Figure the Future

Figure the Future
By Michael Newberry
Presented by The Atlas Society, 2008

Michael Newberry reflects on how the nude supports the best within us and shows that it has been present at the conception and implementation: of democracy; of systematic philosophy; and of art history.

0:17 Introduction by Robert Bidinotto

2:33 The Nude as the Personification of the Individual
The Status of Clothed Figures
Ramasus, Queen Elizabeth 1, Ingres, Millet, Whistler, Wyeth, Pearlstein, and Richter.

Continue reading “Figure the Future”

Art and Judgment

Over three decades ago, in 1982, I booked a private telephone consultation with an Objectivist philosopher (associated now with the Ayn Rand Institute) on reading The Romantic Manifesto, Ayn Rand’s classic non-fiction work on aesthetics.

At 24, I was both an artist and an Objectivist.  A fine art major; I had taken several art history classes including contemporary art theory. At the time, I had just completed the painting Promethia, and even though it was a thematic work, I didn’t understand how one objectively identifies a theme of an artwork. With that in mind, I was excited to be mentored by an Objectivist philosopher.

Screen Shot 2017 04 28 at 11.46.25 AM

In our consultation, he pointed to Willem Kalf’s still life painting in the classic art history book, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.

“How do I discover the theme?” I asked, genuinely.

“The theme of this painting is malevolent because of the dark background!” was the swift and vociferous response.

This was “obvious” — i.e. self-evident — he said.  No further reasoning or discussion was necessary.

I ended the session and never consulted him again.

Alas, I had yet to learn how themes work in painting. So I returned to what Ayn Rand herself had written.

Continue reading “Art and Judgment”

Rhythm a Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos

Rhythm a Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos by Michael Newberry

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Joseph, acrylic, 16 x 12 inches.

This is a portrait of a friend, architect Joseph Castro, with dark brown leather as the backdrop.

Any complex subject is visually chaotic; with incongruent shapes and lots of details. When you look at something like a person’s face or a panoramic landscape there are a million things to look at – out of all that stuff which do you draw/paint? One of the fun and great challenges for an artist is to organize this chaos in a meaningful way through the use of visual rhythms.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Joseph in conversation would often raise his eyebrow and curl his lip. I noticed how these two things curved into arches, and arches would become the visual theme.

Visual rhythms are made up of similar or complementary angles, contours, or lines.

In the process of composing painting I was looking for shapes and lights that could “double” for an “arch.” Was it possible that I could accent an arch of the lip, nose, brow, collar, or ear?

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

The more I looked for them the more I saw “arches” everywhere. A consequence of looking for rhythms is that you don’t get lost in details but are constantly looking over the whole painting.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Here you can see all the rhythms of detail of shapes and light I was seeing in his face. I would like to mention that I was not making them up where I did not see them in real life.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

The folds in the leather background were perfect for finding more “arches” to accent and to integrate the whole painting.
Michael Newberry

Advancements in Painting Light

Advancements in Painting Light by Michael Newberry
Light delights us. In paintings is easy to see, but the development of it through history is anything but simple.It has been the focus of some of the world’s greatest artists. It is worthwhile to get a glimpse of some of the innovative artworks that advanced light in painting.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

Light in a painting is tied primarily to the form of the objects. Also, it has a yin/yang relationship to shadow. No shadow, no light. An artist will use light and shadow to mold forms.

These horses’ heads from the Chauvet Caves in France are a great example of forming with light and shadow. It is awe-inspiring that this artist had this knowledge 30,000 years ago.

Chauvet Caves Horses
Horses’ Heads, Chauvet Caves, 30,000 b.c.

In contrast to the Horses’ Heads, this flat image of a Minoan fisherman is without light. It is a fresco painting from Santorini, 1650-1500 b.c. The images are recognizable by their blocked-out silhouettes (like a cardboard cut-out).

I really like the colors and the balanced silhouettes of this image, but it lacks the substance of light and form.

Akrotiri-Santorini 1650-1500 b.c.
Akrotiri-Santorini 1650-1500 b.c.
There are few examples of ancient Greek painting. Here is one faded example from the tomb site of Alexander the Great’s immediate family.

The addition of light complicates visual imagery. It catapults a flat image into a 3D universe. It imbues the image with more weight and realism–closer to how we see real objects.

Here we can make out shadows molding the mouths, eyes, chins, and undersides of their arms.

