Why did I leave my comfortable job to pursue classical art training?
I had been teaching at an all-boys prep school for six years. I loved my colleagues and had great bosses I respected and loved to work for. I loved the young men that I taught. My wife and I were just starting our family - we already had our first beautiful baby girl! With these responsibilities in mind, my wife and I had decided to leave the security and comforts of my job as head of the Art Department at The Heights School so that I could go back to being a student myself, full-time, under Master painter Paul Ingbretson.
Many people would say it was crazy (and likely they were saying it). I left a very good career path that didn't entail a fraction of the risk and outright financial loss that turning down years of income in exchange for years of tuition would. And yet my wife and I weighed these realities and with a little fear, a lot of hope, support from family, and a firm will, took the leap and moved our small family up to Manchester, New Hampshire to start this foolish little enterprise.
So why did I do it?
For me a big piece of that choice goes back to my grade school experience when my family attended Saint Vincent De Paul Church. Many people in our mid-sized Midwestern Town referred to it as "St. Vincent Deluxe" -- for easily inferable reasons. And yet despite being one of the wealthiest parishes around, it was a truly ugly building. It is what I referred to as a "Pizza Hut church" whose squat architecture speaks much more of fast food than of beauty, transcendence, and elevation of the mind and heart. It's one of many such buildings erected by Catholic parishes in the United States during the dark days of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The stained glass windows were more sandy grout than actual glass. Their designs were clumsy at best -- upon reflection, I think they have much more in common with the pixelated graphics of an early Nintendo gaming system then the amazing patterning and geometry of the stained glass of Chartres or even a modest 19th century chapel. I believe it had some rough hewn statues, Stations of the Cross, and a crucifix that was inoffensive at best. Besides these, the sanctuary was very bare. But perhaps even more offensive than the barrenness of the church sanctuary were the very ugly murals just outside, in the vestibule. Stark blue-faced figures, reminiscent more of aliens than of human beings, marched across the bright orange walls of the vestibule in a world constructed of violently hacked, jagged paint strokes. They were supposed to illustrate the life of St. Vincent de Paul... I only knew that I didn't want to be around them.
With all this wealth and opportunity, why didn't we have a beautiful church? We as a parish community could certainly afford it.
Then, during my 8th grade year, my parents took me on a trip to Rome. What an experience! I was deeply moved by the great beauty I found there. The stark, colossal grandeur of the statues in St. John Lateran; St Peter's Basilica with its amazing Colonnades; the wonders of the Vatican Museums -- particularly the Sistine Chapel -- but most of all the paintings in the Jesu (a grand, post-Reformation Church, that is the head Church of the Jesuit order) spoke to me as nothing else I had ever seen before.
The beauty and vigor of the figures from the Jesu touched me deeply. Perhaps a little over-the-top, the figures burst forth from their architectural frames into the space of the viewers. They spoke to me unmistakably of the Saints being of our world, having power to intercede for us, to change the world for the better... and all of this communicated by the excellent craftsmanship, care, and vision of all-but-unknown artists. Here were men and women who looked like me, but perhaps a little higher, cleaner, more noble. I wanted to be like them and I was convinced that they would want to help me. I felt profoundly the bridge between Heaven and Earth through this artwork and it helped me to watch, to stay, to pray, and to enjoy the house of God - almost nothing could have been farther from that aesthetic experience than the experience of the vestibule at St. Vincent de Paul's back home.
And yet the communities who had made these grand, amazing churches didn't have nearly the resources in terms of technological sophistication that the community of St. Vincent's had.
I had also heard of beautiful buildings that were built in the rural area of New York State where my mother had grown up -- made by poor French and Irish pioneers and farmers. I heard stories of these elegant churches filled with carved wood and stone that, before my time, had been replaced with other Pizza Hut churches. I began to suspect that the ugly churches came about not through a lack of money or technology but because of a type of spiritual crisis: a lack of love and dedication (to Beauty and to the Source of Beauty -- as Saint Augustine said, the "beauty ever ancient and never new").
