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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.

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.

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.

Different brands of paint…

I use many different brands of paint; I enjoy trying new colors and comparing the differences between manufacturers. But I know several painters who stick with just one brand of paint. We see brand loyalty such as this in all kinds of consumer markets; you find something you like and you stick with it. While there’s nothing wrong with this mindset, limiting yourself this way when it comes to paint really does take away some very worthwhile possibilities (it’s limiting, after-all). Now… before getting ahead of myself, it bares mentioning that it’s not the products which are important, it’s what you do with them (which is to say, you can make wonderful paintings with very modest materials, and you can also make terrible paintings with extravagant materials; in the end it’s the painter which is important, not the products they use).

my paint drawer...

Lower quality paints, commonly referred to as “student grade”, tend to regulate paint consistency across their lineup with any number of additives. Paint manufacturers, like modern food-makers, add numerous foreign ingredients which are often unseen (and unconsidered) by the consumer. Aluminum stearate, hydrogenated castor oil, bentonite clay, calcium naphthenate, silica gel… the list goes on. These are common additives used to manipulate the state of the pigment as it sits in the tube and the way it pours onto your palette. Unlike foods, paint manufacturers are not required to disclose any information about the contents of the tube. As a rule, you can bet some additives are present in your paints. (Aside from those used as filler in low-quality paints, additives are most commonly used as preservatives, to extend the shelf-life of the paint by preventing oil/pigment separation in the tube.)

The first thing a student will notice when sampling higher quality paints (“professional grade” vs. “student grade”) is the variance which exists between pigments. All pigments are different; they aren’t supposed to squeeze out of the tube in exactly the same toothpaste consistency as the last. Sienna should not feel like cadmium. Also, cadmium should not dry as quickly as sienna. Back when paints were made by hand in the artist’s studio, it was understood that different colors had different properties. One may be gritty while another is buttery. One may be very light and transparent while another is heavy and opaque.

Unfortunately these differences are compounded when looking across different manufacturers. Some brands are more heavily pigmented than others. Some are generally thick and stiff while others are creamy and soft. Some of these differences are due to the way the paint was milled, some are due to additives, and some are just a mystery. Many manufacturers disclose a great deal about their practices, while others consider it a trade secret. Most manufacturers list the pigment content on the tube, but we have to do some research on our own to figure out what kind of binder they’re using (the type of oil) and what kinds of additives, if any, are disclosed. (If you care to look for it, most of this information can be found on the manufacturer’s websites, and that which is not is often given on request in response to a friendly inquiry to their customer service department.)

It’s also important to point out that color names are completely arbitrary. One manufacturer’s “sky blue” may be another manufacturer’s “primary blue” which is the same as another manufacturer’s “cerulean blue”. This is an unfortunate obstacle painters must overcome. We can get around it a little by looking to the pigment content, but that’s more an indicator of how the paint will behave than to what it actually looks like. (For example, the pigment contents will help us to estimate the tinting strength, opacity, etc, but the actual color of any of these pigments varies a great deal.) And what’s worse, those colors which should be most predictable are often the most varied. Take something like Burnt Sienna, a staple earth red on any painter’s palette. Not only does the color vary from one manufacturer to another, but some don’t even use burnt sienna (PBr7); many use red iron oxide (PR101), which is usually more transparent than natural sienna.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if one is better than another; it really comes down to personal opinion and how it affects your particular working practices. I personally love Williamsburg’s Burnt Sienna. It’s a little redder than most and for me, the consistency just feels right. But Williamsburg is not my favorite for every color. Next time you run out of one of your staples, try a new brand. You never know until you try it… Plus, with earth colors, the cost difference is not overwhelming (compared to cadmiums, where the price varies from $15 to $50 between brands). Take a look at this selection of Burnt Sienna’s from popular manufacturers:

Burnt Sienna, various manufacturers @ Dick Blick
Old Holland, PBr7.........$12.11
Blockx, PBr7..............$11.26
Williamsburg, PBr7........$10.36
Schmincke Mussini, PBr7....$9.20
Holbein, PBr7..............$9.19
Rembrandt, PR101...........$7.79
Michael Harding, PBr7......$7.76
Sennelier, PBk11 + PR101...$7.13
M. Graham, PBr7............$6.24
Winsor & Newton, PR101.....$6.00
Gamblin, PBr7..............$5.97
Da Vinci, PBr7.............$5.88
Grumbacher, PR101 + PBr7...$5.36

8×10 Still life with Mandarins

Still Life with Mandarins, painting by Thomas Conway

8×10″ Still life with Mandarins.
Tried to stay loose here, limiting myself to three short sittings, about an hour each.

Detailed paint information…

I think paint is a fascinating thing. I’m a very technically minded person and I am always interested in discussing materials with fellow artists. To that end, I wanted to share a couple resources for those interested in more information about their paints.

First, dickblick.com is a terrific online supply store. They’re constantly running promotions and various discounts which usually make their already hard-to-beat prices better than most of the competition. They have the best selection under one roof (or one domain, in this case), and unparalleled customer service. It’s a great company and I can’t recommend them enough. But beyond all that, their website is a goldmine for painters looking for detailed information about their colors.

From the long list of colors on your chosen manufacturer’s page, click the magnifying glass icon to the left of any color… Old Holland Classic Oil ColorsThis brings you to the following page:blick-pigmentinfo(Note the tabs at the top: “Description” – “Color Swatch” – “Pigment Info”) Here, you find a complete list of the pigments contained in your chosen color, a large color swatch for a look at the actual paint, and a wealth of information about the pigments therein. This is especially useful when looking at mixtures (colors containing multiple pigments) and for brand-to-brand comparisons of similar colors. How does Williamsburg’s Brilliant Yellow compare to Winsor & Newton’s? Want to compare that new color you saw in the store to something you already own? (And so on…)

And if you want to get really crazy, check out the “Art Is Creation Art Pigment Database” for historical information, chemical composition, toxicity and more. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by this site, but when you’re looking for something specific, or trying to identify a color you haven’t seen before, this database is an excellent resource.

