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December 2016

Whistler v. Ruskin: The Gentle Art of Making Enemies

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Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket

James Abbot McNeill Whistler c. 1875

I’ve long admired Whistler’s Nocturnes for their spare elegance, and subtle nods to Hiroshige’s woodblock prints. What I didn’t know is that it bankrupted poor Whistler, and was the subject of lawsuit controversy as unfortunate as modern daytime television. All that, and it was simply a matter of taste.

Whistler believed in “art for art’s sake.” Contrary to the predominant Victorian loquaciousness, he believed a painting need not be beleaguered by narrative, meaning, or moralities. To Whistler, a painting needed only a quality of emotion produced from tone and color. A painting needed only to be beautiful. Further, he believed an elegant painting should have the lightest application of paint and the least amount of brush work, a new style later called Japonisme, influenced by Japanese art and fashion. In “Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket” Whistler’s work was so light and implied that to the art critic John Ruskin, it looked completely without finish, or craft. The thin transparent washes, barely covering the weave of the linen, and his flecks of paint, so practiced to look effortless, was so grossly misunderstood by Ruskin that it effectively ruined Whistler’s career as a painter.

Detail of Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket
Excerpts from Wikipedia:
Whistler spent years perfecting his splatter technique. Eventually he possessed the ability to make an object or person with what appeared to be nothing more than a single flick of paint. Although Whistler’s critics denounced his technique as reckless or lacking artistic merit, it is notable that Whistler spent much of his time with meticulous details, often going so far as to view his work through mirrors to ensure that no deficiencies were overlooked.
Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket c. 1875 is most famously known as the inception of the lawsuit between Whistler and the art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin was not aware of the effort and theory that had gone into Nocturne in Black and Gold when he accused The Falling Rocket of being a public insult. He had denounced Whistler’s art as “absolute rubbish.”

John Ruskin, self portrait in watercolor

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” – said John Ruskin, who assumed Whistler’s work had neither love, nor skill. 

 

Detail of The Falling Rocket

Working against contemporary inclinations for narrative (indicative of the heavy consumption of literature), Whistler can be seen arguing for painting’s essential difference from literature within this work, as color and tone trounce hints of narrative or moral allusion. Whistler’s focus was on coloristic effects as a means of creating a particular sensation. More than that, a Nocturne is concerned with its depiction of space, seeking a particular sense of void that seems to arise only in the night time. As part of the Art for Art’s Sake movement, the artwork seeks to provide complex emotions that go beyond the technicalities of the imagery. Whistler believed that certain experiences were often best expressed by nuance and implication. These compositions were not designed to avoid the truth of a scene, but instead served as a means of reaching deeper, more hidden truths. His artistic endeavors no longer concerned themselves with physical accuracy, seeking only to capture the essence of an intangible, personal and intimate moment. Whistler has been quoted as saying:

“If the man who paints only the tree, or flower, or other surface he sees before him were an artist, the king of artists would be the photographer. It is for the artist to do something beyond this.”

Whistler, self portrait

In essence, The Falling Rocket is the synthesis of a fireworks scene in London, and so by no means does it aim to look like it. Like his other Nocturnes, the painting is meant to be seen as an arrangement, set to invoke particular sensations for the audience.

Affronted by The Falling Rocket, John Ruskin accused Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.”  As a leading art critic of the Victorian era, Ruskin’s harsh critique of The Falling Rocket caused an uproar among owners of other Whistler works. Rapidly, it became shameful to have a Whistler piece, pushing the artist into greater financial difficulties. With his pride, finances, and the significance of his Nocturne at stake, Whistler sued Ruskin for libel in defense. In court, he asked the jury to not view it as a traditional painting, but instead as an artistic arrangement. In his explanation, he insisted that the painting was a representation of the fireworks from the Cremorne Gardens. During the trial, Sir John Holker asked, “Not a view of the Cremorne?” to which Whistler was quoted as saying, “If it were a view of Cremorne, it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders.” However, his case was not helped when The Falling Rocket was accidentally presented to trial upside down. His explanation of the composition proved fruitless before the judge. The Ruskin vs. Whistler Trial, which took place on November 25 and 26, 1878, was disastrous for Whistler. While he did not lose, he only won a farthing. After all the court costs, he had no choice but to declare bankruptcy. Whistler was forced to pawn, sell, and mortgage everything he could get his hands on.  Whistler included a transcript of the case in his 1890 book The Gentle Art of Making Enemies.

Nicola Samori

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I should title this post “The Least Macabre Paintings I Could Find by the Artist Nicola Samori.” I love his figurative works: the simplified compositions, the suggestions of movement and time, his paint application style, texture, articulation and decay – even his color palette, though admittedly it’s on the darker of the very dark Italian tastes. I enjoy everything about these works except the death, and you know I loves me some death. I don’t know what it is exactly, but somehow this guy makes death just way too …deathy for me. And it’s not like there was a year or so where this guy got a little dark. He’s been very consistently painting deathy-death paintings for years – not decades, he’s only in his late 30’s, but still. He’s in it, and I don’t think he’s pepping up any time soon. Still, even with all this creepy, I like what he does with the paint. So I’ve done my best to find works that are light on the deathiness. If you don’t mind these, if you feel you need the full dose of his Catholic deathiness, look him up on the Google.

The Least Death-Deathiness Paintings I Could Find by the Artist Nicola Samori

(A disturbingly small collection)

Excerpt from interview in Huffington Post

Whereas artist interviews illuminate the character and thought process of the artist, and this almost always deepens my understanding, and thus my enjoyment of their work, this egotistical whining clump of vine-rotting fennel called Nicola is causing me to doubt my decision to include this….

Who Is Nicola Samorì?

11/01/2012 03:45 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

 

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Agnese, 2009, oil on copper, 100 x 100 cm, image courtesy of Nicola Samorì

 

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Larvatorum, 2010, oil on copper, 70 x 50 cm, image courtesy of Nicola Samorì

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Simonia (Gambassi), 2008, oil on copper, 100 x 100 cm, image courtesy of Nicola Samorì

MB: What inspired the mood of your art?
NS: My work stems from fear: fear of the body, of death, of men. I think my nature as an artist is something like feeling hopeless. Works are just temporary shelters and painting is a leisure place where you can conceal yourself.

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La Storia, 2009, oil on copper, 100 x 100 cm, image courtesy of Nicola Samorì

MB: How would you describe the themes in your art?
NS: My works are planes of temporal accumulation and push the image towards its dissolution. My attention is focused on the last moments of a work when a form of exhausted, at-the-limit beauty is impressed in it. I like taking the image to a breaking point, putting its form into danger.

MB: What motivates your art?
NS: There’s no particular reason. You just chase it.

MB: When I look at your work, I am struck by the moody atmosphere and the literal darkness of the imagery. Is this a reflection of you? Can you describe to me how this moodiness/darkness that appears in your work connects to you personally?
NS: It is an unconscious mirror perhaps, sort of an exorcism to take away something from you or give form to whatever you do not want to live. What is shown in my work is what I have escaped.

MB: Do you feel that the public understands your work? Does it matter to you that you are understood?
NS: It’s nice to feel you are understood but it’s not vital. I like strong reactions: disturbing, entering the people’s minds, changing the people who get in contact with a work of mine, even if for a very short time. It’s hard to feel you are completely understood since I am the first one who changes his mind about his works all the time.

MB: What do you want people to know about you?
NS: That I am not kidding, that art can be a very serious matter. Private matters must be kept private.

