Drawing Into Painting: John Virtue

John Virtue is a British artist known for his massive black and white paintings that he executes from a unique medium of ink mixed with shellac. His initial research involves making hundreds of on-site drawings. From this material he builds his evocative paintings in the studio. Virtue’s most celebrated series, 13 large-scale paintings of the London skyline, was carried out over two years from a studio in the National Gallery in London.

“The thing about London is that everybody knows, or thinks they know, these buildings. But the more you look at them, the more mysterious they become, so the more fascinating they become.

I would draw there, and then I would draw there. That would be one morning, and then I would do one part another morning… and so on, and I’d build them up sequentially; and then I’d mix them all up and I’d bring them all in here, and they inform the way you work and it helps you to be very free. It was phenomenally exciting, and stimulating, and refreshing, every day to get up and go and draw what you say are very, very famous and iconic buildings, and bring all that material in here and go to work.

I’ve never felt any need to put in cranes, and buses, and cars, and airplanes – the noise, if you like, of London. I like using it for my own ends which is to make abstract compositions, but from the way I perceive the world. The monochromatic way of working tallies exactly with the way I look at… the world. It’s a way of seeing that resonates, rather than a way of seeing that is comfortable or is referential to other things.  

The basic materials, and they have been for the last twenty-six years, is a black ink mixed with shellac. I use titanium acrylic and I like working onto the raw canvas because I can bleed the image in; I like the idea of the image impressing itself into the canvas, and then I use rags, and my hands, all kinds of brushes, quite indiscriminately, quite promiscuously, in what I’ll use to try and get an effect.”

John Virtue from The Bespoke Film Company on Vimeo.

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Brush Drawings

From the sinopia drawings that served as preparatory designs for Italian fresco paintings, to the stream of consciousness drawings of modern abstraction, drawing with brush and ink or other liquid media has a long tradition and appears universally in both eastern and western cultures. Drawing with wet media can be challenging for students who are used to the traction and forgiving nature of a pencil or charcoal. Unlike drawing with dry media where you can endlessly probe, plan, measure and erase, wet media seem to have a will of their own. Once the mark is made there’s no going back. You’re committed. In eastern traditions brush drawing is an extension of long meditation on the subject, which includes not just the objects one is drawing but also a keen sense of the instrument’s nature. This is an idea that still bears up for anyone trying his or her hand at working with ink and brush. Like putting a bridle on a wild horse, it works better if you understand and work with the horse’s nature than if you try to impose your own will for absolute control. Let the brush have its way, guide it where you can, and be open to what can happen. The ride is often more exciting than the destination.

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10 Rules for Students and Teachers

10 Rules of John Cage

The 10 rules were actually the work of Sister Corita Kent in the 1960s and later popularized by composer/artist John Cage. His life-long partner, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, kept these posted in his studio as inspiration to his students.

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Hank Buffington

Hank Buffington is a Lancaster, Pennsylvania artist who works as a digital illustrator and graphic designer. A few years ago he began drawing and painting outdoors, executing quick, one-shot studies from observation. About himself he says:

“I was born in Pennsylvania but did most of my growing up in a somewhat rural part of New Jersey close to the Delaware River. I didn’t appreciate the bucolic charm of the area when I was a kid and a lot of my drawings were fantasies to take me away from it to a more exciting life. Those drawings eventually took me to the Rhode Island School of Design and after graduating with a BFA I returned home to begin a career as a graphic designer and digital illustrator. For the past several years I’ve taken time off from being a commercial artist to be a full-time dad to our five kids. The forced break from the computer gave me the opportunity to resume painting after years of pushing a mouse. In the summer of 2009 I began painting plein air landscapes to retrain myself in the craft of painting and try to break some old habits… not to mention get me out of the house for some much needed quiet time!”*

“With drawing I’m trying to be more spontaneous and courageous. These are relatively quick drawings that focus more on what I think is important in my subject; eliminating extraneous information and superfluous details.” 

For more work and discussions of his process check out Hank Buffington’s blog  and *website .

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“The Elemental Big Forms…” of John David Wissler

“Seems to me the true artist must perforce go from time to time to the elemental big forms-Sky, Sea, Mountain, Plain,-and these things pertaining thereto, to sort of re-true himself up, to recharge the battery. For these big forms have everything. But to express these, you have to love these, to be part of these in sympathy. One doesn’t get very far without this love…”  -John Marin

A beautiful collection of drawings in a recent show of John David Wissler at the Lancaster Galleries in Lancaster, PA, brings to my mind the work and words of John Marin.  Wissler apparently shares John Marin’s love for the “elemental big forms” of nature. Working mainly with water-based media and brush Wissler’s drawings are more than just landscapes. They are urgent translations of emotion experienced in the act of seeing, and being, in nature. His brush moves with the excitement and energy of an electrical storm, acutely aware that in another instant the whole scene will shift and disappear. An ancient Chinese text on landscape painting recommends that the artist meditate for hours before picking up the brush so that he or she becomes an instrument of nature’s forces. Wissler seems to achieve such a state in these works, channeling the force of nature directly onto the page. The artist has this to say about his drawings:

“My passion has always been the landscape. I feel a sense of history when painting… the painters I admire and study, Corot, Constable, Turner, Inness, Bonard, Resika…the history of the land itself and my own familiar connection to it. Painting comes through the study of nature…transformed, not merely copied. Seeing the immediacy of the place…what strikes me first. The way trees react to fields, colour to colour, shape to shape…pushing and pulling the plastic nature of the picture plane, creating believable space.

I find the challenge of using what I have observed, taking it to my studio, and creating a new painting invigorating. Drawing upon the memory of place and experience…using the language I have learned from nature, trying to keep the painting fresh…space, clarity, surprise…that’s painting!” (Courtesy of Lancaster Galleries)

Lancaster Galleries exhibition

Wissler Interview at Painting Perceptions

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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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