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02 April 2011

Vincent Desiderio Workshop

If you take away something of value from this post it'll have been worth your time, if not I swear I'll post better stuff in the future, so don't desert me if you are left disappointed. Not sure why it got so in-depth but here goes.

I was one of around twenty artists (I think) who received a Regional Artists Project Grant from the United Arts Council for 2011. Since Raleigh, NC is in Wake County that is the branch that awarded my specific grant. At the heart of it they provide funding for an artist to complete a project that benefits his career. It could be for educational purposes, or used to purchase necessary studio equipment, or in a number of other ways. With such a wide scope for a project I would recommend any North Carolina artist to look into the program in your respective county.

My project was of the educational type. I attended a Vincent Desiderio Workshop at the Pennsylvania academy of Fine Art (PAFA) in Philadelphia. He teaches at PAFA, the New York Academy of Art and is represented by Marlborough Gallery. If you don't know Vincent Desiderio's work and enjoy Contemporary Realism there are a few paintings below. If you like what you see I'd encourage you to click on the gallery link. He also has a very nice monograph. when you are looking at the images below just consider that all of his figures are life sized or slightly larger. Scale of idea is very important when viewing his painting. Its as if these characters could walk right out of the scene and into our life.
His large scale triptychs truly epitomize his work, like the one below.

Pantocrator, 82"7/8 x 194" , 2002

Interpretation of Color, 81.2" x 70.3", 1997

Sink, 48" x 64" 1/2, oil on paper, 2010

Being acquainted with his oeuvre and interested in what he had to say about narrative painting in the modern context I booked a train to Philly. I arrived at the oldest art school in the United States just in time for his lecture.

The class centered around realist work in the last 600 years, roughly. With such a wide sweep of history to cover thank goodness Mr Desiderio has an encyclopedic knowledge of the art movements, artists, and philosophies that existed in this time period. Not only did he know dates, names, and titles, he could also summarize large swaths of history. Ultimately, he delivered the information in very definable terms. I received insight into the social milieu of these eras and the constraints faced by many artists. And he cracked many jokes along the way.

Outside of the historical backdrop to the lineage of oil painting in the western world, we also were there to paint. We focused on both direct and indirect painting, which involves the technical narrative and dramatic narrative. Since we were working from models and not developing a personal piece, the dramatic narrative was discussed in relation to realist work in the modern context. That may be a post for another day, so back to the task at hand. I have some familiarity with the indirect method but I normally don't involve glazes in my paintings. I have occasionally used them in the past but not in the last 6-8 years. Certainly not in the manner I'll describe later in this write up.

Much of the philosophy around indirect painting is based on layering opaque paint and transparent glazes to build a painting, where one would go back and forth between the two to achieve the end result. By doing so the painting attains a great depth in the darks. Light will pass through the many layers of glazed color to give off a great effect. At the same time a glaze will obliterate the lit areas forcing the painter to build them anew after each pass. This method allows for an artist to really control how the lit masses will be resolved. This is what has been referred to as the " Mountain Over the Fat." By softening the edges of opaque scumbling into the glaze below, with each successive layer, one can build the 'skin' of a painting, bringing about a tremendous solidity of form. Here's a visual maybe it will make more sense in displaying the notion of blending the transitions of opaque paint into the glaze.

Here are my two studies. The top one follows the indirect painting practice. The second one is much more direct, even though there is a layer of shellac underneath the oil, which is the amber color evident in parts of piece not yet painted.


22"x 15"

The process to set up the indirect painting was as follows:

Using 300lb. hot press watercolor paper I did a quick block in with vine and compress charcoal. At this beginning stage it is a very loose sketch with no details just big masses. Then I spread a layer of shellac over the whole sheet of paper (see pic below). The shellac dries in less than ten minutes as the paper absorbs quickly. At this point I painted the two models thinking mostly about color temperature. In anticipation of the first glaze I was instructed to lighten the value contrast between the shadow and lit areas. This first stage of painting should cover the entire canvas and the paint can be quite thick. As I painted I kept in mind color temperature, edges, and some modeling of the forms but still not getting too caught up in detail or any refined marks. That paint layer dried with the help of Liquin Fine Detail and we applied a burnt umber/ van dyck brown liquin based glaze over the whole image. What you see in my study above is the next and final layer of paint that time allowed. I have completely reworked the models, adjusting the drawing as needed. We only had a few hours so my piece is not developed by any means but it is has the beginnings of a figure which has real weight and 'lives' in its own space on the paper. You might not able to tell with my dodgy photos but in person there is a solidity that can't be attained with direct painting.

The infamous shellac that I used. Sorry about the table it got pretty trashed. Wasn't me.

On the last day we had time to watch Mr. Desiderio revamp another artist's underpainting.

Here are a couple of close ups. Not accustomed to creating a painting with this methodology I really couldn't tell what he was doing for the first half hour. I was sitting there thinking, " well thats not right." However, his color relationships were exquisite and the forms were beginning to slowly emerge. It could have been a reaction to the rich glaze that he was working on and thinking ' how am I going to handle this process.' A short time later, It did come together creating a powerful statement about the figure. His brush marks at first were composed of gentle stabs at the paper, which didn't cover the surface uniformly allowing the rich dark browns of the glaze to shine through. Further on, once enough paint got on the surface,he controlled the entire piece paying closer attention to the transitions, edges and true values of the forms. As more paint was applied and areas were resolved much of the glaze underneath was lost. The shadows maintained thinner paint and the opaque paint was softened into these areas to create the 'skin' of the painting, bring a real sense of weight to the figure. Which refers back to the whole mountain over the fat idea. As you can see from his painting below.

Vincent Desiderio demo study:

He was so animated and lively with his lectures, how could one not be inspired by his enthusiasm. I was enthralled the whole time. Above so many great qualities his openness and honesty in discussing life as a painter was the most memorable. It didn't matter if it was technical, philosophical, professional or personal, he was more than candid about what he knew and really wanted you to fully understand the information. He simply enjoyed discussing what he knew, like an old friend would. This ability to relate his findings and combine it with his own experiences as a painter is evident in his body of work and the nature of his vision. A true scholar and gentleman. He's left an indelible mark on my maturation as a painter. These pics get the brilliant man in full flow.

Lastly, here is a pic of us in the classroom at the end of our workshop. I think it's an apropos image in regards to my outlook as a painter. It's a lifelong journey where we are never too old to learn about our own creativity and where it can take us. This mystery has driven the history of painting.

I've got pages of notes which I am going to compile for my own use and maybe I'll post some more in the future. I'll definitely need to experiment with some of what I learned before coming to any further conclusions. It has prompted me to delve further into the chemistry of oils, its additives, and how I can manipulate the media to best realize my ideas on canvas.
However, right now is not the time, as I am prepping for my own show.

So off to paint and I hope some of you will be that much more inspired today.