MB: What is your life like?
NS: Not bad. I am married to a wonderful person, I live in a very beautiful house, I earn a lot, I just love what I do, I meet interesting people. However, I do not forget that everything is vanity, that I need art especially to count the days passing by.

MB: Do you have any figures in art history that you look up to?
NS: A great number. It wouldn’t make sense to draw up a list of all the artists who have influenced my art, but I cannot restrain from mentioning Michelangelo, even if it may appear quite obvious. I think he is the greatest creative mystery of our species, the very personification of Western aesthetics.

 

 

 

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Simonia (J.R.S.R.), 2009, oil on linen, 200 x 150 cm, image courtesy of Nicola Samorì

 

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Nubifregio, 2010, oil on linen, 200 x 150 cm, image courtesy of Nicola Samorì

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The Undeniably Optimistic Process of Harry Ally

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“Anything done more than a week ago I’m embarrassed about. You think you can get it right, but you never get it right. No one’s got it right. Who got it right?” – Harry Ally

Source: http://www.escapeintolife.com/mixed-media-2/breaking-the-mold-art-of-harry-ally/

Harry Paul Ally paints with dry pigments, acrylics, tar, fabrics, oils, bonding agents, and different clays dug from the Georgia soil – “From these materials the figurative images are unearthed,” Ally states.

 

Harry, 2007,  Charcoal, pastel, acrylic on paper, 28 x 22 in

Painting is the primal impulse to mark. It’s a visual record of the mind, the body, and the human spirit. For me there’s an urgency to both create and destroy.  Maybe it’s out of sheer frustration that I work. Maybe it’s just to satisfy a need to violate or to contradict. I’m not sure. There is a strong feeling though and I feel compelled to communicate this feeling.

 

 Nuit #5

Concerning content and meaning in my art, I’m never quite sure. The work seems to be layered with different meanings. It primarily deals with vulnerability, fragility, and submission. It conjures up past images and emotions… feelings about the church, about nuns, relationships with my mother, with my wife, and other persons both male and female that all seem to play a part of each painting.  And then there’s the surface, the physical quality of the work that eludes to decay, to violation, and to vulnerability.

 

Liar, 2008Mixed Media on Panel, 24 x 24 in.

The surfaces of the paintings are like excavations, surfaces layered with a variety of materials… dry pigments, acrylics, tar, fabrics, oils, bonding agents, along with different clays dug from the Georgia soil. From these materials figurative images are unearthed. Their surfaces reveal the painting’s history, its process, and provide actual depth, both physically through build up and layering as well as emotional depth with destructive scarring.

 

Figure #75, 2007, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 72 in.

The works are an existential search for an abstract presence, an intuitive search into the unknown, a search for truth revealed through distortion and through exaggeration. I feel connected to the past, to a timeless tradition in art that has always been a primary concern of man…the expression of existence.  It’s innate. It’s primal. It’s been there since the beginning and I too have become part of this search for meaning and identity through the creative process of art making.

 

 l07 dymphna

 

 

Harry Ally in his studio

“You don’t want to make a face on a person, then it becomes specific, not universal.”

 

“I don’t want to put clothes on a figure, and not make him all vulnerable, man.”

 

“Every painting is a failure but it gives me a little ray of hope to try on the next one.”

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Janet Fish is not a photorealist, she’s a painter

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JANET FISH

Born 1938

Janet Fish is known for her large, bold, still life paintings and drawings that study how light bounces through and off various surfaces. Among her favorite subjects are produce incased in plastic wrap, clear glassware and liquids.  Other subjects include teacups, flower bouquets, textiles with interesting patterns, goldfish, vegetables, and mirrored surfaces. Her work has been characterized as photorealist, although she does not consider herself a “photorealist,” possibly objecting to the way “photorealism” infers that the source view is the camera, and not the eye of the artist.  Elements such as composition and use of color demonstrate her point of view as a painter rather than a photographer.

Below: An excerpt from Peter Malone, posted on HyperAllergenic 1/28/16. You can read the full article here.

Janet Fish’s Jarring Experiments in Still Life Painting

Among several modes enthusiastically adopted by painters in the last century, spontaneity is still held in the highest regard. Having proved durable for artists of varying ideologies and orientations, spontaneity has been transformed from a method to a value. Overworking an image, a technical misstep one assumes was as common in the past as it is today, is no longer understood as a misstep but as an insufficient appreciation of the extemporaneous. Our ubiquitous taste for color in the higher keys is also a direct result of our collective loyalty to this and to other assertive painting methods. Color is likely to be cleaner and more intense if applied in uninterrupted passes over a prepared surface.

These generally accepted values — intense color and spontaneous execution — defined the ground on which representational painters made peace with their abstract brethren in the early 1960s. What ties the work of Lois Dodd and Neil Welliver to the period that saw the rise of Kenneth Noland and Frank Stella is a shared bias toward directly applied and unadulterated color, and it is on this same ground that Janet Fish has thrived for decades, exploring in subtle ways the boundaries of representational and abstract painting.

Nativity Paintings from around the World

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Christians often depict Jesus as coming into their own culture, in their present time. The Italians, whose visual language was predominant during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, featured an Italian Jesus in Renaissance times, and they did it so often and so well that when you think “Nativity,” you probably think of the church art from that age and country—not because it offers the most legitimate representations (they are no more “accurate” than the ones below), but because the Church held particular sway at that time, in that place.

The center of Christianity is no longer in the West. If we were to survey the Christian art being produced today, we would see that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have a much different look. We’d see Mary dressed in a sari or a hanbok; we’d see Jesus wrapped in buffalo skin, or silk. We’d see lizards and kangaroos.

Historical accuracy is not the point of nativity paintings. The purpose is to represent Jesus as one of the people, and relevant to life today.

Below are nineteen contextualizations of the Nativity painted within the last century. Each work brings Jesus into the scene of the artist.

(Edited from https://thejesusquestion.org/2011/12/25/nativity-paintings-from-around-the-world/)

USA:

"Nativity" by James B. Janknegt

James B. Janknegt, Nativity, 1995. Oil on canvas, 57 x 82 cm.

Source.

Crow Nation (Montana-based tribe):

Native American Nativity

John Guiliani, Mary Gives Birth to Jesus, 1999. From The Crow Series.

Source.

Guatemala:

Guatemalan Nativity

John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s.

Source.

Nicaragua:

Nicaraguan Nativity

Leoncio Saenz, Nacimiento (Nativity), 1983. The banner reads: “I come to tell them that in Nicaragua the new man has been born.”

Source.

England:

Nativity by Dinah Roe Kendall

Dinah Roe Kendall, The Shepherds Went to See the Baby, 1998.

Source.

India:

Nativity by Solomon Raj

P. Solomon Raj, Nativity, 1980s. Batik.

Source. (see also another version)

China:

Chinese nativity

He Qi, Nativity, 1998. Ink and gouache on rice paper.

Source.

Tibet:

Tibetan nativity

A thangka (sacred wall hanging) given by H.H. the Dalai Lama to Fr. Laurence Freeman and the World Community for Christian Meditation in 1998.

Source.

Korea:

Korean nativity

Woonbo Kim Ki-chang, The Birth of Jesus Christ, 1952-53. Ink and color on silk, 76 x 63 cm.

Source.

Japan:

Japanese nativity

Sadao Watanabe, Nativity, 1960s? Stencil print on momigami paper, 58 x 78 cm.

