Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Concept to Composition Part 3: Odd Nerdrum's Painting Process

And now for the long awaited finale to Concept to Composition: Odd Nerdrum's actual painting process.

This is by far the most complicated to explain. Especially because Odd's techniques aren't precisely a "process", more a massive collection of principles. There is no formula. There is no magic medium. There is no "trick". The first and most important thing you have to understand in order to comprehend his approach, is that he is constantly experimenting, shifting approaches, completely obliterating and changing the compositions even when any other sane person would consider that they are "done". The trick is not sanding. The trick is not scraping. The trick is not glazing or velaturas, or the palette, or the herringbone linen. It is not his use of mirrors, nor the dark lens he looks through. The trick is simple: he uses all of these instruments, and more, as if he were both the composer and the conductor of a great orchestra. All the while rewriting a note here and there, in the middle of the performance, repeating a phrase, going back and rephrasing a melody, alternating the emphasis on the brass or the strings, smoothly accelerating the tempo.... all as if each and every musician and each instrument were telepathically communing with him and could adjust their performance immediately according to his wishes.

I know how frustrating this sounds to the young painter searching for the secrets to great painting. But the truth is that there is no process or formula for great painting, in general, no matter how your working. There are only principles, knowledge, experience, and above all: inspiration and passion. The key does not and cannot lie in materials and methods, but within yourself and how you utilize them, how you orchestrate every element into a coherent visual language. If that's not intimidating enough, then read on, intrepid friend.

Contrary to the methods that most learn in academies and ateliers, and contrary to the way I learned, Odd's process is audacious, fearless, even reckless. Nothing is set in stone, nothing is safe, and anything can change at any stage of the painting. I've seen him completely finish a large painting and then decide that an entire, nearly life-size figure should be two centimeters lower, and so he simply scraped it down and re-painted the entire figure. I've seen him flip a painting entirely upside-down or side-ways and decide that it looks better that way.... then proceed to change half of the painting to work with the new composition. I've seen him decide to change the lighting at the last minute, invent shadows that aren't there, and make them look completely convincing.

And this is what I love the most about the way he works. There are so many people risking their lives everyday to keep us safe, so that we have the liberty to do what we do. The least we can do is paint like we have a pair!

It's all about principles, and understanding and applying principles is all about knowledge and practice. For a simple crash course, see my other articles on the subject: Oil painting techniques: grisailles. Oil painting techniques: glazing.

On larger pieces Odd typically begins by transferring a loose compositional sketch onto the canvas with a very simple grid. And when I say loose, I mean loose. It's simply about getting the basic compositional proportions right. Next, he will put a wash of perhaps brown ochre, mixed with linseed oil and turpentine onto the area that he'll be working for the day. Typically, he starts by loosely massing in the abstract shapes of the light and shadow areas using a simple palette of yellow brown, a red earth like venetian red or flesh ochre, mars black, and titanium white (See part 2 for more details on the palette.) while refining the drawing, proportions, color, and value at the same time. He's not so concerned with exact likeness or anatomy at this point, but more with the gesture, value, and color. He also applies the paint thickly and liberally with very little or no medium - in accordance with the rule "fat over lean". That is "fat" paint has more oil and body and "lean" paint is straight out of the tube. Your first layers should be in lean paint, and for Odd, that means perhaps the first two or three layers. Only then does he commence to add significant amounts of medium in principle. Though, as I said before, he does often break rules such as this, because he knows how.

He uses models, but not always the same one. Often times a student will model for him for a few months and then another will model for the same figure. He also works a great deal from his imagination and great stores of anatomical and aesthetic knowledge, so nearly every figure becomes a conceptual form, an ideal, which is perfect for his work as they are vessels embodying the content of the work: the spirit and dignity of humanity as a whole. His overarching message concerns the universal and timeless qualities of human experience, though specific pieces may be diverse variations on the theme.

The next stage is reductive. He will use a palette knife or steak knife to remove heavy texture that he doesn't like. He'll use sand paper if he wants an area to be smooth - he has several different grades from fine to rough depending on the purpose. But, and this is important, he's also using these tools as drawing impliments, and not simply for removing paint or revealing underlying layers. About the texture, there is an organization about it. This is the biggest fault I've seen with students trying to copy his effect: they typically will apply the same texture across the whole canvas without variation. But if you actually look at the surface of his paintings, you'll see that the texture tends to correlated with light masses, and the shadows are more scraped down and transparent. Opaque and impasto in the light, transparent in the shadows. This is another rule of thumb that he typically follows, but often breaks.

