After writing my entry on self- portraits, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few self-portraits of a different variety, photographs of artists at work. Now, of course, I recognize that these images are not valid “self-portraits”, having been recorded by another individual holding the camera, but I am certain that the artist determined the circumstances of the shoot, was aware at all times of the location of the photographer and vigilantly censored what information was divulged during the session. Artists, being magicians of sorts, very often guard carefully the secrets behind creating their illusions. Several times, I’ve requested of artist friends the opportunity to watch them paint, hoping to add some new technique to my bag of tricks or to learn how they achieved a certain effect. I’ve been universally turned down. I can understand why. The breakthroughs I’ve achieved on canvas have been few and resulted from hard labor and time-consuming experimentation. There would be a natural reluctance to share information exposing process or technique. Anyway, I am sure that an established artist would have a multitude of reasons for wanting to control what photographs of him or her at work reveal, which makes these images all the more interesting.
It’s easy to forget when viewing an artwork how much effort went into its creation. Here we see Ferdinand Hodler dealing with logistics. He wants to present his model in a very specific place, in a garden lit by filtered sunlight, but he also wants to be far enough away from her that perspective distortion will be minimal. At the same time, he wishes to portray his model framed by a solid white background, which would affect the reflected light on her flesh and clothing. To achieve these goals, Hodler ends up working pressed up against a gateway with his canvas balanced off kilter before him. A canvas back is placed behind the model to create the appropriate lighting. It’s clear that for this artist it is essential to work from the live model in natural lighting, evidence of the prevailing influence of the prior generation of plein air painters.
Even in his later years, Hodler still painted outdoors in the winter, which had to be extremely uncomfortable. Notice that he wears no glove on his painting hand. There’s another photo of him (which I do not include here) loading his paint box and canvas onto a small sled which he intends to pull through the snow to the locale where he will work that day. His commitment to painting on location in natural light had to be extreme.
What stands out in this photo of Pablo Picasso at work is his intensity. His concentration is so focused that his black eyes set in those protruding facets seem to burn a hole in the canvas. It’s not that surprising that Picasso often painted those eyes on his models. After all, most commonly an artist will learn to paint the human form by turning to his most readily available subject: himself. And, I think that appropriation or possession was a primary motive for Picasso in painting, particularly when his subject was a woman. What better way to achieve this intellectual violation than to merge his features with those of his sitter.
Once artists abandoned representational imagery, it was only a matter of time before they put aside their easels and brushes. Abstraction seemed to demand size, and stretching huge canvases presents many problems for an artist involving cost, portability and storage. Certainly many an artist has worked on unstretched canvas pinned to a vertical wall, but abstraction sought unique solutions especially since “paint” became the sole subject matter. Naturally, artists strove to find new ways to use paint, and eventually gravity came to play a major role in how images were created, whether it is Jackson Pollock dripping, splattering and swirling paint on a horizontal canvas or Helen Frankenthaler allowing thinned paints to run and blend down a tilted expanse of unprimed canvas.
Andy Warhol broke so many rules. Most people know that he took commercial consumer art and elevated it to high art. He also performed a similar transformation on ubiquitous celebrity tabloid imagery. I think Warhol recognized that the commercial marketplace changed the way the viewer took in visual emblems and that repetitive exposure to imagery reduced visual experience to the subliminal. It’s hard to say how Warhol felt about this, whether he condemned it or relished it (probably a bit of both), because he refused to play the role of the serious artist proselytizing a pop-art credo. Commonly when posed questions about his art during interviews, he would pretend to be surprised by the interviewer’s observations and admit that he was a complete fraud who hadn’t a clue to what he was doing. Though he wanted to be as hollow as the imagery he produced, his brilliance and wit were obvious. As part of his de-sanctification of art, he turned the act of creation into a process of mass production, using readily available photographic imagery and techniques of replication like screen printing to make multiple editions of his work.
I’ve seen many pictures of Lucian Freud at work and I’ve always noted how utilitarian and efficient was his approach to painting. Of course, because the painting was the focus of his efforts, he tended to let subordinate matters run a bit chaotic. Freud liked to regularly wipe his brush clean while working. Here he wears an apron that functions as a place to deposit gobs of discarded paint. In many photos, we can see that he’s hung a large square of cloth on the wall to serve the same purpose.
I really enjoy this picture of the contemporary Norwegian artist, Odd Nerdrum, at work, particularly because he is as much a work of art as his painting. With his unruly hair and a garb of animal furs and antiquated puffed sleeves, a red blotchy rash covering his neck and cheek, he could easily have stepped out of one of his own post-apocalyptic paintings. Shown smearing paint with his bare figure, he seems to merge with the image on which he works.
When I saw this photograph of Jenny Saville poised amidst a plethora of source material, I thought it was the perfect image of the post-modern artist, who often surveys very diverse and seemingly unrelated materials in creating an image. Once the isms had run their course, contemporary artists were reluctant to embrace any particular philosophy or manifesto and naturally art became more eclectic, borrowing at will from any variety of periods and styles, turning to an infinite array of resources such as medical journals, cartoons, porn, fashion imagery, graffiti and advertising.
