Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Few Notes From Workshop with Sam

Last week I took a painting workshop with Sam. It was a very interesting experience since it's been over a year since I'd taken a class with him.

I have to say I'm still baffled by his approach to drawing. I took classes with him for four years and I'm still not positive I could explain his approach to drawing to someone. That being said, I have learned a lot in terms of drawing from him, but I've mostly been exploring other approaches to his, so the workshop was a bit of a challenge- particularly because of his tendency to refuse to break anything down to principles or methods.

The biggest thing for him when drawing is to stay concerned at all times with "the whole". This includes the frame of the canvas, but is also concerned with the whole figure as one mass. I find there's always a great tension between the 2D design of the canvas and the 3D design of the subject. Some teachers pick one side or the other as a clear starting point, others start somewhere in the middle. Sam, however, does not have a clear starting point, other than to mark the top & bottom of the subject on the canvas. After that you begin with the general mass of the figure, as if it's a blob of clay. Now, which lines or tones or marks you're supposed to use are things that Sam will never, ever tell you. It's one of the most frustrating things about studying with him- he'll often tell you what to do, but will never tell you how to do it. I overheard another student without much experience in painting ask him how he mixes color, and his response was "You know, I have some feeling about the color". I understand where he's coming from, but a beginner needs at least something concrete to go on- like the little footsteps on the ground for ballroom dancing. However, it needs to be presented in a way that makes it clear that simply executing those footsteps properly does not directly result in the foxtrot. It's merely a tool to communicate a portion of something as vastly complicated as a dance.

That being said, there was a great moment during the workshop where he picked on me for being too timid. He said to make a decision about the color and put it down confidently, and if it's wrong, correct it. I had been sort of timidly trying out a million combinations of mixtures in an attempt to get it right. The line on this kind of thing is so fine, but it's something I've found critical to my general understanding of the Russian impressionist method of painting ("color field")- you try with all your might to get the color right the first time, but you understand that it will not be correct in isolation. You need to hone in on the color slowly as a field, knocking it this way or that using optical mixing & opponent color theory.

To that end I noticed a pattern for mixing paint which seemed to help- choose a triad of colors to approach the color of a given field with and mix each to the proper value. Always touch the paint using a tiny touch of the brush to the canvas to judge the value since it will shift from the palette. Then adjust the hues of each slightly by intermixing the other value-corrected members of the triad. Then approach the color of the field using all three colors of the triad, adjusting each constantly on the palette using the other parts of the triad, and also on the canvas using optical mixing to control hue and chroma.

There's a bit of voodoo that happens here which I haven't been able to break down. First, I'm not sure how to explain how to pick the initial triad. Most often it's some combination of red, yellow, and blue- but not always. Additionally, I'm not sure how to explain when to use the cool or warm colors for each component of the triad- I couldn't seem to break it down cleanly according to hue, pigment transparency, or anything else. Sometimes I wanted alizarin because it was transparent, and sometimes I wanted alizarin because it was purple-red. If you asked me right now I'd have to say I just have some feeling about it! But I'll try to break it down further because I can't leave that kind of thing alone.

Second, the order of adjusting the color didn't fit nicely with the HVC model. I don't think it's a shortcoming of HVC or this method of painting, but it could be useful to break down the act of attacking a color field down into steps and explaining what's happening and what you're going for in terms of hue, value, and chroma.

A couple other quick notes I wanted to mention- every time I used brown in a mixture or triad it looked 100% out of place. I'm not sure if it's because I wasn't controlling the chroma of the brown properly, or if there's something about the context created by the rest of the pigments that made the brown stick out. Ochre never seemed to cause trouble, and black seemed OK if used carefully. Burnt sienna was right on the line, but raw umber and burnt umber stuck out like a sore thumb. I was interested to read recently in the Munsell Student Guide that brown actually may be recognized by the human visual system as a separate color. I had always assumed it was Crayola's fault.