Sunday, January 6, 2013

Color Palettes: Charles Pfahl (b. 1946)

Charles Pfahl
Sunday Times (detail)
36 X 24 in.
oil on canvas

Charles Alton Pfahl III was born in Akron, Ohio in 1946.  At an early age, he showed an interest in art, and by age 10 he was taking anatomy lessons as a prerequisite to oil painting.¹  In 1958, at the age of 12, he began a six year course of study with Ohio artist, Jack Richard (1922- ), a former student of the well-known New York figural painter and instructor, Robert Brackman (1898-1980).  Then, in 1969, he moved to New York City, and was able to study with Brackman directly.

While in New York, he worked days in an office, and painted at night, but an encounter with self-taught realist painter, John Koch (1909-1978), led to changes that would affect the rest of his life.  Koch became Pfahl's mentor, encouraged him to use Maroger's Medium*, and taught the young artist to pay more attention to light.  Within a year, and under Koch's guidance, Pfahl had enough paintings for a solo exhibition at which he sold enough work to enable himself to quit his day job.  Pfahl has been painting full-time ever since.

During the next several years, Pfahl continued to expand his influences.  In 1974, he first saw the works of Gregory Gillespie (1936-2000) and Antonio Lopez-Garcia (1936- ), each of who had an impact on his thoughts on painting, and each of whom Pfahl greatly admires to this day.  Then in 1978, he travelled to Italy to research the works of Caravaggio, and obtain new techniques, including gold and silver leafing.

In 1982, Pfahl began a series of relocations which, in what may have been an homage to his late mentor Koch, placed him in environments which would challenge his skills at interpreting natural light. His first long-term stay was in Italy.  He then moved to Bali, then Ireland, and, in 1993, back to New York.  In 1999, Pfahl moved to Los Angeles, and since 2005, he has lived in New Mexico.

Since 1999, Pfahl's work has grown more personal, and often much more dark and inaccessible.  Of his work, Pfahl says:

For many years, it has been my desire to paint images that evoke strong emotional feelings - no matter how disturbing they may be - in order to convey the true beauty that I have seen.  For others to have a chance to experience my efforts, I am dependent upon the participation of those who are in control of what is chosen for people to see.  Both an open heart and an open mind are needed to insure that the opportunity for us to have a broad experience is not limited too much by personal opinion.  We should not be dissuaded by subject matter to the extent that it interferes with our chance to experience true beauty - as that is the road that leads to a fuller life.  Beauty transcends subject matter and politics. It exists on its own level.²

Just seven years after his first solo show, Pfahl was the subject of a book published by Watson-Guptill. That book, Charles Pfahl: Artist at Work (1977), was written by artist and author, Joe Singer, and was a remarkably detailed account for that period about how a representational artist makes pictures.  It was split into three sections:  the first contained discussions on composition, lighting, color, tools and materials, and building and metal leafing picture frames;  the second featured five oil painting demonstrations - A Female Nude, A Clothed Female Figure, A Figure in an Interior (reproduced below), A Male Nude, and An Interior; and the final section was a collection of images of Pfahl's finished works, some printed full-page size, complemented by simple technical insights by the artist.

According to Singer, Pfahl is essentially a colorist.³ (This apparently has more to do with his early training:  Jack Richard placed a strong emphasis on color training, whereas Koch, who used a limited palette, was more influential on Pfahl's regard for light).  As of 1977, however, Pfahl had more-or-less settled on a regular palette that met most of his needs.  He freely added colors to this palette, however, as dictated by his subject matter.  Pfahl's colors, made by Winsor & Newton unless otherwise stated, were:

Flake White #2
Raw Sienna
Light Red
Burnt Sienna Deep (Blockx)
Ivory Black
Lemon Yellow or Cadmium Yellow Pale
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red Light
Cadmium Red Deep
Alizarin Crimson
Manganese Violet (Shiva)
Winsor Violet
Cerulean Blue
Ultramarine Blue Deep
Sap Green
Viridian Green

Pfahl is currently working on a comprehensive book of his own work, originally scheduled for publication in 2012, and which, it is assumed, will be available for purchase soon.

