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Daniel in the Lions’ Den has continued my lifelong training. Clients sometimes misunderstand your admission that you are a student and think that means you are not a professional. Believe me, the best artists never claim to have learned everything. I claim two old world mentors. Whether or not they would claim me is another issue. Artists brag about their mentors because they are so enamored with them. And we artists all have near mentors and ones from the past.
I am not talking about the Masters who personally taught me—Phillip Moose, George Shealey, Herr Bergheim, Leon Jonczyk, and Thomas Buechner—but rather the greats under whose shadow we all work and judge us purely by their body of work.
My Old Masters training in Germany was in the school of Rembrandt and the layerists. Not until just recently did I discover that one of the reasons I had such an affinity for Peter Paul Rubens when I began painting “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” was that he also was a layerist, at least for quite some time. In Peter Paul Rubens the two diverging paths of atelier expertise that have taken an upsurge in our country in the last half a century began—the à la primas (prima volte) or those who do it the first time, all at once, and those who lay carefully layer upon layer.
Such excitement I am feeling right now, as I have just discovered how painting this magnificent work of Peter Paul Rubens at the behest of my client is more that a random brick in an artist’s career. It is part of the incredible fabric of my art training that, although I believed it random, shows itself all of one piece.
In this portion of Daniel by Peter Paul Rubens from the National Gallery, it is obvious that the hairs have been flicked up at the end of the stroke, accomplishing a lightness at the hair tips that is the result of the background shining through. This technique was taught in the Old Masters atelier, and believe me, it is not an easy one to learn.
In all the highlighted single hairs, you can see the thickness of the paint and discern these are layered on top of darker passages, giving them greater luminosity and stand out effects.
With my life committed to a mission in Germany, I found a private atelier in Munich in order to get back into my art, begun way earlier, continued in U.S. schools and universities, and resumed after a 10-year hiatus. I was longing to resume my art training. In this atelier, we learned art by learning how to copy the masters. The training was rigorous, intelligent, and artsy. To ensure good motivation, our teacher required us to do two copies. He kept the best of the two. These were artistically sensitive works that immersed the participating artists in the very best techniques of the Masters. Forget the superiority of those who disparage “copyists” in ignorance. Ignoring the discipline of knowledge transference of painting skills has lead directly to the extremes in today’s painting world where original is the sole criteria of worth.
This makes my client, in my opinion, divinely inspired. It lets me know my own life shows evidences of intelligent design. As I have a carefree, random abandon coupled with a borderline obsessive streak, it certainly was not my intelligent choice, even though I did pick similar schools of teaching when I went for training.
Who would know the extent of my training in such an art school in Germany, and who would know this 17th century painter painted in this fashion? No one would have, certainly not my client. Not even myself, until I analyzed my own work and my response to the painting, and did the research.
Who in the U.S. teaches through copying Old Masters paintings? The tradition began in Europe and the respect for it lies primarily there.
I was just reading about Rembrandt von Rijn’s double primed layers, one reddish orange overlaid by a gray, about his brown imprimatura which lends the painting a golden glow from the background forward, how he sometimes paints a thick layer, disturbs it and lets it dry, and drops another layer on it, wiping off the extra paint and leaving it in the crevices.
According to Anthony Christian of the UK, Peter Paul Rubens captured the best facial flesh tones in three of his paintings, two of his young wife, Helen. These, he said, were quick sketches. Peter Paul worked fast, and could turn out his works in a day. Others have claimed that Rembrandt and Peter Paul Rubens were arguably the best portraitists of any age.
However fast Peter Paul painted “Daniel,” I know he worked longer than a day on them. I found obvious evidences of layers in his paintings, in particular in the white hairs of the lion at the top, a white made whiter by being scumbled over a darker color and left intact. You can almost tell more by looking at this step in my own painting along the way, where the left hand lion has less distinctions yet made, and the right hand lions have more separations made by adding lighter hairs on top. Even so, there are more layers to come to accomplish the total effect of receding hairs and the topmost ones in each.
So to hammer my experience home, or to call it out step by step, layering emerges as the only conceivable journey to a realism of the detail of a work like Daniel. There are numerous ways layering shows up:
- in the laying on of base colors freely, setting the tone and the use of small amounts of dimension, as in the buildup of paint
- in the usage of complementary colors to strengthen the impacting effect of the final color
- in the use of underpainting or imprimatura to encourage bonding and adhesion of paint
- in the use of lighter colors on top of darker, yielding a blued version of whatever the color, even yellow
- in certain techniques such as scumbling and flicking which reveal the under layers to the discerning eye
- in the buildup of light next to dark subtly, without caricaturish lines forming (seen in the four conjoined lions’ snippet)
- in the dry brushing of the edges of one color passage over another (seen in the highlight on the upper leg and other highlights in the musculature)