Source. (see two other nativities by Watanabe here and here)

Thailand:

Thai nativity

Sawai Chinnawong, Nativity, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 32 x 37 in.

Source. (see another Nativity painting by the same artist)

Malaysia:

Malaysian nativity

Hanna Varghese, God Is With Us, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in.

Source.

Indonesia:

Indonesian nativity

Erland Sibuea, Nativity, 2008.  Acrylic on canvas, 31 x 23.6 cm.

Source.

Philippines:

Filippino nativity

Kristoffer Ardena, The Meaning of Christmas, 1995. Oil on canvas, 62 x 46 cm.

Source.

Uganda:

African nativity

Francis Musango, Christ in the Manger, n.d. Oil painting.

Source.

Cameroon:

African nativity

Fr. Engelbert Mveng, Nativity, early 1990s. Central scene from church mural. Holy Angels Church, Aurora, Illinois.

Source. (see the full mural)

Democratic Republic of the Congo:

African nativity

Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, Nativity, 2001. Peinture grattée, 70 x 50 cm.

Source.

Australia (Aboriginal):

Australian nativity

Greg Weatherby, Dreamtime Birth, 1990s? 51 x 64 cm.

Source.

Tahiti:

Nativity by Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin, Baby (The Nativity), 1896. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Source. (see also Gauguin’s other Nativity painting, Te Tamari No Atua)

Marina Abramović’s Rules of Life, Solitude, and Silence

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Marina Abramović is a Yugoslavia-born performance artist based in New York. Her work explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.

I realize not everyone admires the work of Marina Abramovic. She’s been called an attention seeker, a bullshit producer, an egoist. Dr. Lisa Levy, a psychologist, decided to become a performance artist just so she could discount and mock Abramovic’s work:

“I think ego interferes with art making, it makes the artist self-conscious. The most direct way to make the artwork is the least egoic way possible.” – Dr. Lisa Levy

Abramovic is rubber, you are glue, Dr Levy.

Marina Abramovic´: The Artist Is Present Photo by Marco Anelli.

Performance art is easily mocked, but I honestly don’t understand why people hate this woman so danged much. How many brilliant artists had big egos? How many of them wanted your attention? While ego and attention seeking may not be the perfect traits for every situation, they can function to propel ideas past the sofa and into the world. Charisma can make people stop and listen. If they’re brilliant ideas like Abramovic’s are, we can be better for having heard.

On a more personal side, I’ve looked back at my life and career to realize I have occasionally put myself at risk in an effort to be honest. Vulnerability, truth, bravery, and exposure so easily become muddled, especially for an artist. I think now about performance artists like Chris Burdon and Abramovic, and wonder where the line is for purposeful risk and fear. I wonder how we sometimes find ourselves putting our bravery on display. I wonder what I’ll do with this.

– Ruthie V.

Walk Through Walls: A Memoir

by Marina Abramovic

Marina’s story, by turns moving, epic, and dryly funny, informs an incomparable artistic career that involves pushing her body past the limits of fear, pain, exhaustion, and danger in an uncompromising quest for emotional and spiritual transformation. A remarkable work of performance in its own right, Walk Through Walls is a vivid and powerful rendering of the unparalleled life of an extraordinary artist.

Order on Amazon

An Artist’s Life Manifesto: Marina Abramović’s Rules of Life, Solitude, and Silence

Content below by Marian Popova, on Brainpickings 11/30/2016

“The Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” E.E. Cummings

Cummings wrote in his spectacular meditation on what it really means to be an artist. But if “all art is based upon nonconformity,” as the great artist Ben Shahn asserted, and if unlearning our cultural conditioning is essential to creative work, why do we have such a voracious appetite for the writings, daily routines, and manifestos of celebrated artists?

That tension between guidance and rebellion is what Marina Abramović (b. November 30, 1946) plays with in a piece titled “An Artist’s Life Manifesto,” which opens the twelfth chapter of Walk Through Walls (public library) — the magnificent memoir that gave us Abramović on art, fear, and taking risks.

The manifesto is divided into three parts — an old-fashioned list of rules of personal conduct, the kind which artists like Eugène Delacroix and André Gide kept in their diaries in the nineteenth century; a portion devoted to the artist’s relationship with silence, that ennobler of speech and fertilizer of the imagination; and a section dedicated to the relationship with solitude, that seedbed of self-discovery and supreme fuel for creative work.

To be sure, the manifesto itself bears the characteristic fusion of sincerity and subversion that marks Abramović’s work — although the tenets are rooted in the earnestness of her own experience, it is an undeniable contradiction for an artist who has spent half a century defying the dogmas of art by inventing new forms to prescribe a set of dicta for artists to follow. Out of that deliberate contradiction arises a testament to philosopher Jacob Needleman’s abiding assertion: “There is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.”

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present. Photograph by Marco Anelli.

Abramović writes:

AN ARTIST’S CONDUCT IN HIS LIFE:

An artist should not lie to himself or others
An artist should not steal ideas from other artists
An artist should not compromise for himself or in regards to the art market
An artist should not kill other human beings
An artist should not make himself into an idol…
An artist should avoid falling in love with another artist

AN ARTIST’S RELATION TO SILENCE:

An artist has to understand silence
An artist has to create a space for silence to enter his work
Silence is like an island in the middle of a turbulent ocean

AN ARTIST’S RELATION TO SOLITUDE:

An artist must make time for the long periods of solitude
Solitude is extremely important
Away from home,
Away from the studio,
Away from family,
Away from friends
An artist should stay for long periods of time at waterfalls
An artist should stay for long periods of time at exploding volcanoes
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at fast-running rivers
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the horizon where the ocean and sky meet
An artist should stay for long periods of time looking at the stars in the night sky

During our recent public conversation in San Francisco, Abramović shared three more life-rules she borrowed from her dear friends Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson:

1. Have a good bullshit detector.
2. Fear nothing and no one.
3. Be tender.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly terrific Walk Through Walls with Mary Oliver on the third self and the artist’s task, James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity, and Sol LeWitt’s electrifying letter of advice on overcoming self-doubt, then revisit Abramović on pain as a focal lens for presence.

Contemporary figurative artworks that push me out of my comfort zone

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This collection is from an Artsy editorial by Casey Lesser from June 10th, 2016, originally titled “These 20 Female Artists are Pushing Figurative Art Forward.” Casey’s full writing is below. Personally, I’m less interested in continuing the very legitimate fight to acknowledge female artists, and more engaged by the subject matter, with respect to the artist’s life, and place in history. Valid as it may be, I’ve never responded well to the obligation for points based on the gender of the painter, not when the painting’s intended conversation may be something other than gender. These paintings have so many other interesting facets, such as the use of color and patterns, and how the paint handling on a few cause me to feel wonderfully, self-questioningly, squeamishly, uncomfortable. If I am bold enough to paint anything so effectively uncomfortable, I beg you, please do not refer to me, the painter of these works, as a “female artist.”

fe·male

of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) that can be fertilized by male gametes.

 

“These 20 Female Artists are Pushing Figurative Art Forward.”

In February, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s European Paintings department mounted a solo show of a female painter for the first time in over four decades. This first-ever retrospective of Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (which originated at Grand Palais in Paris last year), featured the French 18th-century master who has long gone overlooked (save for her portraits of Marie Antoinette), obscured by the shadows of her male contemporaries (namely, Jacques-Louis David). It’s a case that recalls the notorious 1989 Guerrilla Girls poster Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?, but Le Brun is also a much-needed chink in the chain of male painters who have built the all-too-Western canon of figurative painting. And while gender plays no role in the capacity to create a compelling painting, today, a critical mass of female painters are embracing figuration, diversifying it, and pushing the conversation around it forward.

