramarine Blue/Viridian green
  • Cerulean Blue

Although highly refined and realistic images may potentially be achieved with a much smaller palette, each color listed above fills a unique void in the spectrum according to which I see and use color, for my particular style or version of high-realism painting.

This is especially true with the 4 reds I use. The bulk of my preferred subject matter is dependent on a wide range of subtle variation in the red area of the color spectrum. Highly specific combinations of these reds are a crucial part of my technique on most paintings. There’s a formula for the most convincing fresh blood that must be followed.

As indicated above, in three areas of my palette’s color spectrum are alternates of a similar hue that may be rotated in, according to the particular needs of a piece.

And of course, there is no true Black included. “Black” in all its subtle variation is achieved from several combinations of the darkest colors, which is a method that’s more conducive to a highly realistic result.  Furthermore, teaching oneself to recognize the subtle nuances in such a strong color as black is an important step in being able to create lifelike and convincing illusions.

An aftermath.