Sunday, June 21, 2009

Concept to Composition Part 2: Odd Nerdrum's Materials

First off, I have to say that there is no sure fire formula for making a masterpiece. There is no one method, magic medium, palette, ground, or brushes that will replace good old fashioned study, practice, patience, and passion.

That being said, no one has to be lost and wandering in the wilderness, so to speak, there are trails laid down before us: systems and tools that can help you along your path. Painting is difficult enough without tripping yourself up all the time. So, if you have a goal in mind, you can find a great deal of value in the methods of the masters and use them as is, or adapt them to your own specific needs.

In this vein I would like to share with you Odd's materials, including one palette that he often uses for developing flesh.

1. The Canvas:
Odd uses a very heavy herringbone weave linen. This is not the secret to his texture, but it is incredibly durable and invaluable for his technique.

2. The Ground:

You can see the color and value in this image. It's a very strong and flexible ground. In fact, you will tear the canvas before you would be able to remove it. This is very important, as this ground is like nothing I've ever painted on before. Mix the Blanc de Meudon with boiled linseed oil very thoroughly, about 30% boiled linseed oil.

This is very important: Mix it with a large palette knife until it's a very thick consistency and you feel strong resistance when mixing - almost to the point where it begins to crumble, but is still a viscous fluid. Also important: You must add enough opaque oil paint so that the ground is not transparent! Odd uses burnt sienna, yellow ochre, titanium white, and a little mars black to neutralize the color. But he also sometimes mixes mars black and yellow ochre to produce a nice green ground. He adds titanium white for opacity, which you'll find absolutely necessary. Or you can use only titanium white if you want a light ground for more luminosity. This works well if your technique relies on a lot of glazing. A light ground will not work if you are scraping and sanding. You apply it straight to the canvas that has already been sized with rabbit skin glue (or PVA sizing for an alternative) with a large palette knife. Scrape it smooth so that the ground rests in the furrows of the weave and a thin layer on the ridges. Try not to leave any ridges from the palette knife. Let that dry for two or three days and repeat. 2 layers should be fine. You should be able to paint on it after a week.

Essentially, gesso is a cheaper replacement for this. Gesso is chalk suspended in oil, but the stuff that you buy in the stores is not ground as finely, nor is it as absorbent as blanc de Meudon. Blanc de meudon is composed of particles of calcium carbonate, also known as Precipitated chalk, or Spanish Whiting). It is the main component of limestone and chalk.

It is composed of a very fine chalk and boiled linseed oil. He, of course, uses the finest of both. But I have found that quality chalk is more important than the oil, so since I'm on a budget, I go for the good chalk and use merely decent boiled linseed oil as opposed to the stuff that he uses, which he has specially made for him.

3. Brushes:

Odd uses anything and everything can find. So, there's little I can tell you here. He tends to like cheap brushes, but keeps a few nicer ones around.

4. The Palette:

Take note of the pre-mixed colors. He has chosen these specific values and tubed the mixtures in order to make modeling flesh faster and easier. This is one thing (as well as great skill and years of experience) that enables him to mix color right on the canvas as he goes without mixing on his palette.

The palette alone is also not the trick to great flesh tones. It has to do with nuances created in the process of painting between the palette, application of broken color, textural variations, and subtle layers of semi-opaques, glazes, velaturas, semi-transparents, etc... which makes the flesh look luminous, semi-transparent, and thus: lifelike and beautiful.

Here's an old posting I did on technique that will be quite helpful. Oil Painting Techniques: Glazing. The part about light temperature and form at the end is particularly relevant to this discussion.

Odd, like all masters old and new, understands two different modes of temperature in painting flesh: local temperature and form temperature. Form temperature, I've detailed in the above link. As far as local temperature is concerned, a great example are the ear lobes, nostrils, hands, toes, and cheeks. The color of the flesh in these places tends to be warmer as blood vessels approach the surface of the skin. Conversely, in areas such as the forehead, where there is very little between the skin and bone, the color tends to be cooler in temperature. Take note of these while painting and you will notice a tremendous difference.

As if that wasn't enough to keep track of, Odd also uses another means of color shift on a large scale for both compositional, and illuminatory purposes. This is loosely based on optics, but is greatly exaggerated to exquisite effect. It's quite an interesting and beautiful concept: as light gets farther from the source it scales through the spectrum from yellow, closest to the light source, to orange, red, violet, and all the way to blue or sometimes green. You can see this particularly in his void paintings.

