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Steve Armes classical training realist landscpe painter Frank Vincent Dumond stu

"I took an early interest in art. Drawing and painting were hobbies at first, but by high school I began to consider a career in art. Although I pursued other courses of study, I graduated with a degree in painting. Anyone who has endeavored to study traditional painting knows how difficult it is to find teachers who are sympathetic to their goals and competent to teach them. When I began study at San Jose University, I was disillusioned to find that my aspirations to learn Classical drawing and painting were roundly criticized and dismissed as naive. After a wasted semester I found the one instructor at the university (and one of the few in the country) who possessed the knowledge I desired. Maynard Dixon Stewart became my primary teacher. He was also to become a great friend and advocate.
Mr. Stewart had three primary teachers. His first was his father, Utah landscape painter LeConte Stewart. He later studied with British artist Alvin Gittens. But his main influence was the renowned Frank Vincent DuMond, with whom he studied at the Art Sudents League. DuMond studied in Paris in the 19th century at Acadamie Julian.

Having found a treasury of knowledge in Mr. Stewart's classroom, I became determined to learn all I could from him. Upon graduation, I worked as an illustrator initially, and eventually began to pursue the type of painting I love. After Moving to Dallas in the mid-eighties, I met and studied with Herbert Perleman, who studied with Frank Reilly at The Art Students League.

I enjoy painting a variety of subjects including figures, still life, and landscape. In 1996 I was accepted into The American Society Of Classical Realism. I feel that the life of the Academic painter is one of constant learning. There are moments of satisfaction but, something seems always just out of reach."

 

Philosophy and Technique

My father once told me that there is a shortcut to success: years of hard work. I think that sums up how I view the pursuit of traditional painting. Most of my views were influenced by my teacher, Maynard Dixon Stewart. He taught me the ideals of 19th century Academic Art.

Drawing, design and color are all part of producing a painting. Design is fundamentally a matter of "varying well". There should be a dominant element with contrasting or varying counterparts, but always erring on the side of unity to create a harmonious whole. Color can be viewed in the same way. Drawing requires training and practice.

The primary thing that was stressed to me in my training was the concept of "rationalizing your sight". This is a phrase Mr. Stewart used to describe something Leonardo once articulated. It refers to the concept of understanding what it is that you are seeing. If there is a dark tone in the subject or model, you must understand what caused it. Is it a cast shadow? Is it a form shadow? A halftone? Which edge of the dark tone is harder than the other and why? Is a certain color cool or warm, and why? Over and over it was stressed to me that a thing which is not understood cannot be convincingly painted.

Another fundamental concept is the need to simplify, or as DuMond said, "maximize the maximum". The visual details which assault the eye are overwhelming and must be at first expressed in broad, simple ways. That is true of contour, value and color. Under Mr. Stewart's tutelage we painted initially in three tones: light, shadow and halftone. If a thing is set out thoughtfully in those three tones, it is astonishing how real it will look, and how little "detail" it will take to complete the picture. The trick is to get the broad values right and not to disrupt them with the addition of nuances. Simple. Simple but not easy.

Because the problems of painting are great and varied, I try to simplify things by doing some sort of under painting. This also allows the possibility of creating layers of color essential to achieving color vibration present in nature. I lay in an under painting with thin, warm color that most people would call "brown". It is more accurately called a grayed brown-violet that leans toward red. (Color is so hard to put words to). The exact color varies depending on the subject. For landscape I find it useful to mix an earthy red with ultramarine blue. With still life and figures I use burnt umber for the shadow areas. Often the under painting includes white mixed in and I will build up the lights with heavy, even impasto mixtures. There is a beautiful effect obtained by painting flesh with black and white to create a cool gray ground which is later modified by warm oranges and reds. Once the under painting has dried, I will overpaint it with layers of color that vary in opacity. This overpainting almost always contains some white (even in "glazes"). The goal is to modify, not obliterate the underpainting. It is extremely difficult to do well, and I often end up having to correct things until the under painting no longer "strikes through".

Random Thoughts

There are different ways to paint. No one way or technique is "correct". It is all about the result--expressing what inspired the artist to paint it in the first place.