The current landscape of contemporary figurative painting is particularly strong, not only due to the commercial market for it, but perhaps more so the way that artists are portraying people in response to salient topics and issues of the 21st century—from race, gender, and war, to privacy, social media, and love. “We are living in a time that’s ripe with debate over what it means to be a human in one kind of body or another,” says Emily Mae Smith, one of 20 female figurative painters discussed below. A mere fraction of those working today, these women build upon the masterful work of figurative forebears, including powerhouse females from Leonora Carrington and Alice Neel, to Elizabeth Peyton and Faith Ringgold, to Nicole Eisenman and Mickalene Thomas.

The artists below, in early or mid-career stages in their practices, span Los Angeles to Baltimore, Johannesburg to Zurich, with a strong contingent in New York (where figuration is especially palpable). Each are creating inspiring figurative paintings that speak to the present, and offer glimpses into the future.

Jordan Casteel

B. 1989, DENVER, COLORADO. LIVES AND WORKS IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Jordan Casteel, Miles and Jojo, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.


ENTER SLIDESHOW

Casteel, who describes herself as hyper-aware of her surroundings, creates vivid large-scale paintings that picture black males from the communities where she has lived. “I am most interested in sharing sensitive, humanistic, and honest stories of my community,” she explains of this focus, which she began as an MFA candidate at Yale. Her paintings—which are now featured in a group show at HOME in Manchester, England and can be seen this summer in New York at the Studio Museum in Harlem and James Cohan Gallery—are sincere portrayals of men and boys, often in pairs or trios on living-room couches or floors, that capture family and friendship through a crisp, realist style, and vibrant colors. “Harlem and the people who occupy its streets have become the protagonist,” she says of the work she is currently producing as a resident at the Studio Museum. “Having a studio situated on 125th street has allowed for me to create a bridge between the community and the museum. The street has literally entered the museum through my paintings.”

Sanam Khatibi

B. 1976, TEHRAN, IRAN. LIVES AND WORKS IN BRUSSELS, BELGIUM

Left: Sanam Khatibi, No one’s going quietly, 2016; Right: Sanam Khatibi, With tenderness and longing, 2016. Images courtesy of the artist.

Working across painting, sculpture, embroidery, and tapestry, Khatibi envisions scenes that emphasize primal impulses and power struggles among human beings. “I am interested in the male-female interaction, and the thin line that exists between our fears and desires,” Khatibi says. Recent paintings follow a group of white nude females in exotic landscapes, where they commingle with wild animals—riding alligators, hunting rabbits, draping snakes and octopi over their shoulders. “My women are vulnerable and yet predators at the same time. They are also depicted within the same plane as the animals, who represent power, danger, and our primitive instincts,” she says, though she notes that the women have an ambiguous relationship with power, violence, sensuality, and one another. “I suppose they are all me—and they are all bits and pieces of us all,” she offers. Khatibi’s works will feature in solo shows this fall at NICC Vitrine and Super Dakota in Brussels and The Cabin LA in Los Angeles.

Becky Kolsrud

B. 1984, LOS ANGELES. LIVES AND WORKS IN LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Becky Kolsrud, Group Portrait with Security Gate, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist and JTT.

Newly represented by Tif Sigfrids in L.A. and featured in two group shows in New York this summer (at Maccarone and Foxy Production), Kolsrud is garnering attention for her unique portrayal of female figures, most recently pictured behind criss-crossing gates. (Her works featured in a smart two-person show with Gina Beavers earlier this year at JTT in New York.) “The figures in my paintings are characters invented in my imagination or ubiquitous in daily life, media, or advertising,” says Kolsrud, who finds fodder in signage, clip art, and cosmetic packaging, among other sources, to create meaningful works that comment on the challenges females face by physically obstructing their bodies. “In the paintings I like to have a recognizable subject to ground an abstract idea. It creates a tension that doesn’t let you get too swept away in the material.” Recent works, she says, have spanned a fictional group in a corporate law office, or a more abstract take on the Three Graces (Charm, Grace, and Beauty), who were portrayed as animated figures (Dora the Explorer, Sailor Moon, and Princess Ariel).

Nina Chanel Abney

B. 1982, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS. LIVES AND WORKS IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Installation view of Nina Chanel Abney, Hothouse, 2016, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo courtesy of the artist and Kravets Wehby Gallery.

At first glance, Abney’s graphic colorful style might recall modernist painter Stuart Davis, but her subject matter is distinctively contemporary. Abney’s narrative paintings and collages—filled with a pulsating mix of color, text, and figures—swiftly tackle topics related to race, gender, and politics. Dreams, personal experience, and conversations inspire her works; police brutality has figured prominently in recent paintings, leading many to associate the works with the Black Lives Matter movement. The artist has gained steady momentum ever since a fierce MFA thesis show at Parsons in 2007 that caught the attention of her gallery, Kravets Wehby, and the Rubell Collection, which led to her inclusion in the important traveling exhibition “30 Americans.” Her works were recently shown at the Whitney, and this can be seen as part of the artist-run super PAC “For Freedoms” at Jack Shainman and in Jeffrey Deitch and Joseph Sitt’s outdoor street art exhibition Coney Art Walls.

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum

B. 1980, MOCHUDI, BOTSWANA. LIVES AND WORKS IN JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA

“I’m often trying to tell stories or respond to a narrative or mythological drive in my work and I think using the figure is a natural and almost necessary way of getting at that drive,” says Sunstrum, whose works span painting and drawing, but also installation, stop-motion animation, and performance. Trained as a dancer, she models her figures on herself, using her own body as a vehicle for exploring existential narratives and advanced scientific and mathematical theories, while challenging conceptions of how the female has been represented in art and art history. “I’m curious about how arms can hang, how knees can bend, how a back can twist—to suggest an entire identity or history even if it’s an invented one,” she explains. “I find it fascinating that the things our ancestors were most obsessed with are the same things we as so-called advanced scientific thinkers are still obsessed with: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? How was the universe made? The figures in my work operate as carriers of these musings.”

Genieve Figgis

B. 1972, DUBLIN, IRELAND. LIVES AND WORKS IN COUNTY WICKLOW, IRELAND

Genieve Figgis, Royal. Image courtesy of the artist and Half Gallery.
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“All my favorite artworks have figures in them,” says Figgis. “Since I began drawing as a child that was my main interest.” Her lush paintings frequently center on fictional aristocrats in lofty interiors, portrayed in idiosyncratic swirls of paint that melt together. While some works seem dark and dystopian, others are tinged with notes of humor and levity; others still feel sweet, or elegant. (Her characters came alive brilliantly in an animated film earlier this year in a fitting collaboration with the Metropolitan Opera.) “I am trying to represent the figure in a way that maybe I can’t with words or writing,” she notes. “Paint is so convenient and I have so many things that I want to say that drawing with paint does it well enough sometimes.” The artist counts history, architecture, astronomy, and nature among her inspirations, as well as paint itself. “Paint is so beautiful. It is such a lovely experience for me. The challenge of it and the ideas that I want to explore feel much easier to do when I am alone in my studio. I feel free.”