From that point on I started to feel called to dedicate myself to the pursuit of beauty.
Through the years that pursuit took different forms.
I had always drawn, but having been to Rome, interest in classical and baroque art started engaging me in a new way. I took some classes in high school, but never had any art teacher who seemed to be offering what I really wanted. I learned about Caravaggio, and was swept away by the same sense of wonder at the beauty of light and form combined with the beauty of the presence of the Divine so close to us that I had experienced in the Jesu.
I went to college; my parents encouraged me to "find something that I loved and figure out a way to get paid for it." To my parents' somewhat restrained horror I really took the first part of their message to heart, trusting that I would figure out the second part in time: I majored in Studio Art and Philosophy. Here again, I was disappointed at the lack of any teacher who could teach me what I was truly craving: how to draw the beauty, the truth - how to create an image of that higher Vision that those great Italian Masters I had seen in Rome had done.
In fact, I found they couldn't even teach me excellent technique for approaching any visual subject.
By the time that I was just about to graduate. I really didn't know what to do next. I knew I wanted to pursue "art" but had gained only enough knowledge to know that I needed a lot more training to be able to make the beautiful things that I hoped to make -- that I was haunted by, that I felt were burning at my heart.
I didn't know where to get such training though, so I decided to get a job and continue my search.
As the head of the Art Department at the Heights School I did that in one of the most supportive and generous communities that I could imagine. I taught my grade school and high school students, I took classes from different realist artists and started to learn more about the reviving tradition of realist, Western Art. A breakthrough came when I visited the studios of Henry Wingate in Front Royal, Virginia. Some friends had told me about him, encouraging me to get in touch and visit him. When I reached out to him, telling him about my history and desire for training, Henry generously invited me out to his studio.
What I saw there blew me away.
Henry's studio was a whole building, the size of a small house, tailored to the needs of a traditional artist. It had a huge room with an enormous north-facing window. Multiple panels, custom made to fit the window, could be placed over or removed from different areas to completely control the flow of light. It had a large, raised pedestal where he drew and painted from live models in natural light. And it had his work: beautiful still life drawings and paintings; large, imposing portraits; but most of all, his epic grand-scale religious figurative work. I felt like I had stepped into the studio of one of those great Italian Masters. It was unlike any other Studio I've been to before and I knew I was on the right track.
I wanted to study with Henry, but to my disappointment he informed me he was not taking any students. However he directed me towards the master under whom he had studied: Paul Ingbretson. It was a very exciting moment in my journey. If Henry could make paintings like this, maybe someday I could as well.
A year passed before I could visit Paul's studio. I'd seen some of his work online, but the thing that really took my breath away when I finally visited were the colors in the still life. By that time I had visited a number of studios of contemporary realist painters; I had seen much of their work in galleries; I'd been to many great galleries in the US, the UK, Italy, and France. I have never been as impressed with color in still life. The vibrancy and freshness of the color without exaggeration or over-saturation, combined with disciplined drawing, was so powerful and yet so calm and restrained! It was truly a revelation of Beauty for me. I had never suspected until then what an exciting thing still life painting could be.
The decision had been building for a number of years. I had often talked with my wife about it and finally we both had enough clarity to see that after our first child, if we didn't make the jump to have me study painting then, we probably never would. We had to choose between settling down and taking the "leap of faith." We had both decided that we were committed to beauty. We recognized that real sacrifices often have to be made in order to pursue the highest goods, and we both recognized that learning how to make beautiful images for others and to present a vision of true beauty -- in short, working actively in building up a culture of beauty -- is something worth sacrificing for.
We had both seen our share of Pizza Hut churches as well as a popular art culture that rejects and often attacks beauty; we had seen how many people were seeking true beauty and were unable to find it; and we recognized the need for people to act to change the culture for the good, the true, and the beautiful. We had discerned that we felt a call to be such people - culture warriors, perhaps some might say - in the service of Beauty. We also realized that we had only one life to live, and that if we didn't make the jump we would probably regret it for the rest of our lives.
