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Oil Painting, Mark-making…Problems with the “Masters” Part I

This all started in January of 2008, when Anna and I went to see the Edward Hopper show at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Anna and I were both Hopper fans, so we were happy to have made the show before it closed. Then something unsettling happened…

Walking through the exhibit–piece after piece–showed an artist struggling with the medium (oil paint)…and mostly not coming out the winner.  I actually started to feel a bit sorry for old Ed, like I caught him with his Art Pants down. In terms of his paint application (or, mark-making) the work “amateurish” kept surfacing in my head. I’m sure my face was a strange thing to behold, because I was shocked.

To keep from Poisoning the Well, I kept my mouth shut and said nothing to Anna. (BTW, on top of zillions of reproductions, she and I have both seen a good number of Hoppers “live”.) When I told her my take on the show, she said that she’d been thinking the same thing. We went back to the beginning and looked at everything again. Same thing.

Now, there are no two ways about it: Hopper knew how to compose stunning images that, on their own merits (of light, color, and mood) are aesthetically pleasing and historically significant. But his mark-making was simply Godawful. I’d always found his figures to be weak points in any paintings that incorporated them, but up close, that same uncomfortably-integrated aspect intruded upon so much beyond that.

Needless to say, there were some strong passages. But more often than not, he just seemed to find himself needing to cover an area while he happened to be holding a brush loaded with oil paint.

Edward Hopper: Stiff oil paint mark-making, "A woman in the Sun"

Edward Hopper: Stiff oil paint mark-making, " A woman in the Sun"

Now I have a whole bunch of questions: Is it because he was a graphic artist for so (or–too) long? Is it because his paintings are actually better viewed as reduced-scale reproductions? Why are his watercolors generally more fluid and immensely more tuned-in to the medium–when watercolor is a harder medium to employ and “let go” with?

(Incidentally, Hopper’s etchings exhibit what I call “Diebenkorn-y Drawing Funk”–a sort of stiffness-of-draftsmanship that becomes a stylistic/translational success in spite of itself.) Example:


Example: Richard Diebenkorn Drawing Funk in his Landscape Etching


How is it that Hopper shows a clear understanding of “marks and gesture adding up to form” with a pointy medium (etching)…




…yet it doesn’t translate into his oil painting brushwork? It’s like he had an impenetrable wall between media.

I don’t know, but it was the start of my noticing all kinds of Dicey Oil Painting Marks Made by Masters in subsequent museum visits. More on this later, in Part II…


Mechanical Vision: my “Blur Glasses”, Photography, and Context

My Mechanically Altered Vision: Beyond the Camera…

This past weekend, Anna and I visited the Baltimore Museum of Art’s  “Seeing Now: Photography Since 1960” exhibit. While it didn’t rock me back on my heels, it was reasonably engaging, and afforded me one stand-out: Andres Serrano‘s “Black Supper”, a piece that existed as a beautiful, visceral, engaging image–on its own, outside the context of the exhibit and the medium.

Andres Serrano's "Black Supper", photograph(s) [fair use, as not-for-profit example]

Andres Serrano's "Black Supper", photograph(s)

(In other words, it was the polar opposite of the two video “art” pieces. Actually–opposite of 99% of video pieces anywhere.)


After returning home, I was reading through some posts at ConceptArt.org discussing the perennial issue of artists–mostly beginners and poor draftsmen–using photographic reference crutches (to bad effect) in drawings and paintings. (At the moment I won’t be getting into the details of when and how photographs are used/misused. It’s not cut and dried, so maybe another exciting time!)

It got me thinking about cameras, their distortions, and the attendant preconceptions they animate in people. Cameras have points of view and biases–just like everyone else–be they mechanical (what type/format), technological (what era of development they were designed in), or administrative (how the photographer employs it, and under what conditions, to what end, etc).  Then, there’s the baggage (positive and negative) a viewer brings to a photograph. There are a lot of variables there, huh?

I kept coming back to the fact that photographic images are often taken as de facto representations of Reality, even despite all of those contextually wishy-washing attributes I mentioned above. Most of the problems artists have when using photo reference stem from the common misapprehension that a photograph is telling the Truth–or worse, the whole Truth. This is a Perfect Storm: the camera’s mechanical distortions are given a free pass to Truthdom via peoples’ needy-willingness to accept them as Real. This questionable perceptual stew becomes a “default mode of contextualization” for a lot of people–even whole societies. (Look at ours, especially when it comes to documentary news photography and the whole other issue of Photoshop manipulation.)

So…I thought that it would be interesting to confound several aspects of photography at once; I’d intentionally, mechanically alter my vision as I worked. I took a pair of $20 pharmacy glasses and farked up the lenses. Several coats of Crystal Clear and Polyurethane later, I had these:

Mechanically Altered Vision: Beyond the Camera

the Blur Glasses...brought to you by Crystal Clear & Polyurethane

The “Blur Glasses” are my Anti-Camera. They are mechanical…but they blur, they are obvious (and therefore, beyond ignoring or forgetting their contextualizing), and don’t freeze anything in place or 2D-ify.

p.s. My eyesight has been degrading over the past few years. My far-sightedness can be a benefit (in the same way squinting is), but these glasses help in a couple of ways. One is that I don’t have to constantly be tensing my face up, as with the squints. The other (odd, but palpable) is that the lenses allow my eyes to focus “naturally” while still fuzzing things up. And there you go.