Tschabalala Self

B. 1990, NEW YORK. LIVES AND WORKS IN NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT

Left: Tschabalala Self, Mane, 2016; Right: Tschabalala Self, Black Love, 2015. Photos by Maurizio Esposito. Courtesy of the artist and T293.
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Self creates large patchworks combining painting, swatches of fabric, and canvas that examine the black female body in the present. Upon beginning her career, the young artist focused on found images of women—plucked from music videos or magazines, family albums and friends’ photographs—considering the ways that she and her subjects were understood from outside perspectives. “My first large work was a copy of a Lil’ Kim poster from the ’90s,” she says. “My older sister had it in her room when I was younger; I remember my mother didn’t like it and I was intrigued by the controversy it created.” Her works have shifted in recent years to focus on personal experience and her own fictional narratives. “I find inspiration in my everyday experiences with my friends, partner, family, and strangers,” Self explains. “I am still dealing with themes related to sexuality, gender, and race… however, I am examining these realities through lived experience rather than didactics.”

Alejandra Hernández

B. 1989, BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA. LIVES AND WORKS IN GHENT, BELGIUM

Alejandra Hernández, las tres gracias, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Laveronica Arte Contemporanea.



ENTER SLIDESHOW

Be it a composed young woman seated in her kitchen with a copy of Kafka, or a wild modern-day take on the Three Graces, one laying upside down while another plays the melodica, Hernández creates playful portraits, bouncing between real life and one she’s imagined. “On one hand there are my fictional characters, whom I suppose are a mixture of people I’ve seen in real life, films, media, comics… for them, I can make up a whole universe,” she notes. “On the other hand I like to work with real people—their flesh and bones, feelings and conversations, their personal universes.” Real or fictional, Hernández takes great care to surround her subjects with objects that hold significance, small clues that hint at their personalities. For one recent series she’s developed domestic narratives around fictional female characters; in another, she depicts live sitters in the nude. “I’m really fond of the tradition of model painting in the studio. It’s a very classical approach, but I don’t see myself as the mastermind or a control freak. It’s done as a collaboration between the both of us. Usually we engage in many conversations; it’s like having friends over, and somehow all of that gets rendered into a final piece, which happens to be a painting.”

Jesse Mockrin

B. 1981, SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND. LIVES AND WORKS IN LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Left: Jesse Mockrin, The Stroll, 2016; Right: Jesse Mockrin, Moonage Daydream, 2015. Images courtesy of the artist and Night Gallery.
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Mockrin traces her unique figurative style back to her early teens. “I was obsessed with Bonnard at the time, and I painted my best friend over and over again in the bathroom—in the tub, washing her face, washing her hair,” she explains. “In high school, when my painting class took a field trip to do plein air landscape painting, I painted a picture of my legs instead. I feel like I have always been able to see the figure better than anything else and gravitated towards painting it.” Mockrin’s enticing paintings are marked by smooth planes of color and textures, from shiny fabrics to soft skin. “The themes I return to again and again in my painting are the truncation of the body, the slippery nature of gender categories, and the construction of space.” Her recent paintings strike a surreal balance between contemporary men’s fashion pictorials and 18th-century European painting (namely Fragonard); dreamy scenes are populated by dolled-up dandies and androgynous white arms and legs poking out from cascading gowns, couched in lush flora or fabrics. “For me, a successful painting is built around a figure, even if it’s just a small piece of a body,” she notes. “That piece is the charge, the element that holds the rest together.”

Amy Sherald

B. 1973, COLUMBUS, GEORGIA. LIVES AND WORKS IN BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

Left: Amy Sherald, Girl in Purple Dress, 2016; Right: Amy Sherald, Miss Everything (Unsurpressed Deliverance), 2014. Images courtesy of the artist and moniquemeloche, Chicago.

Having grown up attending private school in the American South, among few other black children, Sherald has long been drawn to addressing constructions of race in her paintings, responding to personal experiences as well as black history. In her portraits, inspired by people she encounters spontaneously in everyday life, Sherald renders her figures’ skin in shades of gray—variations of black and naples yellow. Since moving to Baltimore, where she completed her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004, the nature of her work gravitated towards the social issues and discourse of the surrounding community. Recent works, like Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2013), for which she won the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait competition earlier this year, take fantasy as a point of departure, in this case, Alice in Wonderland. “These paintings originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternate existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history,” Sherald says.

Grace Weaver

B. 1989, BURLINGTON, VERMONT. LIVES AND WORKS IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

“Teenage Dream” and “Skinny Latte” were the telling titles of Weaver’s breakout solo shows in New York and Berlin last year, at Thierry Goldberg Gallery and Soy Capitán, respectively, featuring jubilant paintings of youthful, frolicsome figures. She likened the paintings in the former show, which took its title from a Katy Perry hit, to pop songs; the latter was a tragicomedy following a female protagonist through daily dramas. Indeed, her oils, in palettes of ripe purples, greens, and reds, exude upbeat rhythms and relatable messaging, and a magnetic force of attraction. Weaver’s visions—from a lively day at the park, to a dance party, to intimate moments shared among friends or lovers—take cues from Matisse and Picasso, but with unmistakable 21st-century flourishes like green juice and earbuds.

Hayv Kahraman

B. 1981, BAGHDAD, IRAQ. LIVES AND WORKS IN LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Left: Hayv Kahraman, Shield 2, 2016. © Hayv Kahraman; Right: Hayv Kahraman, Concealed Weapon, 2016. © Hayv Kahraman. Images courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

Self-taught artist Kahraman uses her own body as a form of language. “I come from a diasporic culture where I’ve had to navigate being an Iraqi refugee in Sweden, Italy, and now the United States, so finding a common denominator, the body, became the perfect medium.” To create her works, primarily oils on linen, the artist photographs herself in classical, Renaissance-like poses, and makes drawings from the images. Inspired by the Old Masters that she diligently copied in Florence museums, she pictures her own body, nude or draped in flowing fabrics, with a soft shock of black hair, in graceful configurations, often contrapposto. “[This character] is someone who was taught to believe that European art history was the ultimate ideal. She became an expression of who I had become as an assimilated woman. I’m working to give her agency and a voice as I obsessively repaint her again and again.” Recent canvases (now on view at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School in Kinderhook, New York) embedded with acoustic foam respond to research into violent sounds, such as the air raid siren she heard as a child during the Gulf War; while others adopt poses from a U.S. military pamphlet filled with pictograms around scenarios involving hostages, smuggling, and weapon identification.

Gina Beavers

B. 1974, ATHENS, GREECE. LIVES AND WORKS IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Gina Beavers, Hand bra, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

Beavers’s high-relief paintings are dimensional portrayals of people and food items, like a man’s chiseled six-pack abs, a composite of pouty pink lips, or a smattering of crimson-colored T-bone steaks. “My images come from the internet, predominantly social media, so when the images I’m looking at are memes, makeup tutorials, body painting, the figure becomes a part of the narrative,” Beavers says. During art school she looked to underground female comic book artists, like Julie Doucet, for inspiration, but following her MFA coursework at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she turned to abstraction. “At some point I started titling my very abstract pieces after the things in the world they were based on, and as I did that, elements of representation began to creep back in, figures included,” she explains. In recent works she is exploring the wealth of nail art on the internet, creating paintings of intricately manicured fingers and toes.

Louisa Gagliardi

B. 1989, SION, SWITZERLAND. LIVES AND WORKS IN ZURICH, SWITZERLAND

Left: Louisa Gagliardi, Madrugada, 2015; Right: Louisa Gagliardi, La Belle Heure, 2016. Images courtesy of the artist and Tomorrow.