Now this is a general rule of thumb. If you look closely, he breaks and bends it all the time. Also, he takes into account local shifts in color and temperature as well as form shifts in color and temperature. Furthermore, there are changes in chroma related to the light, the angle of the planes of the form, local temperature and chromatic shifts in the skin, and some changes made purely for compositional purposes. As he moves into the shadow the color becomes cooler and more neutral.

Moving on past the palette and its application we come to....

5. The Medium:
It's actually quite simple. Like Rembrandt did, Odd uses primarily refined linseed oil which he lets stand in a jar... so it becomes essentially stand oil. That, mixed in various percentages with turpentine (he tends not to be particular about it), becomes a versatile medium.

Here's a great resource for mediums: Table of Mediums .

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Value of a Teaching Studio / Why Atelier Training is a Worthwhile Education

The Value of a Teaching Studio / Why Atelier Training is Worthwhile Education...

Atelier-style training is a worthwhile and practical education. In the teaching studio of a qualified artist (one whose techniques are desirable to learn and possible to market) students receive a combination of careful critiques, personal career-oriented attention, and time-tested technical advice.

In an atelier or teaching studio, a working artist (usually an artist who is established enough to make a good living through the sale of their work) sees to the education of a small, select group of students. In this environment, there is a significant level or commitment on the teacher's part towards the students' future careers which is rarely matched in other environments.

In my teaching studio, students progress from the making of copies of masterworks (to learn how other painters solve problems) to painting from life. These exercises continue and repeat, giving students an opportunity to dramatically improve their technique and observation from nature. My teaching relies heavily on the practice of outdoor (plein-air) painting during all seasons. In this way, students develop a keen ability for observation along with an appreciation of the myriad beauty and transcendent significance of nature.

An appreciation for art history is integral to learning about various modes of realist, impressionist, naturalist, and classical art. I discuss painting with both a reverence for its history as an aesthetic experience (connoisseurship) and also as a proponent of traditional methods.

I am an advocate of art students studying in various ateliers during the course of their careers. The methods of study I use with my students are not subject-specific to landscape painting, although American Impressionist and Tonalist landscape painting remains my current interest and area of focus. My teaching studio runs on a two-year schedule, as opposed to the four or five years necessary in a figurative-based atelier. I encourage my students to seek out figure and portrait painters they admire (including my close friends Dan Hemgemo, Henry Wingate, etc.) if their interest so dictates. I am also a supporter of university education based on its own merits. I believe that the opportunity I offer is ideally undertaken before or after a college education.

I pride myself on talking frankly with students about the business of art and about its viability as a full-time career. After helping refine their portfolios through years of study and attention, I am happy to help students approach galleries to exhibit their work. I have helped to found two exhibiting groups of significant contemporary realism, aided in securing commissions and exhibitions for other artists, and organized a variety of solo and collaborative exhibitions. As painter-in-residence at the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences I take an active and practical interest in the creative life of the community.

I have been privileged to have this type of education. I am committed to offering/ sharing a similar course of study. In fact, I consider it as a vital part of my career as a painter.

Charles Philip Brooks

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Venice Biennale "New Worlds": checking for a pulse

After reading several reviews of this years "greatest show on earth" it seems that the Venice Biennale has seen better days. According to Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, it's almost dead on arrival.

"the Biennale is meant to be a survey of new art, and while conscientious young artists now dutifully seem to raise all the right questions about urbanism, polyglot society and political activism, their answers look domesticated and already familiar."

Jerry Saltz, formerly of the village voice and now opining and whining for New York Magazine, has been a vocal critic of the biennale and most art fairs for some time. However, his most recent review was perhaps his most effective, though far from is most acerbic. He seems less eager to attack, as if he senses, like a wolf circling an old moose, that his long hunted prey is finally helpless. Moreover he doesn't miss the opportunity to eagerly gloat, though I agree with much of what he says. Far from adroit, his contrived similes (accompanied by the obligatory slightly offensive and counter-culture verbiage from spoken discourse: "fuck", "crap", and "dude" used for some kind of emphatic purpose) transparently reveal the juvenile 'raspberry' on the tip of his woolly tongue.

"A text plaintively asks, “Are the black flags quivering in the distance the rising image of a radical hope of a possible other world?” No, they’re flags of surrender — the pavilion wants to kill itself for housing such bad art. I have four words for Lévêque: Get a job, dude."

Saltz does parrot the critical acclaim of Bruce Nauman's installation in the U.S Pavilion. Perhaps this is due to a fear of taking on a foe far too great for his pointy little teeth. The universally held "truth" of this elephant in the field is, (and I'm not afraid to declaim this with yet another cliche) more of the same.

Neon lights! Shock value! Irony! Text! It's sooo NEW!

I haven't looked at my watch in a while, but last time I checked it wasn't 1972.