I sometimes stand before a painting in a museum, a painting which has been considered great over time. Often, I have seen this painting in reproduction, but as I see the original and examine it up close, I see that it is done in a simple and facile fashion, and its surface qualities are rather unimpressive. It is at those times that I realize that what makes a great painting is often very different from what I had thought. It is not about a slick surface or nimble brushwork. It is about something much more transcendent.

Color. I have learned that (in oil painting) colors differ greatly when painted over other colors. And to achieve the effects of light and atmosphere it is almost always necessary to paint one color over another.

Drawing. There are many ways to begin a drawing. Take for example drawing the human figure. Somehow the artist must establish the basic proportions and action of the figure. I have studied many ways to accomplish this, some of which are quite effective. Some are very mechanical and scientific, some are free and expressive. As I sift through these various approaches, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with some fine jazz musicians. I asked them how they knew which notes to play over the various chord progressions. They said it was essential at first to learn all the scales, modes and arpeggios you can possibly learn, to play them backwards and forwards with perfection, to memorize all their relationships and substitutions, then to forget them and just "blow over the changes, man". So it is with drawing. You should thoroughly learn all techniques of measuring and visually assessing the form, understanding light, anatomy and optics, then become so familiar with it that you can forget it and just draw the picture, man.

I find the more I paint, the more trips I make to the Art Museum. This is especially true when I am painting a landscape. I often find myself standing before a Thomas Moran painting asking' "how did he do that?".

I am learning the importance of freeing myself from the subject matter before me in order to paint a good painting. A friend and fine painter, Bob Semans once remarked that his goal is "good picture-making". He also said that his aim is not so much "accurate" color but good color. Surprisingly, striving for truly good color often results in achieving accurate color.

I am always trying different things--palettes, mediums, techniques, brushes. Are there lost secrets about how the old masters painted? I believe the answer is yes and no. I once read that a great 19th-century artist (I believe it was Sargent) spent years studying Titian attempting to learn how he achieved such wonderful affects. He finally gave up. If Sargent couldn't figure it out, what hope have I? However, I also believe that there are no secrets in the most important matters. Producing a fine painting begins with a passion about the subject and a clarity of thinking about how to express it. It is then a matter of doing it with this or that pigment, with a brush or a knife, on this ground or that.

The knowledge of how to paint has progressed in an evolutionary fashion. The discovery of life and design of Greek and Roman art led to the Renaissance, which also included the discovery of perspective. Leonardo gave us the idea of using light and shade to create the illusion of volume and relief. Later, painters made discoveries regarding color, vibration, atmosphere and a unified visual impression. It seems possible that the progression of knowledge could continue.

The Contemporary Realist Landscape

Realistc landscapes enjoy a renewed popularity today, as does realistic figure painting. Artists are flocking to workshops and enjoying the great tradition of plein air painting. To me, the results are often disappointing. Either painters copy every detail of a photograph, with black shadows and tedious yet unharmonious detail, or they do a large version of a sketch, with little attempt to take the painting to a definitive stage. The great landscape traditions of the past, such as the Barbizon or Hudson River schools produced paintings that had fully realized modeling and attention to the particular without sacrificing the harmonious breadth of the general impression. I do not buy the notion that quick, slap dash application denotes more emotion. Charles Hawthorne put it this way: " A sketch has charm because of its truth, not because it is unfinished".

Advice for the Young at Art

When I completed my training years ago there was only a remnant of artists pursuing traditional or academic art and training. Now, after many years, it has become popular again. The extent of its popularity is such that teachers and schools of drawing are springing up everywhere. Terms like "classical realism" and "atelier" are the new buzz words. While there are many capable teachers around today, there are also many partially trained painters and artists who do not fully understand the theory and practise of academic art. To those who wish to learn to paint in a "classical" way, I would offer this advice: look at the work of the teacher, for with rare exceptions, teachers cannot convey to others more understanding than their own work demonstrates.

These thoughts are cursory and rambling. If you have any ideas or questions regarding these matters, please contact me.

s.armes@verizon.net


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