Is one paint better than another? It really comes down to personal preference. But with all this information at our fingertips, it’s easy to make informed decisions.

www.dickblick.com

www.artiscreation.com/Color_index_names.html

Mission statement

I consider myself a traditional painter.

I believe that art of today depends too heavily on explanatory doctrines. The viewer should reclaim the authority to decide whether or not something is worth their time. The artist and the critic have grown too comfortable in their pseudo-intellectual rhetoric, creating a divide between themselves and the art viewing public. Time and again judgments are made depending upon familiarity with the name, not the validity of the work. We find museums congested by people hunched over labels rather than looking at art; their attention stolen by the anecdotal tales of the docent, experiencing art only through passing glances.

I say look at something. Do you enjoy looking at it? Sometimes that’s enough.

Black and White

As painters we must remember that the visual spectrum (perceived light) is far greater than the limited range of paint. Paint is capable of going as dark as pure black pigment, and as white as pure white pigment. The value range of paint is approximately 10 equally spaced steps between white and black. (This number may vary depending on who you ask. Some debate that there are nine, ten, or eleven steps by counting white as “zero”, effectively making “ten” eleven, etc.)

To recreate the effect of perceived light, we must plan and make compromises to suit the painting. A crude example: Standing outside on a bright sunny day, observe a white object. Then observe the sun. The sun is tremendously brighter (higher in value) than the white object. To recreate this effect in paint, we must adjust the image so that the white object is not painted white; pure white is reserved for the sun. Otherwise, the white object and the sun would appear equal.

Paint cannot faithfully record the brightness of the sun. The painter can, however, adjust values accordingly so the sun appears brighter relative to its surrounding values, thereby imitating the “effect” of the bright sun in relation to its surround. (For simplicity I have omitted consideration for color intensity, or chroma, which would also play a part in this example.)

Vermeer, in a Mirror?

My sister’s brother’s nephew’s neighbor knows a guy who said this thing which is true. Common sense tells us that the farther something gets from the source, the less reliable it becomes. (Remember that childhood game ‘telephone‘?) This grain of truth is often swept aside in historical inquiries. We must remember to always ask questions. The author’s sources should be the biggest area of concern.

The subject of Vermeer’s technique warrants such a consideration. The facts are simple:

  • We don’t know with certainty who taught Vermeer how to paint.
  • Vermeer did not have any documented pupils.
  • Vermeer wrote no treatise on painting.

A basic understanding of the technical practices of the day does provide some insight into the likely methods used by Vermeer. The Delft School, Fijnschilders, and the whole of Genre Painting are a clear place to start. An excellent resource is found in folks like Dou, de Hooch and ter Borch. We can also connect Vermeer to Rembrandt’s circle by way of Carel Fabrititus, a pupil of Rembrandt who lived (and died) in Delft. There’s no shortage of information, but none is exactly from the horses mouth, as the saying goes.

David Hockney wrote a controversial book called Secret Knowledge. Personally, when I see a painter claiming authority about another painter’s work, the first thing I am compelled to do is look at the author’s paintings. Unfortunately, doing so here would keep us from reading Hockney’s book, which is an intriguing and entertaining hypothesis about past painters’ use of the camera obscura (and lucida). It’s also complete speculation, and in my opinion, false. As it has been several years since I read Secret Knowledge, I’m not prepared to give a proper book report, but Hockney’s argument boiled down to “it would have been too hard for them to paint these pictures free-hand, so they must have traced an image using these optical devices.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.) This is obviously flawed.

Hockney’s celebrity propelled his book to some critical acclaim; regrettably, we live in a world where popularity is synonymous with truth. A better argument is found in Philip Steadman’s book, Vermeer’s Camera. Steadman’s argument is far more academic, but still rooted in speculation. (For the record, I love speculation… All I ever do is speculate. But we should all take issue when someone presents their opinions as facts.) Personally, I favor Lawrence Gowing for a speculative analysis of Vermeer’s technique.

Nigel Konstam expands on Gowing’s analysis and poses a compelling hypothesis regarding Vermeer’s painting methods through the use of mirrors. See the following videos:

An article written by Anne Shingleton, the painter in the above videos, follows:
Vermeer’s advantage of using two mirrors, By Anne Shingleton

Nigel also has some interesting theories about Rembrandt, and art history in general.
His blog is worth visiting.

Remember that in the end, we’re all just guessing. Some are educated, others are ignorant. It’s important to remember too, that Hockney’s title is deliberately provocative. There are no secrets. Good painting is made of good observation, and good observation will return good technique. Shortcuts existed then as they do now (far more now, no doubt), but shortcuts will only get you so far without a solid foundation beneath.

Additional texts such as Vermeer and the Art of Painting and the recently released Vermeer: The Complete Paintings are highly recommended.

A word on palette care

I think it’s a bit silly when I see painters methodically cleaning their palettes with solvents after painting. Far better results come from simply scraping excess paint with a knife, and then buffing the remainder with a rag. That is to say, don’t try to remove all the paint from the mixing surface; scrape off all that you can, but rub the rest in.

This creates a wonderful “neutral” ground and over time, a surface like glass. (I say “neutral” in quotes because it’s not chromatically neutral, far from it in fact, but it’s literally an average of all the colors you use – what better starting point for a mixing surface? I also favor this color as a painting ground for the same reasons.) And of course leave the piles alone, they won’t likely form a skin for several days.