Archive for the ‘Stephen Paints a Picture’ Category

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Mastering the Good — Stephen Scott

April 27, 2020

Man in Yellow — Stephen Scott

There is no question that these are dark time times and dark times call for light. That light is beauty. The beautiful comforts us in times like these when life itself is in question. I have been writing about the beautiful for well over half a century. Generally, I have been making my case for beauty through the visuals arts. Of course, the beautiful exist in many forms and all of them are good. Here I am going to limit myself to painting and to one painter who creates beautiful objects, the New Brunswick artist, Stephen Scott.

I chose Stephen because I know him and his work very well. You can check out a very long conversation that I had with him on my blog under the heading Stephen Paints a Picture which resulted in an exhibition of his work at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. While you are on my blog you might want to read my post Art and Beauty that is also the name of my blog. Both of these articles were long before the current crisis with COVID-19.

Stephen and I often talk in circles and we talk a lot. In the current crisis our conversations have been limited to phone calls and FaceTime. Of course, we usually talk about what is art. He is, and as always been, a realist painter and I am a champion of realism, but also have a fondness for abstract and non-objective painting. I have alway been under the impression that content in art is secondary to its physical qualities. Here Stephen and I often part ways. I believe that I have to be attracted to a painting first by its qualities as an art work, craft and beauty, before I move on to content. This does not mean that content is unimportant. Content is often key to an artwork’s place in art history. Paintings can be beautifully done and totally devoid of serious meaning such as much of 18th century British portraiture. However, I have problems with the reverse. A badly done painting, regardless of its content, remains bad art or, as I would maintain, not art at all. An example would be Damien Hirst’s Spot Paintings. Damien Hirst and. his American counterpart, Jeff Koons are not artists, but con men. If you think they are artists I suggest that you stop reading this article here as you will not like it.

Stephen has often told me what separates art from non-art is content then goes on to use his painting as an example. I reply that a landscape is a landscape and its content is landscape. His painting Southside is a view of a bridge crossing the Saint John River in Fredricton. It is very wonderful painting and it is of a particular place, which is un-named in the title, but that place would be of little importance to people outside of Fredericton or New Brunswick, but they may still like the painting for its quality as a landscape. Viewers generally like paintings because they hold up as works of art even if some of them do not consciously know why. They know intuitively where things should be in a painting as they read it left to right and from the bottom left to the top right. North Side certainly checks off all those boxes. It reads well as a picture. In short it is a good painting.

Southside — Stephen Scott

To be fair Stephen and I have a different definition of the term content. I believe that when he speaks of content he is referring to the choice of subject matter that he finds worthy to paint. My idea of content is more its philosophic and or political meaning. Stephen has a good point because because it is up to his vision what to paint in a picture be they of a landscape, city scape, street scene, or of people. If an artist is using their art to illustrate a belief like their dislike of war it is something else again. Take the work of Kathe Kollwitz say compared to that Claude Monet. Both fine artists, but very different in their approach to art making. I must admit that I am in the Monet camp as I like ‘pretty’ pictures, but that does not take away from the quality of Kollwitz’s art.

Another point that Stephen has forcefully made to me about the difference between art and non-art is the idea of intention. A real artist has the intention of making art. Art making is not intuitive, but done with intention. Granted passable art can be made by a elephant painting with a brush in its trunk rather like a thousand monkeys typing Shakespeare, but it is not the intention of the elephant or the monkeys to produce art. It is more likely to gain peanuts. Hopefully a good artist would not need a thousand tries to get a passable painting. A good artist sets out each time with the intention of making art.

I have over the years watched Stephen painting as I have had other artists, but it is he that I have watched the most. I have seen him work from a pencil sketch, to an oil study, to a finished painting. He makes strenuous demands on himself. I have seen him work all day on a painting and in the end wipe it all out and start over the next day. This sometimes over my objection that what he was destroying was perfectly good. In the end his judgement was sound, but it is hard to watch. Major paintings sometimes take months to complete. An example, other than the portrait of myself described in Stephen Paints a Picture (Man in a Yellow Shirt), is Tableau with Three Figures.

Tableau with Three Figures — Stephen Scott

This painting is the result of a series photographs that he took at my 80th birthday in the summer of 2018. ( Stephen seldom works from photographs, but directly from observation.) It’s a evening scene through a glass door of three people sitting at a dining room table. The figure in the centre, shown from the back is myself, the woman to the left is my friend, Gina Bradet, and the other partial figure across from me is another friend, Chris Mackay. The painting is very different from its photographic sources and in every way better. Anyone who knows the three of us in the picture would recognize us immediately even though the figures are very broadly painted. The lighting comes from several directions, but it all seems correct. The colour of a mid-summer evening sparkles. I watched this painting go through several cycles and. in the end, it is a beautiful painting.

To return to my earlier point about content in Stephen’s work. Tableau with Three Figures is not titled Virgil’s 80th Birthday Party, but it speaks to a more universal theme that of three friends enjoying each other’s company on a Sunday evening. This event could be happening anywhere. It reminds me of an Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, but that is just me showing my age. How we look at a painting depends on our own history. As an art critic, art teacher, and artist I look at a painting in a different way than an art lay person. Different, not better. However, I think that most viewers will enjoy looking at Tableau with Three Figures and gain something from doing so.

Northern Gothic — Stephen Scott

Stephen’s Northern Gothic is another work that operates on many levels, but can be easily understood by many as just a beautiful painting. He would be annoyed by me using the words ‘just a beautiful painting’. It is a compliment as contemporary beautiful paintings are few and far between and Northern Gothic is obviously far more complex in its meaning and intention. The title is, of course, a take on Grant Woods 1930 painting American Gothic, but there the resemblance ends. Stephen’s painting is far more painterly than Woods’s work. American Gothic is social commentary and Northern Gothic is not. Stephen’s painting is a self portrait with his wife. It is a mirror image painted from life. The history of art is full of images of artists and their wives. The best examples are by Rubens and Rembrandt. Stephen is very aware of art history and admires flemish painting as do I. The use of space is more complex in Northern Gothic than in American Gothic and its mood is far darker. It is hard to figure out where things are in Stephen’s painting, but it seems to all hold together and make sense.