*Prior to meeting John Koch, Pfahl used no medium whatsoever.  "Maroger's Medium" was the name given to a "secret formula" revealed in the book The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Old Masters (1948), written by Jaques Maroger (1884-1962), former Technical Director of the Louvre Museum Laboratory (1930-39).  Koch learned how to make the medium directly from Maroger, after Maroger emigrated to the United States and began giving lectures at the Parsons School of Design in New York.  After being introduced to the medium, Pfahl took to it quickly, but even while under Koch's tutelage (1969-1978), Pfahl started using it less and less.  It is likely he does not use Maroger's Medium at all today.

Maroger's Medium is a thixotropic gel made from mastic varnish and black oil, and was, according to Maroger, the "secret ingredient" that led to the success of many of the Old Masters, including Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Velázquez.  Similar concoctions to Maroger's have been in use for centuries, and were, in fact, still known and in-use during the time in which Maroger made his "discovery." Though the medium goes by a number of names, it is probably best known as megilp, and can still be purchased today, in traditional formula form, or in modernized (and less-toxic) variations (of course, the traditional method can be used to make your own supply of medium as well).

Maroger's Medium has been accused of causing paintings to darken, so many painters ceased using it.  Adherents of Maroger's teachings, however, insist that the paintings in which darkening has occurred were the result of either too liberal usage of the medium, or a badly prepared batch of the stuff.  As for now, the medium's usage is still controversial, though it is quickly becoming more commercially available.

Step 1:  Pfahl first marks the center of a dark blue-green toned canvas with a cross.  He then roughly establishes in charcoal the placement of the figure, the couch, and the rug.  Because of the almost vertical edge of the left side of the carpet, Pfahl attaches an extra piece of cardboard above his easel so that he can establish a vanishing point from which to measure the unusual perspective of this line.  The problem comes about because from where he stands, Pfahl has to look simultaneously straight down onto the carpet and up at the figure, a situation that makes it extremely hard to achieve correct perspective.

Step 2:  Pfahl now broadly lays in the darks in the couch and the lights in the figure, using the tone of the figure to serve as most of the halftones and shadows in the dress.  An important area of light is the newspaper that the model has dropped to the floor as she apparently dozed off.  The paper has to look just so - as if it were inadvertently dropped, not deliberately arranged.  In addition, although similar in value to the lights in the dress, the paper should not draw too much attention away from it.  Pfahl has to select his areas of interest carefully.

Step 2 (detail):  This closeup shows how extensively Pfahl has employed the tone of the canvas to indicate the light patterns in the painting.  Except for a few touches of warm color in the face, hands, and hair, all the forms have been picked out with whites in the figure and some darks in the couch.  So effective is this method of working that Pfahl might have stopped right here and come up with an adequate study of a dozing woman.

Step 2 (detail):  An even closer look reveals how naturally the folds of material follow the underlying forms of the reclining figure.  A competent painter always puts down the major shapes and saves the details and works on the smaller forms for later.  Notice how quickly Pfahl captures the essentials of the pose - the degree of finish he now elects to add to the illusion are a matter of personal choice.  Pfahl's work is becoming increasingly more simplified as he matures as a painter.

Step 2 (detail):  The model's right hand, painted in few strokes, is already correct in proportion as well as color.  Subsequently, Pfahl will move the little finger closer to the others, but the general action is already established.  Had Pfahl not made the preliminary sketches and studies, he might have been forced to make these decisions now, during the actual painting of the picture.  But careful planning helps Pfahl resolve many problems beforehand and frees him to concentrate on the problems of color.

Step 3:  Pfahl goes back into the dark areas of the couch to restate their true value.  Then he confines his attention to the carpet.  First Pfahl lays in the main elements within the carpet.  Then he checks them with string plumb lines against the vanishing point on the cardboard of his easel to make sure all the proportions and relationships are correct. Once satisfied that these factors are fairly accurate, Pfahl proceeds to paint in the deep blue background of the carpet, and then adds the yellow ochre and lighter blue patterns within it.

Step 4:  His foundation fairly secure, Pfahl now paints the varying intensity of the cool, neutral light.  This light, which barely reaches the foreground, grows increasingly intense as it nears the window above the sofa (which does not appear in the painting).  He paints the areas of carpet closest to him a darker, more vivid blue where the light is lowest.  Then, as the color of the light grows stronger, he gradually adds more of its cold, gray tone to the color of the carpet as he moves toward the sofa, where the light falls with maximum intensity.

