Blog

SIGHT SIZE IS THE RIGHT SIZE

I was recently reading from a web essay about Charles H Cecil, an American painter and teacher based in in Florence. He was discussing the idea of painting “sight size” a method adopted by painters such as Diego Velasquez and John Singer Sargent. Like me, Mr Cecil teaches this method in his studio, carrying on a tradition of realist painting going back several centuries but as up to date and necessary for any aspiring student of realist oil painter as having paint in a flexible tube.

After explaining the meaning of the terms TONE, FORM, and COLOUR, one of the next questions I ask a student is ‘Do you know what I mean by the term SIGHT SIZE.

Most students wanting to learn to paint in a realist manner will not have heard of this term. Many will have learned to paint by copying 2 dimensional images from photographs etc. and may not know the basic tenets of measuring. Some may have painted from life but in a class where a number of students stand in a semicircle and paint the same subject standing some metres back with their easel and either guessing the proportions of the subject or trying to measure proportionally i.e. how high compared to how long etc.

This was the way I was taught originally, and I did not learn the meaning of SIGHT SIZE until I commenced painting still life with Alan Martin in his wonderful studio in Eltham Victoria.

Here, we each had our own station using a shelf with an easel attached to it.

In this instance measurements can be transferred directly from the subject to the canvas.

Still life and canvas set up for direct measuring.

MATCH THE CANVAS TO THE SUBJECT OR THE SUBJECT TO THE CANVAS?

To me art is to do with the selection or setting up of the subject but once this is done the craft of painting begins. If we are measuring directly as above, the next job is to select a suitable sized canvas on which to paint your masterpiece. To illustrate this, I will move out of the studio into the landscape.

Alan Martin carried several canvasses of different sizes when working in the outdoors. He would set up his easel in a position where he could observe his desired scene and put up a canvas which he thought would contain that scene.  Standing on his viewing spot he would use his brush handle to measure the width of the canvas and transfer this measurement to the selected area of landscape. If he found that the canvas could contain the desired scene, he would then measure the height of the canvas and transfer this to the scene and if this suited his purpose, he would commence painting.

If, however he found that the canvas could not contain the desired scene, he would either select a larger piece of canvas or move his easel back from the subject until it fitted on to the existing canvas.

Remember: The size of the image is influenced by the distance between the subject and the easel so the further back the easel is from the subject the smaller the image will be.

I have attached a drawing of a typical studio set up from my book ‘On Painting’ which shows the formula for finding a suitable viewing spot from which to directly measure a subject onto the canvas. ( L = the longest dimension of the canvas)

A perfect set up would be to have the same light on the subject, the canvas and the palette.

With this set up one must ONLY LOOK AT THE SUBJECT WHEN AT YOUR VIEWING SPOT.

The temptation to look at the subject when at the easel is great but one must resist as the subject is different at this position.

I generally place my mark on the canvas and rather than step backwards to my viewing spot I turn around and walk to that spot and turn around and try to view my result as if it was someone else’s painting. In other words, try to remain objective.

Don James

13th July 2020

LEARNING TO TEACH OR TEACHING TO LEARN

As we move into a situation of forced isolation due to the coronavirus I have been considering my position as a teacher of painting more closely, having been such for 38 years. I will now probably not see any of my students for 6 months or so. I will miss them terribly.

Feelings of embarrassment flood back when I think of my early efforts at teaching and I can only hope that I didn’t cause too much damage to my students back then. The doctor’s mantra of ‘first do no harm’ applies I think to teachers.

Being fortunate to have studied under two of the best teachers of tonal realism, almost all of my methods were then and still are based on their teaching methods, and as I look back I think that the most important thing that I learned from both of them can be described as follows.

Shirley Bourne said constantly in class that ‘you are not here to paint a picture. You are here to learn how to paint! ‘

Alan Martin said that ‘we are not in the business of producing wall furniture!’ 

My dear friend John Wakefield, also a student of Alan Martin says on his web site ‘In contrast to modern business practice, I believe that the process is just as important as the product.’

To me each of these three statements can point to the importance for the student of concentrating on learning the techniques which are being conveyed by the teacher rather than trying to produce a finished painting in class.