After scraping, he moves on to applying paint again - sometimes scraping it off or sanding it while it's wet, sometimes letting it dry, sometimes glazing and then sanding, etc... This is the stage where he moves fluidly back and forth between additive and reductive methods. Again, because of the fat over lean principle and because of the way that light functions, glazes and velaturas are typically reserved for the last stage, though there may be many different layers of these as well, allowing each one drying time in between and perhaps some sanding or scraping. He will often look through a dark lense at the subject to condense the value ranges, or he will look at the painting in a mirror (sometimes clear, sometimes blurry) to see the composition and general effect. And he spends long hours throughout the whole process, just working on the painting from his head: responding to what he sees, adjusting here and there, and perhaps changing the lighting or position of the subject.

Then, rinse and repeat until satisfied... but this is the funny thing, my friend Alexander Rokoff once asked Odd how he knew when a painting was finished. To which he replied:

"In the beginning you find the likeness. Many painters can find the likeness, but this is not enough. You must destroy the likeness to find the essence, which few are able to find. But, when you have found the essence, you must destroy it also, in order to find that which is beyond words. Only then can I be satisfied. Even then, it is not enough. I will work the painting again and again until I am even more satisfied, and this may continue for years. I think the painting is never finished, but some day I must move on so that I do not become crazy."

I'm sorry that I must leave you with perhaps more questions than answers. Much of this knowledge is simply hands on, and can only be acquired through experience and genuine searching. But, if you've come here looking for the secrets and find this article daunting instead, don't loose heart. There is inspiration here as well. Consider this quote by Charles Dubois, one of the most profound quotes I've ever heard, and one that resonates with me on the deepest level:

"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to give up who you are for who you can become"

For me, this quote embodies the essence of painting, and the essence of life. No, in fact, it embodies much more, even - it embodies that which goes beyond words. And that is something words and paint can sometimes do. And that is why, in painting as in life; through all the struggles and failures, we continue intrepidly on.


J M Williams said...

It is truly refreshing to read intelligent comments on Nerdrum's technique amid the sea of nonsense on the internet. :)

Massimo Tizzano said...

Beautiful... thank You!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

1- your paintings on your personal website do not even closely resemble Nerdrums work, even the ones where you tried.

2- your ideas on why he uses sandpaper are semi wrong.

3-Nerdrum uses many "tricks" that are reproducable.

4-Nerdrum does not always follow these tricks in order, but he does end up using them.

Unknown said...


Stephen Cefalo said...

So they are every bit as crazy and heroic as they appeared to me when I was nineteen. This information is exciting and liberating. I almost teared up at the line about painting like you have a pair. Thanks so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the elucidation, richard!

Kyle V Thomas said...

Excellent post, Richard. Thank you for your generosity in sharing this and Odd's generosity, as well. Here's to great painting!

Keith Hiscock said...

Thanks Richard, some of this sounds familiar.

New York City said...

Thank you all.
I'm glad you enjoyed it! If you have any questions, please feel free. I'm definitely going to keep refining the article.

New York City said...


When did you study with Odd?
I've known him for years, have watched him paint, have discussed painting techniques with him, and have copied his paintings in person with him watching and advising me. You?

You know, there's a guy who runs this ridiculous site where people pay to see some hack who can't draw his way out of paper bag trying to demonstrate Odd's techniques.
This guy is a perfect example of someone trying to apply all the "tricks" without understanding how to use them. And the results are obvious. If that's what you're interested in, maybe you should look him up. (I'm not going to advertise for him here. All my information is free).

The fact is that all the "tricks" in the world will not allow you to reproduce a great painting in any style, let alone Odd's. You have to understand the principles of drawing and painting and there are no shortcuts. But, once you have training, yes there are many "tricks" that you'll find to be useful tools. But you have to know how to use the tools first.

Unknown said...

I always enjoy reading something that is truely enlightening and very much education!Thank you!

Kelly Borsheim Artist said...

Thank you, Richard, I really enjoyed this post. As a stone carver, primarily, I have always liked the idea of composing the work as a collaboration with living material. While I am not sure that paint and canvas are alive in the same way that marble is, the fact that the artist is free to adapt (and does) DURING the process of the creation is what interests me.

Kelly Borsheim Artist said...

