Monday, July 28, 2014

Notes On Technique


Technique is JUST technique. 

My favorite painting by Ad Reinhardt
Sometimes without realizing it, when the public admires a work of art, what they are admiring is the artist’s technique, not what the artist had to say or meant for them to grasp. To be fair, conversely quite a few artists without realizing it mistake mastering a technique for having something to say (I know because I myself have been guilty of this in the past).

Tiffany by Sarolla
The task of the artist is to find himself and to invent a special language for his personal expression. As Robert Henri taught, to “work both mind and body to the limit of endurance to find in himself whatever there is of value, to find his truest thoughts and find a means, the simplest, straightest, the most fit means to make record of them.”

A Glass of Water (2000) by Alex Kanevskey

The end of painting is “to express what you care for most by the simplest means that will avail you - your personality, your knowledge, your experience; whether you do it in work that takes years, or whether you do it, like Caran d’Ache, in the line of a few seconds.” - John La Farge. 
It seems that what’s most important in painting is the felt idea - a “vision” or strongly held conception will find or invent the technique needed for its expression. 

A still life by Susan J. Walp 
“The man who has something very definite to say and tries to force the medium to say it will learn how to draw.”  -Robert Henri

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive. Instead of establishing a vast stock of technical tricks, it would be far wiser to develop creative power …. by developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or the emotion which has moved you to expression.” -Robert Henri

Outdoor cafe at night by Robert Henri
“The real study of technique is not the acquirement of a vast stock of pat phrases, but rather the avoidance of such, and the creation of a phrase special to the idea. To accomplish this, one must first have the idea and then the active, inventive wit to make the specifying phrase. This places the idea prior to the technique as a cause for the latter, contrary to the academic idea, which is the reverse.”

Landscape sketch by Degas

“Those meek students, plodding away, afraid to use their intelligence lest they make mistakes, have a faith that after so much virtuous humble tint and line copying, years of it, the gift of imagination, the power to say things the world is in need of hearing for profit or pleasure and the special management of the medium, will be handed to them as a diploma is handed to a graduate.”- Robert Henri

All great artists invent their own technique anyway. They “find” the means, invent the techniques, that we later misguidedly canonize and take for the necessary “first things first” that must be learned before one can do anything meaningful in art. I think this is precisely not the case, and that it is actually fear of not possessing these techniques (that is, of making a “bad” picture or of being found to be “untalented”) which cripples the beginners’ ability to make successful paintings. 

Irish Coast by Robert Henri
“The man who becomes a master starts out by being master of such as he has, and the man who is master at any time of such as he has is at that time straining every faculty. What he leans then from his experience is fundamental, constructive, to the point. His wits are being used and are being formed into the habit of usage.” - Robert Henri

If this is true, then the good news is that, if could only get out of our own way, we already possess exactly those techniques needed to create our art - and I mean real art of lasting value. Do you think so? Or is this going too far?

Landscape by Cezanne
“Your ability to see is your tools of trade… Remember, when you hear people say they can see a thing but not do it that they cannot really see it. If they did, they could do it even if they put the paint on with their fingers.” - Charles Hawthorne

Sunday, July 6, 2014

I Sit and Look Out (Whitman)

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame,

George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Mississippi, 1845

I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done,

I see in love life the mother missed by her children, dying, elected, gaunt, desperate,

I see the wife missed by her husband, I see the treacherous seducer of young women,

I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be hid, I see these sights on the earth,

I see the working battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and prisoners,

Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899

I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill'd to preserve the lives of the rest,

I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;

Wm. Sidney Mount, The Verdict of the People, 1854-55

All these -- all the meanness and agony without end I sit looking out upon,

See, hear, and am silent.

