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 [].


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Random Inspiration: Recent Painting from Marvin Mattelson

In a recent post, I mentioned that Marvin Mattelson was resuming his teaching schedule after a much needed sabbatical.  During his year away giving formal instruction, Mattelson was working on a major and, as-of-yet, unveiled, portrait commission, which he hopes to share soon.  

This portrait above is one of the other commissions Mattelson was able to complete while on leave, and one that allowed him to explore some of the conceptual and surrealistic imagery he was so well-known for in his illustration work.  In the painting of this fun-loving couple, the husband is filling the sky with balloons, while his wife, with a sly smile on her face and a sharp safety pin on her blouse, contemplates her next move.  It is in its own way a representation of the give-and-take of marriage, and humorously shows how the two interact in their relationship.

In addition to Mattelson's upcoming workshops, he will be returning to the School of Visual Arts for his regular teaching schedule, including his Friday and Saturday Continuing Education classes.  Registration for the CE classes begins August 1st;  once open, Mattelson will post a link to the school's course guide on his website.  Classes fill quickly, so early registration is recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Envelope Please... Recent Award Winners


Wim Heldens  -  Distracted  -  2011 BP Portrait Award Winner

On June 14th, London's National Portrait Gallery announced the 2011 winners of the prestigious BP Portrait Award competition.  The top prize went to self-taught artist Wim Heldens of the Netherlands whose painting, Distracted, represents a 25 year-old philosophy student and family friend, Jeroen.  For taking first prize, Heldens will receive £25,000 (approximately $49,500.00 USD), and a commission (worth £4000) to paint a famous figure for the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection.  This is Helden's third time being selected for the annual BP Portrait Award exhibition, and his first time receiving an award.

Louis Smith  -  Holly

Ian Cumberland  -  Just to Feel Normal

Sertan Saltan  -  Mrs. Cerna

Second Place and £8000 (approximately $13000.00 USD) went to Louis Smith for his painting, Holly, which is the artist's re-imagining of the Prometheus myth with a female figure as the protagonist.  Ian Cumberland of Ireland took Third Place and £6000 (approximately $9,700 USD) with his portrait Just to Feel Normal, depicting a friend who has obviously lived a rough life.  The Young Artist Prize and £5000 (approximately $8000 USD) went to Sertan Saltan (b. 1982) of Connecticut for his painting Mrs. Cerna.  Taking the remaining award, the 2011 BP Travel Award was Jo Fraser, whose proposal to record in paint the traditional weavers of the Cuzco region of Peru won her £5000 to fund her project, and a guaranteed display of her efforts in the 2012 exhibition.

Paul Beel's Mirtiotissa in progress.  Beel won the 2010 BP Travel Award, and traveled to Corfu
to paint locals and tourists at a nude beach.

In addition to the five prize winning artworks, and the painting from last year's Travel Award recipient, Paul Beel, the top fifty portraits from among this year's 2,372 entries will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery until September 18.  The exhibition can be viewed at the museum's website, but the images are disappointingly small.  Perhaps this is to encourage the purchase of the accompanying catalog, available from the museum's online store for £8.99 (plus shipping).

The BP Portrait Award competition is open to artists from around the world, aged 18 and over.  The call for entires for the 2012 competition should start mid-December.  To receive notice when this begins, sign up at the NPG website.


Australia has several major art competitions each year, three of which, the Wynne Prize, the Archibold, and the Sir John Sulman Prize, are held concurrently at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, and will be on view until the 26th of this month.  Judging of the shows has proven to be controversial in the past, and this year has been no exception.

Richard Goodwin - Co-isolated Slave

The Wynne Prize was established in 1897 to honor "the best landscape painting of Australian scenery in oils or watercolours, or for the best example of figure sculpture by Australian artists completed during the 12 months preceding the [closing] date."  This year's prize and A$25,000 (approximately $26,500 USD) went to Richard Goodwin for his sculpture Co-isolated Slave, a piece comprised of a Chinese tricycle cart and a motorcycle.  Even fans of Goodwin's previous works are puzzled by this choice;  it is quite a stretch to suppose this sculpture fits the original goals and parameters of this prestigious prize.

Ben Quilty  -  Portrait of Margaret Olley

Paul Ryan  -  Ben Ben - Portrait of Quilty  -  Finalist in the 2011 Doug Moran Portrait Prize

First awarded in 1921, the Archibald Prize is presented to the "best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia during the twelve months preceding the date fixed by the Trustees for sending in the pictures."  Several changes have been made to the competition in recent years including the addition of two other prizes;  The People's Choice Award and the Packers Room Award.  Additionally, in 1995 the entry application was modified to specifically state that submissions must be painted from life, and not photographs.  This year's Archibald winner, Ben Quilty, received the A$50,000 (approximately $53,000.00 USD) purse for his painting of Australian artist Margaret Olley.

