Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Odd Day in the City


Odd Nerdrum - The Saviour of Painting (1997)

Last week Thursday, I had the rare pleasure of watching Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum paint a portrait during a workshop in New York City. Nerdrum, whose paintings and ideas have made him an internationally acclaimed (and sometimes reviled) artist, rarely teaches in the Untied States, and once I learned of the possibility of learning from this "modern master," I immediately seized upon the opportunity.

Nerdrum was in Manhattan as a faculty member of American Artist Magazine's Weekend with the Masters Intensive, held from this past Wednesday through Sunday, June 22nd through the 26th.  Despite being organized for the benefit of East Coast artists, the workshops were populated with students from all over North America, including visitors from Kentucky, Florida, Texas, California, Illinois, and the District of Columbia in my section alone.  Several attendees were alumni of WWM workshops in both California and Colorado, and had traveled great distances to continue the high-level of education they had received at those previous events.  It was quite a coup that the organizers were able to enlist Nerdrum, and he made a fantastic addition to an already distinguished roster of teachers which featured Jacob Collins, Nelson Shanks, Dan Thompson, Lea Colie Wight, Stephen Early, Robin Frey, Ted Minoff, Scott Waddell, Jean-Pierre Roy, Alyssa Monks, and Steven Assael.

The be-robed Nerdrum began his presentation on Allegorical Realism with a short discussion on representation in art, and the genesis of ideas.  His main focus during this brief talk was on the two figures in history whom he felt had the greatest effect on the reformation of visual art, though we have never seen a painting by either person.  The first of these was the 4th century BC Greek painter Apelles, whom famous scholar Pliny the Elder considered to be the greatest painter in antiquity.  Though no works of Apelles' survived long into the 1st century AD, the legends which formed around his talent still lived long into the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli, who considered himself the reincarnation of Apelles.  Eighteenth-century, German, philosopher Immanuel Kant was the second figure of whom Nerdrum credited with a very significant impact on art.  Kant's ideas on aesthetics could be quite confusing, but he nevertheless went to great lengths to define "art."  Modern artists in the 20th century seemed to adopt Kant's ideas that "mere copying of nature" was not an expression of genius, however, they ignored his counterpoint statement that raw emotion, without rules of "academic correctness" to govern its output, just produces nonsense.  Great art, Kant supposes, can only come when genius is tempered by taste, when the design is conscious, and when "the form is uniquely suited to the ideas presented."¹

"A painter who does not read philosophy," says Nerdrum, "will never be a great painter.  Thought must come first."

Nerdrum uses a limited palette for his paintings.  For the demonstration he gave during the workshop, he used only Mars Black, Chinese Vermilion, Yellow Ochre, and Titanium White.  It is similar in selection to the legendary Anders Zorn palette, but unlike Zorn, Nerdrum does not do much mixing of colors as he works.  "Zorn was worn out after three hours because of all the blending he did," says Nerdrum, who instead premixes and tubes the combinations he employs.  He relied on colors supplied by students in the class, rather than bringing his own tubes to the United States, and, as hues of the same name can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, it's possible that the colors he was using for this exercise were atypical.  I have read elsewhere that Nerdrum currently favors Old Holland Oil Paints.

He laid his color piles in a horizontal row at the top of the panel to which his canvas was taped.  From left to right, his colors were:  Mars Black, "Brown" (a mixture of Mars Black and Chinese Vermilion), "Blue" (Mars Black and Titanium White), a dark and a light version of "Rosa" (Chinese Vermilion, Yellow Ochre, and Titanium White), Yellow Ochre, "Flesh" (a mixture of all the colors), "Light Yellow"(Yellow Ochre and Titanium White), and Titanium White.  Each color, except Chinese Vermilion, appears in his palette as taken straight from the tube;  he never uses Chinese Red unless it is part of his pre-made mixtures.

His canvas is made especially for him in Germany.  It is a rather thick linen, woven in a herringbone pattern, which he then covers with a paste made from rabbit skin glue and chalk (a simplified, genuine gesso);  this he applies with a large painting knife.  The canvas is very pliable, and I am uncertain if he sizes the linen with rabbit skin glue prior to coating the surface.  In America, Robert Doak & Associates sells a similarly patterned linen.

Nerdrum toned the prepared linen with a color I would describe as brown ochre light (mixed from his limited color palette, I assume), at a value of 6 on the Munsell Value Scale.  He indicated that this was lighter in value than he would normally use, but as he expected to work more transparently for this demonstration - possibly for the sake of time - the lighter ground was better suited to his plans.  By no means is his surface pristine;  it looks as if his toned canvas lies about his studio for some time before he uses it, and that he wipes his dirty brushes from his current painting on the canvas he intends to use for his next.  I believe he prefers a warm toned canvas because of the how the ground relates to his color choices;  for example, his mixture of Mars Black and Titanium White looks more blue in comparison to a warm  ochre ground than it would against a neutral gray background.

