Monday, November 23, 2015

Alla prima, or premier coup?

Terminology in painting has been confusing to many--me included. Learning to paint for me meant studying various sources diligently to learn various ways to manipulate oil paint. At first, as I suppose it is for most, painting for my teenage self meant producing a picture directly, in one go, wet-into-wet. For an untutored beginner it made sense and was the only way I could imagine to do it anyway. Direct painting continues to be one of the most important ways of picture-making, in contrast with indirect painting, which rely on glazing in multiple layers.

The plein air movement, painting outdoors, has gained momentum in recent years and is almost always direct painting. Many masters of the medium painted directly. Two particular favorites of mine, Hals and Velazquez were direct painters who made their brushwork sing. I've posted a couple of examples below.

I learned the term "alla prima" ("first attempt" in Italian) to mean doing a painting in one session, one go. So it is a direct method, meaning using paint without glazing, seems to me. Direct painting and "alla prima" aren't quite synonymous, though That is, direct painting can take place over more than one session, which is what Velazquez seems to have done, and so did Hals. On the other hand, there are portraits by Hals that are said to have been painted all in one go, wet-into-wet, which is what "alla prima" meant to me.
Juan Pareja by Velazquez, 1650
One particularly good book about Velazquez methods, by the way, is "Velazquez. The Technique of Genius" by Brown and Garrido (Yale University Press).

So direct painting in several sessions may or may not be painting into a wet layer since drying depends on the pigment, vehicle, and any medium being used as well as local conditions. And alla prima implies only one session of work. Nevertheless, the distinction is clear, I think.

Then there are other terms that can be confusing and interrelate with direct painting, wet-into-wet painting, and alla prima painting. The phrase "premier coup," has been said by many to mean a single session of painting (the term is French, and also means first attempt). One notable painter of the past, John Sargent, was said to hover with his brush at arm's length then rush the easel and place a stroke of paint just so, leaving it alone thereafter, which certainly sounds as if he did what I think the term ought to mean. He put down a stroke of paint only after considerable thought, placed it precisely, and generally left it alone, especially in the final stage of a portrait. Of course, that description belies Sargent's well-known penchant for scraping and repainting, sometimes dozens of times on the same picture. So the question arises, is premier coup really a synonym for alla prima? They are defined as the same thing when translated to English.
Jasper Schade by Franz Hals 1645

Premier coup ought to mean the same thing that alla prima does, but to me it's the first touch of the brush. If you see it that way, then premier coup means the "put down a stroke and leave it alone" school of painting, in contrast to working one color into another (wet-in-wet) on the painting surface, which might lead to muddiness or worse.

Also confusing is that direct painting could be alla prima or not and alla prima might be premier coup or not. The idea that wet-into-wet is somehow synonymous with any of the above, isn't strictly true, either. The centuries-old technique of painting into a lubricating medium applied to the support, underdrawn or underpainted, or what Monet called "painting into the soup," is by definition wet-into-wet. That technique is actually glazing, adding more or less transparent layers over an often contrasting underpainting that has been allowed to dry thoroughly.

So to sum up for my own purposes, I use the terms mentioned as follows:
  • direct painting - painting without glazing, sometimes in more than one session
  • alla prima - painting in a single session, which requires wet-in-wet techniques
  • premier coup - putting down one brush stroke and then leaving it alone 
  • wet-in-wet - application of wet paint to a wet underlayer, whether paint or medium
Without a clear understanding of terminology, seems to me, we're all at sea.


Here are a couple of my own small works. Each of these was painted alla prima using a premier coup technique. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
"Jimmy B" (study) 2015, 8x10

"Hockney" 2015, 6x8

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Favorite Art Books Part 1

Everyone has favorite art books. Their favorite might be one of the tried and true classics, like Harold Speed's "Practice and Science of Drawing" for example. Or maybe George Bridgman's equally famous and favored "Complete Guide to Drawing from Life." Some are fans of the materials and methods books like the classic by Mayer, or the one by Eastlake. The range of books dealing with art, artists, art materials, art techniques, art exhibitions, art collaborations, and art festivals is beyond imaging. Still, there are books that have deservedly become virtually indispensable, either for the information contained within or for the images, or best, both.

