Fat over Lean…

One of the most frequently asked questions by students of oil painting is for an explanation to the “fat over lean rule”. The terminology is somewhat antiquated today, but the phrase persists. To put it simply, fat over lean is not a real rule, it’s a ‘rule of thumb’ for painting in layers; alla prima painters need not pay it any attention. The idea is to use a successively higher oil content as the painting progresses (fat = more oil, lean = less oil). And more crucially, to use as little oil as possible in the underlying layers. The point being, more oil means a longer drying time and more flexibility in the paint layer. A slow drying layer underneath a fast drying layer can cause a number of problems, most notably cracking in the dry overlying layers due to microscopic shifts in the underlying layers as they dry.

The trouble with the phrase, and perhaps the reason so much confusion exists today, is that oil alone is a far less common medium than it was when the phrase was coined. Traditionally, oil paint was made up of pigment and oil alone. The choice of mediums was also very limited. Today, many different things come into play which simply did not exist in the past. Is Liquin fat or lean? Is Galkyd leaner than stand oil? Is walnut oil fatter than linseed oil? Despite what some painters will inevitably insist, these questions really don’t have positive answers because the “fat over lean” principal did not take them into account.

In practical terms, “fat over lean” is about permanence. Do it wrong and your layers will be more prone to craquelure, delamination, or some other hazard. But remember, it’s a ‘rule of thumb’, not a real infallible rule. Simple common sense will avoid most of these hazards. Oil paint takes ages to dry completely. A painting dry to the touch may be wet underneath for months. If you’re using dryers (alkyds or other resins), the significance of this concern is somewhat diminished.

Quick drying colors, such as earths (siennas, umbers, ochres…) and lead (lead white principally), will help to combat these problems when used in the underpainting.


Estante Superior, 30 prints available

3Y1B1354-599I have a limited edition of prints available of my “Estante Superior” painting, which can currently be purchased from me directly or at my friend’s frame shop, Moreland Frameworks in Portland, Oregon. Details below:

A3+ Paper size, image size approximately 25 x 30 cm, with a white border.
Individually signed and numbered, edition of 30.
Price is $65
(Shipping & handling not included)

thomaskconway (at) gmail (dot) com

or at Moreland Frameworks c/o
Cathy & Rob Blakeslee
(503) 234-5478
6517 SE Milwaukie Ave,
Portland, OR 97202

[as-yet] Untitled collaborative exhibition

We’re doing a little online exhibition, for those who haven’t heard yet. Similar to the famous Object Project of yesteryear, and “In Common” which we did in Portland with Pulliam Gallery a few years ago.

The theme is as follows:
SQUARE FORMAT painting project for anyone interested in participating:

Pictures shall include the following objects:
1. Glass
2. Metal
3. Something organic

Deadline is June 1st, 2016.

Artists may complete multiple paintings at any size desired. The goal for the show is a physical exhibition at the end if we can find a suitable venue. Keep shipping in mind when choosing a size.

The only limitation is that they must be paintings in a square format (12×12 inches for example), which contain the aforementioned three objects. The paintings are not limited to still life, nor are they limited to those three objects alone. Interpretation is key.

I’m working on the prospectus and the first painting, which aims to throw a little curve-ball to get the creative juices going (if you’ll pardon a corny expression). More soon-

An Analogy for Color

The painter uses color like the writer uses his vocabulary.

Consider a writer with a limited vocabulary. Many things can be expressed quite clearly, but the expressions might be simpler with a wider vocabulary. And the opposite is also true; a writer with an enormous vocabulary may find himself stumbling over superfluous language when a simpler phrase would do.

The same can be said of color: a painter with a limited palette may be able to express quite a lot, but some expressions may be simpler were the palette expanded. And conversely, were the palette too vast, the painter may find himself obstructed by the numerous selections.

Tim’s “Vermeer”

I finally saw Tim’s Vermeer, which I speculated about previously. It was entertaining, but I think many of my projections proved true.

In the film, Tim posits that Vermeer used a mirror and lens arrangement, allowing him to compare his color to that of the reflected image; a mechanical system of objective evaluation, which while perhaps valid (the film proved that it worked, after all), doesn’t actually have anything to do with Vermeer. There’s no evidence linking Vermeer’s technique with anything like this, nor is there any evidence linking anyone else from that era (or otherwise) to such a device. The argument, in the film, is that Vermeer’s work contains “absolute tones” which are not present in any other painter’s work. Tim goes even further and argues that the human eye is incapable of seeing these mysterious “tones”, and that in order for Vermeer to have painted them, he must have been aided by some kind of mechanical device.