-Walt Whitman

John Frederick Kensett, Sunset at Sea, ca. 1873

Friday, June 27, 2014

Mystery, infinity

Dwight Tryon, Evening, September, c. 1890

Dwight Tryon (1849-1925) was a dedicated Tonalist of the fields, sea, and shores of Massachusetts. He was passionate about Emerson and Thoreau, devoted to "the raw New England countryside and its Transcendentalist interpreters," resulting in a landscape art steeped in both mysticism and materiality, atmosphere and mood, "one of the consummate embodiments of the New England mind in the Tonalist canon."(1) 

Dwight Tryon, Moonlight in November, c. 1887
Tryon's work is well described by one of he best definitions of Tonalism I've encountered: "a generation of artists using tone as a distinct means of expression in its own right. Having jettisoned narrative content, tone became a new language, a signifier of mood, of mystery and uncertainty, and stood for the searching spirit of the age." (2)

Dwight Tryon, Sunrise: April, 1897-1899

"The less imitation the more suggestion and hence more poetry," the artist noted. For Tryon, of course, it wasn't about style - just as it was for Inness and his "unseen," painting was about communicating the "mood or special phase of nature," by which he actually meant: Eternity. As Tryon elaborated:

Dwight Tryon, Dawn, c. 1890

"Mystery, infinity. A painter who feels these truths in nature is humble. He frankly acknowledges there is something that cannot be painted. But this draws him on, and the highest and most lasting things are these suggestions. In this striving for the spiritual, the higher the whole, so insensibly but surely parts come to belong to the whole."(3)

Dwight Tryon, Evening

It was a vision of the spiritual embodied in the material, the concrete as symbol "of what we do not know, but may believe in." (4) "And his timeless meditations on nature would inspire modernists like Milton Avery and postmodern Tonalists like Wolf Kahn, as well as the floating dreamscapes of Mark Rothko." (5)

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1955

It turns out that Tryon painted what he considered "the nearest to a masterpiece of any I have produced" in none other than Ogunquit, Maine, where I am currently teaching a plein air workshop every Tuesday morning (email me if you would like to join us). 

Tryon received a commission in 1906 to produce a moonlit seascape. At that time in history, Ogunquit was home to a thriving art colony producing seascapes of national renown. Also a passionate fisherman, Tryon apparently came for the pollock to be had as much as for the views. 

The resulting painting, The Sea: Evening is indeed a masterpiece of Tonalism. As described by the curators of the Freer Gallery where the painting resides:

"Tryon's use of color reflects a cold austerity not expressed in his other seascapes. The subtle gradations of dark blues and greys in the sky, accented by the faded golds of the setting sun, elegantly complement the violet and lavender pigments of the ocean. The work's horizontal orientation and smooth, wavy brushstrokes suggest the movement of the waves; the delicately layered palette combined with the painting's large scale evokes an overwhelming feeling of calm."

Dwight Tryon, The Sea, Evening, 1907

The low-chroma colors and restricted palette leave the emotive work to the tonalities. It's almost a blueprint for future color field painting (such as Rothko's), what with its scale and its flowing, loosely handled horizontal bands of melting tonal color harmonies free from disruptive verticals. 

Tryon's magical week in Ogunquit (he was so visually enchanted by it that he proclaimed all other exotic locales "nowhere to this wonderful place") also inspired a gorgeous pastel. I love the moody tonalism in these paintings that express " the power and vastness of the sea and sky as elemental forces." 

Dwight Tryon, The Sea, Night, 1915

The Freer-Sackler has a nice web gallery with write-ups on each painting and a slide show showcasing its collection of Tryon's work here:

1. Cleveland, David A., A History of American Tonalism, 1880-1920, Hudson Hills Press, 2010, p. 273
2. Ibid., p. 278
3. bid., p. 277
4. bid., p. 281
5. bid., p. 281
6. Freer Gallery:
7. Ibid.:

Upcoming Workshops:

Cape Cod

"Beyond Plein Air" at Castle Hill Art Center, Truro, Mass.

July 7 - July 11, 2014

Contact them at 508-349-7511

Christopher Volpe,  Truro Dunes

Crawford Notch (New Hampshire's White Mountains)

Three-day workshop in the Whites. This is a pilot for a new Artist in Residence program I am helping to develop at the Appalachian Mountain Club's cozy Highland Center Lodge.

September 28-30, 2014
Contact me about this.


Cinque Terre (Italian Coast) 

A possible 2015 or 2016 workshop.

Contact me about this.