My New Studio Table for Still Life: the Diebenkorn / Ocean Park Look

artist's studio, still life, process, Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park, abstract painting, abstract expressionism

Nick's White Studio Table ... Looks Like a Diebenkorn Ocean Park Series Painting

My freshly painted white, textured studio table. I’ll use it to set still lifes on.

While working on the surface (to give it some interesting character that I’ll include while I’m painting whatever’s on it) I noticed it was looking a lot like an outtake from Richard Diebenkorn‘s Ocean Park Series.

richard diebenkorn, ocean park, ocean park series, abstract painting, abstract expressionism, color field, 20th century art, modern art, contempirary art

Richard Diebenkorn's "Ocan Park no. 64": a Lot Like My Table (or vice-versa)

So…why allow (or more precisely: include) random marks on the Still Life Substrate? Here’s why:
In my observational paintings, I’ve always included nominally subtle elements–like drywall seams, paint inconsistencies, etc–when appropriate. Not only are those elements compositionally interesting, but they’re often an integral part of what I’m looking at; my  amputation of them would mean altering the scene in such a way as to make the translational process (of perceiving, processing, and painting) suffer.

Having these marks on the tabletop will provide some hard-wired Interesting Possibilities when setting up…beyond a cloth, or what have you. (Plus, the way I did it provides varying “neighborhoods of complexity”, so I have my Options.)

Waldorf Clouds 2 : An “Oil Landscape Painting in Progress” Image Time Line

Waldorf, Maryland : Clouds 2 (oil painting in progress)

An "Oil Painting in Progress" : Sunset Clouds in a Landscape; Waldorf, Maryland

A “Painting in Progress” image time line: To keep my sensibilities freshy-fresh (and to explore the medium), I keep a couple of small paintings in ongoing States of Becoming. They’ll let me know when I’ve had enough–if ever.

These represent a sort of external “painting id” to balance out the constantly preening (and suffocating) “painting superego”: I allow myself to try anything that comes to mind, I allow myself to unapologetically suck, and I *force* myself to sacrifice passages that I like, in the service of learning to Let Go. Honest to God, they’re tough on me–even knowing I’m not supposed to “produce” with these, I still get angry when nothing works.

This one got so thick with paint that I sanded it down several sessions ago (after which, of course, the surface became a glassy nightmare of paint non-adhesion). A half-dry coat of retouch varnish made it paintable again, and it’s odd little challenges like that that often pay dividends.

Sketch Process: Senator Christopher Dodd

This is a “sketch process” thing. I’m working on a portrait (a painting) of former Senator Chris Dodd of CT. My wife worked for him for the past year, so we’re going to give him the portrait as a going away gift.

Anyhow…I’m always taking pix of my work in progress, but I never collate them and see the piece in layered, historical relation to its…elf as it evolves. This time I hunkered down in Photoshop to put a visual timeline together, and it’s really instructive to see where stuff bubbles up–or gets lost.

As such, this was a warm-up, and now simply an abandoned sketch. But, ah, what a useful wreck!

I’m in the middle of figuring out a new way for me to paint. One method in my pursuit is to work on integrating this “hit it hard/be ready to lose it at any moment/let the marks do the talking/pull it out of the fire” process that I have in my drawing.

Preparatory Pencil Sketch of Senator Christopher Dodd by Nick Rusko-Berger

Preparatory Pencil Sketch of Senator Christopher Dodd by Nick Rusko-Berger

Why Drawing is Important (Why We Learn to Draw)

Why is it important to learn how to draw? Why do we need to spend gobs of time doing it?

Here’s why: the basis of all that we, as artists, do is Drawing. The act of drawing isn’t simply to output “a Drawing”; it does so much more. On one level, it’s like taking notes. Your visual, motor, and cerebral processes work more and more in sync. New neural pathways get made and practice makes those paths stick. You’re also storing a whole lot of knowledge, even though you’re not consciously aware of it all.

Finally, there are two Biggies: 1) Practice and lots of time logged gets you comfortable with your Marks. All drawing and painting are (at their abstract baselines) are a series of marks you’ve put down to translate what you’ve perceived. 2) That practice and time will also make you comfortable with your own Drawing Funk. Anything that deviates from the “exact” form/etc that you’re drawing is that Funk. And this, after a while, turns into your style (in the good sense, not the put-on/fake sense). The Funk still has to be based on good observation and skills (and it can’t be arbitrary, careless, or tacked-on), but it’s what everyone is looking for.

There’s no shortcut for this learning process, and besides guiding words of wisdom, no one can do it for you. It can’t be taught (for example, if someone shows you how to ride a bike, they’re only improving *their* skills.) You hafta do it yourself by putting in the time.

Oh, What’s in a Name, Dear Christopher “Rusko” Mercer?

I have a strong urge to dub (ahem) myself “Chris Mercer” (as a nom de plume for my music and art projects).

I mean, it’s not like it’s my name–so why don’t I go and hog all of the “Chris Mercer” resources in the world so that, say, any *real* Chris Mercers won’t be able to use it easily? Just sayin’. 😉