Friday, October 3, 2008


Nineteenth century painters went through a pretty rigorous training that focused mostly on process. Even in the generation that brought us Impressionism, almost all artists spent many years at an Academy that had them drawing plaster casts in preparation for live models and drawing live models until they were ready to use paint. In the generation that followed them, artists who came to painting with little formal training were not completely uncommon: Paul Gauguin and Van Gogh are a couple that come to mind. Their success, and the rhetoric of the Expressionists in Germany and Austria, signaled a fundamental change in the way our culture thought about Art and the shock-waves of that change are still resonating in the academic training of artists.

Painters today are loath to discuss technical processes. Questions that deal with the "How" of painting make them uncomfortable and I'm at least partially in agreement with an attitude toward painting that doesn't emphasize the importance of technique. It's not an attitude you'll find as prevalent among photographers, potters or printmakers. There are lots of reasons for this difference, not the least of which is the lack of a means of quantifying information about painting. A potter can tell his or her students to fire their work to cone 10 and a printmaker can time the etching of a stone with a stop watch. But all measuring in painting is done by feel, guess or "the vibe." Another reason painters are reluctant to talk about how they do their work, is society's current confusion of artists with clergy. (Hence all the black clothing at openings.) If we reveal the "secrets" of our mystical force, we might loose a little of our power.

But while I can see the mystical side of being an artist, I also feel there's a side to the artist that's got a lot of overlap with a good plumber. I don't like to emphasize it too much, but I'm actually quite comfortable talking about "how" to paint. But because not everyone feels that way, I'm not always sure where certain common processes got started.
Take the process of underpainting. When I was in school, a number of my instructors encouraged us to use a method of underpainting that involved putting thin layers of very luminous transparent color down as a first step to block out major shapes. Rembrandt used a similar process, but without the high intensity colors. He used burnt sienna and focused on value rather than hue in his underpaintings.

Rembrandt's method was popular for a couple of centuries at least, but someone must have begun the change to higher intensity underpainting. I doubt if it would have been any of the Impressionist painters. They tended to work rapidly with very opaque paint. I've seen a lot of incomplete works by Impressionists, and it doesn't seem as though they used underpainting at all, or at least not consistently. My guess is it would have been a painter like Bonnard who got the ball rolling. His work is built up with many layers and the surface is a complex mixture of transparent, translucent and opaque passages. What is certain, is that by the 1970's in the US, very well know painters like Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud were using this method, and I was taught it when I was in college.

In the photos above, showing the paintings that I'm working on now, you can see the evolution of the surface and image from the very bright underpainting colors that I begin with, to the quieter colors that tend to dominate my finished work. The underpainting process makes every color a mixture of several different hues that blend optically. It gives the painting a complexity and depth that I prefer, as opposed to a flat, shallow surface. It's like the difference between natural hair color and a bad dye job. Bad dye jobs are very chic in some circles today, as are flat shallow paintings, but I'm staying with my natural hair color and still prefer a painting surface with depth.


Charlie said...

Great post. But, while you're in Germany, you should consider going blond, or red, or blue.

This is not connected in any way to your post, but it's an episode you'll appreciate. We went to the movie theater recently, and wanted popcorn. We were waiting in line, surveying the myriad options, and we spied the best deal: for $12, you can get a 170 oz. tub of popcorn (yes, 170 oz! It was bigger than a bucket!), two jumbo candy snacks, and two 44 oz soft drinks -- with free refills. We didn't go for the deal, since there were only 2 of us and not 8. We spent $9 for one medium bag and one medium drink, and were roundly decried as spendthrift pansies.

Mike Giardino said...

Great post, it was really interesting to learn about your process. The picture from your post "Endlich!" showed the bright colors you use for underpainting, and I was surprised to see that you use these colors as a base for the "quiet" tones of your finished work. It was great to hear more about the process in this post.

Em said...

Chris, I love to see those bright pinks and oranges! It's amazing to see the before and after. Someday when we get a frame for our painting (bowl of lemons) that bright orange underpainting showing on the side will be hidden. Ah well, we'll never get a frame. We're poor students...well I guess we can't use that line anymore. Chow.

Janie said...

A great explanation of this method, and it answers my questions about the bright colors we saw in an earlier post. You can see the evolution and the solidity. I wonder if Cezanne painted that way.


scott said...


This reminds me of a conversation we had about teaching under-painting to the Painting I students. You had said that every time you taught the assignment, you came to regret it.

I gave them this assignment as well, and achieved similar results. Two out of seventeen turned out pretty well.