And so -- we jumped!
What do you think? Is there a dream out there that you would pursue if you had the chance? Tell me about it.
“It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”
There has been a bit of a to-do recently about Christie's selling a "portrait" produced by an AI. The makers of the AI, a group called Obvious, say they fed in thousands of different portraits and the result of the AI's processing was elaborately framed and was sold at Christies for $432,500.
The makers of the algorithm and the merchants at Christies talk about this product pushing the boundaries of art and bringing up the question of "what is art?" in a new and interesting way. I would argue that this whole affair is merely the most recent effort at further obscuring the reality of what art is by a culture that has long rejected it.
Art is man's pursuit of Beauty. Chesterton pointed out that this is one activity that separates us from lower animals - man can be defined as the artistic animal. I would also like to point out that the true making of art also separates us from machines.
The making of art is a free response by man to the beauty he sees around himself, within himself, and that he senses in many unexpected ways - a response that drives man to distill beauty and to capture it. Ultimately the artist realizes there is always more beauty than he can encompass - and at its best art raises the mind of the artist and the viewer through wonder to the Source of Beauty.
Compare this with the activity of an artificial intelligence producing an image. Images are fed in. A complex program then produces an image. It is impossible to see why the AI "decided" to put a certain color here or a certain shade there. It is simply hidden - the term computer scientists use for this mystery is "the black box." It is utterly beyond even the scientists to come to an understanding of how the AI produced its results. It is beyond the art critic who, at his best - according to Chesterton - is able to describe and understand artistic choices: why an artist chose this and not that; why he drove one way rather than another.
With so many things that are beyond the everyday particular understanding - from our cars and appliances to our governments and vast corporations - more and more of our lives in the modern world fall into some sort of at least metaphorical "black box." I think that is one reason why there has been a resurgence of realist painting. It is reassuring and fundamentally human to want to relate to other human beings. There is a comfort and an intelligibility to objects and processes that bear the mark of the human touch. The man-made object is one that allows one to see the work of another human mind and a sense of relationship is made present.
To me, the paint stroke in particular is the antithesis of the "black box." It is a frozen thought from a mind searching for beauty communicated through a human hand. Its end is eloquently apparent as that individual thought comes together with many others to recreate the miracle of human perception of the physical world - something so particular and beautiful that one instantly knows it could never be an accident. The paint stroke is integrated and harmonized with the whole and, in a way, reveals the process of its making to the viewer.
In a world where causes and effects can be so divided and elusive, a beautiful painting is a bastion of sanity. Every stroke can give insight into a well ordered mind and the comprehension within that mind of the order of Creation.
Some say that direct painting is the easiest type of painting to understand but the hardest to master.
It consists merely of painting the right color in the right place.
Why didn't I think of that?
In my previous blog post on this topic, I shared a bit about technique and why it might matter to know about technique, and then I introduced the idea of Direct Painting, which is my speciality as a member of the Boston School tradition. Some famous practitioners of this method include John Singer Sargent, Zorn, Hakeem Zaria, Velasquez, and of course the masters of the Boston School: Tarbell, Paxton, and Benson.
Let me dive in a bit more to what Direct Painting is (for those of you who didn't get to my talk and painting demo).
Direct Painting means: No underpainting ("underpainting" basically just means a preliminary sketch in paint on the canvas before getting to the actual colors of the composition) or building up of values or layering of tones -- just directly to the final effects.
One of the key phrases masters of Direct Painting have used to describe it is "all the horses at once." This means that the Direct Painter wants all the aspects that he will include in his final painting to be developing simultaneously; not letting any one "horse" get too far ahead.