Wikipedia (admittedly, not a critical source) says:
"He seems to be fascinated by the nature of communication and language's inherent problems, as well as the role of the artist as supposed communicator and manipulator of visual symbols."

Isn't Noam Chomsky also? But wait, he's only a linguist, philosopher, and cognitive scientist, we're talking about art here... one couldn't possibly judge Nauman in relation to 'actual philosophers' or 'actual scientists'. Well then, to be fair, let's compare him to other artists concerned with the same ideas. How about: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya, Rodin,... what's that? We can only compare him to "contemporary" or post-war artists. Ok, how about: Andy Warhol, Vincent Desiderio, Eric Fischl, Mark Tansey, etc.... actually, isn't every artist concerned with the manipulation of visual symbols and the artists niche as such in the context of greater society? By the nature of being a visual artist, doesn't every artist realize "language's inherent problems"?

All of that aside, the miniature biennale this year certainly is a factor of the economy. Yet, had the art bubble continued its inflated expansion, that would not have changed the fact that something about the contemporary art world is dead. Last years decadence reeks of the decaying odor of the extravagant cocktail parties in The Great Gatsby, on the eve of black Tuesday. But of course, hindsight is 20-20, but not everyone was blind while it was happening. To his credit Saltz did see it coming and more often than not, and has often discussed the brand of "eighth generation conceptualism" vended at these events. The inflation of the art market is very much akin to the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Many saw that these mortgages had no value, yet investment banks thought that with a little slight of hand, a little trickery, they could repackage them as triple A mortgage backed securities. No one thought that the bottom would fall out as long as the illusion of value persisted and real estate kept climbing. But as with the real estate bubble, the art bubble popped as well. Like those vastly over-valued McMansions, the mirage of the value of eighth generation conceptualism has vanished in the desert and everyone has been left groping. There is, in fact, no water there, only another grain of sand like many millions of others slipping through their fingers.

And everyone seems to be asking "What's next?", further proving that the only value in this "Art" was illusory and simply market hype. If you want to ask me, and I'm assuming you do as you've read this far, the only value is real value, not perceived value. Obscure? Well, I could enumerate many reasons for my position, just as philosophical and theoretical as the conceptualist. I could opine about the psychological need for catharsis, the need to connect and communicate, to understand and be understood. I could talk about the natural human response to the image of other humans, but I really only need a quantitative measurement to make my point, as that's as close as we can objectively come to real value. The market for "contemporary" art has fluctuated vastly in the past as has the art market in general. As Charles Saatchi pointed out in a response to the latest Top 200 Artists of the 20th Century list, it only takes a few years for someone with even the calibre of Mathew Barney (one of the very few performance artists that I actually respect) to vanish like a shooting star. But there's one sector that always grows at a steady pace: The Old Masters. Not only do they hold their value, but the market for contemporary classical, realist, or figurative art also follows suit.

So, what does the Venice Biennale tell us about the art world? No pulse? Instead of calling the time of death, perhaps we should prescribe an antidote. After decades of inebriated delusions of grandeur and aesthetic cirrhosis, I think what we need now is a healthy dose of reality.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Imperial Centre Painting Studio / Plein-Air Workshops

Arts Center Opens Painting School

For Immediate Release:

Contact: Jennifer Rankin, Arts Education Coordinator

Beginning in February 2009, the Rocky Mount Arts Center will open its new atelier-style painting school. This two year course of study with noted North Carolina painter Charles Philip Brooks concentrates on preparing students for professional careers as artists. Emphasis is placed on traditional methods of oil painting, including making copies, and plein-air landscape painting. Students receive instruction in traditional 19th century techniques as well as practical advice for careers in fine art. Weekly lectures and critiques provide a continual context for student development, allowing each student to pursue his or her interests in the light of their appropriate art historical contexts.

The program is unique, relying heavily on the practice of plein-air painting. Students develop stamina and discipline, painting many on-site studies from nature. Unlike seasonal schools or single workshops, our school emphasizes outdoor painting year round, encouraging students to study nature during each season. Demonstrations and discussions explore the works of painters of the classical, realist, romantic, and naturalist schools. Students will become familiar with the various movements and styles of landscape painting as they relate to the practices of working contemporary painters. Studio space is included to allow students the opportunity to work anytime the facilities are open.

The cost is $1,200 per 3 month session. Sessions include studio space, weekly lectures, and critiques. The studio is housed in the landmark Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences. For an information packet please contact Jennifer Rankin at the Rocky Mount Arts Center.

Rocky Mount Department of Parks & Recreation.