I plan on uploading comments and images about favorite books here, on an occasional basis. So as a start, here are few favorites of my own, in no particular order. These are chosen for the teaching they provided me. The books listed below are from my own library shelves, mostly well-used, but a few (I have to admit) only used a time or two. Along with some information about the book itself I'll tell you why it's important to me.

Ways With Watercolor by Ted Kautzky
Originally published in 1949, this is a book that encompasses much of how to paint in watercolor. As you'd imagine, some parts (materials, brushes) are dated and of only historical interest. But Kautzky, a master of the medium, takes you through pigments, limited palette studies that begin with only two colors and progress to more, along with step by step ways to paint buildings, trees, streets, and the like. Although his style is a bit antiquated, this book has much to teach today's painters.The first edition went through about ten printings, and there is a very useful second edition that dates to 1963, shortly after Kautzky's death. Highly recommended.
Village Scene by Ted Kautzky ca. 1945 (from Ways With Watercolor)

Drawing the Head & Figure, How to Draw Animals, and Drawing Scenery: landscapes and seascapes, all by Jack Hamm
Although not famous, Jack Hamm was a very busy artist, illustrator and teacher in the 20th century (d. 1996). These books are fundamental drawing books that show the reader easily understood ways to construct believable drawings. Published in the mid-20th century, each book provides specific information. For example the book on animals shows clearly how certain animals differ structurally and how to draw many different species. There are incredibly detailed drawings demonstrating animal movements, markings, features, and a lot more. Each of the three books has probably a thousand drawings with accompanying text. Still in print, you can get all three for about $30 on Amazon. Highly recommended.
page from Drawing the Head & Figure by Jack Hamm
Drawing Realistic Textures in Pencil by J.D. Hillberry (1999)
J.D. is an amazing pencil artist whom I met online years ago. His book is chock-full of wonderful drawings plus great techniques for making simple graphite drawings special with texture. One of his specialties (which I admit I enjoy a lot) is trompe l'oeil, with shallow depth and much detail. His sections on materials and methods are very useful, and the included stepwise demonstrations provide even a professional with much to think on and emulate. This book is still in print and available widely. Highly recommended.
Drawing Realistic Textures in Pencil (Detail of cover)

Monday, November 02, 2015

Thumbbox Exhibition

Every year in early winter the Salmagundi Club holds its traditional Thumbbox Exhibition and Sale, a show of members' paintings measuring less than 108 square inches (about 9x12 inches) and sculptures less than 12 inches tall. The show itself has been a tradition for many years, attracting visitors and buyers to the club. This year's show runs from November 23 to New Years Day.

This year I've entered these three oil paintings. Each measures 6x8 and was done in oil. The first is a shiny coffee creamer I've had around for ages that just caught the light in a way I found arresting and interesting to paint. The ground I was using then had a lovely ochre tone and was pretty porous and absorbed oil and medium in equal amounts. It was fun putting cooler tones on top and judging the effects. The reflections help to give the sense of form and smooth surfaces.

"Shine," oil on paper mounted on board, 2011
The second is a painting done this week of the very last rose from my garden. I'm not usually much of a painter of floral subjects, though I do enjoy landscapes and streetscapes. Mostly, doing paintings of flowers has seemed to me like a waste--why not just look at photos or videos or just go outdoors? But as the cold months have begun to threaten here in the Midwest, gardens are going brown and dormant. Nevertheless, last week I discovered that my landscape rose in the front garden had one last, fat bud. I brought it in, gave it some warmth and light, and was rewarded with the last rose of summer. Here it is, almost faded.

"One Last Rose," oil on panel, 2015
And last, certainly not least, the final painting I sent to Salmagundi for the show is a quirky little still life I did around the same time as the one of the coffee creamer. Same ground, same interest in making cooler darks come forward. This is my studio tabletop, a tube of cobalt blue and an eraser and scissors. I cover my work surface with tan butcher paper which inevitably becomes marked by this or that pigment. This is pretty much how it looked one morning.

"Studio Tabletop," oil on paper mounted on board, 2011
The Thumbbox Exhibition has been a favorite of mine for several years, so off these went (via emailed entry) to the club for the jury's consideration. We'll see what they have to say.

Salmagundi Club Wikipedia entry

1939 History of Salmagundi Club (pdf)