Painting is artifice and serves no useful purpose. They are objects placed on a wall that are meant to deceive or, at least, that is what Plato would have us believe. Plato had many useful ideas this was not one of them. Art, of course, serves a purpose, in fact many purposes. Chief among them is to satisfy the soul. We need satisfaction more than ever in these trying days COVID-19. One way is making art and another is looking at it. Some of us can do both. At the moment most of us are isolated in our homes and art galleries are closed. We are reduced to viewing art by digital means that is a poor way of looking at the paintings of Stephen Scott where their physical presence is so important. We must rely on our imaginations and wait for the time when we can see his, and other artists, work in person.

Let me leave you with the words of Immanuel Kant from his Critique of Judgement, part 51, Of the Division of the Beautiful Arts: “Among the formative arts I would give the palm to painting, partly because as the art of delineation it lies at the root of all the other formative arts, and partly because it can penetrate much further into the the region of ideas and can extend the field of intuition in conformity with them further than the others can.”* Take that Plato.

* Philosophies of Art and Beauty, Edited by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns, The Modern Library, New York (Random House), 1964, pg. 331.

©Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, 25 April 2020.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty-Two

December 3, 2014

26 May 2014

It was a Monday, the day after Lord Beaverbrook Day, and the gallery was closed as it is every Monday, but Stephen Scott and I were at Beaverbrook Art Gallery around eleven in the morning to try and finish his portrait of me.

“This should work out OK for us,” I said, “as there will be nobody around and we can concentrate on the painting.”

“Well, it certainly needs some work,” Stephen told me, Where’s the style? It’s boring.”

“You’re beating yourself up again. I think that it’s fine. It just needs the finishing touches.”

“I think that it’s a day for big brushes. Too much finicky detail. I’ve got to pull the whole fucking thing together,” he replied.

“I rather like the combination of detail and broad brushwork. It reminds me of Dutch and Flemish 17th century painting—Rembrandt, Halls, Rubens and the like,” I told him.

“But where’s the style, my style?”

“You got loads of style just don’t screw it up.”

“It’s hard to copy old master techniques. They’re just so natural and too good.”

“I think that you’re doing a pretty good job. A lot of contemporary artists have done a homage to past masters like Freud’s admitted homage to Watteau,” I said.

By this time Stephen was going in earnest with a very large brush on the canvas. Because I was posing I couldn’t see what he was doing, but seemed to be having a good time.

“It’s a good thing for painters to look back at art history to find inspiration. There’s some damn fine painters not that far back like Sargent and he, sure as hell, was looking at Rubens,” he said.

“It sure goes back to that old chestnut that art is about art,” I replied, “but I’ve been accused of being an old fart, sort of a neo-con critic and that was by friends.”

“They seem to have you pegged. Mind you, I’m not exactly a progressive.”

“You know I do like abstract painting, Abstract Expressionism, in particular, but that too is now history,” I added.
“But a lot of those guys,” he said, “could paint. They had solid education and it shows.”

“Where I have problem is with an artist like Jeff Koons who draws on Popeye and ballon dogs for inspiration and then farms out the work to a factory to do,” I said, “I think the work is shit, but then, again, he wildly successful and I’m not. One of the stupid dogs just sold for millions.”

“I’m not exactly swimming in money myself, but if you say artists like Koons or Hirst are shit, people will say you are reactionary or worse. Art is what it is today and that’s that.”

“Much of it is just bullshit, bad art, but then I’m a self identified old fart and what do I know about this brave new world of today’s art?” I said.

“Now, you’re beating yourself up. You’ve got a pretty solid base of art history. I’d say that there is a general disrespect for tradition in much of today’s art world.”

“I think that it’s more a lack of education than disrespect. When I talk to many students and younger artists, I’m amazed by what they don’t know about the history of art and, not only that, they don’t seem to care. They think history begins with them and, perhaps, they’re right.”

“Don’t forget the part,” he added, “that if you don’t know history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

“You’ve got that right. I’ve been looking at the same bloody installation works, all by different artists who think they’re being original, for the past fifty years and these have been shows in North and South America, Asia and Europe. It’s depressing the number of circles of rocks, tree branches and empty galleries passing as a statement that I’ve seen.”

“There are good contemporary artists and good exhibitions of contemporary art,” he said.

“You’re right, but I just have trouble naming them off the top of my head. How’s my painting coming along?”

“It’s getting there. Are there any of those coffee cartridges we bought left in the staff room.”

“I think so. Let’s take a break and I’ll go make us a cup.”

Back with the coffee, I had a look at what Stephen was doing with the painting, he was trying to bring everything together. He was adding details like my wrist watch and pen and, at the same time, working on unifying the background with the figure. The problem with painting is knowing when it is done, when to quit. It’s a problem that we had talked about many times during this project. I was familiar with the problem, when I painted as I, more often than not, had screwed it up at the last minute and had gone too far with a painting. Stephen had confessed that he did the same thing, but I think that he was a better judge about his own work than I was about mine and I felt a majority of his paintings looked ‘right’.

“Look, we’re getting there,” I said, “what do you think?”

“It’s close, but there’s the difference between making a painting and not making a painting”

“That’s cryptic. Who’s going to be the judge with this painting? You or me?”

“Perhaps the rest of the world.”

“You may have reached the point where you don’t need me to finish the painting. The painting takes on its own life and I just get in the way, but I’ll sit down and you have at it.”

“Sounds like a plan. There’s still things I can do.”

“I keep going back to the idea of music and painting,” I told him as I resumed posing, “In music it’s the space between the notes that’s important and in painting, it is often, what not there that makes it art. One’s imagination makes an art work, be it music or painting, complete.”

“Yes, you’re right a work of art is always more than the sum total of its parts.”

“That’s often the problem with Photo Realism, it tries too hard to look like a photo and misses the whole point of painting which is to make the eye and imagination work,” I said.

“There are times when photographs are useful as tools to an end in painting, but only as one tool among many,” he replied.

“Granted, but we’ve gone through this whole project without using photography and I think that the painting is the better for it.”

“It has taken us a long time, though, since last summer nearly a whole year. When did we start?”