This means the artist must be constantly thinking about all aspects of painting and be constantly evaluating his picture for them. These aspects include form, color (hue, value, and chroma), shape, gesture, edge, sense of light, overall feel, composition, paint quality, depth, atmosphere of form, and anything else he can think of that he wants in his final painting. It is much like juggling -- however, once an artist thinks he has all the balls balanced in the air, sometimes he discovers a new ball! Which is to say: studying a subject so closely can lead to surprising visual revelations, even mid-painting.
Direct Painting also requires a sense of detachment and even daring, because a painter will sometimes have to "destroy" previous layers of work in order to incorporate new information and correct old. I find that I can't be hesitant in this approach.
Put simply, Direct Painting means that I start with "blobs of color" on my canvas and gradually mold them into my composition, almost like carving into marble. I'm just looking at the colors.
This method of painting is in contrast to Indirect Painting, in which painters approach the canvas by first "solving" the shape, composition, and value problems of a painting and then "gluing in" color on top of a brown or gray version of the painting (the "underpainting"). The danger with this method is that it can often sacrifice the live observation of color. My own opinion is that color creates form and that drawing cannot be "solved" without it.
As I've come to grasp this method and enjoy it, my obsession with color has only increased and my eyes have been opened to the world of the color spectrum in ways that I simply could not imagine with my previous art training.
I've also become a much more efficient painter; whereas I used to take weeks or even months to see a thing and try to get it in front of me on canvas, I can now tackle the same subject matter in literally a matter of hours. There's no time - or pigment - wasted as I make my way to the final result. (For the same reason, Direct Painting is so interesting to share in person, as when I do Live Painting at events).
What do you think -- Have you heard of this method before? Is it a technique you could imagine getting into?
In a previous post, I said that still life offers all of the best that the art of painting has to offer - not only the object painted, but what it does, visually. Falling in love with the visual. The next step (and a harder step) in understanding painting is to understand what objects are doing together. This is something that has dawned upon me gradually (and I am sure that my understanding is still incomplete).
One particular way that I have come to know the harmony of different objects working together is the concept of a color scheme. So what is a color scheme? In college I learned one step more than I leaned in 3rd grade. In grade school I heard about complimentary colors: red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow... these colors are "complementary colors." Later on in college someone presented the idea that pictures should have "complementary color schemes." What this boiled down to was: pick a "red" and a "green" and build up a picture using them; this will give your picture a unity and good contrasts and will make it look more like it has a "color scheme."
For me this presentation of the idea was anything but compelling. I believe in large part it was so because the ideas were poorly communicated -- but I also suspect that those teaching me had, in fact, a very shallow understanding of them as well. I suspect some of the teachers didn't really "believe in" or rather understand that color has certain rules and laws to be discovered. Even among many trained painters it is common to say things like "color is entirely relative" or "color is just such a personal thing." In my years of study with Paul I discovered that this simply is not the case. A large part of discovering the truth about color is jettisoning a lot of partial, formulaic knowledge about "color scheme" and what it means to be a "complementary color." I had just to observe what two colors do together.
This exercise can be a very hard and trying thing. Looking for something, trying to observe something about the relationship between two colors that, initially, you can barely imagine. Paul encouraged me to find two colors that "looked magical" together. What did that even mean? They had to look better together than when they were apart. If a certain red looked good with a certain blue Paul would ask "did you try EVERY red with that blue?" This was very challenging: had I really seen every red with this blue? Was there a better one? And often the answer was "yes, there was a better one." Over time, my judgment and perceptions became sharper and sharper and before long, by trial and error of learning to see color relationships, I got to the point where I knew when colors were magical together.
This is one aspect of the harmony that drives mature artists to make still life. There are many others that exist: shape harmony, value rhythms, lost and found, the play of main lines, gesture and movement, transitions, and many more. These larger unities comprise the "game" of visual harmony and are what bring artists back to picture making again and again. Watching for them and understanding them will make you a more discerning art appreciator and will open up a world in which you can delight in still life.
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
Connect with John: