Category Archives: Old & Modern Masters

Covering the Masters

The surest path to developing your own original voice in art is to study the masters. Every great rock band you can think of started out by covering the songs of earlier artists. Great artists throughout history also “covered” earlier precedents on the way to figuring out what they were up to. Why did the Beatles study Chuck Berry and Big Bill Broonzy? Because those older artists were cool; they had the stuff, the sound, the vibe. Why did Michelangelo copy Ghirlandaio? Same reason.

When you look through the catalog of what came before you you will find your own patterns of fascination. Pay attention to these patterns. They reveal who you are as an artist and who you will be. You don’t have to know why you find a particular drawing or painting captivating. The fact that it captures your attention is what matters. It’s a mirror you’re looking at, not somebody else’s drawing. You don’t look in a mirror and ask why. You look to find information.

On the practice of drawing from the masters, Mercedes Matter, teacher and founder of the New York Studio School, said, ” Any young artist without insight into these forms of expression, without a key to understanding the art of other times and places, who is tuned in only to current ideas, is indeed poverty-stricken. However bright, sophisticated, ingenious and successful he may be, he remains, as an artist, naïve.”

In his twenties Edgar Degas spent several years in Italy living with relatives, painting their portraits and assiduously copying older art in the churches and museums. Why did he copy older art? Was he just being the dutiful student, eating his vegetables and taking his vitamins? No. He copied because that art was alive to him. It spoke to his own unique questions, intentions, and needs. History regards Degas as one of the most daring, original, and groundbreaking artists of all time and yet he himself made this confession:

I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine. What I do is the result of reflection and study of the great masters; of inspiration, spontaneity, temperament I know nothing.”

Preoccupation with finding an original style is a common curse of young artists. It’s natural to want your work to be your own and not just another iteration of some recognizable genre or established style. But shutting yourself off from art and influence doesn’t make you more original; it just makes your work more predictable and typical. It locks you out of the great ongoing conversation that all great artists, alive or dead, have had with the history of art. It cuts you off from great streams of influence that can help you in your journey to figure out what you’re doing and what you’re trying to say with your art. In the gallery below you will find some wonderful “covers”  of masterworks of drawing and painting made by artists who in turn became great masters themselves. It will pay you to seriously ponder this question: did they become masters in spite of copying, or because of it?

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Line Drawings

Line drawing, like writing, can be declamatory or expository; a way of persuading viewers or a means to simply engage with the world beyond the self. The searching, tentative quality of a sketch is more like a soliloquy than a sermon, the artist’s interior dialogue groping toward a mystery. John Berger wrote that for Vincent Van Gogh drawing was  “a way of discovering and demonstrating why he loved so intensely what he was looking at…”

At the beginning of a drawing class we focus on line and all of the various ways it can be played. Working with line is like the visual counterpart of MTV’s “Unplugged” series where musicians leave all their technological wizardry at the door and just play the music. In the absence of recording-studio colors and effects, the integrity of the basic idea is revealed. The ensemble stands or falls in that clarifying light.

A linear drawing builds its riffs from a similarly austere palette, drawing its unique power from elimination, reduction, and distillation of the rich sensory experiences of the eye. Unaided by the seductive romances of tone, color and texture, the play of line in a drawing can inform us about what we are and are not seeing, allowing us to address problems before they’re embedded in complicated visual embroideries.  The relative spatial positioning, directional movements, and scaling of one part to another can be tested and worked out. Like a house under construction, a line drawing is more about the foundation than about the furnishings. The understanding of relational structure, built over time through constant practice, is the foundation of our powers of expression as artists.

On its march toward resolution and clarification of intent a linear drawing leaves in its wake a clamoring of linear hypotheses that can produce a remarkable beauty, as can be seen in many of the drawings below. The ghostly images of abandoned positions, proportions and directions function almost like the sonic qualities of reverberation in music. Tonal drawings have an epic feeling and grandeur about them. Linear drawings, by embracing certain constraints on their means, can achieve a very different kind of poetry, not unlike the sparse syllables, internal rhymes and rhythms of haiku.

Tone speaks directly to the emotions. Line speaks to the mind. Or, rather, it speaks to the emotions through the mind by distilling the idea of the thing. Lacking the mimetic immediacy of tone, which is a closer approximation of the actual way that we perceive the world,  the abstractness of a line drawing can never look like its subject in any literal sense. It can only look like itself, however much it may remind us of things seen. But, what we give up to line’s austerity, we gain back from its unique power of transformation. When we begin to draw, the motif is, as Henry James said of nature, a “blooming buzzing confusion.”  As our lines negotiate and articulate that empty space everything changes – our perceptions, our emotions, even the motif itself. The provisional becomes the inevitable.

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Leonardo’s Drawing Materials

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A short video from the Royal Collection Trust on Leonardo da Vinci’s preparation of drawing materials.

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Karl Knaths, 1890-1971

As a graduate student I heard wonderful stories about Karl Knaths from my teacher Ben Summerford who had studied with Knaths at the studio school of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. According to Summerford, Knaths would critique with a box of pastels in hand from which he would pull out various colored sticks and draw on students’ artwork to demonstrate the power of color, mass & line to co-ordinate the different parts of the picture. (How many students today would tolerate such graphic intervention?) He was a passionate artist and a passionate teacher. Among his papers Knaths left behind this curious little diagram which is now in the Archives of American Art. In a few lines he encapsulates the artistic process, or what he called “lyrical expression.” Perceptions of nature (outer sight) are worked over by the mind (inner vision), informed by both the optical image and by mental conceptions. The “heart,” or emotions, and the mind become linked in a kind of figure-eight flow prompting the hand to act. Most compelling is the parallel that Knaths draws between the mouth  and the hand in the act of “lyrical expression” in which he seems to be telling us that art is a language, not just a set of techniques.

*KARL KNATHS (1891–1971)

Karl Knaths, an early modernist who worked in a cubist idiom, was born Otto G. Knaths in Wisconsin in 1891. In 1912 Knaths enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, graduating in 1916. As a guard at the Chicago presentation of the Armory Show (1913), he was first exposed to modernism and began to incorporate into his art aspects of the progressive styles, particularly that of Cézanne. After a brief stay in New York in 1919, he became a lifelong resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he exhibited landscapes and still-life paintings regularly with the Provincetown Art Association. Influenced by the works and writings of Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), Knaths became interested in music and believed that there were correspondences between musical intervals and spatial proportions, a theory that suited his cubist pictorial structure. Knaths visited New York frequently, participating in the 1921 Society of Independent Artists exhibition and Katherine Dreier’s 1926 Société Anonyme exhibition in Brooklyn. His first one-person exhibition was held at The Phillips Collection (then the Phillips Memorial Gallery) in 1929, followed by a show at Daniel Gallery, New York, in 1930.

As an artist for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1934–1935, he painted murals, and from 1938 to 1950 taught an annual six-week course at The Phillips’s Art School. An outstanding teacher, Knaths instructed students at Bennington College, Vermont, and he lectured at Black Mountain College, North Carolina in 1944 and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 1948. In 1951, the Art Institute of Chicago presented him with an Honorary Degree, Doctor of Fine Arts, just one of many awards that he received between 1928 and 1971. The Phillips Collection holds the largest collection of Knaths’ work, which represents his entire oeuvre; it is comprised of thirty-five oils, four watercolors, four woodcuts, three collages, and one lithograph.

* The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

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Jumping On a Moving Train: The Teachings of Edwin Dickinson

Edwin Dickinson was born in the last decade of the 19th century, came of age in the early 20th, and by mid-century was recognized as an important player in contemporary American art. A student of William Merritt Chase and Charles Hawthorne, Dickinson later became an influential teacher, shaping generations of artists through his teaching in Buffalo, Boston, Provincetown and New York City. Edwin Dickinson died in 1976.

Dickinson’s Teaching:
(From Mary Ellen Abell’s essay “Seeing Everything for the First Time: The Teaching and Aesthetic Philosophy of Edwin Dickinson,” in Edwin Dickinson: Dreams and Realities)

“Dickinson once defined a work of art as something that ‘moves the spirit through the eye.’ He considered that the root of extraordinary art was ‘a very high endowment of one person’ that went beyond technical skills. Because of these convictions, the painter believed he could instruct his students in the “how” of producing technically proficient paintings and drawings, but not the “art” of it. He used to say that he was not teaching “art” because that was something that students would discover themselves with time. The artist was scrupulous about not overriding what a particular individual wanted to do. He was respectful of the intangible quality of “rightness” that many people feel in front of a work of art. If  ‘it felt right’ to the student, then ‘it was right.’ Though Dickinson was leery about imposing his ideas on the more intimate aspects of his students’ art-making, he felt he could introduce them to important tools and techniques that would enable them to develop their capacity to “see” the sensory world…

In his pedagogical approach, Dickinson strenuously avoided any kind of systematic doctrines, which would have been inconsistent with his empirical, intensely personal approach to art. All of Dickinson’s instruction was oriented around individual student critiques… Much of Dickinson’s emphasis on maintaining a positive attitude stemmed from his conviction that quality paintings and drawings were produced by functioning at the height of one’s enthusiasm. He often spoke to his students of the ‘joy in working.’ There was ‘no need to work without it,’ he said. If students lost their zeal for a particular painting, he recommended that they scrape their canvas and begin anew. The artist, he maintained, should only initiate a work of art with the very highest ambitions, and during the process, bring every fiber of being into play… Several students have related that Dickinson instructed them to paint ‘as though you’re jumping on a moving train.’

One of the key aspects of the aesthetic experience in the Dickinson class was its stress on seeing things freshly, with no preconceived expectations. All of his devices – unusual poses, ‘unnameable color,’ ‘interstices,’ ‘angular’ perspective, unusual angles – were about setting aside one’s preconceptions and learning to look meticulously at something as if one were encountering it ‘for the first time…’ The goal was to complete a more honest likeness or more authentic kind of work that was fresh and original. ‘If you do not bring anticipations to the sight of an object when drawing it, anticipations which are connected with its associations in your lay life, it’s easier to get it right than to to get it wrong,’ he explained. What Dickinson taught was not a style of painting or drawing, but a process whereby his followers could discover new color harmonies, new ‘marriages’ or relationships between forms, new spatial constructions, new perspectives. As such, his training remained valid for a student’s entire art career. The artist was led by the demands of the plastic elements in a process of continual discovery and fresh surprises, and each student ended up with a very individual work that was not based on cliches. What is remarkable is the range of idiosyncratic expressions that his students developed, from abstract to figurative modes.”

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