Sketch 18 July 2013

Sketch 18 July 2013

“The 18th of July of last year to be exact. I looked it up last night.”

“Glad, I’m not being paid by the hour.”

“Actually, you not getting paid at all.”

“Don’t remind me.”

We worked, or rather, he painted and I sat, for the next hour or so, continuing our conversation, until it was time for the gallery to close. Terry Graff came in to watch us finish as did Sophie, his wife.

“So, is it done?” Terry asked.

“Close,” Stephen said.

“Hey, let me get up and see the last stroke,” I said, “I’ve waited a long time for this,” Stephen hit a high light on my wrist and watch and that was that, “I think that we should all go out for a drink, right now. Can Stephen clean up tomorrow, Terry? This is cause for a celebration.”

“Sure, I’ll even spring for the drinks.”

Final Portrait

Final Portrait 26 May 2014

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Saturday, November 29, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty-One

November 26, 2014

25 May 2014

It was, at last, Lord Beaverbrook Day at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The gallery annually puts on an open house for the event and regularly draws its largest attendance of the year. Stephen Scott and I were scheduled to finish my portrait during the day. We had planned to work at the gallery from eleven in the morning until two in the afternoon, but we got to the gallery early and decided to work until the gallery closed at five, but, even then, we figured that we might need an extra day to finish.

As Terry Graff, the gallery’s director, promised the place was packed. The staff had roped off our work space so that it resembled an accident scene.

“I’m not sure I like this,” I told Stephen, “It cuts us off from the public and rather puts us on display like an exhibit.”

“Yeah, I agree, but let’s leave it be for the moment and see how it works.”

By the time we really started working the place was crawling with kids and their parents. The little girls outnumbered the boys by a wide margin, but that seems to be the way it is. The boys were likely out with their dads doing manly stuff leaving the culture to the girls.

beaverbrook basement

Speaking of girls, one who appeared to be seven or eight, and for some reason dressed in a tutu told me, “When I grow up, I want to be an artist,” which was a statement that we had heard a few times over the week and almost always from girls. “OK, it seems like a good idea to me. What do you think, mom?” I asked her mother.

“If that’s what she wants, it’s OK with me.”

“Well, keep her interested. We need all the artists we can get.”

Stephen May, another Fredericton artist, who had been visiting us several times over the week, showed up once again.

“What do you think about Lucian Freud, Stephen?” he asked.

“I like him a lot. What’s not to like. Virgil and I talk about him often. How about you?” Scott replied.

“I like him too. He so painterly. Throws the stuff around really well.”

“If I can get my ten cents in,” I said, “I think that he was one of the best painters of the last century.”

“He doesn’t over romanticize his subjects. He can be brutal,” Scott said.

“I agree, but despite that, I find him to be a romantic,” I replied.

“I think Freud’s Romanticism is in his attitude,” May said.

“He sure as hell knew how to live his life to the fullest,” Scott said.

“God save us from boring artists,” I added.

We had quite an audience by that time, all of whom were listening intently to our three way conversation, but I doubt if many of them had any idea who Lucian Freud was. The seriousness of our talk was broken by one little boy in a Boy Scout uniform, looking at one of Stephen’s nudes in the exhibition, who announced to his mother in a loud voice, “Look, mom, another naked woman.” That statement broke everybody up and brought an end to our talk about Freud. Truth does come out of the mouths of babes.

“What do you say we take these barriers down,” I suggested.

“They’re in the way. Why not? This way people can get behind me,” Stephen aid.

“Good, want to do it, Max?” I said. Max Ackerson, a young art student, who had been helping us over the last few days, had been with us since eleven in the morning. He pulled the ropes aside, sat down again and continued to draw the scene in his sketchbook. He turned out to be a big help with our project.

“You know we should start our art school in Sackville,” I suggested to Stephen.

“Yeah, we have talked about that, haven’t we?”

“Meredith has got the space. The carriage house on Rectory Lane. It would at least in the summer or when it’s warm,” I added.

“We could do painting, drawing, history, criticism, the whole nine yards,” he said.

“Yes, and the nice thing, it’s nearly right across the street from the new fine arts building.”

“I really like the idea, Virgil, of a really traditional programme. Something most art schools and departments aren’t doing.”

“No shit. There’s a lot of art students out there that can’t draw and fair number who would like to know how to.”

“The trick,” he said, “is how do we do it? There’s startup costs and figuring out what in the hell to charge much less where the students are going to come from.”

“We can have a good look at the space this summer. I know that Meredith would be interested.”

“How many students do you think the space, and we, could handle?” he asked.

“Somewhere around ten to dozen. Needs to be a pilot project.”

“Sounds like a good way to go broke, but still interesting. What do you think Max? Would you go?”

“Maybe,” Max replied, “but it wouldn’t be like a regular art school.”

“Ah, but that’s the point,” I said, “It could be like how artists learned in the Renaissance and before. Working with an established artist and working from the ground up. Learning by doing. Less bull shit and more work.”

“Sounds better and better,” Stephen said, “but it would be a lot of work to get it going.”

“Granted, but there is a market out there. People want to learn traditional skills. There is a school of figurative art in New York which charges a lot of money and they have all the students they can handle.

“First things first. I still have to finish this painting and then maybe we can save the art world.”

“Speaking of first things, I could use a cup of coffee and a couple of cookies, how about you? Let’s take a break.”

“Good plan.”

“I can go into the kitchen and get it,” Max said.

“An even better plan,” I said.

During the break, I was able to get up and take a look at the painting. “It’s going OK, if you ask me,” I told Stephen. “Who’s asking you?” he replied. Stephen is a hard man to please. He’s very critical of his work and I’m always worrying that he is going to wipe out the portrait and start again which would not be good because we were scheduled to finish the project today or tomorrow at the latest. The gallery was really packed by now and there was no shortage of rubberneckers, but that was the whole point of the day and they, and we, were actually having a good time. It was odd as it was rather like the act of painting as a concert and I was looking for applause to break out after a particularly good brush stroke by Stephen. Historically the only precedent that came to mind was Gustave Courbet’s The Studio, but then we would have to have a real naked woman standing next to Stephen as he painted at the Beaverbrook which might have raised a problem for family day at the gallery.

