More than a decade ago, artist Thomas Nash gave a presentation in Chicago at the Art of the Portrait® Conference which was very well-received. So many people who had missed that lecture were still regretting it these many years later, that Nash felt obligated to add a lecture and slideshow to his painting demonstration for the 2011 Annual Conference in Atlanta. Unfortunately, Nash only had an hour-and-a-half of allotted time to fit everything which he wished to share with the audience. The plan to include so much in so little time was, as Nash puts it, like "putting four elephants in a Volkswagon; SIMPLE, but not EASY."
Each time I have seen Tom Nash give a presentation - including musical performances - he has made sure to have printouts of his message available to everyone in attendance. Below is Nash's outline of his lecture, What it Takes, which he presented on the second day of the 2011 Art of the Portrait® Conference in Atlanta. Most of this information is exactly as it appeared in the handout Nash made for his audience, but for a few topics, Tom was kind enough to expound upon his ideas specifically for this blog. Thanks, Tom!
“WHAT IT TAKES- Combining What We See
with What We Know and Feel."
with What We Know and Feel."
THE THREE LEGGED STOOL:
How 'what we KNOW', 'what we SEE', and 'what we FEEL', should work in harmony to reinforce each other.
|Thomas Nash - Dr. Raymond Morrissey - 36 X 28 in.|
WHAT WE KNOW:
This is what we bring to the easel even before we observe our subject-
Knowledge of our portrait subject - their “reality,” both personal and physical;
Knowledge of our craft - how to get our materials to do what we want them to do;
Knowledge of the physics of light - understanding of color and of vision;
Knowledge of the principles of perspective - how our point of view affects the appearance of our subject.
|Thomas Nash - Mr. Lloyd Whitaker, President Newleaf Corp. - 24 X 20 in.|
WHAT WE SEE:
The OPTICAL, or two-dimensional approach is one way we OBSERVE our subject once we get to our easel (while still keeping in mind what we KNOW and FEEL).
Elements of the OPTICAL approach: For DRAWING it means looking at the subject as if there was a sheet of glass between us and it, perpendicular to our line of sight. Looking for, shapes, angles, slants, referring to a plumb line. For COLOR, seeing the subject strictly as a mosaic made of “spots” of individual colors next to each other is the “optical” or purely visual way of thinking.
For both DRAWING and using COLOR while focusing on the optical it is preferable if the model AND the artist can hold very still and maintain their original position. Any change of either will effect the shapes presented for drawing, and, strictly speaking, will present a completely new set of color sensations to the eye.
|Thomas Nash - Tyler - 52 X 28 in.|
WHAT WE FEEL:
A “catch-all” category that includes WHY we paint, what our goals are for the work, how we feel about our subject, and what we are trying to say. This is the MOST important of the three, and steers and influences all others. Without a strong purpose, concept, idea, or reason to paint the picture, we may wander without focus.
The KNOWLEDGE part could be called the “WHY” part. Both DRAWING and COLOR can and should be approached, studied and executed by asking ourselves about what we SEE and WHY it appears as it does? Either what we SEE or what we KNOW can help compensate for any shortcomings in the other.
SOME OF TOM’S THEMES & PRINCIPLES:
Keep all your horses pulling together.
Take self-inventory; know your strengths and weaknesses.
Be honest with yourself.
Practice with a purpose; paint on purpose.
Tom’s “Wondering principle”¹ of study.
Isolate a problem to study it.
Monitor your work’s progress, keeping in mind your original goal/intent.
Remember “Little Johnny” drawing a can.² He was on the right track, he just lacked some KNOWLEDGE.
Putting four elephants in a Volkswagen; Simple but not easy.³
There is a vast difference between basic recognition and a comprehensive grasp of FORM.
Understanding PERSPECTIVE is the key to our ability to translate our knowledge of form into images.
Perspective has a direct relationship to light and shade and color, not just drawing.
Lines are more sensitive and “organic" if drawn over perceived form.
The “REALITY” of your portrait subject concerns both their personal character and their physical character.
A better grasp of your subject's total “reality” will make it easier to accurately and sensitively portray them.
|Thomas Nash - Dodie - 48 X 40 in.|
Learn the anatomical language and the actions of the body to make your study of anatomy easier.
Look up “Frankfort Line and Reid’s Base Line” as part of study of anatomy.