Step 4 (detail):  In painting the intricate design of the carpet, Pfahl demonstrates his uncanny ability to paint detail with a minimum of fuss and effort.  A person of lesser skills might have thrown up his hands at such a seemingly difficult challenge, but Pfahl makes the carpet realistic simply by placing all the elements where they belong and in their appropriate shapes and values, with no hard edges.

Step 4 (detail):  An even closer look reveals how loosely and simply the patterns are painted.  Since the human eye cannot focus on more than one place at a time, the wise artist knows that it is futile to carry every section of canvas to a high degree of finish.  It is the illusion of such finish that convinces the eye that the same amount of detail is present all over.

Step 5:  Returning to the figure once more, Pfahl again reestablishes all his darks, beginning with those on the head.  He then paints the entire upper body, setting the position of the hands and establishing the folds of the material.  Again, Pfahl works in sections, finishing one area of the dress before moving on to another area.  Only in this way can the character of the clingy material be established without extensive remodeling each time the model resumes her pose.

Step 5 (detail):  Note the difference between the left arm, where Pfahl has worked extensively, and the leg, which is comparably unworked.  Working in sections is the only practical way of depicting the motion of cloth upong the body.  See also how much warmer the dress material is in the worked area due to the addition of color.  Until now, it has been largely the actual tone of the canvas.

Step 5 (detail):  Pfahl has done considerable work here, yet the painting remains fairly soft, with a simple progression of values.  The head seems to fuse with the darks of the neck and the hair, and no sharp dividing edge exists anywhere. By fusing forms, the illusion of reality is served better than by the inclusion of hard, precise edges.

Step 5 (detail):  This closeup of the hands shows how much work Pfahl has done on them since Step 2.  Essentially, they are finished here.  The drawing is exquisite and true to life.  If a girl has drifted off to sleep while reading the paper, isn't this the way her hand would look?  You can now appreciate how important it was to close up the fingers somewhat.  Every element - no matter how apparently minute - must be carefully resolved in a painting.

Step 6:  Feeling that the tone of the painting is becoming too cool, Pfahl glazes down some areas with ivory black and Maroger medium, and adds warmer accents to the dress to compensate for the additional cools of the blue carpet and the oyster-colored couch.  Tones are added to the newspaper to simulate the illusion of print and photographic images.  Pfahl now focuses his attention on the lower part of the body and begins to finish up the material of the dress as it forms around the legs and drapes across the front of the sofa.

Step 6 (detail):  Here we see that the material in the leg area boasts the same degree of finish as that previously completed over the arms and chest.  The dark area that follows the shape of the bottom of the figure against the couch is vital for clarifying the pose.  Accents such as this also add depth to a painting.  All the smaller folds, pleats, and wrinkles are merely icing on the cake - handsome, but not as important.

Step 6 (detail):  The model's legs are leaning away from the viewer and resting against the cushions of the couch.  Pfahl accentuates this effect by showing the valley of cloth formed between the knees and the front of the couch.  We get the feeling that the girl's feet are close to us, almost at the edge of the couch.  This is a natural position for a sleeping body, since all muscles relax in sleep.

Step 6 (detail):  The drape of the cloth over the edge of the couch is a an important compositional accent - it helps promote the feeling of a reclining figure.  By accentuating this strong vertical downward movement, Pfahl subtly guides your eye in the direction he intends it to follow.  Cover the length of cloth which hangs off the edge of the couch and see how this weakens the effect Pfahl is after.  The experienced painter employs every useful device in designing the total picture.

Step 7 (detail):  Notice the section of finished carpet in this closeup is no more precisely executed than the previously shown areas.  This only goes to prove that it is not the degree of finish, but the total effect that convinces the eye that more detail exists than is actually there.  This is a principle you might want to apply to your own work.

Sunday Times
36 X 24 in.
oil on toned canvas

Step 7:  This step involves only glazing.  Pfahl returns to the area of the carpet closest to the couch and grays it even further by glazing the area in question with an opaque white tone.  This misty glaze softens and plays down all the colors and values.  He then strengthens the value contrasts and brightens the colors in the closest area of the carpet to further promote the illusion of the receding carpet.  Small, but vital, refinements such as this give a painting its power, impact, and veracity.

Other books by Joe Singer:



The Red Bus
14 X 18 in.