Courbet_LAtelier_du_peintre

Finishing our coffee, I sat down and Stephen resumed painting. We talked about another project that we could do after finishing the portrait that might be easier than starting our own art school.

“I do like the idea of us going to art galleries around the Maritimes and the northeast of the States and looking at pictures together,” I said.

“It does have legs,” I think he said, “Picking one painting from each collection and talking about it.

“We could video as well and put it on YouTube. It’s too bad that we didn’t video this project, but it’s too late now,” I replied.

“Well, let’s do it, but I’m not going to finish this picture by five. We’re going to have to come back tomorrow.”

“Suits me and the gallery will be closed to the public. Should make it easier.”

“I feel like lobster and fiddleheads. How about you?” Stephen told me and I couldn’t argue.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, November 25, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Thirty

October 20, 2014

24 May 2014

Stephen Scott and I went to Fredericton, from his Nashwaak Village home, early Saturday morning to meet two friends, Harold Jarche and Chris Mackay, from Sackville for brunch at Isaac’s Way which is just two doors up from the gallery. They were both in on the project from its beginning the year before and they wanted to see the large painting being completed. All last summer the four of us would meet every Wednesday night at my place for wine and cheese and to shoot the breeze about art and technology. Chris and Harold were the techies and Stephen and me provided the art part. Anyway, they became very keen about Stephen’s art and we managed to plough our way through a great deal of wine in the process.

After a long brunch and conversation, we all went next door to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the exhibition. Chris and Harold had only seen the larger portrait in its very early stages and were impressed with the nearly completed painting.

“It’s pretty neat,” Harold said, “How long have you been working on it?

“I don’t know, thirty, forty hours, maybe more. What would you say, Virgil?”

“About that. I haven’t really counted. Should though.”

Stephen was transferring his paint from the water bath to his palette. “Hey, that’s a new palette. It’s square. Why?” I asked.

“It’s larger that’s all. I haven’t a fucking clue about the background colour. What do you think?”

“You’re painting, not me. If I were, I’d opt for something dark to contrast with the yellow shirt—dark brown or green.

“Speaking of the yellow shirt. I can’t seem to be able to find the right yellow.” He looked through the tubes of paint in his paint box. Picking one up, he said, “Think I’ll try yellow lake.”

basement sittingChris and Harold were walking around looking at the rest of the exhibition. They couldn’t figure what they liked best. It seemed like toss-up between the swimming pictures of Sophie or the painting of the dogs. “all things being said,” I told them, “I like the series better, but Echo and Bailey art pretty cute.”

“What do you mean by cute!” Stephen interjected, “I don’t paint cute.”

“Dog pictures are everybody’s favourite. Just watch the people as them come into the gallery. I’ll bet three quarters of them gravitate to the dog picture,” I answered.

“Perhaps, I should paint you as a dog.”

“Might be an improvement. It would certainly be better than painting me nude.”

“that’s an awful thought.”

“Yeah, my body is gone. Can my mind be far behind?”

Just about then Max, the art student we had met yesterday, came in. We had invited him to help us with the project.

“Good to see you Max. Ready to give us a hand?” I said.

“Sure, what can I do?”

“Not much right now. We need your eye more than anything else. What do you think? Have a look,” I told him.

“It looks pretty good to me.”

“What would you do?” Stephen asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“Here, have a go,” Stephen handed him his brush.

This took Max, and I must say, me, by surprise. I wouldn’t think that Stephen would ever let anyone touch one of his paintings. Max took the brush and dabbled a couple of strokes on the canvas. Mainly, it turns out, on the background and quickly returned the brush to Stephen.

“I think that was an improvement,” Stephen said.

Stephen never ceases to amaze me. He often puts on a grouchy persona, but, in reality, he is a bit of a softy. During our time painting at the Beaverbrook, he was always polite and friendly in answering everyone’s questions particularly those from children and students. I, on the other hand, have no problem being constantly grumpy. I put it to lower back pain.

“Max,” I offered, “Why don’t you go in the staff room and make us all, yourself included, a cup of coffee and I think I left some cookies from yesterday.”

While Max was gone, I asked Stephen why he let him work on the painting.

“Look, he isn’t going to any harm and the painting still got a long way to go. What’s here today might be gone tomorrow and besides, it’s good for his ego.”

“You got a point, I guess. It’s interesting that you keep referring to the drawings, and even the photographs of the drawings, while I’m sitting right in front of you.”

“The drawings are a different thing. They are the product of non-thinking. Drawing is almost automatic.”

“I would call it creative non-thinking,” I replied.

“I guess that’s a good way of putting it.”

“In order for drawing to be automatic,” I said, “You’ve got to master it and here I mean technique.”

“You learn drawing by doing it over and over again until it becomes second nature,” he said.

“Learning to draw is sort of like learning to play the piano. Lots of practice makes perfect. Mind you, it still doesn’t explain great drawing which comes down to talent,” I countered.

“I’m pretty sure that talent is over rated,” he said, “I think we should hold this conversation until Max returns.”

“Ok, you paint and I’ll sit.”

Presently Max returned with the coffee and cookies and we took a break. “Max, Stephen and I were just talking about the importance of drawing. What do you think?” I said.

“I guess, it’s pretty important. I actually brought my sketchbook. Mind if I draw?”

“Well, you guessed right. If you can’t draw, you’re not an artist. As far as drawing here; I don’t see a problem. Do you, Stephen?”

“Sure, I would be interested in what you come up with, Max.”

“How were your drawing courses at the craft school?” I asked.

“They were Ok, but I wish that we had more drawing.”

“I think the problem with many contemporary artists is that they can’t draw,” Stephen said.

“Many of them took drawing courses from professors who couldn’t draw. We’re three or four decades into teaching drawing poorly,” I replied.

“It’s likely that they were trying to teach them art with a capital A rather than the craft of drawing,” Stephen said.

“Yeah, I’ve had discussions with a lot of teachers over the years who tell me that they’re not interested in teaching technique. They want to teach art.”

“I’ll bet that most of them had very little technique themselves.”