Thank you, Richard, I really enjoyed this post. As a stone carver, primarily, I have always liked the idea of composing the work as a collaboration with living material. While I am not sure that paint and canvas are alive in the same way that marble is, the fact that the artist is free to adapt (and does) DURING the process of the creation is what interests me.

MCG said...

Thank you Richard, well written and well said! "that which is beyond words" is where the objective criteria lies I think.

Sakino said...

After read this, I feel very inspired to come back to my canvases and continue my paintings.

Brandon Kralik said...

What a brilliant description of how Odd channels paintings. They as much as pour out of his fingers through his connection to the source. I have always seen Odd as a sculptor of paint and if that could ever be a process then you have it here in words. Thanks be to Odd. ;)

Stephen Cefalo said...

Have heard tales of Nerdrum workshops in the U.S. Any idea how we can find out about these in the future?

New York City said...

Hi Stephen,

Yes, there will be one around June 24th, I think, at the New York Academy of Art. I would contact them for more info.

Ariel Gulluni said...

Brilliant, terrific post. Thanks for avoiding all the "secrets" nonsense. And that answer to Derek is brilliant too. I have see that guy trying to profit with the idea of selling those tricks for years!

Reboli├žo said...

Dear Richard,

I would like to know if the painting of the two men holding the sheet (?) is yours or Nedrum's. Please forgive my true ignorance. I found out about your art - and his - only today. I am not a painter, nor an art specialist, just curious.
What actually caught my eye in this painting in particular (does it have a title?) was its thematic similarity with Hugo Simberg's frescoes in Tampere (couldn't find an image online), and maybe even with his "Wounded Angel" (here
Could you comment on that?
Thank you so much. I am loving your work.
Ana Soares (Portugal)

New York City said...

Hi Ana,
This painting is Odd Nerdrum's. It's an interesting comparison, but I don't know if he was thinking of "Wounded Angel". However, I do know that he's aware of this painting because we've discussed it before.

Anonymous said...

great article richard, does odd varnish his paintings and if so what does he use thanks

New York City said...

Right now he's using a satin varnish from Sennelier, but he's still unhappy that it's a little too glossy.

Anonymous said...

hi richard, do you or odd recommend a retouch varnish at any stage. I know both of you have fairly dark paintings and was wondering what you did at certain stages in order to remedy sunken in spots and to see everything evenly before actual varnish. thanks

New York City said...

Good question.
Well, Odd uses more medium in his final layers, so there usually isn't much of a problem with areas going matte. But, I do sometimes use retouch varnish. Or, I will oil out with a very thin amount of medium by rubbing oil into the matte areas with my thumb - so that it absorbs into the paint, but doesn't stand on the surface.

Christopher McElhinney said...

Important Point On Technique:
Instead of trying to discover "Maroger" medium "trick" you (Derek Van Derven) have studied handling technique,this is the right approach and its why your results from a handling point of view are good.
The Point;If you place your oil paint on paper and leave it over night a percentage of linseed is absorbed this stiffens the paint and makes it even more sculptable in the raised impasto areas-experiment with duration of time leaving on the unprimed paper for subtle effects.
Basicly Rembrant or Titian (assistants) would have mixed the paint themselves so could control the amount of linseed (walnut oil etc..) at the start.So your kind of reversing this with tube paint.
You know when you look at a Rembrandt and see a broken crumble stroke of impasto, it can be simulated this way,you know when you look at a Titian and the actual density of the paint initself convays the illusion of a heavy or light material or diaphonous or coarse material -one aspect in this illusion is the density of the paint initself.(there's lots of physical and optical things going on that conservationists cant tell you about, but Venitian technique is a book not a blog so laters)

Christopher McElhinney said...

I am at a dissadvantage when considering Odds work because I've never seen any of it for real so as a serious figurative artist (who admires Carravaggio & Rembrandt)it is of excellent intrest to read your good articles on his technique in the absence of him recording any demonstrations in video of photos.
At first I regarded his ability to revise a canvass as akin to the development in Venetian painting to improve and rework around a loose composition(numerous drawings)-sort of the art history development of Bellini doing a static drawing compositional plan but then Georgione & Titian begin to "evolve" the composition on the canvass.
Then when I got to thinking about you saying Odd was influenced by Eugene Carriere I thought you meant by wipping with cloth to reveal under lying lighter tones (In Carrieres case the light ground in mine raised impasto)& the general diaphonous look of the image -I realised this must be wrong as you imply Odd uses at times Sgraffito.
It then occured to me that maybe the Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran infunence on Carriere & Rodin that starts with artistic anatomy plus the memory and ultimately ends up as "flux" as a subject in and of its self maybe accounted for what you seem to be suggesting are much more extreame revisions by Odd?
I'm rambling now but even if the above is a load of nonsence it may raise some intresting ideas.

