In the fall of 2014 I attended a workshop in Taos given by David Leffel, Sherrie McGraw, Jacqueline Kamin and Gregg Kreutz. On the opening night of the workshop, 80 of us gathered to watch David Leffel do a portrait demo. While he painted, David also spoke to us about his process and told us to use the demo as a vehicle to learn and to get an insight into his thinking. I did my best to accomplish both of those tasks. I have nineteen pages of notes and a bunch of photos from the beginning of the painting until the end. It was really quite amazing.
*Just a note about the photos. I was a seated off to the side and using the telephoto lens on my phone so they are not the greatest pics, but you can still follow along with the progression of the painting.
|The man himself, David Leffel|
The text below is right out of my notes from the lecture.
David began by talking to us a bit about how he approaches painting. He talked about sculptural painting, seeing the world in terms of planes and masses rather than smooth and rendered. You want to paint with paint, not draw with paint.
What you put on the canvas is what you are thinking. When you look at a painting you are looking at what the artist was thinking. In order to paint better, you have to understand what your brain is thinking about. Then you can appreciate what your subject matter is. Don't copy what you are looking at, if you do, you are not seeing dimension or form or understanding the medium.
You should get information from your painting. Is the color good? Is the form okay? Look for form, dimensions and planes on the model, still life or landscape. Don't paint a bunch of individual objects - let the light flow. Think about what your mind is focusing on. Get an idea about what you are painting. Don't just match the colors you are seeing.
Make every brush stroke meaningful. Careless brush strokes won't make a good painting. Be aware and on top of what you're doing from the first brush stroke.
As you can see here, David starts with a toned canvas. He told us he uses a mixture of Old Holland Olive Green and Burnt Umber.
To start the painting, he told us to first get a sense of the size and placement of what you are going for. Be concerned with the filled space and the empty space, the light flows and the shadow stops. You should start out very abstract, making the shadow hold the light. See what is important about the whole composition rather than little pieces.
|Our lovely model, Drea|
Don't worry about proportion or drawing yet. Don't measure or you will destroy your confidence - telling yourself you can't see.
Holding the brush and making brush strokes with your arm is the only real oil painting technique you need to know.
Painting is a problem solving discipline.
With a single source of light, the start of a painting creates a hard edge.
In sculptural painting, the light hits, turns away, becomes a soft edge, then becomes a shadow. You want the viewer to look inside the form. The highlight is the most compelling thing to look at.
Look for ways to describe movement of space - near to far or far to near. Don't copy lines. Look for something to describe the model ( or whatever you are painting). In this painting, David used the model's hair to make the lines of her face. He worked from side to side, not concentrating on any one area. Things that are close are sharper, what you want to go back is vague. Don't wait until the end of the painting to describe something.
Try to understand what you are painting from the first brushstroke. Don't plan on fixing later. You have to do a lot of paintings to do this. Read fast and get it down. Think like a painter. Don't paint every little thing - paint the shapes. In sculptural painting, it is important what you leave out. Learn what to leave out rather than what to put in. Good painting is an open ended dialog. Do a lot of paintings to learn what to leave out.
You are not drawing an eyelid, you are drawing a plane. You are always painting movement. Life is movement.
The shadow holds the composition in place. If the shadows are weak the painting will be weak. Light is the melody of the painting. Light moves, shadow is still. That is their relationship. They play off of each other. Light against shadow. The shadow has to be quiet so the light can move. The strength of the shadow is the strength of the painting. The light moves the eye in a chiaroscuro painting. The old masters used rich, warm shadows and their paintings looked warm. The impressionists used cool shadows so their paintings are cool.
White is the coolest and most opaque color - the opposite is depth. Warm shadows have the depth of transparency. Warm has a feeling of depth.
When painting, think more abstractly. Don't be seduced on a personal level (painting an eye or a nose). Everything in the painting is important.
Painting the background - part of painting the background is the color and value of it. Everything you don't want to be seen is part of the background. This will determine how dramatic the painting will be. You are selecting what the painting will be.
You are not copying - you are in control of the painting. You have to think about it. You are responsible for your painting. The more dramatic the foreground, the more dramatic the background can be. The painting tells you what to do and what not to do. Internalize rather than externalize.
Make crisp brushstrokes. A brush stroke begins and ends. You finish the brushstroke, you control how much paint comes off your brush. You need to feel what is happening under the brush. Your technique is all feeling. Don't blend. Just let the paint merge by making brush strokes. Your whole arm has to be open. What you are doing on your palette is as important as what you do on your painting. You are always responsible.
Form goes across. You will paint form or direction. Light and movement are most important.
This was the end of the demo. It lasted about 90 minutes and though I did leave out some of my notes, you can get a very good idea of David's teaching. It was pretty amazing to be there for this presentation. It is not often that you get to hear a master painter tell you their process, paint a demo, and answer questions from the audience all at the same time.
If you would like to learn more about David Leffel and the Artist Guild artists, check out their website here. The site has all the info on David, Sherrie and Jackie as well as videos and books for sale. I have David and Sherrie's books and they are wonderful learning tools, as well as beautiful art books.
Reading over my notes from the class brought back a lot of memories of the fun time we had as well as reinforcing these lessons in my mind. I hope you enjoyed reading about it as well.