Bali Tryptych
6 X 20 in.

White Hat
10 X 24 in.

Orchids and Fiddleheads
19 X 24 in.

Bali Nude
30 X 24 in.

40 X 60 in.

50 x 60 in.

Saint or Sinner
17 X 18 in.

Light Brigade
18 X 22 in.

Bird of Paradise
18 X 72 in.

Underhung (detail)
13 X 22 in.

30 X 21 in.

24 X 16 in.

32 X 32 in.

Alton (detail)

24 X 28 in.

16 X 16 in.

17 X 31 in.

Bloody Mary
9 X 15 in.

60 X 66 in.

66 X 50 in.

48 X 95 in.

100 X 78 in.

60 X 85 in.

Childhood (detail)

Childhood (detail)

¹ Contemporary American Realism, (Beijing World Art Museum, Beijing)
² idem.
³ Singer, Joe, Charles Pfahl:  Artist at Work, (Watson-Guptill Publications, NY, 1977), p.23.


Kate Stone said...

Great post! So glad to hear more about this artist. For some reason I only just discovered him.

innisart said...

I think his creepy dolls may give yours and David's nightmares.

Brogan Joe Murphy said...

I admire Pfahl's consummate skill. Yet,I have to say that much of his work strikes me as trying too hard to have that contemporary, surreal obscurity that pervades much of modernist work. An element of artistic ego that leaves the viewer with "what the f...?" and looking for the Cliff Notes. We don't just paint for ourselves. If our images are unintelligible, it's not because we are geniuses. Failing to convey a subject is no different than failing to convey the color of a shadow... I think Bernard Berenson coneyed the cocept better: "Ultimates in art criticism, if they exist, must be sought for in the life-enhancement that results from identifying oneself with the object enjoyed or putting oneself with the object enjoyed or putting oneself in its place. For the act of deciphering shapes in a given design, or pattern, or composition offers a satisfaction that is little more than mental, and scarcely at all life-enhancing. In order to be life-enhancing an object must appeal to the whole of one's being, to one's senses, nerves, muscles, viscera... How can you identify yourself, or put yourself in the place of a cube? It is easier, no doubt to imagine oneself a cylinder, but if that gave us joy, we should love factory chimneys, and late Turkish minarets..." from Aesthetics and History

Gabriel Mark Lipper said...

The irony of Brogan Joe Murphy's last comment is that I do enjoy factory chimneys, and late Turkish minarets, and though I'm sure my taste isn't universal, there must be others out there who would share my perspective. There is a place and a need in art for paintings that pose questions and challenge us to think not only about aesthetic, but about our response to emotions and personal narratives that some paintings invite us to ponder. I've grown tired of being lulled to sleep by dutifully rendered paintings of generalized beauty with out getting any sense of the artist's voice. Charles Pfahl comes through in his paintings.

Brady said...

The creepy dolls are more disturbing than I would have thought they would be. The doll head that is still in the bag makes me think that something horrible must have happened in someone's childhood. (I don't know why either.)

As to the last couple comments, I too have a fondness for factory chimneys. And I do like minarets.

To comment on the quote. "Life-enhancement" is more than a bit vague, and seems to be put across as "the reason" for art. "The reason" for art has been debated for thousands of years, and I doubt that this guy's answer will become the universally accepted one. (We must consider that one person's life-enhancement is another person's nightmare.)

And the idea that the only way to enjoy, or connect with art is by putting yourself in the place of whatever object, (or lack of object) is short-sighted at best. I enjoy many a still-life and I have yet to think "It sure must be fun to be that rutabaga sitting on that table."

We must conclude, there are as many ways to enjoy art as there are people.

If someone's personal interpretation of what the phrase "life-enhancement" means, becomes their personal measuring stick for what makes art, then good for them.

But to make draconian demands that all others use the same measuring stick, (especially an ill defined one such as "life-enhancement") smacks of the willful disregard for the existence of other possibilities.

Teresa Oaxaca said...

Wow a "Doll Artist"!

cindy packard richmond said...

What is the name of the doll artist?

innisart said...

@Cindy All of the paintings in this post are by Charles Pfahl.

cindy packard richmond said...

Thanks. They seem so different from. The woman on the couch I couldn't believe it was the same artist. PS. I love your blog...