Virgins are very thin on the ground these days and to get one, as a student can be wonderful. Many prospective students profess to be virginal but when I question them a little more closely, they have had a few lessons or read some books about technique and as such have lost their virginity.

Naturally any person who wants to learn to paint will have looked at paintings, something that I recommend all of my students do on a regular basis.

This has a great effect on our artistic development, as it stimulates our artistic taste buds.

Many new students have to be gently encouraged, if necessary, to change their way of thinking about painting and be trained to see as painters see.

This technique of course involves the suppression of memory of how things look, to see that all visual data is merely a set of shapes which need to be analyzed, their tonal values mixed in the right colour and placed on a suitably prepared flat surface in the correct place.

When this is done any person will recognize the produced image as the person, landscape or other items selected by the painter to represent.

Watching my students strive to work in this way and guiding them along the path to what Max Meldrum called ‘Visual Truth’ is also a learning experience for me as a teacher and also helps me in my quest to become more objective in my understanding of that term .

Don James

23rd March 2020

Self Isolation Self Portrait

GET AN APP!

I thought this morning that I had nothing to write about in my area of painting and then I read the newspaper supplement. The basic gist of the article was about how people viewed art and how their viewing experience can be improved with the use of things like mobile phone apps.

Apparently the advent of such devices has already changed our viewing habits especially through ‘selfies’. I am aging quickly and this made me feel even older. Time was when cameras were not permitted in art galleries. Originally this ban was probably to do with perceived copyright problems. My memory indicates that flashlights were thought to damage watercolour paintings. All of this seems to have gone out of fashion and cameras are now a necessary part of the viewing experience.

I go to a gallery to look at paintings! Whether I enjoy or am ‘moved’ by a picture is a deeply personal thing, not because of some sombre detail of the poor artist’s life but because of how I relate to he image and the artist’s skill in capturing it.

Whether I spend 17 seconds or 17 minutes in front of a work of art is mostly a function of how the work has been produced. Apart from where it might be or who it is a portrait of and such I am generally not interested. An Artist’s statement is in the work, not on a closely typed A4 page attached below the picture. I can usually find more information in the comfort of my own studio on the web or from a book if I have been stimulated to by the work.

I will continue to switch my mobile phone off when I enter a gallery and try to avoid the idiots who must have a picture of their head in front of a Rembrandt or a Constable. Now I will have to look out for those using a new app. to guide them around the gallery. The combination of these with the ‘selfies’ and those with those infernal aural guides will serve to prevent me from going to see the larger shows that come to town or at least time my visit to avoid the crowds.

Don James

27th December 2019

THE BUGS THAT BITE

I find that several bugs have bitten me during my lifetime.

Many were just fads and fancies that either through lack of money, abilities or interest have disappeared. A couple though have infected me such that they became chronic and remain to this day. One is music. My older brother John was a musician who collected records. Vinyl recordings were the rage and he had quite catholic tastes ranging from Rachmaninoff to Sinatra. He had studied the piano and played records constantly at home. The problem for me was that although I liked most of what he played his taste did not extend beyond the early 1950’s so Rock and Roll was definitely

out! Of course my teenage years spanned the 1950’s so the likes of Elvis Presley and later the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were my Gods. During these years I was making life difficult for a couple of piano teachers, as I was a lazy student having been forced to take lessons. I was more interested in Jailhouse Rock than Mozart.

However the early influences from John’s records stuck and I now have a taste in music that goes beyond that of my big brother and for that I thank him. I continue to tinkle on the keyboard and try to play guitar but ultimately I just love listening.

Speaking of the senses I could say that I came to oil painting through my sense of smell. Lt. Col. Kilgore said “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” in the movie Apocalypse Now. I quite understand his statement. My nose seeks out Gum Turpentine and Linseed Oil, a heady combination which I first experienced as a student. These days turps is looked down on in most teaching studios but my first experience of that wonderful perfume still makes me keep a bottle of gum turps in my studio cupboard and occasionally use it as a thinning agent.

Keeping with the senses, vision of the ocular type is the one which has driven my life for over fifty years. I cant say when I first consciously looked at something and recognised that it had a visual quality that appealed but my love of the automobile may have started me off.