When watching movies about artists, I’m always amused to see how little screen time is devoted to showing the artist at work. Scenes of drunken debauchery in bars are most popular, with excursions to brothels running a close second. There may be a little romance, rivalry, starvation, depravity, depression, addiction or suicide tossed in for flavoring. But we most certainly do not want to see a painter painting when we visit our local movie theater. The fact is that no one can master any art form without devoting endless hours of labor to his or her craft. The real drama in an artist’s life occurs at the easel struggling with his media, coming to impasses and making choices as to how to proceed, experimenting and taking risks technically, and, occasionally, achieving minor victories along the way. This brings to mind a quote from Gustav Klimt: “There is nothing that special to see when looking at me. I’m a painter who paints day in day out, from morning till evening – figure pictures and landscapes, more rarely portraits”. I’ll often leave my studio after hours of work feeling like I have accomplished nothing and will need to address the same area on another day. There are also times when I finish my day’s work feeling exhilarated, unable to focus on other activities or conversation. But, whatever has transpired in my studio that day, I always exit knowing that I’ve been working hard, that I’ve had to push my level of concentration up several notches in the process. That’s the reality of painting. The real drama takes place in the studio. On the other hand, I must grant some latitude to screenwriters and directors; most folk would be bored to stupefaction watching a movie that seriously addresses the labor involved in creation.
This photo doesn’t actually qualify as an image of an artist at work, but I include it because it documents the place where I created most of my artwork during my student years. I lived and painted in the unheated basement of my parents’ home. Two hopper windows, located at opposite ends of a very long room covered in dark paneling, permitted a modicum of natural light to penetrate the space, but the only legitimate source of light were two ceiling fixtures of fluorescent bulbs that hummed and flickered when turned on. I didn’t mind the temperature (I had an electric space heater that took the edge off during the winter months), but the lighting frustrated the hell out of me. So, whenever I got the chance, I would emerge from the basement and set up my easel in the kitchen where there was an acceptable mix of natural and florescent light. Of course, painting in the kitchen meant having to deal with occasional traffic to and from the refrigerator, stove and sink, but I didn’t mind it. Believe it or not, I look back on those days fondly.
On vacation, I would always try to do some painting, usually tackling a landscape or two. Here I am at Moosehead Lake, a very isolated location in
Maine only accessible by boat or rugged dirt roads which were
maintained by a paper company. I found a
spot on the path that followed the edge of the lake where a line of birch trees
formed a screen through which the reflected light off the lake was
filtered. I unfolded my easel right
there and set to work.
An image of me preparing a canvas in our apartment in Bensonhurst,
At that time, I used rabbit skin glue sizing and applied an oil-based
gesso ground with a trowel.
In our apartment in Boerum Hill,
my wife and I maintained a large room to use as a studio… well, at least until
we had children, Here I am seen painting First
Light, a breakthrough work for me.
I thought it would be good to include a current photo of me at work. We now live about sixty miles north of NYC in a sprawling, ramshackle house on two acres of mostly wooded land. I have a studio to myself whose dimensions slowly shrink as finished paintings get stacked along the periphery of the room. This past weekend, I took this picture of me working on my latest painting, a work to which I’ve already devoted months of labor and anticipate devoting several more. Though it’s a complex piece that has presented me with many challenges, I am really enjoying the painting and feel, relatively, in control of the process.
Living in an era when a host of innovations have radically changed the way that art is produced, I must confess that to paint at an easel with brushes at this time is somewhat ridiculous. After Pablo Picasso and Kurt Schwitters incorporated collage in their paintings… after Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler removed the canvas from its stretchers, laid it on the ground and dripped or poured paint on it… after Andy Warhol produced multiple copies of photo-emulsion screen printed images, it seems antiquated and obtuse to return to traditional easel painting. My motives for returning to traditional methods of painting are varied. I do not see myself as a guardian of ancient knowledge… you know, something akin to those Japanese “Living National Treasures” who sustain techniques and skills established by artists and artisans centuries ago. In fact, most of my painting processes have been developed on my own, as I received my formal training at a time when innovation and experimentation were so stressed that teachers were reluctant to provide technical instruction. So my paintings tend to look a bit odd or out-of-place beside traditional paintings. Maybe I’ll go into that subject in more detail in the future.
I like limitations and structure. Working at an upright canvas on an easel provides that. Sometimes, in my painting I impose restrictions on myself that force me to invent, to innovate, to solve technical problems. For instance, while an undergrad at Stony Brook, I painted an entire painting using a toothpick to apply paint. I wanted to explore how far I could go in addressing detail. Or, in the 1990’s, I spent nearly two years painting only frontal heads on small canvases. My goal was to so limit composition and subject matter that I would be forced to make the paint the primary source of drama. For many years now, easel painting has provided a consistent framework for my explorations. Also, at present, I am committed to depicting recognizable imagery, particularly that of the figure, because I am obsessed with the narrative, an obscure suggestion of a story that offers no dependable resolution.