Look up Tyndall Effect as part of your study of PHYSICS, the scientific, or “WHY,” approach to COLOR.
¹Tom’s WONDERING Principle:
Some of my earliest teachers commented that I “soaked up information like a sponge”. To the extent that this was true, I attribute it to the fact that I spent a lot of time as a child with my brushes and paint trying to figure out stuff on my own. I did a lot of WONDERING. I think that if we make an effort, perhaps beat our heads against the wall a little bit, we will arrive at a point where we have some very specific “blanks” in our understanding and we will be very hungry and ready to have theses blanks filled in. When we finally run across the teacher or the book that has the information we are seeking, we not only absorb it like a sponge, but will retain that knowledge better than if we had never struggled.
Today I wear both the teacher’s hat and the lifetime student hat. For my own study I invent exercises and routines where I first “wonder” about something and attempt to figure it out before getting the answer. Here are some examples:
I draw my portrait subjects from memory before they arrive for their sitting (assuming I have seen them at least once) By doing this my mind is primed to soak up a lot more information as soon as I do see them.
To study how light and shade worked, I set up a still life in flat light in the studio and arranged a more intense spectral light near it, but did NOT turn it on. I then drew the main contours of the forms and also tried to predict and draw what I THOUGHT the shadow patterns WOULD be when I turned the light on. Once I had struggled with it a bit and “wondered” about what I would see, I turned on the light and checked my assumptions. These exercises forced me to wonder about why things appear as they do. I have learned much more about the nature of light on form, and the perspective of shadows, than if all I had ever done was to copy the shapes and colors I saw in front of me as if I were a human scanner.
I put an X on a table some distance from my easel and invent a composition of items I know I have in my house somewhere. I try to picture one main object sitting on the X and the rest arranged around it. When I have taken the drawing as far as I reasonably can, I go get the items and set them up in the same composition that I had invented. Then, sitting in the same place at my easel, I compare that arrangement to my drawing. I instantly learn if I have misjudged the proportions or relative sizes of the objects, but, probably of greater use, is the gaining of a clearer grasp of how perspective affects the shapes of the forms as seen at that specific distance and angle.
²LITTLE JOHNNY and DRAWING A CAN:
Maybe he is not always called “Johnny,” but we have all heard how a young artist will draw a can or other cylindrical shape from a view that shows both the side, and the top plane, the latter which he has drawn round like a circle. We are told that this is because little Johnny “knew” that the can was round, and that knowledge hampered his ability to “see like an artist” and draw the shape correctly. Some will explain that Johnny is relying too much on the tactile qualities of the can, the roundness that he feels and knows, and that “if only he could return to the innocent eye “ like he had when he was an infant and before he learned that the can was round, he would be much more successful at drawing it. His knowledge of the form is almost viewed as a bad thing.
My take on this is slightly different. I think it’s great that little Johnny is aware that his subject, the can, is in fact round. I think it’s fine that he consciously chose to draw a form that he was familiar with and was trying to somehow establish it’s reality as best he could in his drawing. The problem was NOT that he knew too much. It wasn’t that his awareness of the can’s true form was impeding his ability to accurately draw it; the problem was that he simply lacked some information about perspective. In this case no one had yet taught Johnny that circles when seen at an angle turn into ellipses. The assumption that drawing problems are caused by allowing ourselves to draw what we know RATHER than what we see does have some validity, but the response to the suggestion that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is not to curse that knowledge, but to gain more. In “Little Johnny’s” case, he needed to gain more knowledge of perspective.
The answer to the question “How do you get four elephants in a Volkswagen?” is “You put two in the front, two in the back." The point of this being that some things are SIMPLE, but that does not mean they are EASY. Drawing and painting could be thought of that way.
The answer to the question “How do you paint your mother (or spouse or child or friend) without them posing?” could be “All you have to do is... have a comprehensive knowledge of your subjects form and physical reality, master the principles of perspective, know everything there is to know about the physics of light and shade and color, and of the physiology of the human eye and brain, and master the use of your tools and materials, and it should be no problem!" Simple but not easy! I should add that mastery of the principles of design, and a good concept and reason to paint, are necessary to make the work an “interesting “ one, but you get the idea.
To see more of Thomas Nash's paintings, please visit his website. There you can also find a detailed listing of his upcoming teaching schedule.