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Gagliardi is trained in graphic design, and her art has grown out of a mastery of digital illustration. She designed publications and advertisements for exhibitions and luxury brands before fully focusing on her independent artwork, which took a turn toward what she describes as “robotic” figurative works in 2013. “Even in my recent work, the subjects aren’t male or female, more avatars,” she says. These avatars surface from dark backgrounds, their smooth, luminous faces and bodies often covered by long, lanky fingers tipped with glowy fingernails. “I like breaking into people’s intimacy, exposing them,” Gagliardi explains. “In my recent exhibition at Tomorrow, ‘La Belle Heure,’ walking into the show felt like entering a couple’s private space, but as much as you were the voyeur, they also were looking at you and posing for you.” The paintings are ghostly and surreal, executed in deep greens and browns that filter into pale blues and electric lilacs, at times resembling the tonal palette of a photographic negative. Other works fiercely celebrate female body parts, finished with nipple and genital piercings.

Firelei Báez

B. 1981, SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. LIVES AND WORKS IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK

Left: Firelei Báez, Ciguapa Pantera (to all the goods and pleasures of this world), 2015. Right: Firelei Báez, Sans-Souci (This threshold between a dematerialized and a historicized body), 2015. Images courtesy of the artist and Gallery Wendi Norris, San Francisco.
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Báez’s lush paintings often foreground female bodies and faces, incorporating imagery associated with various cultural symbols, from palm fronds and feathers to tufts of fur and intricate textile patterns. Rendered with the artist’s precise touch, in acrylics and gouaches, her works coalesce to form powerful narratives around ancestry and cultural identity. Báez gained much-deserved exposure last fall with her solo museum shows “Patterns of Resistance” at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and “Bloodlines” at Perez Art Museum Miami. “I looked at the idea of ancestry in a way that extended beyond the physical bloodline to explore the idea of a lineage of resistance and self-definition, which is especially tricky when you’re the product of an ahistorical narrative, as many are from the African diaspora,” Báez says of the Miami show, an expanded iteration of which will travel on to other institutions including the Andy Warhol Museum. “I started incorporating the figure into my work as a way to navigate my own sense of identity, particularly because I came from a place that didn’t fit into one specific narrative. It was a way for me to untangle what I was going through on a daily basis.”

Aliza Nisenbaum

B. 1977, MEXICO CITY, MEXICO. LIVES AND WORKS IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

Left: Aliza Nisenbaum, Las Talaveritas, 2015; Right: Aliza Nisenbaum, The Nap, 2015. Images courtesy of the artist and Mary Mary, Glasgow.

“To me the distinction between abstraction and representation is less interesting than thinking about the politics of visibility, who is depicted and why,” says Nisenbaum, whose works deeply consider the interactions and proximity among artist, sitter, and viewer. After a decade of working in abstraction, she moved into figuration upon relocating to New York; she now paints portraits from life. “For about four years now I’ve painted portraits of Mexican and South American undocumented immigrants to the United States. The slow process of observational painting [allows for] conversational exchange between myself and my sitters, which often [results in] group portraits spanning generations.” Her most recent works portray a group of 15 women employed by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York City, together at work, but also in the private spaces of their homes. “I’ve been thinking about Hannah Arendt and her writing about the private realm as intrinsically connected to the public one,” she notes. This month Nisenbaum’s works appear in group shows at Hannah Hoffman Gallery in L.A. and James Cohan Gallery in New York—a show that she co-organized—and this fall will see her solo show at T293 in Rome.

Mira Dancy

B. 1979, KENT, U.K. LIVES AND WORKS IN NEW YORK, NEW YORK

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“Strange mothers, icons, ghosts, dear friends, and altered reflections of myself have greeted me on the canvas since I started painting,” says Dancy. “The characters in the paintings are fictional. I debate even calling them characters actually because their flatness is about an ubiquity of the body itself in our landscape and psychic consciousness.” Her beguiling female nudes, traversing canvases, murals, and neons, have charmed the art world over the past year, as highlights at MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition, and the buzz of major international art fairs like Frieze Londonand Art Basel in Hong Kong. “I came to painting from writing poems, and it always was a feeling that these women appeared in the paintings kind of mid-sentence that compelled me to push them further,” she explains. Dancy intended to pursue writing in college, but the esteemed artists she had as professors, Amy Sillman and Elizabeth Murray, led her to chart a path into art. Her female figures draw on advertising and branding, as much as history and mythological tropes. “I like the idea that paintings can be haunted by the past, that they have the means to resurrect, to conjure, and to alter a sense of time or reality. Mom, Beyoncé, and Isis (the goddess) are all themes that I’m working through these days.”

Anna Bjerger

B. 1973, SKALLSJÖ, SWEDEN. LIVES AND WORKS IN ÄLMHULT, SWEDEN

“I have always been a figurative painter,” says Bjerger. “I usually don’t know who the people in my work are, they are anonymous subjects,” she explains. For the last decade, she has worked out of a remote studio in a former schoolhouse in rural Sweden, pulling the subjects of her paintings from a trove of found imagery—stacks of outdated travel books and instruction manuals. Often borrowing from idyllic snapshots of people caught in action, she translates their quiet scenes into slick oils on aluminum, filled with soft, wispy brushstrokes. For her most recent solo show, “Elsewhere” at Copenhagen’s David Risley Gallery, Bjerger focused on a downward perspective, cropping out skies and horizons; from a girl playing paddle ball in a garden to a snow-covered mountain dotted with competitive skiers, these works lead viewers to question what lies beyond the picture plane.

Heidi Hahn

B. 1982, LOS ANGELES. LIVES AND WORKS IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

Left: Heidi Hahn, Sadness is a Fulltime Job, 2016; Right: Heidi Hahn, I Take Care of Myself, Piece By Piece, 2016. Images courtesy of the artist and Jack Hanley Gallery.
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“I think most of the time I’m awful at depicting people because I want the summation of their personalities without necessarily including a human form,” says Hahn. Her recent works picture ethereal, at times ghostly, female figures whose wispy forms float in saturated canvases, caught in moments of joy or fear—narratives that stem from a longtime passion for reading and writing. “These days I’ve been trying to tell a very specific story, choosing to portray women in an everyday way without the trappings of explicit sexuality or artifice,” Hahn says. “The figures are allowed to just be and not perform to classical representations of nudity and provocation.” Hahn has been painting figuratively since her undergrad years at Cooper Union, but only recently gained wide acclaim, following a solo show at Jack Hanley Gallery in New York. For her recent series “I Saw the Future and It Reminded Me of You,” she focused on pattern making; each painting, of one or two girls, was copiously dotted with tiny flowers. “The repetition of the flower patterns was grueling to adhere to and anxiety-making, but I knew I wanted to paint within that anxiety because the content called for it.”

Emily Mae Smith

B. 1979, AUSTIN, TEXAS. LIVES AND WORKS IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

Emily Mae Smith, The Studio, Odalisque, 2016. Photo by Max Slaven. Courtesy of the artist and Mary Mary, Glasgow.



ENTER SLIDESHOW

Packing her paintings with nods to WarholLichtenstein, broomstick people à la Disney’s Fantasia, or the late Victorian-era art magazine The Studio, Smith adopts familiar characters and tropes to create glossy, graphic paintings that convey a distinct pop aesthetic. Her work also offers cheeky commentary on issues like gender, capitalism, and violence. “I have always worked with images, signs, and representations,” Smith says. “I dislike the notion of calling painting ‘figurative’ or ‘abstract,’ as the nature of painting is both at all times. A lot of the bodies in my work have been fictional, are often objects, or not even human.” In her recent solo exhibition at Mary Mary in Glasgow, Smith presented her series of recurring broomstick characters, who appear under different guises and filters—rendered in Benday Dots, as Warhol’s Double Elvis (1963), or in a sensual odalisque pose and psychedelic skin.

