Last fall I took a workshop at Art Student’s league. I was in the midst of creating a large commissioned oil painting and I thought it would be good to get some classical technical training. I was taught oil painting in high school but. . . that was high school. In college we painted in oil but it was geared toward an illustration career- i.e. everything was small-scale and fast. Originals in illustration are usually never viewed- images are generated for reprint. I wanted to learn from a serious fine artist. I found something at ASL called The Copyist Program where you learn the techniques of the European masters by attempting to copy one of the classical paintings at The Met. Yes, I thought, perfect. Who better to learn from than Rubens, Titian, or El Greco. I applied.
I thought I would be copying only the style pof the artist but no. We were to copy our chosen paintings—exactly. I knew I wanted to learn classical portraiture, so I chose a self-portrait by Anthony Van Dyck. It called to me. The master painter stared out from the canvas almost mocking my attempt to reproduce it. He was handsome and confident, maybe a bit arrogant, but I figured I wouldn’t mind staring at him for the next six weeks. I’m going to try. My teacher, who is a master painter himself said, “This will be challenging”. I like challenges. Most of the other students were very serious artists. One was a professor at my college.
This was an honor. I was excited to learn.
Setting up a an easel and canvas with drop cloths and various chemicals in The Met galleries was intimidating. I quickly got used to it. Week after week I attempted to “copy” Van Dyck. The charcoal drawing and underpainting wasn’t quite as hard as I imagined. I had done my research and I was feeling good about it. I was doing well, my teacher seemed pleased. Then the inevitable happened. I hit my wall. This happens with every creative project I have ever attempted. It will happen to you.
If you ever attempt to make something, prepare yourself for an inevitable moment. Something goes very wrong. Always.
At the time, I had been bartending on weekends and oil painting four days out of the week in a space with less than ideal ventilation for many weeks. No days off. I was burning out. By the time I got to my Friday Met painting session one particular week —I was on complete work and chemical overload. I had forgotten half of my brushes that day. I just couldn’t “get it” that day. I worked over and over on Van Dyke’s forehead and eyebrows- pecking at it like a tiny tentative bird. I could not see the forest for the trees. I felt hazy- a little confused. I grew desperate. I prayed to the gods of painting. I prayed to the muse– Please help me. Up walks my teacher.
My teacher is of an older generation of painters and takes the craft very seriously. Everyone in my class was in a different gallery. He would walk around and visit us to see how we were progressing, but mostly we painted alone. He came around to me on this particular day and sat on the bench behind me with folded arms and watched as he tends to do. It is slightly unnerving but I appreciate his attention to the learning. On this particular day though it was too much. I could feel the cold Russian stare on my back. I was drowning. I continued fiddling around on the section I’d been on for over an hour- anxiety rising. I knew I was doing badly. My confidence was gone. He expected more.
He slowly approaches the canvas. His disgust coupled with my tension created a cloud of atmosphere almost intolerable. He looks at what I was doing, then back at me and sharply snaps. “BE BOLD!!”. His chilling accent was crippling.
“Yes sir, yes,” I nod as I dip my brush and continue to timidly scratch away at the two-inch space of canvas that I had been working on forever that day. He stood there shaking his head with folded arms. I felt seriously ashamed.
“Give me big brush!!” He barked. What? Is he going to paint on my painting? That has always been a pet peeve of mine since art school- but I knew better than to question him. I figure—I’m copying this anyway- it’s not like it’s my original art. I look for the brush I need. Of course it’s the brush that I forgot.
“BIG BRUSH!” Oh god, I’m freaking out. “ I forgot it. “ I mumbled.
He opened his brush case in disgust, carefully pulled one of his monster size brushes out, and dipped it in flake white. Oh my god no!! He then proceeded to paint a huge thick white stroke directly over the precious part that I had been working on all morning. Oh WOW. . . .wait a minute. . . . A crowd started to gather. I watched. In one stroke he made more progress than I had made in two hours. It was incredible. I was supremely humbled. He is soooo good- really good. I thought. A pile of high school students gathered behind us watched silently. In awe- crowds do not gather when I am working. A camera clicks. The professor turned and hissed “STOP IT!!” Yikes. We all shuddered a bit.
My entire morning’s work is now gone- he just covered it completely. I thought. I noticed my ego and I tried to ignore it. Let it go Clare. I was genuinely humbled—and ready to learn. Wow- intense.
Then he looked at me and said, “You can have this brush.”
Great, I think. The consolation prize of having my painting manhandled- practically hijacked was that I get to keep the assault weapon used. I notice my childish ego again. I shake it off and reframe. Clare, a serious master painter just showed you an incredible technique and gave you his brush. That. Is. Incredible. He handed me the brush and walked back over to his watching post on the bench behind me.
I went back to attempting to paint a refined masterpiece, yet now with a huge fumbling brush. I felt the cold Russian eyes at my back. Painting gods, please help me. This guy is serious. I am so far out of my comfort zone, this is a good thing, I thought. I just wish I hadn’t inhaled so much turpentine yesterday. I’m having an off day, he’s watching. I tried to shake it off. Concentrate Clare, focus. My anxiety was rising again.
After a few minutes, he stood up, walked over to me and in his thick Russian accent said, “you are sculpting his face, treat it like sculpture- carve- SCULPT!”. Phew, INTENSE. Then he walked away. Wow. I was humbled- my confidence trembling. I shook it off. I tried employing the technique he just showed me. It became easier without eyes on my back. It felt scary and different than anything I’d ever tried, but It was working. I began sculpting with paint. This is how Vandyck did it. WOW. Well- sort of- better of course but, I finally “got it” that day. I checked my phone. It was time to pack up. Shute. I started swishing my brushes in turpentine—still feeling confused from all the toxic inhalation- yet elated. In my failure I managed to learn something that day. Real progress had been made.