Nerdrum began with structural lines, quickly indicated in his "brown," which had been thinned with Gamsol.  He seemed uncomfortable, between the heat in the room, and having to work at an inadequate plastic and aluminum easel.  This prompted Nerdrum to declare, "Modern things are evil!" but once the air conditioner was working, and his easel was replaced with a sturdier, wooden one, he seemed to find a more comfortable groove.  

Re-approaching the head, Nerdrum drew a careful outline of the model's face, this time with a much less diluted mixture of "brown" and Mars Black.  Once this contour was established, he dipped a rag in linseed oil and began adjusting the shape.  At first, I thought he was lightening the lines, but he was instead dragging the pigment towards the center of the face-shape, while rubbing the area with the rag.  This established a mid-tone for the model's complexion.

Into this mid-tone, Nerdrum lightly established the darks in the face (eyebrows, eyelashes, corners of mouth, etc.).  He then started pulling out the lights, using mostly yellow ochre.  Distance relationships were continually checked during these stages to ensure that he was making an accurate drawing.  He often viewed the model while looking at her reflection in a hand-held mirror.

He continued to push and pull with the darks and lights in the image to build up form.

The hair was initially scrubbed into the canvas in a dry manner using Mars Black.  Later he added more black, but wiped away much of it with a rag to achieve the color and texture he wanted.

Nerdrum used a maximum of five brushes, most of which, if not all, were bristles.  The widest brush he had was approximately 1½" wide, and its use was relegated to blending areas, or knocking back texture to reduce glare.  If he had said that these brushes were also used to sweep chimneys, I would not have been surprised.

The most frequently used tool in Nerdrum's demonstration was his finger.  He blended and softened everything with those digits, and to a wonderful, diffused effect.  Unfortunately, he was also eating nuts and dried fruits using those paint-covered hands, and this I cannot recommend!

At times, Nerdrum would pick up a color from one part of the painting with the tip of his finger, and add it to another area, rather than picking up paint from his palette.

"The eyes and the mouth both speak, and thereby compete.  You must subdue one.  Rembrandt focussed on the eye."

Without explanation, Nerdrum grabbed a piece of 180 grit sandpaper to blend the area between hairline and forehead.  It seemed to make no difference in the wet paint, and that, as technique, it would have been better suited to re-working a dry paint layer.  It is rumored he uses a razor blade to scrape down dry layers to create unusual transitions and visual interest, and I can imagine him using the sandpaper to similar result.

At one point, Nerdrum must have decided that the backdrop was too similar in value to the model's hair, so he removed the dark curtain, revealing a lighter, olive green wall.  He scrubbed in the value for the background using his "blue" mixture, which he then lightly wiped off with a rag, leaving a translucent tint behind.  As he continued to work, he added yellow ochre from other parts of the painting to the wall area.

Nerdrum asked the model to raise part of her red sari up over her right shoulder to complete the composition.  After several attempts at painting it, Nerdrum decided to wipe the area clean, and asked the model to once again lower the sari from her shoulder.  Unfortunately, I think he was unsatisfied with the red hue he had at his disposal, and he was unwilling to use the more chromatic Chinese Vermilion straight from the tube.  The introduction of red to that area of the painting stained the canvas, which he was then forced to correct. 

The model was lit only by fluorescent bulbs in fixtures suspended from the ceiling.  When Nerdrum proceeded to repaint the right shoulder, he found the light on that part of her body too intense.  To counter that effect, Nerdrum had his assistant hold a gauze scarf above the model, diffusing the light and altering the color temperature.  Once he was done repainting the shoulder, his assistant departed the modeling stand.

Much is made of Nerdrum's technique, and often his paintings are compared to those of Rembrandt, DaVinci, and Caravaggio.  To me, the similarity to Rembrandt is strongest, not because the two share a methodology, but because their techniques are governed first and foremost by their final vision.  Several years ago I leafed through Ernst van de Wetering's Rembrandt: The Painter at Work, and walked away with one clear thought on the artist's technique;  he did whatever was necessary in his paintings to achieve his goal.  Nerdrum does the same.  

(Artist Derek Van Derven has done much investigation into Odd Nerdrum's technique, and has written a research paper and a book on the subject, both available from   To learn more, visit Mr. Van Derven's website).

