The Brushwork of the Masters

In October of 2018, I had what may very well be a once in a lifetime experience for me... 

Thanks to my dear friend, Julia Kelleher, I was able to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. 

I love art.  I always have. As crazy as it might sound -- with the exception of the works hanging in the Biltmore Mansion -- it was the first time I ever stood in front of the works of the masters in my life.

It was also quite literally my first time in an art museum.  😱 There were several times when I had to fight back tears!  I may be ruined for life now LOL!

The very best part of the entire experience was getting to examine the brushwork of the masters up close, to dissect the way they applied paint to the canvas, to actually SEE what I've been told over and over by various sources for decades -- extreme detail is not the norm in oil painting.

One of my very favorite oil painters is John Singer Sargent.  I have books upon books of his work that I have studied over until the bindings are loose! The first Sargent painting I ever saw in person was that of Frederick Law Olmstead which hangs in the Biltmore Mansion.  I knew then that this was considered one of his lesser works based on my study, but for me - it was amazing.  I stood for much longer than I probably should have -- clogging up traffic on a very busy Biltmore tour day -- in complete awe of the brushwork.

Then I visited the MET.

I will never forget the awe of walking into the room that was all Sargent work. Paintings that had to be 6-8 FEET tall surrounded me.  There were no barriers and I could practically put my nose on the canvases (of course -- I kept a respectable distance so as not to get scolded by the docents).

I had Julia's Nikon Z-7 in my hands and I happily snapped away, taking closeups of the brushwork to study over when I got home. Let's examine some of the frames I captured...

Disclaimer:  it is near impossible to photograph these paintings without getting some degree of glare from the overhead lighting on the varnish.  Please try to see past that annoyance.

Madame X

The view from a distance is incredible.  The details seem intricately painted.  But are they? Upon closer examination, the highlights in the skirt are a mish-mash of what appears to be random brushstrokes.  But from the proper viewing distance, it looks like the sheen on a fine silk cloth.

The hand is even more incredible when viewed up close.  The ring is just one bright note of paint.  The fingers are suggestions rather than literal interpretations.  And yet - when viewed from the proper distance, the brain fills in the details leaving the viewer with the impression of intricate detail.

The Wyndham Sisters

I was particularly fascinated with the brushwork in this painting.  It is so suggestive and abstract when viewed up close.  But take a few steps back and you quickly realize how masterful the application of paint to canvas was! What appears to be intricate lace around the sleeve is actually just random blobs of paint when viewed up close.

All of the dress details have a very abstract and random feel.  But WOWZERS - the way it comes together when viewed from a distance...

One of my biggest style influences is how Sargent handles details versus faces.   Even when viewed very closely, there appears to be quite a bit of detail in the facial features of Sargent's work.  Is it a literal interpretation? NO.  There is still a good bit of work by the viewer's brain to fill in the detail gaps.  However, the farther away from the face you move, the less detail he painted.  Look at the detail on the shoulders of the dress here.  Look at the camera left elbow area, and even the hand.  There is really not a lot of details painted into those areas.  And yet -- when viewed from the proper distance, it's absolutely amazing!

So what's my point?

I've stated before that my goal when painting digitally is to fool the eye; to convince the viewer that they might possibly be looking at oil on canvas.

One of the biggest traps of painting digitally -- either in Photoshop or Corel Painter or any suchlike program -- is painting too much detail. It is the one thing that is a dead giveaway time after time.  No art aficionado will EVER be fooled when the level of detail is that of the typical digital painter.

One sure fire way of getting too much detail?  Paint with your image zoomed to 100% or more.  I always suggest to my beginning students that they only zoom to 50%.  This helps deter newer painters from getting sucked into the details too much.

I'd also like to propose that you practice making suggestive brushstrokes rather than literal interpretations when you paint. I'm speaking to myself here as much as anyone because I too am I'm guilty of getting caught up in details from time to time. I must make a conscious effort to paint in a more relaxed, Sargeant-like style of Photoshop painting.

The faces of your subject can have a bit more detail, but as you move into the more "non-essential" areas of the artwork, in my opinion, based on the study of the masters, the detail should become less and less. 

Take your cues from the famous painters like Sargent and you'll be mimicking oils in no time!