Back in the 1940’s cars were rather boring in appearance, mostly black or very dark blue. Australia imported vehicles mainly from Britain and the U.S.A. at that time and as the 1950’s drew on a great change occurred. Firstly colours became brighter but in the later part of this decade American cars grew wings. Wow! This was something special and I drew my concept cars constantly.

What was it about these vehicles that fascinated me? The ideas used by the designers were certainly new and I decided at the age of 12, that was the job for me, a car designer.

It was not to be and I opted for architecture but the dry subjects like physics and chemistry left me cold so I didn’t last the distance. It was the graphic subjects that I enjoyed and ultimately I became a   draftsman and industrial designer. The visuals still fascinated me and I commenced studying painting. I had found my niche.

So why be a painter? Apart from the aforementioned perfume the rest is of course to do with the way things look.

Another thing that propelled me towards my profession was a disability which prevented me from most physical exertion such as sports for close to two years. During this time I spent a good deal of my time in the local municipal library and drawing. I was very fortunate to have good schoolteachers who encouraged my interest in language and art. In particular geometric art so I guess that a seed was sown there. Reading Moulin Rouge sitting on the floor of the library also helped.

After having been trained in the discipline of painting I have learned not to see the things when I paint, only shapes, tones and colours that form the things. This is the most difficult thing to teach the prospective realist painter. Trying to explain this to adult students can be extremely difficult.

I return to my early studies in art to point out the difference in seeing between the trained painter and the normal human being and reference Georges Braque the French artist who collaborated with Pablo Picasso in the development of Cubism. An artist who taught Graphic Arts to aspiring architects at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne in the early 1960’s introduced this ‘ism’ to me. I was fascinated mainly by the portraits painted by the cubists and their method of breaking the painting into a series of planes. I painted a number of these semi abstract images as a student myself.

At the same time I was regularly visiting the National Gallery of Victoria, which was then located opposite the R.M.I.T. and looking at the work of the Heidelberg School painters who were considered to be Impressionists. I really liked their work particularly that of Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton.

On leaving college, without a qualification I dabbled at home in my spare time and in 1972 commenced painting lessons at the Victorian Artists’ Society as well as studying ‘The Science Of Appearances’ by Max Meldrum. With my knowledge of the cubist technique I soon came to realise the similarities between it and the tonal realist technique that I was learning. Both methods required the painter to break the image to a set of planes rather than painting a nose a tree or a cloud in the sky.

Alan Martin, who had learned from Max Meldrum, had a particular mantra “It is just a set of shapes” which rang true and has become one of my regular statements in my teaching. Max Meldrum instructs us to see the subject as a painting and make the painting look like that subject.

Food for thought.

Don James

10th November 2019

TWO DIMENSIONS OR THREE?

SACHA

We had a great day recently during the Montsalvat Arts Festival when a group including Angela Abbott, Adam Frith, Leanne Savory, Peter Cranswick and myself painted still life in the Painting School studio.

Lots of interested and interesting people visited and several good paintings completed.

My work was once deemed not suitable for a particular exhibition because it wasn’t ‘contemporary’. ! After pinching myself to find if I existed I was left wondering how I could achieve that condition. The difference between what is termed Modern and Traditional in painting has been a vexed question for over 100 years now just as the question of what constitutes good or bad painting will always draw and argument.

There is spate of shows involving portraiture at the moment and as usual the various exhibitions require certain conditions to be met for entry from ‘painted from life” to “no use of digital media” as well as size restrictions etc. but there is scant mention of copyright.

I am often asked by prospective student about painting from photographs and my stock answer is that if one has a photograph which is considered good enough to copy as a painting, the photo itself should be enlarged and framed.

The use of sketches, preliminary paintings and even photographs as references for a final work has been widely acceptable for many years, if the photographs have been taken by the artist, but the use of other peoples photos is, if not always illegal then certainly immoral. As a student of realist painting one thing that was drilled into me was that we painted from life or to put it another way we converted three dimensional information into two dimensions, placed that information on a two dimensional panel in such a way that it looked three dimensional. I do not paint from two dimensional data apart from an occasional posthumous portrait which I tend to avoid.