Those interested in my ongoing weekly class in Lowell, MA should Contact me  as well.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Notes on the Psychology of Possibility

Me and My Shadow, by Ellen Langer
"In my experience, each of us has the potential for a renaissance, an age defined by a creative, purposeful, and engaged life. It doesn't matter whether the creative work we choose is painting, dance, fiction, poetry, or music. What matters is pursuing it mindfully.

How do we get from beginning some new activity to a personal renaissance? Learning what things stand in the way of our comfortably engaging in some leisure activity, and how to break down these roadblocks as we experience them, provides the practice we need to deal with our more familiar stresses and fears. 

Once examined through this new lens, many of our "problems" fall by the roadside. We can, it turns out, pursue art for art's sake and art for life's sake, and it matters little what that art is. Any creative activity can have a powerful effect on our lives if we pursue it mindfully and recognize the ways in which old familiar fears and habits can be set aside to make room for the personal renaissance we seek."

 - Ellen J. Langer, On Becoming an Artist, p. 7

All paintings by Ellen Langer

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chair-Man for a Day

(Instruction in painting outdoors on Tuesday mornings from 9-1 in and around Perkins Cove, Ogunquit, Maine. Info here.)

I spent yesterday painting a chair - or rather, trying to turn a lawn chair into a painting. 

The chair is one of three adirondack chairs that will be auctioned off in September to benefit the York Land Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural resources and cultural heritage of the coastal town of York, Maine.

Specifically, it's for the land trust's 4th Annual From the Ground Up! Fresh Catch Benefit Dinner and Auction. It's a four-course meal featuring locally harvested and produced vegetables, fish, meat, beer, and wine. The chairs will be part of the live auction portion of the event. 

All the Sweet Tints
I'd done an abstract floral painting called All the Sweet Tints a while back and had been wanting to revisit that palette. It's basically an improvisation, and the looseness of the composition seemed well-suited to such an undertaking.

I was expecting a sunny day, so I had a supply of cold beer on hand to fortify me during the trials to come. The chair, coated with a white primer, awaited my first move.

So how do you begin a painting like this?

I circled around it a few times, considering my quarry. I realized it was out of the question for me to map the whole thing out beforehand. I don't generally work that way on canvas, let alone furniture. 

I finally broke the ice by painting a flowery splash of pink onto the chair. 

I would've used Rose Madder if I'd had my druthers. Instead I saved myself a drive and purchased a tube of Winsor Newton Permanent Magenta on the way to the location (I painted this on a friend's deck in North Berwick, Maine). I mixed this with a little yellow and a lot of white in various values and intensities to make the "flowers." 

The initial shape ended up looking like a Native American ceremonial buffalo mask so I knew this was going to be changing. 

But at least I'd broken ground, as it were, and was "in a dialogue" with the piece.

To start creating a sense of three-dimensional space, I added some atmospheric sky-work behind the magenta.

I needed to see an opposing element to all that pink, so I added a big ribbon of loosely mixed ultramarine, lemon-yellow, and permanent green running down the right side as a counterweight to both the assertive mass of pink and the ethereal background. 

By now the sun was blazing and I was sort of dazzled by all the light bouncing off the white primer into my eyes.

I had to keep stuffing paper towels under my hat in order to keep perspiration out of my face.

I dealt mercilessly with the buffalo head and then composed the rest based on what I'd done so far. This was a period of making little "calls and responses" of color, hunting for dead spots I could enliven with some kind of counterpoint - if it was a section of solid light blue, then it was begging for a few opposing lines of bright color laid on with different brushstrokes and a different character.  

I suppose it's rather like the latter stages of a plein air painting, where after the "big moves" have been made, it's time to add some detail.

Thinking back, I think part of the reason I chose the design I did had to do with imagining the chair eventually sitting outside, perhaps in some proximity to a real garden or other.

Almost finished!
It was fun to turn an abstract painting into a three-dimensional object. I do hope that it succeeds in enriching someone's life in some way. And it's good to know I'm doing something to help keep coastal southern Maine the beautiful place that it is. 

Safely stored until September.

By the way, you can purchase tickets for the event from the York Land Trust website, here.