First of all, what is an “absolute tone”? It’s nothing. This is literally a meaningless term. “Absolute”, in the context of color, is indefinable (color, of course, is made up of hue, value and chroma and is a blanket term for the sum of those three parts). What makes a color “absolute”? Your guess is as good as mine. And “tone” is equally problematic. People often use “tone” in place of “value” to describe the lightness or darkness of a color, but we can’t be certain in this case. (And even if we replace “tone” with “value”, the term is equally meaningless.) The film does not make any effort to define this term, they just point at a part of the painting which looks to me like a very regular color. The whole premise of this investigation relies upon this claim about how there’s no way an artist could have seen these types of things (and therefore could not have painted them). No evidence was provided to support this claim, nor was any further investigation provided.

Instead, Tim went on to describe the human eye. He offered a disclaimer when talking about what the eye can and cannot do by reminding us that he’s not a doctor. Which was a segue to the scene which followed, where a doctor explained the inner workings of the human retina. This did not, however, apply directly to Tim’s claim about “absolute tones”. It was fluff.

Later in the film, he suggests that Vermeer’s “Lady with a Red Hat” would have been the first picture in which this mechanical method was employed. The problem, however, is that this picture was painted several years after “The Music Lesson“, which was the focus of the film (a strange fact which they omitted).

vermeer-roomThe picture Tim painted looks like Vermeer’s only because of the extreme lengths he went to recreate the actual room; he created a room that looked like a Vermeer painting. And this was a notable achievement. But nothing about his painting technique, nor the mechanical means by which he arrived at the image, had anything to do with Vermeer. At several points in the film Tim links this process to that of a photograph. Film didn’t exist back then, but they were essentially creating hand-painted photographs, through the use of a lens and a mirror. And that’s what he proved – this is perhaps something from history which may have been used by any number of artists. It’s equally possible that Tim invented it outright. Did Vermeer use it? We don’t know. Is there any tangible evidence in favor of that hypothesis? No. It’s all conjecture.

I’m a fan of anything that gets people looking at old paintings. And for that, I applaud the film. But like many documentaries, this one was plagued with bias mascaraing as fact. It’s a shame, but it doesn’t hurt Vermeer any.

The Tallest Man on Earth: The Gardener

Whose “Vermeer”?

There’s a lot of buzz about a new documentary called Tim’s Vermeer. Check out the trailer below. The gist is that it’s a documentary about a guy who sets out to replicate a Vermeer painting because he thinks he “figured out” a “secret” about how Vermeer painted. It’s an interesting premise, certainly, made all the more enticing when we hear that he actually recreated the whole room in order to make the painting. And if that wasn’t enough to pique your interest, did they mention that the guy isn’t even a painter?

It’s easy to forget with the big Hollywood budget, but we aren’t really breaking any new ground here. I’ve touched on some of this before (see Nigel Konstam for a more compelling theory) and we’ve all read Hockney and Steadman on the subject. (An interesting discourse by Steadman can be read here – thanks to Jonathan Janson for the link.)

I haven’t seen Tim’s movie yet, and I intend to, but my early impressions are pretty dodgy. First, lets just get right down to the image; Tim set out to paint a “Vermeer”, so lets take a look at it. Vanity Fair released the image in this teaser interview for the film: Vermeer’s Secret.

Vermeer vs Tim's "Vermeer"

Tim’s painting really isn’t bad, especially for someone who is “not a painter.” But is it as good as a Vermeer? No, of course not. (We must remember that one of these paintings is about three hundred and fifty years old, while the varnish on the other might still be tacky; we have to look past the craqueleur and other signs of time in Vermeer’s painting.) Interested parties should compare the two high resolution images here: The original, on Wikipedia. And Tim’s, on Vanity Fair. But my low-resolution image above will suffice to illustrate the most obvious errors.

Why are there no cast shadows on the floor of Tim’s picture? What’s wrong with the anatomy of his figures? Where’s the light on his viola and chair? And what the hell happened in that picture-within-the-picture on the right?

It’s worth mentioning that Tim painted his picture from a recreation of what in reality may have been a fictional room. It’s no secret that artists have long modified reality to suit their needs (painting something a different color or different shape because it worked better for the composition – not to mention the possibility of pure invention). For all we know, the image seen in Vermeer’s painting might have been a virtual collage of individual parts observed from life separately (this has been common practice among painters for centuries).