Whilst I have always seen myself as a painter and played down the image of artist I am proud to admit to composing or designing my own work. I have done my share of copying the works of those painters I admire, but that is for my own pleasure and not for display or sale! One of my teachers had us copy one of his works as an exercise, upside down of course and it was very informative as regards technique.

In this digital age quality images of all sorts are at our fingertips and the temptation to use them or worse copy them must be great for the amateur painter, but to see what are obvious copies of other peoples photographs being produced and displayed by professional artists, I find offensive in the extreme.

If that means I am old fashioned then I will proudly wear that epithet and I try to remain contemporary for a few more years as well.

Don James

25th August 2019.

PAINTINGS GOOD OR BAD?

One of the things I tell my students is that the judging of paintings is a bit like judging restaurant food. It is mostly to do with taste. Because of our accumulated experience we cannot be totally objective. No matter how hard we try our prejudices will have an effect on our judgement. So how do we separate a good painting from the not so good or even from the bad.

When judging for prizes I generally do a quick walk around the show and note the pictures that immediately impress me. Then the hard work begins with another, much slower walk around looking harder at each picture, doing a reject list. This can sometimes include some of the ones that first impressed me. So what criteria do I use to reject work? Obviously any works which don’t fit the requirements for the particular prize, are easy to cull. The hard part is to ask why one painting is better than another.

1. An old friend of mine used to say ‘It’s not the size that attracts the flies……’, so all pictures great and small deserve equal consideration.

2. Leonardo Da Vinci is supposed to have said ‘It is better to paint a fish in the market place well than an archangel badly’, so ordinary complexity does not out pace beautiful simplicity. Look at the best of Clarice Beckett’s work.

Another painter worthy of a look is Andrea Smith, an Australian painter working and teaching in Italy. Her work sums up this simplicity idea perfectly and at the same time it is thrillingly beautiful. Her work can be seen on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/atelier.canova

3. ‘Bad framing can make a good painting bad but a good frame cannot make a bad painting good.’ I don’t know where I first heard that but framing is an important consideration when judging a work. The frame is an integral part of the work and should fit in more ways than one. A wide complex frame often can reduce the affect of a picture, whereas a frame that is too light can cheapen the look of a work.

4. As a painter I like to inspect whether the work has been constructed well as I have an eye to conservation. If a picture is on sale the general public the buyer needs to be sure of its quality.

5 We now get to the subjective rather than the objective part of the job. I believe that ideally signatures on pictures should be obscured as this would help the judge to be more objective. This is difficult to do so one must resort to whether the picture appeals or not. This involves using one’s accumulated knowledge and experience to come to what is always a difficult conclusion. 

Mostly I look for paintings which are pleasing to the eye, that are honest, don’t resort to trickery, all terms that are indefinable but that is the best I can do I’m afraid as we are into the realm of subjectivity again.

Don James

25th May 2019.

FACEBOOK

In recent months I have been reposting lots of images of paintings by some of my favourite painters such as John Singer Sargent, Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, and Henri Fantin-Latour.  The amount of high quality work that these and other painters produced in their lifetimes never ceases to amaze me.

Apart from the quantity it is the quality that stands out for me.

Many people denigrate Facebook and in some areas I have to agree that it has its drawbacks but as a painter and teacher I find it a very useful tool to show students what they can aspire to. It is also a very useful tool which can be used to learn about the lives of these artists and to look at a vast number of their works.

Looking at these works reminds me of the fact that all of these painters were classically trained from a quite early age, something that is not done today. So how can we expect to achieve what they did.

In the hundred or so years since they were working there have been tremendous advances in technology, none of which helps wth the learning of the techniques of oil painting to the level of these masters of the craft. Many inventions are used in painting but few of them improve the work of those that use them, in fact the reverse generally occurs. People look for easy fixes but there aren’t any, just good observation, hard work and discipline.

Don James

10th March 2019.

p.s. Anyone who is interested in reading a great story about artists of the era of Fantin Latour should seek out a copy of the following book. It gives an alternative view of Whistler and talks of his relationship with Fantin Latour and Alphonse Legros, The Societe des Trois.

Whistler the Friend
Pennell, Elizabeth Robins

Published by J. B. Lippincott Company. 1930. Philadelphia., 1930