Technique and Technology...


All of the images are digitized images of photographs of paintings executed with traditional media. Oil on canvas, pastel on paper. I've been stretching sanded canvas, painting a loose underpainting with thinned-out oils, and then working into it with soft pastels. This technique offers more "resistance." That is, it's harder to get just the results you want, which leads to more experimentation and more learning.

I bought a digital camera (3 megapixels) recently and that's really improved the quality of images I can put on this website. It's snap, adjust in Photoshop for color accuracy, and upload.

I've viewed them on a variety of monitors, and I'm sure they'll look unpredictably different on your monitor. In a sense, these images are like prints made "after" a painting or drawing.

Oils: Manganese Blue. Hard to find anymore in the U.S.--and in other countries--because it is supposedly so toxic. OK, so I'll take care not to get any on my hands. I'm an adult and a professional and I don't appreciate governments taking away an essential tool. I have asked in the past if anyone knows where to find this color. Your responses have led me to a decent supply of this color. Thanks to all who have helped me out. Other colors in my palette: ultramarine, cobalt violet, thio violet (Monet exclaimed, "Fresh air is violet!"), alizarin crimson, cadmium red medium, cadmium red light, cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow pale, naples yellow, yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt umber, ivory black, titanium white. I now use black and white much more sparingly than I used to. Black mixes with cadmium yellows to create certain foliage greens--and I use it for little else. White dilutes other colors. If the aim is to lighten or brighten a color, it may not always be the way to go. I've started playing around a bit with Phthalo Blue, which I always considered too artificial and intense, but it sure makes some great greens. Mixing it with Cerulean also makes a decent approximation of Manganese Blue.

I have an extensive collection of pastels, about 700 colors in all (some of which are shown below), including Sennelier, Girault, Rowney, Rembrandt, Grumbacher, and miscellaneous English and German varieties. I use lots of them for each pastel. If it's on sanded canvas, as mentioned above, they go pretty fast. I spend a lot of time putting them all away after each painting. If I didn't, they'd wind up in a jumble all over the studio.

I wrote an article on my process for American Artist magazine. If I can get permission to reprint it here, I will. In the meantime, it was in the January 1986 issue.

How I Work

I get the ideas for my paintings by traveling around, sometimes in my local neighborhood and sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles from home. I take lots of photographs. I mostly work from photographs, often combining several to create an image. Occasionally, I lug a portable easel on site and paint en plein air. In an ideal world I would work no other way. I learn more about painting the landscape from doing one painting in the field than I do from doing twenty paintings done in the studio, no joke. Photography is a bad substitute for the real thing, and it's amazing how deceptive photographs can be as source material.

Recently I did a painting of a wetland not far from my home in West Bloomfield, Michigan. I worked from a variety of photographs I had taken on site. Something about the painting bothered me when I was done, there was something unconvincing about it. When I returned to the site afterwards I realized I had gotten the space all wrong, having worked from photos. Alas, it's not an ideal world, I don't get into the field nearly as much as I'd like, and photos are my best source of information from which to create paintings.

That said, using photos as source material does have its advantages. For starters, it's just not possible to paint a sunset from life, no one can paint that fast. The effect of the setting sun on clouds changes from second to second. Very often I will take a scene photographed at midday, or in the rain, and change the light to that wonderful inbetween time of dawn, late light, or twilight. I don't ever just copy a photo. A painting should not be an enlargement of a photograph done in paint (unless you are one of the few Photorealists who can pull this off).

And another thing. Sometimes people tell me about one of my paintings, "Oh, it looks just like a photograph!" As if the photograph were the be-all end-all of visual perfection, and as if getting a painting to look like a photograph were the ultimate in artistic skill and accomplishment. I am not a Photorealist, so if all people are getting out of one of my pieces is that it looks like a photograph, then it's a failure in my book. For me the photographic source is something to be used, changed, played with, and transcended.

There has been a lot of discussion of the painter-and-the-photograph issue of late, especially with the release of David Hockney's book on the use of cameras by the Old Masters (albeit filmless cameras such as the camera lucida and camera obscura. Since the first artists used such devices there has been a secrecy about it and a reluctance to discuss it openly, as if use of optical devices were somehow shameful or deceitful. Recently Michael Kimmelman in The New York Times wrote, "Our displaced anxiety must partly entail a fear of being tricked (mistaking a tracing for a freehand drawing) and, more particularly, a fear of technology: a concern that what makes us human is being sacrificed to the brilliance and reliability of the machine."