 

—Casey Lesser

Figurative Art History

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“…What more attractive and challenging surface than the skin around a soul?” – Richard Corliss (1944-2015)

Below is an overview of some of the most innovative and influential painters from figurative art history to the mid-twentieth century. Starting in Ancient Greece, through the Renaissance into Romanticism, then Modernism, these artists articulated our view of the human form.
Up Next: Contemporary figurative works that push me out of my comfort zone.

Image source: http://www.figurativeartist.org/

“No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.” – Edvard Munch

Color Illusions

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Colors are shifty buggers. The way we process visual information causes colors to change in relationship to what they’re next to, giving us a constant source of optical illusions. This makes mixing accurate color rather complicated. Below are a few optical quandaries to illustrate how complicated this “accurate seeing” stuff can be.

“A thing is never seen as it really is.” – Albers

These illusions are excellent illustrations of why color mixing is so danged difficult. The grey bar in the gradient is the same color across. Both the orange bars are the same color, and on the next it looks like one bar is blue and the other is green, but again, they are the same. Below are some more optical illusion reveals.

The “blue” tiles on the left are the same color as the “yellow” tiles on the right. They are both grey.

More Color Illusions

The right eye appears to be cyan in the left image, yellow in the middle one, and red in the right one, though in each image the right eye is the same color as the left eye. Color constancy is supposed to be perfect when in each image the right eye appears to be the same color as the bead on the hair.

Color contrast using the same color combinations as the faces above. The small square in each image is the same color as the “eye” in of the face, respectively. The surround in each image is the same color as the “skin” of the face, respectively.

Images from https://www.researchgate.net/figure/228490244_fig1_Fig-1-Colour-illusion-by-colour-constancy-The-right-eye-appears-to-be-cyan-in-the-left

These optical tricks are happening all the time, in everything we look at. Color changes according to what it’s next to. This means everywhere there is a color, this is happening in some small or dramatic measure. It’s happening in our subject matter, on our palettes, and on our canvas. I believe this is a big part of why the seemingly simple goal of “applying color where it goes” in a painting is so danged complicated.

The most interesting thing about these puzzles is that once they’re “solved” they still fool the eye. Must be some strong mechanisms in the mind to fight the proof before us. I’m educated and experienced with color theory, but that doesn’t stop my eyes from being fooled. Because of this, I’ve changed my painting strategies from “I’m going to learn to see better” to “I’m going to have a lot of my own tricks to make sure I don’t get fooled by my own paintings.” Interested in learning more? Check out my “Colors” class. I never tire of this subject. The more I learn, the more interesting it gets.

Figure Painting Demo by Shane Wolf

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Alla Prima Sketch in Oil

by Shane Wolf

Shane Wolf paint brushes for alla prima
Before I begin, I assemble my brushes. For an alla prima sketch of this size (canvas size approximately 20×15) these are the brushes I’ll likely use. You’ll notice mostly flats. For the male figure I use mostly flats; I like the planal, sculptural strokes they provide. For female figures I’ll use a mix of flats and filberts (filberts giving softer, rounder strokes). The two red-handled brushes are cheap, soft synthetics that I love for the drawing stage of the painting. The two on the extreme left are my “eraser” brushes: very stiff bristle brushes that I can use with a bit of mineral spirits to scrub away any errors if need be. The fan brush is there just in case I need to knock down any annoying paint ridges in any strokes. The rest are for plain painting.
It’s important for me to use different sizes of brushes as that helps create variety of paint texture in the painting.
Alla Prima sketch, Shane Wolf, preparing the canvas
Step One: Preparing the Canvas
At the end of a day of painting I’ll occasionally use my scrap pigments to prepare some sketch canvas, instead of scraping them away into the garbage. For my alla prima sketches I often tend to use a mid-tone field color, and the hue can be anywhere from a cool, warm or neutral hue. Each field color will impact the real pigment mixtures differently. For this demonstration I decided to use a mid-tone cool gray field color into which I scrubbed a bit of red and scraped it up a bit with a comb to add a bit of texture. Sometimes I beat up these canvas preparations a fair amount so as to have a bit of jazziness already from the get-go.
The canvas preparation is completely dry when I begin my sketch. Most of the time I simply tack a bit of canvas onto a panel and paint, as I did here.