Christopher McElhinney said...

Was looking at your painting "Two Heroes with One Wing" on the O'eil du Prince website and greatly admired its fluidity and confidence,are you using the "turgid medium technique" at the blend?its good to see fleshyness rendered painterly-please post a bigger image if possible.
I drew the life model for over 20yrs that was good but at moment i'm boring myself silly being unable to finish a female nude from a photo,Luckily I've also been studying artistic anatomy for over 20 yrs and fell it is time to try to paint a 3/4 scale figure for memory -GULP!

Anonymous said...

Hey, I have a question I guess that pertains more to drawing style than painting technique (although in my mind they are one and the same).

When Odd is considering edges, does he soften by blending or by the "rough manner" we see in Rembrandt, Titian and the Impressionists. This meaning using a decent amount of paint to diffuse the color around the edges into the surrounding area rather than "blending" it into the surrounding color. Do you know what I mean?

It seems a lot of great painters like the three aforementioned, Vermeer, Wyeth and the more I look at Assael, seem to favor softening edges by diffusing color in tiny "pieces" rather than blend and sacrifice the integrity of the paint. What do you think? Did he talk about this?

I could care less "how" he achieves this - sandpaper, paintbrush, finger, toilet paper - but in drawing style - is this how he works? Building up the surface to appear soft by weaving the medium, so to speak, stroke into stroke, value into value? Taking extreme care to get value facets one on top of the other, softening by means other than blending.


New York City said...

Hi Anonymous,

Both! It just depends on the passage.

Christopher McElhinney said...

when I look at the image above "the golden cape" the two figures dont remind me of any other artist in particular they are Odd.I've done 20 yrs of life drawing and artistic anatomy and its only now as a middle aged guy that i'm beginning to arrive at various conceptions of the human figures i.e.surface anatomy as drawing leading to a figure in a painting.
QUESTION:what is the basis for Odds figure conceptions? Obviously the above figures may "refer" to the life model but are clearly intellectual/emotional constructs.

New York City said...

Yes, he is certainly idealizing the form, though not always. I think there are two reasons:
1. He wants to convey the symbol of humanity as a whole, and not the specific individual - so that the work can be inhabited by any viewer. He's also making use of and making reference to the idealized figure in Ancient Greek sculpture. The harmonies and rhythms become compositional devices.
2. He uses multiple models for each figure, so that he finds common features and pulls them out.

Christopher McElhinney said...

Mind blowing answer.If feel more equipped to talk about Odd (despite not having seen origionals) now I have discovered oddmuseum online.When I think of Greek/Roman sculpture I think 1.proportional harmony then later in Hellenism 2.expressive anatomical distortion.When I look at Odds figures I can see that he might start of with a greek template but that he is doing different things that dont actually match up with even Caravaggio for example.I notice in your photo of Odds cast room theres mainly Rodin this would make sence in that part of Odds body expression(esp in mid-career)is localised flexion or extenssion of hands,feet or even faces a bit like Duchenne administering electric shocks,this is ungreek/renaissance.Rodin thought that every muscle was potentally expressive.
When I can read the entire tensor facia on a leg or the extensor pollicis on a thumb I'm thinking more literal Artistic anatomy influence in a far more functionally descriptive way so QUESTION:what are Odds artistic anatomy references.
QUESTION:when you say the harmony is carried on through the composition I'm NOT assuming you mean there is an internal proportional system within the figure he intentionally rebounds through out the composition (Like Michelangelos medici chapel figures relating to the architonic)Infact your posts indicate liberal improvisation.So my question is could you elabourate on what you actually mean,are you really saying Odd uses a "painters secret geometry" its just when I look at his over all composition its obvious he is making a play or his geometric ordering even to the point of reversing a pose/gesture twice in the same image but I still thought no geometric PLANNING took place.Is this true?

RDWstudio said...

Derek, your paintings in your never ending attempts to capitalize on Nerdrum's name do not even closely resemble Nerdrums work, even the ones where you tried.