Although Tim went to great lengths to recreate the room, he curiously opted to rearrange the figures. His picture isn’t a stroke-for-stroke duplicate, but that wasn’t his intention (despite his actions to the contrary). Instead, he set out to prove that anyone could paint just like Vermeer if they knew about this secret tool or technique which Vermeer relied on to make his pictures. Did he succeed? Well… his painting ‘looks’ like Vermeer’s painting, but that’s due more to the fact that he rebuilt the room than the way he was actually painting. Look how he handled the yellow satin on the blouse – that’s bush league (and it’s the same all over the painting).

From what I can extrapolate (again, I haven’t seen the movie yet), Tim posits that Vermeer used a mirror in such a way as to immediately check his color and drawing against the source. The “tool” reminds us of that Carder thing a few years back – which was essentially a stick you would paint and hold out in front of you to check your mixture against the local color. The “Carder Method” was the subject of much skepticism but it really did the same thing Tim’s “new” device seems to do. It creates a mechanical means to replicate what you see in paint. Just as Carder is flawed, so too is Tim (and for exactly the same reasons). This doesn’t create “art”, it creates a hand made facsimile – for want of a better term. An excellent means for the novice to impress their ignorant friends, but is it anything more? I don’t think so.

I’m also troubled by some of Tim’s comments. One of the best examples can be heard in the trailer linked above. Referring to a section of Vermeer’s painting, Tim says “…this falloff of light is something that an artist really cannot see.” …What?! In a couple earlier interviews (link, link) he even went as far as to say it’s impossible to train one’s eye to see such things, which is just absurd. It makes me wonder if Tom Hanks will be playing “Vermeer” in this movie… no, wait, that was something else.

My impression is that Jonathan Jones from The Guardian really nailed it with this review: DIY Vermeer documentary utterly misses the point about old masters. “Tim’s Vermeer is the equivalent of someone hanging a painting-by-numbers version of a masterpiece over the mantelpiece and claiming it’s as good as the real thing.” My fears exactly.

We shall see. Check here for upcoming showtimes in your area.

The Piano Guys

We saw the Piano Guys live at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Tuesday, February 4th. They were great. If you’re not familiar with them, check out their website here: The Piano Guys

They’re a piano cello duo which started on youtube. That being the case, I felt it fitting to add a couple bootlegs to their youtube presence:

Vermeer and Music

Those with an interest in [good] painting may wish to attend the upcoming cinematic exhibition about Vermeer and Music. The feature length documentary is an extension of the recent exhibition of the same name: Vermeer and Music: The art of Love & Leisure.

A lovely printed catalog is also available – buy it on Amazon here. Preview available at the National Gallery’s website here.

The documentary is a limited run, playing Thursday October 10th at theaters worldwide.
Find a venue near you.

Vermeer and MusicThe National Gallery, London, is offering a fresh look at one of the most startling and fascinating artists of all – Johannes Vermeer, painter of the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring.   The National Gallery has chosen to focus on Vermeer’s relationship with music.   It is one of the most popular themes of Dutch painting and reveals an enormous amount about the sitter and the society they lived in.  New research, revealed for the first time at this exhibition, shows how his technique and materials affected his works.  More at www.nationalgallery.org.uk

Tim Marlow goes beyond the exhibition to tell the entire story of Vermeer’s life – and, in doing so, shows in fabulous HD detail many other of the artist’s captivating works.   For those inspired by the 2003 film, Girl with a Pearl Earring, starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson, this new, cinematic exploration will take their enjoyment and fascination of Vermeer’s life and work to a new level.

To book tickets either use the map on the home page, find your location and click on the links to your local cinema or go to our Find a Venue page

Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts

The 2013 Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts is next weekend, June 21st – 23rd.

368 South State Street,
Lake Oswego OR 97034

June 21, 22 & 23 2013
10:00 AM – 9:00 PM Friday & Saturday
10:00 AM – 6:00 PM Sunday

Event Schedule
Exhibition Map

My painting, “Estante Superior“, will be exhibited as part of the Chronicle exhibition. The exhibit theme this year was “Then & Now, a Chronicle of Influence,” in which winners of past exhibitions were invited to return along with someone on whom they had some amount of influence. The theme is further described as “…an exhibition exploring the nature of artists’ working relationships, collaboration and mentor-ship.”

After consultation with my friend and fellow painter Lorraine Bushek, a former student, we decided it would be fun to revisit one of our old projects. A few years ago I hosted a class at the Oregon Society of Artists, in which students were asked to make paintings based on some small directive or phrase (make “a red painting,” etc). In the spirit of those projects, we revisited the idea and agreed to each make “a painting of a recipe.”

3Y1B1354-599I’ll be in attendance on Friday [evening] and I’ll have a couple pieces in the festival’s ‘Open’ show as well. Come say hello if you’re in the area.