Now Offering -- Outdoor Landscape Painting Workshops

Students will paint landscape or seascape subjects on location in oils, carefully studying light, color, form, and atmosphere. Impressionist and Tonalist oil painting techniques will be addressed. A highly-regarded and enthusiastic teacher, Charles Philip Brooks is artist-in-residence at the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences. Students of any skill level are warmly welcomed. Materials and Book lists are available.

Charles Philip Brooks, born in North Carolina, studied in New England in the studio of highly respected Boston School authority Paul Ingbretson and with the renowned American Barbizon painter Dennis Sheehan. He is primarily a landscape painter, focusing on the landscape of the southeastern United States. His work incorporates elements of impressionism and is firmly rooted in the American Barbizon / Tonalist tradition of landscape painting. He works out of the tradition established by such artists as George Inness, Alexander Wyant, Bruce Crane, John Francis Murphy, Dwight William Tryon, and North Carolina’s own Elliott Daingerfield. Further influences include the painters Eugene Boudin and Charles-Francois Daubigny , as well as the many other masters of the French Barbizon School. As artist in residence at the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences, he teaches a select group of students in the Imperial Centre Painting Studio.

Teaching Studio for Impressionist and Tonalist Painting

Quick Facts

1. The Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences hosts the teaching studio of theAmerican Tonalist / Impressionist painter Charles Philip Brooks. Students receive instruction in traditional 19th century techniques as well as practical advice in preparation for contemporary careers in the fine arts.

2. Full-time enrollment at the school is limited to eight students. In this environment, students develop long-lasting relationships with their future professional colleagues. The principle instructor takes an active interest in the progress of each student.

3. The program is unique, relying heavily on the practice of plein-air painting. Students develop stamina and discipline, painting many on site studies from nature. Unlike seasonal schools or single workshops, our studio emphasizes outdoor painting year round, encouraging its students to study nature during each season.

4. Located in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the studio is housed in the landmark Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences, the hub of eastern North Carolina art.

5. Weekly lectures and critiques provide a continual context for student development, allowing each student to pursue his or her interests in the light of their appropriate art historical contexts. Topics include the American Impressionists and American Tonalist painters.

6. Demonstrations and discussions explore the works of painters of the classical, realist, romantic, and naturalist schools. Students will become familiar with the various movements and styles of landscape painting as they relate to the practices of working contemporary painters.

7. During this two-year concentrated program, students learn to paint directly from nature, preparing them for productive careers as professionals.

8. Students are encouraged to plan and organize a yearly exhibition. Senior students will assist with the staging of yearly exhibitions.

9. Senior students are encouraged to begin developing a professional portfolio. These portfolios will highlight the strengths of each student's work and prepare them for approaching galleries and exhibition venues.

10. The mild climate and clear blue skies of eastern North Carolina are ideal for the study of landscape painting.

For additional information, email Jennifer Rankin at (252) 972-1163 or

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Can Art be Taught to the Facebook Generation?

Image borrowed from Merit Group.

I recently came across a discussion occurring on Saatchi Gallery Online, which posits the question: can art be taught to the facebook generation?

This sent me on a journey of thought after which, when I awoke from my revere, I posed the same question to an art critic friend of mine. He said [seeing as most of my questions to him tended to be rhetorical, he would cut to the chase and ask me what I thought].

I observed:
Instead of answering immediately, let me counter this with two more questions. "Can Art be taught to the video game generation? Can Art be taught to the TV generation?" Maybe history has already answered our question. In as much as Art can be taught, it can be taught to the facebook generation. Because Art is about shared human experience, like any generation they will include their own experiences. Most of these will be in essence the same as human experience has for hundreds of thousands of years, but some will be different. So, their art may take a different form than previous generations, but will really be derivative of all forms that have come before.

He said then, that if they are derivative, then, no they cannot be taught Art because Art is that intangible addition to perception, it is new and fresh. Once it becomes a mimesis it is no longer Art. I had certainly heard this point of view before and pointed out that his point of view certainly wasn't fresh. Further, I added that if a man has no knowledge of the wheel, and he invents the wheel completely of his own inspiration, is this man less clever than the first who invented the wheel?

"No, but it makes him less interesting to those who already know of the wheel, and his invention is useless." parried the critic.

"Actually, it's the contrary." I replied. " It makes him more interesting and useful because it sheds light on the inventive process. Have you had the opportunity to meet the first person to invent the wheel?"

I would add now that most of the modes of Art making have been forgotten our predecessors and are unknown to most of my generation and the facebook generation. Perhaps the access to knowledge and the networking power of this new generation will enable them to re-discover these lost forms. Perhaps they will even build on them. For what we have now is the ability to assess all the modes before and produce new alloys from the elements of history.