 Rape of Persephone by Hades, Nikomakos, 350 b.c. Ancient Aigai.
Rape of Persephone by Hades, Nikomakos, 350 b.c. Ancient Aigai. The only complete example of an ancient Greek painting that has yet been found.

In these Pompeii frescos in Italy, we get some idea of what might have been classical Greek painting.

The environment is bathed in light. Notice the hierarchy, a key component in creating light, from the bright light behind the two woman and the more muted light between the bull’s legs.

Also, notice the light’s sweep up the half-naked woman’s torso.

Roman Europa

Europa and the Bull, 1st C. AD, Pompeii

This is a great example of the artist using light to bring out the form of anatomy. Notice the flicks of highlight along the man’s arm. And the flow of light along the woman’s torso.

Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern  Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern
Lovers, 1st C. AD, Pompeii The Northern

Renaissance artists’ works are noted for attention to extravagant details. In The Arnoflini Portrait below notice the tour de force of exquisite details. The painting is very neatly broken down to each object’s color group: brown for the fur of the coat and dog; pale flesh tone for the people; red, green, and purple for the clothes.

The light here takes a subservient role. It is used to simply set off all the details of the objects. Light is coming from behind our left shoulder. But there is also light coming in from the left far window, behind the couple. This can set up objects competing with each other for our attention.
The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

In this da Vinci we have one light source, unlike the van Eyck work above.

Lady with an Ermine, da Vinci, 1482-5
Lady with an Ermine, da Vinci, 1482-5

Here is an important, though a subtle difference in developing light in painting. Notice the women’s shoulders. Van Eyck used just enough light to give shape to the green cloth and white scarf. In contrast to that, da Vinci cloaked a sheen of light over both her flesh and cloth of her shoulder.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

leonardo-da-vinci-lady-with-an-ermine

Raphael makes a great breakthrough with the light in The Dilerverence of St. Peter below. He takes the idea of the halo, yet he wants to make it feel real. Behind the angel is glowing light, as if the light was coming from the end of a tunnel.

An interesting phenomenon is the transparency of the angel and it’s wing tips. Often I have shown students a fact of how translucency works. You need to have a bright window in a room full of shadow. Then you hold up your finger: half of it against the light and the other half against the shadow. Then you squint looking at your finger. You will see a very delicate border dividing your finger, making it literally transparent–exactly like the angel’s wings here.

Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514
Deliverance of Saint Peter, Raphael, 1514

The flatness of this symbolic halo is a good contrast to the realism of the Raphael. Actually, there is some effect of light on his forehead, collar, and hand, but the light is by no means consistent.

St. Nicholas, early 14th century
St. Nicholas, early 14th century

Caravaggio went after light with a vengeance. He dramatically contrasted light adjacent to dark. Notice the boy’s eye with its startling brilliant highlight and almost black shadow.

In exploring these high contrasts, Caravaggio ran into some spatial difficulties–Goliath’s head doesn’t feel like it is a yard in front of David. Rather, it rests on the same plane. Contrast with the Rembrandt below.

David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio,1610
David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio,1610

On the other side of Europe, Rembrandt was taking light further than any previous artist. Rembrandt spotlighted the people and things in his paintings. He used light to highlight the things he wanted us to focus on. But he also solved the difficult problem of spatial relationships. It is quite simple for us to track the spatial relationships of all the people in his painting. Contrast that with the David above.

It is interesting that The Night Watch setup is similar to the van Eyck couple portrait. In both paintings, there are two light sources, one from behind us left, and from further back left.

Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642
Rembrandt, The Night Watch, 1642

The key difference between the two paintings is Van Eyck used light to heighten all the details, while Rembrandt stylized the light, making everything else subservient.

The Arnolfini Portrait, Jan van Eyck, 1434

It is impossible to talk about light in painting and not include Vermeer. Radically different than Rembrandt in style, Vermeer pushed the envelope of how far one could realistically perceive light.

I could spend volumes in comparing nuances of light effects here. Let me just point out one for now.

 The Milkmaid, Vermeer, 1658-61

The Milkmaid, Vermeer, 1658-61

Vermeer Milkmaid demo light

Just above her head there is an extremely subtle pink tint, somewhat in the shape of a rectangle. It is probably the cast light formed by the shape of the window. Lower right, behind her body, are several, increasing subtle shifts of cooler colors than the pink tint above.