A little after 3:00 PM, Nerdrum put down his brushes.  For those participants who had not begun their own studies immediately after lunch, it was time to see to their own work for the remaining hour of the session.  As I was only there as an observer, I used the time left to peek in on the other workshops being held that day.

Elsewhere in the building of General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, the  other workshop tracks, with the exception of Steven Assael's, were in session (Assael was teaching in his own studio).  Two floors above, Jacob Collins, whose Grand Central Academy of Art is located in the same building, was giving a drawing demonstration.  On the second floor, across the hall from Nerdrum's class, both Studio Incamminati tracks were in progress.  In one class was instructor Robin Frey, and in the other were co-teachers Lea Colie Wight and Stephen Early. In these tracks, the demonstrations were shorter and interspersed so as to allow the students to begin practicing their lessons on the first day.  

Jacob Collins

Stephen Early

Student work from Early and Wight's class.

Odd Nerdrum's latest book, Kitsch - More Than Art, will be released this coming September.  It is available for pre-order now at

¹ Gracyk, Theodore, Philosophy of Art -  Hume and Kant:  Summary and Comparison, 2004, retrieved June 28, 2011 from [].



Paulo Frade said...

Wow, Great post!

Mary Byrom said...

Thank you Matthew ! Great to see the process and details.

elizabeth said...

Yes, we do need philosophy. Kant is interesting on taste (though Reynolds is better), but the philosophical authority on kitsch is Roger Scruton. In Scruton’s terms, Nerdrum’s art is a variety of post-modernism, its manner what he calls “preemptive kitsch,” that is, the deliberate production of kitsch as camp (high camp?) or sophisticated parody. Is the result kitsch or “kitsch” in quotation marks? Hard to tell. It’s a question that has nothing to do with skill, everything to do with taste. Looking at Nerdrum’s get-up and pictures reminds me that Scruton also writes, “Those things that challenge us to transcend ourselves, to be something more than dependent children, are the places where the kitsch-fly lays its eggs.”

Kristin H said...

Great post about Nerdrum. I have always enjoyed his work. A great pride for us Norwegians:)

Dan said...

Wow! Thanks for such a fantastic write-up.

Derek said...

Thank you very much, very much!! for that great documentary of Nerdrum's approach. That painting was done in the alla prima method of painting all in one layer. That is not Nerdrum's regular technique. His regular technique involves many layers of sanding and glazing for texture effects, he does finger blur like he did in this painting.

He is an incredible draftsman, but he also knows anatomy well so he does not depend so much on what he sees. For his regular technique, or at least some of them, you can check out my experiments on my blog, this link and thank you for recommending my books and website I really appreciate it. You are the best. Derek

Brian David MacNeil said...

Amazing post!!! Love the Odd demo!

Lori kiergaard said...

Thank you for sharing this!

Justin said...

Wow, Thanks for sharing this.

Greg Newbold said...

Thanks for the great post, though it does not do justice to seeing a Nerdrum in person.

Greg Newbold said...

Thanks for the great post, though it does not do justice to seeing a Nerdrum in person.

Cozinha da Pintura said...

Thanks for posting the pictures and for the incredible pictures showing us the step by step process. Just amazing!

Lane Brown said...

Excellent post, thanks for sharing!

Shane Pierce said...

Great post! Thank you!

M. Patrizio said...

Thank you for posting all these details about the demo! So great! I'm actually painting the same model this week, so it is doubly awesome to see what Mr. Nerdrum did!

jtglover said...

Thank you for this great post! Love the detailed discussion, pictures in stages, and your impressions of seeing the artist teach. I've liked Odd Nerdrum's work for some time, but I saw one of his paintings in person for the first time a couple weeks ago, and seeing his texturing in person blew me away. So rich, so much depth.

Laura Wilde said...

Because he scrapes and sands AND eats nuts at the same time he has chosen paints that do not contain led or other harmful pigments. Pretty brilliant.

Judith Peck said...

This is wonderfully written and a great review for me. Thank you. I do have a different take on how Odd Nerdrum was using the mirror. I saw him using a hand held mirror very close to his eye, and turned his body almost ninety degrees away from his easel, to look at his own painting taking form. This way he was checking his drawing. Looking at the painting head on sometimes allows your eye to "correct" the form, even when there is actually something off. Nerdrum is a fantastic draftsman, however, it's better to check a painting in the initial stages.

Rigoberto A Gonzalez said...

Nerdrum techinique is more deeply inlfuenced by early Edvard Munch. you see pastiche elements from art history. The dark shadows of rembrandt, the colorful sunsets of monet to name a few. There really is no Caravaggio in his work. The display of emotion and drama is also more Munch than anyone else.