“You’re right, that’s the ticket.”

“Let’s get back to work,” Stephen said.

Back in place, Stephen had a hard look at me. “Move your head a little bit to the left and look up a tad. That’s better.”

“For you maybe, but I still have to write my notes.”

“You figure it out. I’m sure you can get back into position.”

“Look, no notes, no book.”

“I should really cost this painting out.”

“Do you mean in time or materials?”

“Both.”

“Don’t it would be too scary.”

“Yeah, the paint alone is costing me a fortune and, as for the time, even at minimum wage it’s running into the thousands.”

“It’s interesting that wealthy people want to nickel and dime you for a portrait. They just don’t get it. Look it’s going to work out to well over a hundred hours of painting to finish the project. You got three oil sketches, lots of drawings all leading up to this big sucker,” I said.

“Stop. You’re depressing me.”

“Perhaps, we can con some collector into buying the painting for the Beaverbrook.”

“Fat chance,” he said.

“Just keep focused,” I told him, “and we’ll be finished before you know.”

“Focus is a good point. How do you keep focused throughout your life? Some great artists seem to have figured it out; Picasso, Cézanne and Courbet for example.”

“It was French food and wine,” I suggested.

“No, I’m serious. It’s hard to be true to your own vision throughout your life.”

“Look, it’s all about liking yourself and your work.”

“Are you listening to this, Max?” Stephen asked.

Max who was drawing in his sketchbook, looked up and replied, “Yes, it’s interesting.”

“Remember, Max you’re listening to two old farts complaining,” I said.

“Actually, it’s more to my point,” Stephen said, “follow your dreams, Max, and be true to yourself.”

Stephen painted for a couple more hours before Sophie returned to the gallery and told us the gallery was about to close and that we should quit. “Take a few photos before we do,” I asked.

grumpy old men

Photo by Christopher Mackay

 

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, 20 October 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Nine

October 7, 2014

23 May 2014

Stephen Scott and I arrived at the Beaverbrook around noon in time for a BBQ that director Terry Graff was throwing for his staff who were getting ready for Sunday’s Lord Beaverbrook Day at the gallery. We had stopped on the way in to pick up some copies of the Saint John Telegraph Journal which placed an interview of Stephen and me by Michael Landry about our exhibition on its front page. “It must have been a slow news day,” I told Terry, “but it’s good publicity, nonetheless.”

“I sure as hell hope that I can finish the painting by Sunday,” Stephen said.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure that Terry will give us extra time if we need it, right Terry?”

“Sure and the gallery is closed to the public on Monday and you work in private,” Terry said.

Stephen, Sophie, his wife, and I ate a couple of hot dogs and a hamburger before going into the gallery to continue the painting. The first thing we had to do was to fix the makeshift table that he was using to support his palette. “It’s up to you, man,” I told him, “If there is one thing that I’m not, it’s handyman. I couldn’t drive a nail straight if my life depended on it. That’s why I’m a critic, I can only talk or write about things, not actually do anything.”

“Yesterday I couldn’t touch the head,” Stephen said looking at the painting.

“Well, there’s always today. Sometimes things look better after a good night’s sleep,” I countered.

“And sometimes worse.”

“Don’t beat yourself up. We still have a few days to finish this thing and I, for one, think that it’s coming along swimmingly.”

“So do I,” chimed in Sophie.

“Go ahead and sit down while I adjust the lights,” Stephen said.

“I don’t think that anybody moved them,” I answered. We had put tape on the floor to mark the location of my chair and the lights.

Once he was satisfied with the setup, he started to paint. “I really need to do something with the highlight on left side of your face.” He picked up a brush and dabbed it with a little yellow.

“It’s pretty much about light and dark, isn’t it,” I asked.

“Without changes in value paintings become boring pretty quickly,” he said.

“You know what I used to do?” I said

“No, what?”

“I used a yellow filter to look at painting while I was doing. It changed everything to a mono-chrome and you could see the true values of the colours. It’s something the old masters did.”

“Yeah, colour differences are one thing, but people fail to see value differences.”

“It was certainly something that I had a hard time teaching,” I said.

“Colour theory is hardly taught at all these days. It’s all about content,” Stephen added.

“It all comes back to what you can teach and what you cannot teach,” I said, “Technique is teachable, talent is not.”

virgil 23 MayAround this time there were a few people in the gallery including three students from the Fredericton College of Arts and Crafts who were very interested in what we were doing. They had just finished the term and were keen to see Stephen paint.

“Do you like it?” Stephen asked them.

They all said yes and that they wished that they could paint as well as he did.

“It’s all about practice and hard work,” he told, “nothing comes easy.”

“How long have you been painting?” one of them, the woman— the other two were men—asked.

“Thirty-seven years. That’s since I graduated art school at Mount Allison.”

“That’s a long time,” she said.

“Do you guys like the Craft College? I used to teach there. This is Virgil,” he said, pointing to me, “He taught me. At Mount A.”

They looked at me and then back to him. We must have appeared to be very old to them, but they were too polite to say so. They did say that they did like going to the College.

“Why are you going to Arts and Crafts rather than a university programme like Mount Allison or NSCAD?” I asked them.

“I figure that it would be better learning something practical like illustration rather than fine arts. I could get a job,” one of the men answered.

“I bet it was your parents that told you that,” I said.

“Yes,” he replied.

“You should always go with your heart,” Stephen chimed in.

“He’s right you know,” I said, “You’ve only one life.”

“You know jobs are disappearing. Illustration can be done offshore and more of it is being done by computer programmes,” Stephen added.

“Look,” I continued, “if you’re going to be unemployed it is a lot better to be an unemployed artist—a painter or poet—then, if anything else, at least, it’s romantic.”

I was pretty sure that our hints to students on their futures would not be appreciated by their parents, but the next generation of artists has to come from somewhere. Of course, there are certainly more art schools than needed turning more artists than we need, something both Stephen and I agree on, but there are never enough really good artists and who knows one of these three students might just have the talent to become a great artist.

“I think I might go to art school after college,” the other young man said.

“What’s your name,” I asked.

“Max, Max Ackerson.”