Concept to Composition: Odd Nerdrum's Studio Practice part 1

When analyzing Odd Nerdrum's technique simply from looking at a painting (even in person), most people invariable come to a brick wall. It's almost inscrutable how he produces such sensuous and luminescent flesh, while at the same time creates a surface replete with texture and transparency that would make any abstract painter blush.

Much like Rembrandt before him, Nerdrum hides his tricks. So, just as I began my study of Rembrandt's technique by studying the works of his students, who are not so skilled at covering their tracks, I began my search for Nerdrum's secrets through his students as well. Unfortunately, this revealed important but limited information. Further, as I couldn't see their work in person, I was left at an impasse.

This is when I decided to go to the master himself. I was incredibly honored that he accepted my application and, giddy as a child, I hopped on a plane to visit a land I had never before seen. When I arrived, jet lagged and exhausted, he and his wife greeted me at the train station and he immediately put me on the spot. "Why do you want to study with me?" he asked. And through the mists of my dream clouded mind, I was luckily able to furnish an answer, "I want to learn how your idea translates into a composition; how it speaks not like prose, but like poetry." To this he grunted his assent. I sighed with relief that I had passed the first test.

But I could not have known how closely I nailed the question. This was precisely what he wanted to teach, and this was precisely the answer to the question of his technique. In order to understand how he paints the way he does, you have to understand why he paints the way he does. It is all in service of the idea.

Consider his self portrait above. There's not much to it: a single figure stands in a murky atmosphere, surrounded by impenetrable darkness. Yet, this painting speaks more powerfully than many much more complex paintings. This painting speaks fluently in a visual language. It is poetic, like a perfectly structured Haiku. In order to discover why, I began by asking him about his influences. Of course, at first we covered the obvious: Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Titian... but then two names struck me. Eugene Carriere and Joseph Beuys (he studied with Beuys in his youth). And what do these artists have in common? An interest in symbolism, spirituality, and an even hermetic interest in the artist as alchemist.

The pieces began to come together. What this painting is about is mortality. Not only that, but through contrast, the immortal spirit, the essence of eternal life. There are many levels on which we could read this painting. Critical theory would discuss it's relationship to Platonic and Dionysian thought as a contrast to post-modernism which focuses on objective materialism. An art historian might point out its references to Rembrandt, Carriere and the iconic composition. Though all of these inform my search, what I'm really interested in is how he communicates this.

Study the detail above. What you might notice first is the incredible looseness of the paint application. It does not look as if he has resolved the form into clarity, but actually destroyed the form. Much of the face is accurate, but ambiguous. The effect is breath taking, and I choose my words carefully here because you might next notice the two things in greater focus: the nose and the mouth. This serves the minor purpose of creating depth in the painting, but weren't we taught in the atelier that every inch of the canvas is as important as every other? Yes, and here, every inch is important, each nuance plays a role. But each element doesn't have to be painted to the same degree of clarity or detail. In order to communicate it is necessary to have syntax, structure, a hierarchy, and therefore a focal point. The focal point here gives us the key to cryptographically decode the painting. His mouth is open, his nostrils are slightly flared, he is in ecstatic contemplation of a single thing: breath.

Breath, is the crux of life. In many ancient cultures, the last breath before dying was considered the soul escaping the body, and judging by how Nerdrum has enchantingly lacerated the surface of the canvas with sand paper as if he was an embodiment of Kali, the emotive mist that we feel so deeply in this painting is the veil between life and death. The centering of the figure invokes the memory of Byzantine Icons, yet the symmetry is thrown off balance by the addition of the bright yellow shock of hair below his left ear, injecting dynamic life into the composition. The detail and contrast in the eyes are compressed and lost almost to point of simply representing the sockets in the skull. The hair disintegrates into rusted shadow. Every value, every color, is condensed with the greatest care to enhance the solidity of a single idea: breath. There is no need for more information, there is no need for less. The ambiguity of the statement insures that each and every one of us can identify.

Consider the detail of a different painting below. The hand holding the palette is beautifully drawn in contour, yet there is almost no information in the shadow, nor much more in the light. This gives him the ability to use this hand compositionally as a singly shape, almost in the sense of formal abstraction. The other hand (happens to be mine, as I modeled for this painting) is painted in much more clarity and contrast, because as it is the hand holding the brush, it is the acting hand, the one that creates. These methods are simply a few in Nerdrum's oeuvre, which he uses to lead the eye of the viewer, and therefore to the meaning. It is the difference between the musical emphasis of speech and the monotone of writing.

Continued.... Concept to composition part II