Monday, April 24, 2006

William Whitaker Workshop

Like many artists, I'm always working to improve. Painting portraits and other subjects well is difficult. It takes study, application, and a great deal of time. Naturally, when the chance to work with someone as accomplished and helpful as Bill Whitaker I try very hard to take advantage of that chance. This week I'm participating in a workshop with Bill at the Scottsdale Artists School, a private art school here in Arizona. The school has any number of well-known painters and sculptors (almost all representational artists working with traditional materials) including Sherry McGraw, Greg Kreutz, and others.

Bill has been painting for more than 40 years and has been teaching for almost as long, so he has enormous experience and expertise to share. It's a real privilege to work with him; this is my third Whitaker workshop. I learn more every time. He's a strong advocate of painting from life and doing so in natural light. His opinion is that working from life is "the hardest challenge there is" in art. He believes that to understand form and light one must paint from life--people, fruit, bread, old shoes, objects from Goodwill, whatever--in order to see properly and to paint well. Bill says flatly that while photographs are a useful tool for the painter, working from photos has made painting decadent because photos not only distort form, they distort color too. Instead of copying photographs, he advocates painting from life every day, and he's as good as his word. Bill paints study after study of heads and figures, and says that he destroys perhaps one in three.

There are several maxims that Bill repeats over and over to the students in his workshops:
"Go slowly."
"In painting, 90% is the drawing."
"When in doubt, use a bigger brush."
"Violate your edges."
"All I ask is perfection." (of everyone, including himself)

Today Bill started a portrait and spent two hours demonstrating his methods. He uses a palette of flake white, ivory black, raw umber, transparent red oxide, asphaltum (not the 19th century color but a modern convenience mix from Gamblin), yellow ochre, cadmium red light, sap green, and ultramarine blue. Bill advocates using an arm palette because it allows closer comparison of color with the subject and the work and allows the painter to cut glare on the paint. Bill begins with a rough drawing, generally using the "sight-size" method. Using burnt umber or asphaltum plus a lot of medium he sketches the outlines of the head and masses in the darks. You can see how he starts in the first photo in the next entry. In the second photo above, he's added more detail, always correcting the drawing. Bill pays close attention to angles and proportions, working very very hard to perfect the drawing before he begins laying in color. Eventually, using the palette mentioned, he begins to place patches of color in the appropriate spots in a sort of mosaic of color, as depicted in the third image above.

So check back over the next few days. I'll try to keep a daily journal of the workshop, complete with pictures.
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