Koko the Clown and the Chinese Fish Painter

In the early days of cartoon animation Max Fleischer (Betty Boop, Popeye) created a character called Koko the Clown in a series called "Out of the Inkwell." Each feature began with Koko emerging from a bottle of ink either fully drawn or shown being drawn almost instantaneously by the hand of an artist whose pen magically brushes him into animated existence. I get the impression most people think this is the way art is created, with the magical dash of a pen or brush, effortlessly and with no hesitation. Folks, it doesn't work that way. Once there was a master artist in China whose paintings were highly valued. One day a wealthy patron came to commission him to do a drawing of a fish. A hundred days went by and still the artist had not delivered the painting. The angry patron came to the artist and demanded to know what was taking him so long. At that, the artist picked up his brush, dipped it in the ink, and with a few deft strokes produced the most perfect image of a fish. "If that's all you had to do, why did it take you so long?" inquired the patron. The artist turned to his cabinet and opened it. Hundreds of drawings of fish fell out upon the floor.

Early in my career I used to project slides on a canvas and trace the outlines. I found this led to a paint-by-numbers look to the work and also found that a freehand drawing of the photograph was usually about 95% as accurate and actually provided more information needed to construct the painting, since the photo was filtered by my brain before being transferred to the canvas.

I am a collector of sunsets. I also try to be a collector of quiet experiences, it's these quiet experiences as much as anything that I'm trying to put into the work. Sometimes I have a camera handy, but more often I have to rely on memory. Sometimes I can do a quick sketch on the spot, sometimes I have to wait until I get home and jot down some notes from memory. Here's an example of such a sketch.

To be a collector of quiet experieces requires an almost meditative approach to one's environment. You need to stop the you inside you who's constantly blathering on about the past and the future and just sit or stand and absorb what is. Painting on site comes much, much closer to this absorptive concentration on what is than rushing about taking roll after roll of pictures. Moreover one learns so much more about the landscape and all its subtleties when painting or drawing on site, from life. One learns about the life of the landscape, and the jewel experience of learning one is really an inseparable part of the landscape, that one is One with the landscape. In the end, the camera cheats us out of this experience as we hop from view to view, snapping away, never really seeing, hoping to rely on the camera's truth and never really seeing it on our own.

But my last word on the use of the camera has got to be, "Mama don't take my Kodachrome away!"

Constructing a Painting

The conceptualization comes first, and this is the part fraught with anxiety and doubt. I may look at hundreds of source photos before an image takes shape in my mind. Once I know what I want the painting to be, I can stretch a canvas, or make a panel. I do a very quick pencil sketch, more a series of dots and lines for notational purposes. If I get the proportions wrong at this stage it's much easier to correct than with paint. Then I cover everything up with a thin layer of underpainting, usually in warm tones, but not enough detail to count as a grisaille. This usually has the effect of dissolving any pencil marks made initially, so sometimes I have to go back and reestablish my points of reference.

Once the underpainting is dry, I start with the sky. This establishes the light for the entire painting. As I continue into the subject, I generally work from top to bottom without establishing big masses, lights and darks, that sort of thing. But I don't necessarily finish one area before beginning the next area. Areas, the way I use the term here, mean the amount of canvas I can cover in a session. I gradually build up layers of paint. Some passages are finished after the first pass, but others may be worked into as detail is built up. I use glazes too, which add a luminosity otherwise not attainable just by mixing colors on the palette.

Frequently Asked Questions

The one question everyone asks is "How long does it take you to do a painting." I don't really keep strict records of my time in this regard. Typically oil paintings take longer than pastels. Large paintings take longer than small ones. A small oil painting may take me 10 to 20 hours to actually paint, while a large one may take 30 to 60 hours. Then double this amount of time to account for all the non-artistic things that need to get done in order for a painting to enter the world: researching and conceiving the picture, buying art supplies, stretching and gessoing canvas, cleaning brushes, keeping a tidy studio, photography and cataloging, crate making and shipping, dealing with galleries, entering competitions, maintaining this website, and so on.


Pastel Box

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Work of 2002 | Work of 2001 | Work of 1969-2000

Prepared by Art Chartow August 20, 1995. Updated January 8, 2003.