Vermeer’s eye probably sees more nuanced light shifts than any other artist, before or since.

This is part 1 in the innovation series on light. In part 2 I will show how artists developed the light based on complimentary colors.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 24, 2007

Oil Paint Glazing

Oil Paint Glazing by Michael Newberry

Glazing Technique Demo

Glazing is one of the greatest tools in the artists’ repertory that no artist should be without. It is relatively easy to do, creates beautiful luminosity, and can free a painter’s inhibitions.

There are many variations on glazing, but I would like to show you the method I like best.

For this demo, I am only glazing, but glazing also works great in combination with other painting techniques, and for delicate finishing touches.

Start here by drawing the composition with a soft and sharp charcoal pencil.

Glazing Technique Demo

Blend a little mars black and raw umber with lots of painting medium to create a fairly drippy consistency, and start painting from light to dark.

Medium

Years ago I used the classic oil painting medium of 1/3 dammar varnish, 1/3 turpenoid, and 1/3 stand linseed oil. Since then I have cut out the varnish and turpenoid because it toxic and I paint every day, and those toxins add up. I love to paint with medium and do so outdoors while painting plein air. The one other new info I have is to use Safflower oil, it is the best medium for true color and no yellowing.

Note: This glazing technique also works great with acrylic paints, substituting water for the oil.

The glaze application should be transparent, almost runny. The idea is that it should tint or stain the canvas, creating see-through layers. For those of you familiar with watercolor, the oil paint glaze should look similar.

Glazing Technique Demo

Watercolor Effect

As with watercolor, you want to apply the tones in one or two goes. And you can blend in a little oil paint directly on the canvas to make an area darker.

Warning: don’t fiddle too much with the wet paint, because at some point the paint will not adhere to the canvas. If this happens, simply let the canvas dry then resume painting.

Glazing Technique Demo

Glazing Technique Demo

Glazing Technique Demo

To create the subtle effects of light, it is important to tone the entire canvas, then add lights.

Glazing Technique Demo

Wipe the area with a cloth or paper towel, blue shop towels are the best! I can’t say enough great things about this wiping method – it is intuitive and gives a lot of feeling to your image.

Glazing Technique Demo

If it needs to be even lighter, dip a clean brush in medium and apply it directly to an area, diluting it, then use a paper towel to wipe off the excess medium and paint.

Glazing Technique Demo

Now we have a finished stage of painting using glazing.

For a more realistic effect, let this dry and continue glazing for darker areas and details. But, to lighten areas and details, switch techniques to scumbling.

You can continue to glaze and scumble for countless layers. But, remember that the painting medium can act as a solvent, just as water does for a watercolor. So, only paint one layer at a time, let it dry, and then resume.

Final note: glazing works incredibly well with color. Look for that has an upcoming tutorial.

I hope you enjoyed seeing technique in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
Santa Monica, June 2009

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art by Michael Newberry

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1923, Grey Line with Black, Blue, and Yellow

Representational painting, such as landscapes, people, and furniture, is normally viewed at face value. A flower is just a flower; a chair a chair. But the manner in which an artist uses shapes can convey more than the literal content of the painting.

Once you grasp how an artist plays with shapes to convey another layer of meaning it can open up a universe of deeper insight and, sometimes, powerfully erotic subtexts. You may never see art again in the same way.

When thinking about erotic symbolism in art Georgia O’Keeffe springs to mind. The painting to the right is a detail of a flower, but it is also an excellent visual symbol of an open and flushed vulva.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
At first glance you see a flower and, on reflection, you might grasp features of female anatomical details such as the clitoral hood, the clitoris, the labia majora, and the labia minora.

O’Keeffe is making an interesting statement in associating the vagina with a flower. The vagina is to humanity what a flower is to nature: it is life-giving, beautiful, and fragile, yet resilient.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1924, Light Iris
Continuing with another O’Keeffe painting, notice that there are no sharp vertical lines here. Rather, there are organic, fluid shapes and outlines. These shapes are easy metaphors for the soft lips of the labia and the yellow bud serves for the small erectile body of the clitoris.

There is a strong sense that we are entering into the flower, but we also get a sense that inside is a whole new universe open to us.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda

A painting that has intrigued artists, such as Dali, is The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez.