“Well, Max what are you doing for the next couple of days? Would you like to help Stephen and me?”

“Doing what?”

“Just hang around. You can pick up some pointers from Stephen. Isn’t that right Stephen?”

“Sure, I can always use some help and a second set of eyes.”

“That will be great,” he said.

“Well, we’re here tomorrow at the same. Around one,” I said.

The three students hung around for awhile asking questions of Stephen. They left, I would like to think, happy with their afternoon.

“Stuff like that makes it all worthwhile. It’s good to find kids that are interested in art,” I said.

“Yeah, but I’m not sure that it’s not a good career move on their part.”

Actually there were quite a few people in the gallery over the afternoon. It might have had something to do with the Telegraph Journal article or people were at the Beaverbrook because they had nothing better to do. In any case, they were there and asking intelligent questions. They were very keen to watch Stephen paint from life. Most people equate realistic painting, particularly portraits, with skill and their preconceptions were confirmed watching Stephen paint.

“You know,” I told Stephen, “people looking at old masters, and high realism, in general, just don’t understand that they were painted by mortals, human beings and not by magic. That’s why it’s good for them to see you at work.”

‘Yeah, a lot of people seem to think that old masterpieces were done with some secret formula that’s been lost to the ages.”

“Actually, artists, before the modern age, apprenticed for at least seven years before they got into a guild and they had to present them with a master work as well before they were accepted.”

“Hence, the term masterpiece.”

“You got it,” I said, “most art schools today are all about talk and nothing else. A lot of graduates today couldn’t paint their way out of a paper bag.”

“Who would want to be in paper bag in the first place?”

“It’s not my point. It’s just that a lot of contemporary painters haven’t any idea what they’re doing.”

“You’re the guy that taught art for thirty-seven years, so it must be your fault.”

Touché, mea culpa.

Sophie, who had been visiting her sister and mother while we worked, returned to the gallery with coffee. “What do you think, Sophie?” I asked, “still look like me?”

“I think so,” she said.

“Why don’t you take some pictures with my camera?” I said, “We’re pretty much done here for the day. It’s pushing five.”

“No Shit?”

“Time flies when you’re having fun,” I said.

“Never going to get this done by Sunday.”

“Don’t sweat it, man. Remember what Terry said; I’m sure he’ll give us all the time we need and I’ll stay until you finish. Let’s get something to eat and drink. After all it’s Friday night.”

Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Tuesday, September 30, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Eight

August 24, 2014

22 May 2014

Stephen Scott and I were back and working right on schedule at 1pm at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Everything was as we left it the day before. It’s rather amazing that we could leave paint, brushes and a painting in progress in a public art gallery and nobody touched a thing even though it was a downstairs gallery with periodic security. It does say something about Canada and Canadians. After we had turned on the lights and I sat down, Stephen decided that he needed a viewer to frame me while he painted. He cut a rectangle the same proportion as the canvas out of a piece of cardboard and held it up to look at me as he painted. This was a device that the old masters used: simple, but effective.

“There,” he said, “I can cut out the stuff around you that I don’t need.”

“You’re the very picture of an old fashioned painter—maul stick, long brushes, the lot,” I said.

“Yeah, painters figured all this stuff out centuries ago. Not much need for improvement,” he replied.

“Except perhaps photography,” I said.

“Oh, the old masters had their own devices.”

“You mean like a camera obscura?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not sure that it was as widespread as David Hockney believes. I think most artists just eyeballed it, like you’re doing now.”

“I would agree with that, but, in general artists will use whatever it takes to make a good painting.”

“You know about that Albrecht Dürer print with the nude on the table with the artist using a framing device?” I asked.

“Sure, it was a frame with a string grid and vertical sight.”

“The best sixteenth century technology,” I added.

By this time there were two or three people in the gallery watching Stephen paint and listening to our conversation, but they, like most of the people yesterday, were remaining silent. I tried to engage them with the usual, “What do you think?” The usual answer was, “I like it. It looks like you.” As far as Stephen and I thought, that answer was just fine. They were watching Stephen develop the painting and seemed to enjoy the process. The vast majority of the people had never seen a professional artist work and that was the idea of what we wanted to do by painting in the gallery—demystify art.
stephens palette

When we were alone again, Stephen said, “This is really a performance piece.”

“You’re right and it’s better than most so-called performance works.”

“At least,” he said, “it has a product, a finished painting.”

“The good thing about most performance pieces is once they are done they vanish without a trace,” I said.

“Many live on in documentation,” he added.

“And, usually, the documentation is as shitty as the performance,” I chipped in.

“Don’t get your drawers in a knot. It’s not worth it.”

“Well, the only thing that makes this performance work is that we’re both good looking.”

“Surely, you’re putting me on,” Stephen said.

“Perhaps, but in this performance there is cause and effect. I’m the cause and your painting is the effect and most, if not all, people watching can see that. A lot of performance works leaves a majority of people scratching their heads.”

Stephen May about this time showed up again. “Can’t you get enough of this floor show,” I asked him.

“I’m enjoying myself,” he answered, “Stephen, I’ve got a question. Do you behave differently here in the gallery than you would in your studio?”

“Of course. normally painting is a solitary thing. Painting in public is a very different thing. People don’t see your mistakes when you’re working in the studio. Normally you just release the finished produce for public view. Then there is the quiet, the silence in the studio. The only dialogue is between you and the picture. Here people are looking over my shoulder and sometimes asking questions.”

“I don’t know if I’d want to do it,” May said, “I like the studio.”

“Me too. This is a one-off thing that came by chance more than anything else,” Scott replied.

“Ah, chance is the mother of invention,” I added.
“I’m not sure about mothers or invention, but I certainly wanted to have a finished painting to go along with the studies and drawings. After all the title of the exhibition is Stephen Paints a Picture and we needed the picture,” Scott said.

“Deadlines have their virtues,” I said, “They keep your nose to the grindstone.”

“In my case it was my jaw and cancer and not my nose that screwed things up,” Scott said.

The two Stephens were standing together looking at the painting on the easel, I joined them, “Well, boys what do you think?” I asked.

“Maybe, I should start over,” Scott said.

