Stephen Paints a Picture: Part One

August 14, 2013

18 July 2013
(This is the first of series. There will be one post for each day of the settings. They will be published for the next several weeks.)

stephen scott artistMy friend, the artist, Stephen Scott likes to take his summers away from his Fredericton area studio and home to travel and paint in a different location. This year he decided on going back to his roots in Sackville, New Brunswick where he had studied art at Mount Allison University from 1974 to 1978. I was the head of the fine arts department when he was a student here. Now he is nearly a senior citizen and certainly a senior artist. What that makes me, is left to your imagination. Soon after his arrival this summer, we fell into a conversation over coffee about the act of painting. I told him about a book, Man with a Blue Scarf, I had read written by British art critic, Martin Gayford, of sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud and how interesting it was to follow their conversation over the very long time it took Freud to complete the painting. One thing led to another and we decided to repeat the idea with me as the subject. Stephen is a very good portrait painter and likes to paint from life. It is a very different process from painting from photographs and Stephen, like Freud, is a very slow and meticulous artist.

sketchSo on a mid-July afternoon, Stephen set up shop in my kitchen for what we both hope would result in a good portrait. Since I am retired, I have the time sit as long as it takes and as we both like to talk, we began. The first thing was to do a couple of pencil sketches to try to figure out how my face worked and a pose for the oil sketch. We floated the idea of a large painting if time allowed, but the oil sketch was to be around twelve by eighteen inches. Alex Colville had just died and we talked a great deal about him and his work as he was an artist we both admired. Alex’s paintings and his methods are very different than Stephen’s, but they are both about the real — what is in front of you, translated into artistic reality by vision and thought.

“Colville’s life is so different than mine. His experiences of the war formed him and his art”; said Stephen, “My life was nothing like that.” Yet, to my mind there was a common bond and that was being raised in Maritime Canada. “Being from here you have more in common than you think”; I countered, “New Brunswick is not a major art centre, not in Colville’s time nor yours. It was isolated from modern contemporary art and not exactly the centre of the art universe today.” Alex was born in Toronto, but moved to Amherst, Nova Scotia as a child. Amherst, a border town, it might be noted, is about ten miles from Sackville, New Brunswick. Stephen was born in Saint John, New Brunswick and raised in Fredericton. Both artists were educated at Mount Allison University in Sackville.

Stephen was looking closely at me as he continued the first pencil sketch on paper. He was looking at the natural light which was coming through a glass paneled door on my left that resulted in dramatic shadows. I had to stay somewhat still and remain in a pose that I could hold for many hours. Age has carved a number of nooks and crannies into my face that do form a lot of places for shadows to form. He works quickly with a pencil using solid line with little or no erasure. His technique comes from many years of experience. Drawing is all about doing over and over again.

sketch with easelI told him about how I based my teaching of drawing on how I was taught photography in the US Army and that was by repetition. “Every class, in first year drawing, was the same. You start with quick gestural drawings and slowly build up to longer poses. They were pretty much one hundred per-cent from the figure and there were lots and lots of crits”; I said,  “and by the end of the school year most of my students could draw OK.” Stephen agreed that drawing is key: “If you cannot draw well, you never will be a good artist.” Yet, today drawing is played down in the education of the artist in favour of ideas. Drawing is passed off as ‘mere’ skill. I repeated my mantra to Stephen:  “I can teach someone to draw or paint, but I can’t teach someone to be an artist.”