Shane Wolf, palette A
Step Two: Choosing the Colors of the Palette for a Figure
Before the model gets to studio the painter already has a load of work to do, namely setting up his palette. My pigments here, from right to left: Bloxx flake white, W&N yellow ochre pale, W&N raw umber, Old Holland burnt umber, Old Holland red umber, W&N ivory black, W&N cadmium red.
From these I always premix a value string of probable flesh tones. With a bit of experience one learns what are good base flesh tones, and these are what I premix here. It’s crucial that the lighter value mixture beslightly 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 where an object is in light, it is brighter; as it turns away from light into halftone, it gets darker and grayer. It’s more complex than this, but it’s an underlying principle.).
Slightly is a key word, and takes a long time to master in practice. As anyone who has painted corpses, jaundiced or sunburned people instead of “normal” complexions knows, flesh tones are of a very sensitive nature! (FYI: chroma differences this subtle likely won’t be visible in print.)
The lightest and brightest mixture is from flake white, cad red and yellow ochre pale. The second mixture is the same with a bit of red umber added. The third is flake white, cad red, yellow ochre pale and burnt umber. The fourth is the same but with more burnt umber and less of the others. The darkest mixture on my palette is what will be used for the wash drawing and to scrub in the shadows: burnt umber with a touch of flake white to cut the warmth a bit.
From these mixtures I will tweak the colors as need be according to the model and the painting. If I need a touch more red, I’ll add it. Grayer, no problem. Lighter, go for it. Having these mixtures ready assures me that I’ll have enough paint on my palette to allow me to actually paint, and not spend too much time finding colors.
Alla Prima Sketch by Shane Wolf, step three
Step Three: The Sprint; The First Five Seconds of an Alla Prima Sketch
Using one of my drawing brushes I saturate the hairs with medium (a few drops of linseed oil and a lot of odorless mineral spirits in my medium cup; it should be very liquid) and load a small amount of my shadow mixture. It should have a watercolor consistency so as to flow easily and very lightly.
The first 5 seconds are a flurry of strokes that represent my first impressions and gesture of the pose: the main lines of movement, size and placement on the canvas. I don’t get caught up in thinking! It’s like the first five steps out of the starting blocks of a sprint: you just go!
Alla Prima Sketch, Placing the Figure
Step Four: Placing the Figure in the Painting
I begin to look at the light-shadow pattern of the model. Still using the same liquid paint, I begin to scrub in key structures to assure the drawing is going in the right direction (ie: rib cage, skull, pelvis, linea alba). You’ll notice that compared to my initial gesture strokes I decided to lower the figure a bit on the canvas. This is an important decision from the beginning: deciding where to place your figure. Granted we can always crop later if need be, but being able to control figure placement is a rudimentary part of composition, even if it’s just for a sketch.
Alla Prima Sketch, Shane Wolf
Step Five: The First 23 Minutes of the Sketch
With my models I use a 23-minute on, 7-minute rest cycle. By the end of the first sitting I aim to have a solid drawing statement completed. Here you can see I reinforced the shadows, paying closer attention to the drawing. I’m using the same shadow mixture, but less diluted, so as to give me a darker value. I like to keep my shadows somewhat transparent, allowing the field color to peak through and aerate them a bit. Most of the shadows painted here will likely be untouched in the end, assuming they’re accurate (which is of course the goal!).
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a solid drawing statement early on. Though I have certain time goals in mind, I won’t continue a painting until the drawing is solid. If it takes another sitting, then so be it. An unstable drawing statement will not get better with more color and information. To the contrary it will appear more and more awful the further it is developed. Don’t be so attached to any single part of the image such that you cannot wipe it away at once if you see that it is wrong.
Shane Wolf alla prima demo, Beginning the Lights
Step Six: Beginning the Lights
For alla prima figure work I build from the dark end of the value chain upwards. This means I’m now using a new brush with my second darkest pigment mixture, without any medium. This color represents all the half tones on the figure, which means it acts as our barrier between the shadows and the next round of lights. So, logically speaking, every single shadow edge that touches a light shape in my painting needs to have a hit of this color (ie: rib cage, lats, deltoid, triceps, neck, abdomen, thigh…)—regardless of how much or how little comes from the model. I think planally here: I see the model in facets more than round forms, and my flat brush helps me carve the image.
I’m using the paint pretty thickly: again, no medium. I begin my stroke in the light shape and drag into the shadow. This is an important principle in my sketches: always dragging the lighter value into the darker value. You’ll get much cleaner transitions between the values this way compared to the inverse (dragging darker into lighter). Controlling how the transition happens is about brush dexterity: sometimes it’s a slow, sensitive caress; sometimes a staccato flick; occasionally a touch of a finger; sometimes sliding perpendicular into the adjacent value; sometimes just barely overlapping the strokes. It’s a wonderful thing to get a perfect transition from the beginning, but sometimes it takes a bit of doing.
A word to the wise: the more you “play” with any of your brush strokes, in general the dirtier they are getting. What can make alla prima painting so wonderful is its purity, its lack of “fiddling” with the paint. The painter seems to have commanded every stroke and laid it perfectly (though the reality may have been a real wrestling match!). If any area begins to lose its integrity, scrape it away and redo it. It’s a psychological battle, but scraping it away and redoing it will be MUCH better (and more efficient) for the painting.
Shane Wolf alla prima demo, Continuing the Lights
Step Seven: Continuing the Lights
Once all my dark half tones are placed I continue the same work for the next lightest value: a new brush, no medium, thick paint. After every stroke I wipe off the brush so as to keep it clean. If I don’t wipe it off I’ll gradually get more and more of the darker, grayer color on it (from dragging the strokes into each other), thereby dirtying my color. And integrity of color is crucial when paintingflesh tones.
Following the same logic as the previous step, every edge of the previous color that touches a light shape needs to get a hit of this new color. In this manner we’re “building up” to the lightest lights in the painting, always assuring that our transitions are not jumping too far in value.
Shane Wolf alla prima demo, correction
Step Eight: Again Continuing the Lights
Once again: a new brush, no medium, thick paint. The same logic as before: building accurate transitions between the previous value and the new one.
You’ll notice I made a small correction to the length and gesture of the arm. I’m always careful to check the structure of my drawing and make any changes as soon as I see them. To make that correction I used one of my “eraser” brushes with a bit of medium on it, as I scraped away the elbow and outer edge of the triceps.
Shane Wolf alla prima demo, completed lights
Step Nine: First Pass of the Lights Completed
Once again a new brush: no medium, thick paint. The same logic as before: building accurate transitions between the previous value and the new one. At the end of this stage about two hours of model time has gone by.
At last I’ve made it through my value chain and can make some important assessments. It’s not until I have my figure completely filled in that I evaluate any of my colors. The influence of the original cool gray field color is too great to make any accurate assessment of color until the subject is completed in a basic manner.
I should mention a few very important principles at this point: up until the completion of this stage my goals are 1) solid structure and gesture (via drawing), 2) BIG forms only, and 3) OVERALL complexion only.
I’ve mentioned enough about point 1 I think. Regarding point 2: I’m only concerned about the largest planes of Mickael’s figure, which means I’m simplifying a great deal. You’ll notice there aren’t any individual ribs, serratus anterior muscles, skin folds, nipples, etc. I need to assure that the bigness of the forms are working, are turning, are solid in space. Details won’t do any of that for me. To the contrary, they get in the way.
Regarding point 3: in the same simplifying spirit as point 2, I’m only concerned about Mickael’s major overall color. The subtle hits of pinks, greens and grays are details will help liven the figure, but only once a solid complexion is established.
My assessment then is: so far the colors look pretty good. They’re not finished, but it’s a solid base. The forms are working; the drawing is good. If I have time I’d like to get in his head, as that would add a nice touch of color and would finish the study nicely.
Sculpting the Lights, Shane Wolf alla prima demo
Step Ten: Sculpting the Lights
This pose really showcases the model’s thoracic anatomy, which will require some serious knowledge and attention to place the details accurately.
I begin by placing the first of the highlights: a few spots on the pectorals and on the abdominal insertions of the thoracic arch. Next comes nipple placement. A note about nipples: they’re quite soft and diffused at the edges, and often lighter than one thinks. Next, I start placing the serratus anterior muscles and a few rib details. Since my big form was working well, I need to realize that any detail that appears lighter or darker on the model is merely a slight deviation in my painting. This is where a lot of painters get tripped up: exaggerating the details. Details cannot alter the big form.
This is what alla prima is all about: painting wet into wet. I’m always careful to keep my brushes clean every time I place a stroke (by wiping them off afterwards). In the lights, every time I place a stroke, I wipe off the brush, reload it and place it again. The process can appear slow and methodical, but when done accurately the image just pops into life. It’s quite the contrast to the frenzy of the very beginning of the painting when it’s a bit of a maniacal sprint.
Shane Wolf alla prima demo, finishing stage
Step Eleven: Finishing Stages
In the last sitting I step back and ask myself what are the priorities to finish the painting. The head is definitely one, as is softening some of the abdominal planes and reinforcing the shadows in a few key spots. The overall complexion of the head is a bit darker and pinker than the torso, which makes for a nice touch to the painting. Here is where I will also finally introduce a few of the pinks and greens that are always so exciting to add. In this pose the greens (mixed from raw umber and white) are along the jaw, the neck and the latissimus dorsi; the pinks (just a bit more cad red in whatever local color is already there) are in the head and elbow. I also will often use a high chroma, dark color for the holes of the body (burnt umber, cad red and a bit of white): the ear and navel. It prevents the figure from looking like it has dark cavities of emptiness instead of shallow openings.
Shane Wolf alla prima demo, up close
Up Close
Here you can better see some of the points I made during the demo: transparent shadows, high chroma navel and ear opening, soft nipples, slight value and color shifts for details, and the very first gesture lines from the very beginning are all still visible.
Shane Wolf, palette
Painting Palette, Before and After
A lot can be learned from looking at a painter’s palette before and after. Often a clean palette reflects a clean painting (but not always!). Here we can see how I needed to modify my original mixtures at the end of the painting to get the touches of red where necessary (like for painting the head). Throughout most of the painting the mixtures were relatively unaltered. We can see that I didn’t touch ivory black at all. The bit of lighter gray-green on the lower left of the palette was from raw umber and white added to my shadow color to get the green hits in the painting.

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