“Are you out of your mind? I think that it’s coming along just fine and you’ve got too much fucking time invested in it,” I told him.

“I tend to agree with Virgil. It’s looking good, Stephen,” May said.

“I don’t know about the right side of the face,” Scott said, “Perhaps some highlights.”

“You can do those without me posing. There is a time when the painting takes over. I’m going to make us some coffee in the staff room. Stephen (May) do you want a cup?”

“No thanks, I’d better get back to my own work. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

virgil complete

Virgil, almost finished

When I returned with the coffee, Stephen was working on the right side of my face, “See,” I said, “it looks better already. Take a break, here’s your coffee.”

“I’m not sure it’s better, I may have just fucked it up.”

“You’re too hard on yourself. Think, I’m the critic, you’re the artist. Let me be the judge. That’s my job.”

“Bullshit, I have to satisfy myself most of all.”

“Suit yourself, but I know you and you’re never satisfied.”

“If I was ever satisfied with a painting, I’d quit and get another job.”

“I know that and that’s why it’s important to part with your work, to sell it. Let it have a life out of your hands.”

“Easy for you to say, but people aren’t falling all over themselves to buy my pictures.”

“Time will correct that, my friend. You’re a damn fine artist. The public just hasn’t caught up to you yet or perhaps we haven’t found the right public.”

“Speaking of finding the right public, it’s time we got off our asses and did something about The New Guild. Like, it’s now or never. There’s got to be a better way to get your art out to the world,” he said.

“You’re right, it’s pretty much all talk and not much else on our part.”

“I think that the technology is already there, but it’s just finding the right way to use it,” Stephen added.

“We need a little help from our friends like Harold (Jarche), Chris (MacKay) and Steve (Scott). They’ve forgotten more of the new technology than we know put together,” I said.

“The point is that we have a product, really good art, that people want. We just have to find a way to get it to them. I’m not just talking about my art, but lots of good art that’s made right here in the Maritimes,” he said.

“The world should be our oyster. The money, and the interest, is just not here. Most people here want to buy stuff for a couple hundred bucks that matches their sofas. The locals with real money buy their art in Toronto or New York. Tom (Forrestall) sells his work to Maritimers in Toronto who then bring it back here,” I said.

“True enough, but there’s a world beyond Toronto and that’s where our market should be.”

We took another break and walked around the exhibition. “It looks pretty good, if I say so myself,” I told him.

“Yeah, I’ve never seen my work quite like this. It’s good to see a series like the swimming pictures all together.”

“I think the show works as group. There is continuity with the work. It’s too bad that we weren’t able to do a catalogue as I would have liked to have linked the other work with the portrait”

“Well, there are certainly a lot words about the portrait in your blog and we’ve already got the start of an e-book on the project.”

“I’ve just got to finish the posts and God knows how long that will take.”

“First things first, I have to finish the portrait,” he said, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do so by Sunday.”

“Look, we started a day late and I’m sure that Terry (Graff) will let us work until we’re finished. I’ll ask him.”

We went back to work for another hour and a few more spectators dropped by to watch including Stephanie (Weirathmuller) once again who said, like Stephen May, that she was going to come every day until we finished. “I’m beginning to like this,” Scott said, “It’s fun.”

“Well, I think that our fun is about over for the day. It’s close to five and I could use a drink and perhaps something to eat. Isn’t there a bar nearby where we could do both?” I asked Stephanie.

“I know just the place,” she replied.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, August 17, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Seven

August 11, 2014

21 May 2014

When I left Stephen Scott’s Nashwaak Village home on May 11th to return to Sackville, I intended to return once more to get some additional work done on my portrait before we were scheduled to finish it at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery later in the month. We both felt that we could use the extra time, but that morning, Stephen woke up with his jaw very swollen and in pain. He, Sophie, his wife and I were all very concerned and it was decided that he should go to the ER at the hospital and find out what was going on. It did turn out that he had a bad infection, and not, thank God, a return of the cancer, but it required him to have daily IV treatments and many trips to the hospital over the next two weeks. There were times during that period when we thought that we might not be able to finish the portrait at the gallery as planned. The idea was to work in the gallery from Tuesday May 20th. until Sunday May25th., which was Lord Beaverbrook Day at the gallery, an open house that attracts hundreds of people to the gallery. We thought that it would be a great day to finish the painting.

As it turned out, May 20th. was Stephen’s last day of treatment and he was very determined to finish the picture come hell or high water. So, I arrived on the afternoon of the 20th. and we planned to start work the next day, Wednesday the 21st., a day late.

The original idea was to work every day from one to five pm with the exception of Beaverbrook Day, when we would work from eleven until two. We figured that we could work extra hours, if need be, to make up for the day that we missed. The first problem was making sure that we had everything we needed to work in the gallery as it was a fifteen kilometre drive from the gallery to his studio to get anything we forgot. So, around noon we were at the gallery with boxes of supplies, lights, extension cords and anything else we could think of. “At least, I now know what the background will look like,” Stephen told me. He had struggled with the background while we were working in his home studio. The next step was to get the lighting in the gallery to match the lighting that we had been using in his studio and to find a chair that would work for me to sit on that was similar to the one at his house. We also placed tape on the floor to mark the location of the chair and lights. It took us a full hour to set everything up, but we were ready to start at the advertised one pm start.

painting at beaverbrook

“The gallery lighting is a bit difficult,” he said.

“But, at least it’s constant,” I added, “and won’t change throughout the day.”

“You know, I haven’t got enough white paint,” he held up a tube of nearly spent white paint, “Even Winsor & Newton sucks. You can’t buy good paint for any price.”

“Can you get some white paint down the street at that art supply place?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’ll get Sophie to go and see what she can dig up, but last time I tried, I was with you, I had a hard time getting lead white. I’ll have to settle for whatever they have.” He sent her on the mission and added, “See if you can get a couple cups of good coffee.”

Stephen had a difficult time getting me in the right pose, but after a considerable time of getting me to move my head this way and that, he started. At first there were only a few people in the gallery watching us work, but after about a half a hour, Adda Mihailescu, the gallery’s education officer, showed up with a large group of young children who ranged in age from around five to ten. They were the very audience we were looking for. They asked the questions that older people would like to ask, but are afraid to.