Packing Room Prize 2011  -  Vincent Fantauzzo  -  Matt Moran

People's Choice Winner  -  Adam Chang  -  John Coetzee

This year's Sulman Prize winner has proven to be the most controversial award of the season, not so much for the artwork chosen, but for the manner in which it was selected.  Richard Bell, a contemporary Australian artist, was the sole judge in the competition.  He had been selected as the "celebrity arbiter of taste" by a committee of 11 trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, at the urging of the gallery's director, Edmund Capon, who expected Bell to stir the pot, and had no qualms about setting the contest up for controversy.  Bell's method for choosing the A$20000 (approximately $21000.00 USD) Sulman Prize winner?  A lottery.

Rather than choosing a painting which fit the criteria of being the best "subject painting, genre painting, or mural project by an Australian artist, in oil, acrylic, watercolour or mixed media," Bell decided to use his position as judge to comment on his feelings that such competitions are just cattle calls and lotteries.  Bell first narrowed the field of 633 entries down by choosing more than 20 paintings depicting animals.  "I like animals," said Bell.  "I was tempted to put in all animals.  I was going to make that the criteria but I had to choose some of my friends."  He then added four paintings which he liked (presumably done by his friends), and four he did not like, bringing the finalists down to 29 artworks.  Once this was established, he wrote each artist's name on a piece of paper, scattered the notes on a table top, and tossed a dime into the air.  The dime came to rest on Peter Smeeth's name, so Smeeth's painting The Artist's Fate took the prize.

Peter Smeeth  -  The Artist's Fate  -  Winner of the 2011 Sulman Prize

When Bell was asked if he even liked the painting, he responded that he liked the note which the artist had written on the back of his canvas (Rejection feels like it has cost an arm and a leg, getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick, being emasculated, having your heart ripped out and being left completely gutted!), and that "the guts were drawn pretty good."  He also added, "I would have liked it to be one of my friends.  I would have much preferred that.  But I gave these other dudes a crack at it."

Richard Bell was an odd choice for the role of judge in the first place.  He was already notorious;  when he won the prestigious National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award in 2003, he claimed his prize wearing a t-shirt reading, "White Girls Can't Hump."  The committee which elected him to the position had to know what they could expect, and Bell, understandably, is unrepentant for his method of finding the winner-  he brought attention to himself, and to the Sulman Prize, and seems content with that.  "Most artists know what these prizes are about, " Bell told The Art Newspaper.  "They've got very little to do with art and much more to do with the institution."

Although Bell's antics show disrespect for the dedicated artists who worked hard to create their entries, and will have made Smeeth's win forever a tarnished one, his controversy has brought attention to the quality of the work in Australia's premier art competitions held at the Art Gallery of NSW.  Are the winners actually the best artworks, and is the public being miseducated in art?

Christopher Allen in The Australian summed it up quite well with his article Old Schooled:

"One of the distressing things about the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman shows is that they attract a very large audience of the general public, people who don't usually attend art exhibitions but who incomprehensibly, in my view, actually pay money to see this one. To such an audience, the fact of being exhibited at the state gallery invests the pictures with authority and plausibility.
Just as the behaviour people see in mainstream films modifies what they consider normal or acceptable in real life, the art they see in officially sanctioned exhibitions alters their sense of what is aesthetically acceptable. That is why it is painful to see unsophisticated viewers and their children inspecting ugly and stupid pictures in the Sulman, earnestly trying to understand why they are considered good. Instead of educating these audiences, such exhibitions contribute to corrupting their judgment."

The finalists and winners of all three competitions can be viewed at the Art Gallery of New South Wales' website.


Vincent Fantauzzo  -  Baz Luhrman Off Screen  -  Winner of the 2011 Doug Moran National Portrait Prize

Australia's most lucrative prize, the The Doug Moran Portrait Prize, recently announced their 2011 winner, Vincent Fantauzzo for his painting Off Screen, a close-up portrait of Australian screenwriter, director, and producer, Baz Luhrman.  This annual competition founded in 1988 by businessman Doug Moran was designed to promote contemporary Australian portraiture, with the requirement that the artist and subject must have been citizens or residents of Australia for at least a year prior to the deadline for submissions.  The runner-up receives A$10000 (approximately $10,500 USD), and the winner receives the world's richest portrait prize of A$150,000 (approximately $159,000 USD).  Before going on a tour of Australia, an exhibition of the finalists will be held until June 26th at the State Library of New South Wales.

Nicholas Harding  -  Rex at Marouba 2011  -  Doug Moran Portrait Prize Runner-Up