* * *

There are still a small number of spots open for the Star Island (Isles of Shoals) plein air day trip setting sail on Sunday, June 29 at 9:15 a.m. from Rye Harbor (NH) and returning around 8 p.m. that evening. Email me if you're interested in joining up!

Friday, June 6, 2014

On Meeting Fairfield Porter on George Street

I had an unexpected meeting with Fairfield Porter following the weekly Wednesday workshop I conduct at my studio in Lowell, Mass. 

As an exercise, we were using a the left hand side of a painting by George Inness as a starting point for "whatever might happen." Fools we!

Geo. Inness, June (1882)
We were thwarted at every turn! Sometimes the gods smile upon our efforts, sometimes not. We were probably looking too closely and anxiously; whatever, just trying to get the colors and the values right proved unusually painful. In the end, I mixed the greens using Corot's palette and left it at that.

Finally despairing of getting my study to look anything like the Inness, I went about the business of playing with what I did have in my painting to see if anything could be made of it before it became "a wiper." I have no problem wiping away a painting that isn't going to make it. "Know when you're licked," said Charles Woodbury

I confidently adhere to the doctrine that any painting is good painting because you're invariably learning something that will be useful later whether you realize it or not - an activity otherwise known as "paying your dues."

Here's the study after a student remarked that its real debt was to Fairfield Porter instead of Inness, and all it needed was a road. I was (and still aren't) that convinced, but the collision of the two (three if you count Corot) got me thinking about "influence" and how it works.

C. Volpe, A Morning Walk on George St., 8x10, oil on paper

Just for reference, here are a couple of landscapes by Fairfield Porter:

And one by Corot:

Let's face it, sometimes we're totally helpless; painting is a leap into the void! But it's interesting that while I was busy failing at my attempt to consciously adopt one painter's style (Inness's), others leaped into the breach and tried to help. Perhaps it just underscores the importance of looking at a lot of art with an open heart and mind - drinking deeply of what and why and allowing the art you love to penetrate your subconscious. 

That Corot is a high-res photo by the way, and if you right click on it and save the file to your computer, you'll be able to see the beautiful, shimmery gray strokes he used to make the magic of his ethereal foliage. Yup, I'm a fan.

Upcoming Classes and Workshops

The Ogunquit Summer School of Art (Ogunquit, Maine)

Plein-Air Tuesdays

Instruction in painting outdoors on Tuesday mornings from 9-1 in and around Perkins Cove, Ogunquit, Maine.

June 24, July 18*15, 22, 29 
*July 8 class will be taught by Todd Bonita

Week-Long Workshop in OgunquitWith Todd Bonita

Team-taught plein-air instruction designed to foster spontaneous creativity while strengthening formal compositional and drawing skills.

September 25 - 29, 2014

Contact them at 603-819-9100


Star Island (Isles of Shoals 

Plein-air painting day trip 9 miles off southern Maine and New Hampshire

June 29, 2014

Contact me about this.


Cape Cod

"Beyond Plein Air" at Castle Hill Art Center, Truro

July 7 - July 11, 2014

Contact them at 508-349-7511


Crawford Notch (New Hampshire's White Mountains)

Three-day workshop in the Whites. This is a pilot for a new Artist in Residence program I am helping to develop at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highland Center Lodge.

September 26-28, 2014

Contact me about this.


Cinque Terre (Italian Coast) 

A possible 2015 or 2016 workshop.

Contact me about this.


Those interested in my ongoing weekly class in Lowell, MA should Contact me . 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Do the Unexpected

"Manet did not do the expected. He was a pioneer. He followed his individual whim. Told the public what he wanted it to know, not the timeworn things the public already knew and thought it wanted to hear again. The public was very much offended." 

- Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, pp. 206-7.

Manet, Luncheon on the Grass, 1863

"Art must take reality by surprise." 

- Francoise Sagan

Manet, Olympia, 1863
A nice blend of prediction and surprise seem to be at the heart of the best art.
- Wendy Carlos
Manet, The Races at Longchamps, 1864

The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.
- Robert Henri
Manet, The Railway, 1872

"Do not know yourself.  I want to continue to surprise me."
- Arielle Dombasle
Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882