Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Secrets of the Old Masters

There's a common idea among figurative painters that the old masters were like alchemists... toiling away in their studios - discovering the secrets of the most durable pigments, distilling superior oils, blending fragrant mediums; that what made the old masters great were their secrets: a secret medium, a special combination of colors on their palette, a special kind of brush, a special preparation for their ground and pigments. They certainly did all of these things, and this profound familiarity with the materials is something that's lacking in most ateliers today. And so, many figurative painters today lead solitary lives. Spending much of their time holed up in their studios, slowly pushing their skills, reading old books, cooking up maroger's medium on the stove top, competing against all the other figurative painters with guarded envy.

But these secrets can be found in numerous books, can be learned in many great ateliers and academies around the world. So, they're not exactly secrets, more like very valuable knowledge. Though many great painters certainly did experiment with their materials, what truly made them masters was their skill, passion, brilliance, and work ethic...
well, and one secret.

This is a secret I've seldom heard anyone mention, but one I've known about for some time. It is the secret to the success of Rembrandt, Eugène Carrière, Rubens, and Odd Nerdrum, as well as many of the greatest painters in history. And it is also the secret to my success.

When I first began studying at The New York Academy of Art, I heard tales of how incredibly competitive the students were. Students would quarantine themselves in their studios, only letting in their closest friends, repelling anyone who came knocking. They would speak in whispers about their projects... it was every man for himself. I heard that the professors were equally secretive, more concerned with their own careers than teaching. People spoke of how one professor or another wouldn't answer their questions clearly and withheld certain information from the more promising students. After all, todays student is tomorrow's competition.

Perhaps it was the special blend of my class, the class of 2007. Or perhaps we marked a generational shift in the way we thought. Or perhaps all those rumors were completely false to begin with - all of my professor were incredible. But, many of the professors told us we were different. (Maybe they say that to all their students.) Nevertheless, by the time I was well into my studies at NYAA, I found that secrecy certainly was not the case - certainly not with the professors, and arguably not within the student body. Competition, yes. Secrecy, no. There was an open spirit of sharing: anyone could walk into my studio at any time and I would gladly explain how I did a certain technique, or what medium and palette I used. And I found that everyone else reciprocated. I don't know if it was just me, but it seemed like it was true for everyone. And consequently, a surprising number of my classmates from that time continued on to have successful careers.

But, this openness was nothing new for me, in fact this had been my practice since undergrad at UGA. I don't know what put the idea into my head. I would begin each semester by seeking out the best student in whatever class I was taking - someone whose work inspired me, someone who had the skill and vision that I hoped to acquire. I became friends with them and would analyze each piece they created, searching for something I didn't know. Soon, we began borrowing ideas and techniques from each other, improving upon them... always trying to out-do the other. And when one would ask how something was done, the other would happily explain it, demonstrating the technique. Between this open sharing, and the friendly competition that drove us to always try to best the other, we would quickly leave the rest of the class behind ,who for some reason didn't seem to grasp the concept, or just weren't interested. The amount of development that we made in one semester was so great, that several professors asked us to teach their classes for them (our peers) sometimes when they had pressing issues to take care of.

If we had simply kept our ideas to ourselves, or decided "oh, that's Kathy's technique - I don't want to step on her toes", we would never have gotten half so far. The truth is, that together we drove each other to excellence. (Not surprisingly "Kathy" a.k.a Gyun Hur, went on to become an award winning installation artist who recently gave an incredible talk at the TED conference.)

At NYAA, I continued this practice on a higher level. And even after graduation, when I worked for Jeff Koons, I met a man who now is a dear friend and colleague: Adam Miller. We became friends in a matter of seconds and when he showed me his work, I was absolutely intimidated! I found that he too had been practicing the same kind of collaborative competition for the past 15 years and we soon struck a bargain. We were allowed to steal any idea, any technique we wanted from each other as long as we improved upon it and gave it back. We would freely share any information.... and over the years, Adam and I came to trust each other so well that we began sharing other opportunities with each other: exhibitions, showing each other's work to collectors, introducing each other to important people. Imagine how effective this would be for an entire group of like-minded painters! And here, you begin to see why the great ones always come in groups - why they seem to cluster together in time like a nebula of stars swirling in eddies around one another.

This is not dissimilar from Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, who actually developed Rembrandt's textural techniques together. Robert Henri shared everything with his students, inspiring the formation of the Ashcan school. Odd Nerdrum asks all of his apprentices to critique his work, and sometimes he takes their advice.