This painting is loaded with phallic shapes: vertical, rigid spears, as well as thrusting weapons meant to penetrate human flesh.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Erotic Symbolism in Art

On a less obvious note, the spears in the upper part of the canvas are balanced below by phallic shapes of the men’s and horse’s legs and the vertical negative spaces between them.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

In a fantastic stroke of scope, Velázquez incorporated feminine, fluid, organic forms into the panoramic landscape. It is as if the organic landscape is imprisoned by the bars of weapons and the soft feminine mounds of earth are pressed underfoot by the rigid men’s legs.

Though this painting is literally about the civil and very polite-looking surrender of Breda, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see, through Velázquez’s use of erotic symbolism, that this painting is really about destructive rape.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Going back to the first O’Keeffe, it’s easy to see that the inner lips are made up of phallic shapes.

I find it amusing that in constructing this painting O’Keeffe used phallic shapes, not as a dominant force as in The Surrender of Breda, but in subservience to the feminine whole.

I hope you enjoyed this escapade in seeing art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 15th, 2006

Creating Denouement

Creating Denouement by Michael Newberry

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54x78 inches.
Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54×78 inches.

Why this painting?

Painting Denouement was a chance to live inside glowing, colorful light and to express through art what love feels like to me.

Influences

Puccini, Polyclitus, Aristophanes, Beethoven, and Michelangelo rock my world. In their time, they were innovators with a love of beauty, humanity, and passion. Their art was a constant source of inspiration.
There were visual influences for Denouement. But most of the epic works were from “brown” painters, classic technique with a limited pallet in which dark things are brown and black hues. The French Impressionists had a fantastic sense of color harmonies in light and shadow. What I had in mind was to take the best of both and integrate them.

But there was no one work from these artists that I could use as a prototype for what I had envisioned, so I had to create a new path.

Rembrandt Danae
Rembrandt Danae
velazquez-las-meninas
Velazquez Las Meninas
nerdrum001
Nerdrum
dali1
Dali
cafe_terrace001
Van Gogh
vangogh
Van Gogh
monet119
Monet
monet.st-romain-soleil001
Monet

Concept

In 1984, I began studies on a moment of love shared. The first sketches were drawn from my imagination. In the images, you can see the glow from the light between them.

Newberry study Newberry study

Construction

Then I began to develop studies from live models for this composition.

Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

I modeled for the two left drawings, having rigged a couple of mirrors. All the studies for Denouement were from scratch – no photos.

To create glow, it would be important to backlight the guy. In hindsight, backlit objects are a bitch to draw because it is hard to see the dark stuff.

I began color studies in pastel.

Newberry study  Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

I didn’t like the gray colors. So I kept drawing pastel studies, changing the light sources, colored objects, and color of the paper.

With these pastels below, the color harmony clicked.

Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Composition

I began to evaluate my overall composition: should the man be closer in size to the woman? Should they be closer together – more connected?

Changing the guy from standing to reclining solved both the size and connection problems.
Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Newberry study

What turned out to be cool was that his new pose worked great with hers. The two of them now created a diagonal line through the composition, like the flight line of a jet taking off.

Having solved the imaging of the man and woman, the next problem was arranging all the stuff to fit naturally.

Newberry study

I relied on two-point perspective to get the perspective of the carpet right.

Newberry study

Each object had to be adjusted to fit the perspective and be the right size.
Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study Newberry study

Spatial Depth and Transparency, Integrating it All

Having drawn all of the information I needed, there was still the small matter of how all of this information was going to fit together. I needed to create spatial depth of about 20′, every object had to fit naturally in its space, and the overall lighting had to feel like it was from one source.

I needed to develop a theory of integrating the color, light, and space. I discuss this theory in my articles : Transparency: A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting, Part 1 and Part 2. To give you a sense of the problem here is a pastel study of the lamp, and final in the painting. They are quite different. Just transferring it exactly from study to painting doesn’t mean it will fit.

Newberry study Newberry study

What do lemon green, green, and cool magenta have in common? Cerulean blue. Her arm rests in a subtle shadow, by using cerulean blue as the common denominator I was able to push the color boundaries and softly place her in the right place. This was the way I saw the colors from life, but understanding the color theory helped bring out those color connections for all the other elements of the painting.

Newberry study

I hope you enjoyed this presentation.

Newberry, Denouement, 1987, oil on linen, 54x78 inches.