We stopped for coffee, the first of many times that we would do that, and a break. I had a chance to look at the drawings. To me, they seemed to capture a good likeness and certainly a sense of the lighting of the situation. Stephen told me of visiting the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton as a child: “Right away I was impressed with their collection of British art”, he said, “It looked like what I thought painting should look like.” The gallery does have a very good collection of British art thanks to the largesse of Lord Beaverbrook who both build the gallery and supplied the collection in the early 1950s. Stephen was lucky when, at an early age, was able to see high quality real art something that many other Canadian artists were denied while they were growing up in areas of the country where there were no civic galleries. It does make a difference and, in Stephen’s case, would prove important when he finally made up his mind to be an artist years later. Childhood is critical to who we become and just visiting an art gallery as a child can change your life forever.

stephen scott paletteCoffee over, Stephen said, “Let’s paint.” I was keen to see what palette (colours) he would use and was surprised about how limited it was–mars yellow, ivory black, permanent rose, yellow ochre, vermillion, mars violet and titanium white. “It’s a palette that (John Singer) Sargent used.” Stephen remarked. “Sargent would have, of course, used flake white as there was no titanium white in his day. I sometimes kill the titanium by adding a bit of flake and sometimes, in addition, I use brown madder for my darks.”, he added. It is remarkable just how much you can get out of a limited palette. Artists in the distant past had to get along with a very limited palette as many modern pigments just didn’t exist, but even artists like Sargent liked to use a smaller choice of colour and, often, their choices made for remarkably stable paintings that have stood the test of time with little are no shifts of colour. Beside mixing two or more colours together to get another colour, artists, Stephen included, rely on local colour to fool the eye and make us think a colour is there that really only exists in our imagination. Local colour is the effect of a colour being seen next, or within, another colour which to the eye looks like a different colour. Trust me it works. Cut a hole in a piece of cardboard and isolate a colour in an old master painting like a Rubens, he was a master at this, gauge the colour, then take cardboard away and see what happens. You have to do this test with a real painting not an illustration in a book.

Stephen also uses mostly medium to large hog bristle flats and brights brushes even in a small painting like the oil sketch he is working today. (A bright is a short bristled flat brush. A flat is, of course, a flat bristled brush; your classic oil painting brush. There are also filberts and rounds, but let’s not get too technical.) I was surprised that he didn’t use much smaller brushes. “I can use the edge to get the detail I want.”, he said. Stephen likes to use walnut oil rather than linseed oil as a medium which again surprised me. “I thought that you would use a more classical medium with your paint.” “No, I like to keep it simple.”, he replied. (A classical medium, which is what you use to control the texture and viscosity of your paint, would be a mixture of linseed oil, damar varnish and turpentine.) I had the impression from looking at his paintings in the past that he was using a more complex technique. I was wrong. It is the result that is important rather than any technique provided that the painting in the end is stable and by stable I mean that the art work will endure for a very long time. I am quite certain that this is the case with Stephen’s paintings.

Another surprise was that Stephen used a pencil to lay down an outline on the canvas before he kicked in with oils. “Yes, I know that might bleed through”, he said when I questioned him on his technique, “but, there will be so much paint on the finished painting, that it will never happen.” You have to understand that I was always a purest following Ralph Mayer’s book, The Artist’s Handbook of Material and Techniques, when I taught oil painting. Use vine charcoal, never compressed, for an outline, then rub as much off as you can and apply a fixative before oil ever touches the canvas. I was learning a lot from Stephen, in particular, not to be so anal about classical technique. “Well, if it does bleed through, we will both be dead and gone”, I assured Stephen.

The important thing that he does do, however, is to use high quality paint such as Williamsburg, Michael Harding and Winsor & Newton. “ You should never skimp on paint. It will come back to haunt you”, he said. About this time, we were both getting tired. We had agreed that each session would be around two hours long and at about the same time of day, two to four in the afternoon, so the light would be about the same. “ That does it”, Stephen said, “Let’s leave it for a day or two.” At last, I had a chance to take a look at the canvas. “ It’s only the beginning.”, he continued. To me, it was a very nice beginning, but I knew that I would be sitting in the same chair for many hours to come.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Sunday, 11 August, 2013.


  1. […] posts on how Stephen Scott is painting Virgil’s portrait. It’s a fascinating read. In Stephen Paints a Picture: Part One, we learn about the inspiration behind the […]

  2. […] posts on how Stephen Scott is painting Virgil’s portrait. It’s a fascinating read. In Stephen Paints a Picture: Part One, we learn about the inspiration behind the […]

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