Here you see the spirit of brotherhood that permeates inspiring movements and schools such as Novorealism, the Kitsch movement, and the most successful groups from the Grand Central Academy, Florence Academy, NYAA, PAFA, and too many notable others to mention. All of them sharing the same fundamental principles of humanity, skill, beauty, emotional sincerity, passion, intellect and knowledge.

This is the spirit in which I have freely shared so much of my hard won and valuable knowledge with you here. So, in this spirit, I leave you with a single secret. A secret that, if you embrace, will propel you to a much greater progress in your work than you ever thought possible. Collaborative competition.



Unknown said...

Thank you. I love this. I am a teacher myself and could not agree more.

Jeremy Bell said...

Very insightful and refreshing. I can't say how many times I have felt that fellow artists were not willing to practice this sort of friendly competition. I say the more, the merrier!

Elsie Russell said...

Thank you for this great post. However it should not be assumed that previous generations of figurative students were any different than you and your friends. In the seventies I was part of two groups,1) fellow Pratt students flummoxed by a dearth of either knowledge or generosity from existing faculty, and 2) those recent graduates armed with the seminal treasures from study with such teachers at places like CUNY as Alfred Russell, Lennart Anderson and Milet Andreivic. We all shared our knowledge much as a starving family share a crust of bread. We knew we held the flame and we shared the fire freely but few cared then. There were methods in place for virtuoso craftsmanship of a sort, but the study of composition and the creation of intelligent narrative content was nearly extinct due to reigning post 1968 dogmas, that even wiped out the Paris Beaux Arts.
That is how the NYAA was originally conceived. Technique and materials was not an end in itself, but a foundation for the next stage. This had always been the focus, for better or worse ,of the academic curriculum before, until its decline into the feeble and saccharine efforts seen in so much 19th and lesser 20th century art. Most of the first instructors at the NYAA gave their all, some of them are still alive and still do, as is the duty of a true teacher, and any true artist.
At the same time, lesser talents, those who have no vision of their own, will take advantage,and tragically it happens that some will be dealt with unethically and swept aside or blatantly plagiarized unless they have a strong support system. I sincerely hope that such discrimination and small mindedness is a thing of the recent dark ages that we are just emerging from.

Lori Escalera said...

Well said and so true! And with artists of true character - it is exactly the opposite: in stead of being secretive they are very willing to share. A true Master is secure in the quality of their skills. Therefore, they have no fear of losing anything in the process of sharing their knowledge with others.

Michael said...

Very interesting... I am going to look into finding artists with similar interests in my area to work with. You have inspired me.

Daniel said...

My favorite post of yours to date. Well done.

Ng Woon Lam said...

Nice write-up Richard! I see great progress of all our classmates. So proud to be your classmate.

I am actively showing in international watercolor shows in diff. states in USA. Hope to meet you again in NY if I get to travel there again. American Watercolor Society annual is fiecely competitive. This year I am out. Need more hardwork and good luck next year. Haha! Happy painting. I am working on my 2nd solo show here in Singapore. Currently teaching at Nanyang Technological University as Visiting Asst Professor for foundation drawing and 2D/color theory. Best Wishes and hope to meet you again soon!

Luiz Teles said...

That was a very pleasant nostalgic read. I say nostalgic because I've experienced something similar on an undergraduate level. There was never a fear of having my originality or technique "stolen", rather we all raised the bar of excellence.

Sadly since graduation in 05 I've been a hermit-artist, having to motivate myself, by myself. The events since then have led to a complete reevaluation of my spiritual and philosophical view of the world. As a downside I've never been able to attend the NYAA, I guess it just wasn't in the cards for me.

Interacting with you and your peers through Facebook is as close as I've gotten to any sense of artistic community since 05, so it means a lot to me. Thank you for all your insightful discussions.

Artist-in-Residence said...

(Tips Hat) - Excellent and True, Richard. Good work, my friend. You know how sincerely and utterly my heart agrees with yours.

Artist-in-Residence said...

Indeed -

Anonymous said...

I want to respond, but I don't want to ramble in your comments section. Boiling it down: Beautiful. True.

ArtPlusOne said...

I have always felt that we have been given the gift of art to share with the rest of humanity - and this includes helping other artists achieve their excellence through sharing techniques. It is only through being open and generous that we become a better artist and person.

Lisa F Rogers said...

I am a beginner, but would be nowhere without the generosity of mind, spirit, time, and effort of many people who have inspired me.

Sono said...

"Collaborative competition"
"A True Master needs no secrets"

I hope your message will be spread far and wide.

jane said...

Another person that agrees that sharing is a key. However, I have recently found that the giving ideas out (in my case, by blogging every day) actually improved my painting - and in just a month. Getting info back pulls it onto another level (and there has been a bit of that) but my message is that sharing is enough.