Michael Newberry

Composition in One Easy Lesson

Composition in One Easy Lesson by Michael Newberry

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

There are unlimited possibilities for what one can do with a composition; the combinations are countless. A composition is essentially the arrangement of objects/forms within the border of the canvas or paper. The aim of this tutorial is to illustrate that there is one essential ingredient to a superb composition.

There are quite a few compositional theories about how to direct the eye movement, how to tier figures, how to create either dynamic or calm feelings, etc. Virtually all of these theories are valid but the sheer weight of all the different rules can easily overwhelm an artist with a pencil in hand and a pristine white page in front of him or the spectator trying to grasp the quality of a composition.

Since I was a kid I studied artists and one particular approach I had was to look for the common denominator between artists. For example, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Picasso (in specific periods) use an egg shape for their heads. Another example is how great artists have similarly arranged compositions and I discovered the following:

An excellent composition has interesting shapes in all four corners.

The operative word is interesting. And I cannot stress that aspect enough. Artists too easily fluff the corners with gray emptiness or boring, generic shapes. The pro-active way is to accent and look for the shapes and colors that excite you.

Vermeer demo

Ok, let’s start. Here is Vermeer’s Girl with a Water Pitcher, 1665. I have drawn an oval on the image. What concerns us here are the colors and shapes outside of the oval, the areas of the four corners. We have the motifs of a map and the carpet table cover on the right. There are beautiful abstract shapes of the window, corner of the wall, and light in the upper left. And in the bottom left there is nuanced shadowing of the corner walls.

Vermeer demo

Diebenkorn, Cityscape 1 (Landscape No. 1), 1963
Diebenkorn, Cityscape 1 (Landscape No. 1), 1963

Diebenkorn obviously is not a realist like Vermeer and yet, like Vermeer, he has interesting shapes in the corners.

Diebenkorn Demo

Velazquez Las Meninas

Las Meninas, 1656, by Velazquez is one of my favorite paintings. In 3 of the corners, we have wonderful shapes of the canvas, the group of the dog and the children, and window niches and framed paintings. The upper left corner is essentially all ceiling, but you can see how Velazquez created a pocket of light there.

velazMNE

Van Gogh, bedroom
Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, 1889

A nice contrast to Las Meninas is this Van Gogh painting of his bedroom. Notice that there is little in the bottom center, rather all the objects are pushed out towards the corners.

Van Gogh, demo

Picasso, La famille de saltimbanques, 1905
Picasso, La famille de saltimbanques, 1905

In three of the corners of this painting, Picasso uses changeable stuff of clouds and light to create interest.

Picasso demo

Vermeer Woman with a Red Hat
Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat, 1665

Vermeer Woman with a Red Hat

Another favorite painting of mine is this Vermeer. I think by now you can easily see that these artists create very interesting shapes, colors and light in their corners.

You might want to have a good look at the stunning Cezanne composition.

Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899

I hope you enjoyed seeing composition in a fresh way. I guarantee that you will feel a great deal of satisfaction when you take a little extra time and effort in the corners of your paintings and make them interesting!

Michael Newberry
New York, June ’06

5-Minute Palette Clean Up

5-Minute Clean Up by Michael Newberry

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

If you are like most artists, you love to start with a clean oil painting palette. But like most of us, a day or a week of painting goes by and your palette becomes crusty with dried paint. Okay, some of you have decades old palettes that have morphed into abstract sculptures. Nothing can help with that, but for relatively recently dried paint, the following is an awesome way to quickly clean your wood palette.

What you need:

A palette knife, painting medium or stand oil, turpenoid, paper towels, and a copper sponge.

Start by scraping off any excess paint with a palette knife. This palette had about a week’s old dried paint.

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

Pour on the palette any leftover medium, or stand oil.

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

Grab the copper sponge and scrub the palette, going in the direction of the wood grain.

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

Magic presto, 4 minutes later, the palette is scraped clean and ready for the finishing touches.

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

Take a paper towel and a little turpenoid, and wipe the palette down, cleaning up the residue.

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

Now finish the job off by pouring a tablespoon or two of leftover medium or stand oil on the palette, take a clean paper towel and rub the oil into the wood. This will protect the wood and prepare it for fresh oil paint.

Palette Clean Up in 5 Minutes

Five minutes from beginning to end! Now you have a primed palette just begging for a slather of oil paint and your vision.

I hope you enjoyed this tidbit on cleaning up.

Michael Newberry
Santa Monica, December 2011