One young boy looked at me and at Stephen and asked him, “Is that your brother?” Another asked him. “Are you a painter?”

“Yes,” Stephen replied, and asked the children, “What do you kids like to paint?” Several of girls said ponies and boys liked, of course, super heroes. One of the girls said, “Can you paint butterflies?” It was apparent that they would rather have seen Stephen paint ponies and butterflies than me, but their attention was rapt, nevertheless. One of the older girls, about eight or nine, told us that her favourite class was art and added, “When I grow up, I want to be an artist.” They stayed for all of about ten to fifteen minutes, but it was the reaction that we wanted and it made seem like what we were doing in the gallery was the right thing. After they left, Stephen said, “If kids got into art from the start the world would be a better place.”

“Yeah, by the time kids get older than this group all their creativity has been crushed out of them. They are convinced that they can’t draw. It’s a fucking shame,” I said.

By this time, Sophie had returned with the paint, the coffee, and couple of candy bars to boot. She managed to find a large tube of titanium white. “This will have to do,” Stephen said. We took a break to see how things were going while we drank our coffee. “It’s interesting,” he said, “we’re painting the picture in the space and light where it will be exhibited in.” Adda showed up with another chair with arms for me to sit in. Both Stephen and I thought it was a better choice. It was certainly more comfortable and I was going to be sitting in it for a long time.

“What do you feel about working under such a tight deadline,” I asked.

“It does put me under a lot of pressure, but it’s probably a good thing,” he answered.

“You seem to be throwing a lot of paint around today. I would never know that you were sick as dog for the last couple of weeks.”

“It does feel good to be painting again.”

When we were back at work again, people came in and out of the gallery and watched what we were doing, but most of them remained silent and kept their distance. They were interested, but didn’t know quite what to do. They treated it like theatre. We tried our best to engage them in conversation. “So, what do you think?”, I asked a young woman who was looking intently at Stephen working on the painting. ‘It does look like you,” she replied.

“That’s more or less the point,” Stephen said, “Do you paint?”

“Not really, I had a couple classes in college, but I never followed it up, but I do like art.”

“You should really give it a shot again,” he told her, “It’s never too late.”

“Maybe I should, but I don’t think I would ever be any good.”

“I think that you should follow Stephen’s advice,” I added.

She left smiling and we felt that we were accomplishing something. “It’s good to have you working on this painting with the rest of your work on the walls. It takes some of the mystery out of art. I don’t think most people understand that painting, in particular, realistic painting, is done by a human being. Mind you, a talented human being,” I told Stephen.

“Yeah, I think that they find it interesting to see me working from life rather than photographs.”

“It’s great having the drawings and oil sketches here as well. Hopefully people will see the progress from them to the painting and perhaps get some understaning of how you work and think,” I said.
“It’s about working it up from the sketches. I certainly learned a lot from drawing,” he said.

About that time, Stephen May, another Fredericton painter showed up. Both Stephens were students at Mount Allison around the same time and are, at least in my opinion, fine realist artists, but it’s hardly an objective opinion as I was the head of the fine arts programme when they were students.

“I’ve been look forward to this,” May told Scott, “I’ve been to the show a few times, but this is different.”

“Don’t make me nervous,” Scott said.

“I doubt I could do that. I like the show, but I guess I told you that at the opening.”

“It’s certainly a new thing for me painting in public. It’s sort of like being naked in public. No place to hide your mistakes,” Scott told him.

“You do use a very limited palette, don’t you?” May asked.
“I think that it works better. You can do a lot with little,” Scott replied.

They talked for a while as people came and went and listened to their conversation. “You know,” I said, “It’s getting close to closing time. We’d better get out of the gallery before they throw us out.” Sophie had returned and was taking photographs of the process. Just as May departed, yet another Fredericton artist and Mount Allison graduate showed up, Stephanie Weirathmuller, a younger colleague, but also a realist painter who I had invited to dinner with Stephen Scott, Sophie and I.

“Just give me a chance to clean up and we’ll be on our way. I could use a drink and something to eat,” Scott said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, August 10, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Six

July 16, 2014

10 May 2014

After we finished breakfast, Stephen Scott and I adjourned to his Nashwaak Village home studio to have a look at his uncompleted portrait of me before he started work on it again. “The skin tones are too yellow, it’s the artificial light,” he tells me, “You know there’s a lot to be said for black and white.”

“Doesn’t look too bad to me, but I know what you’re talking about. More than once when I painted with tungsten artificial light the painting looked different in natural light. As you said, too yellow. It’s the colour temperature. I changed to daylight bulbs.”

“And then there is yellow shirt,” he added.

“Looks jaundiced, does it?”

“Speaking of yellow. I do like that yellow nude painting of Goodridge Roberts.” Stephen said.

“It’s like all of those German yellow nudes,” I replied.

“I wish I could do it,” he said.

“It’s back to the expressionist discussion of yesterday. I keep telling you’re a realist and not an expressionist.”

“What’s the term we came up?” he asked, “ neo-post-romantic?”

“That’s it.”

“Well, let’s see if I can fix the painting, sit down and we’ll get started.”

I sat and he took his paints out of the water bath where he had left them the day before and began to transfer them to his palette. He turned on the light, I took out my pen and we started. He was trying something with a small brush which is something he doesn’t do that often.

wet paints“I need a maul stick. I’ve got one somewhere,” he said looking around studio. He did find one, actually two.

“That really makes you look like an artist. I have seen all of those self portraits of 16th and 17th century artists holding their maul sticks and palettes.”

“Don’t forget the long brushes,” he added, “and on the subject of brushes, I don’t seem to have the right size.”

“You have a ton of brushes, Stephen, but you seem to use medium to large bristle flats most of the time.”

“I like flats they’re the most flexible.”

“I used to like rounds,” I said, “flats are a much later invention. All of the Renaissance artists used rounds.”

“In the end the public really doesn’t give a shit if an artist uses a flat, a round, a bright or filbert, it’s the painting that counts,” he said.

“And I guess that goes for mediums as well. Do they care about linseed oil, walnut oil or poppy seed oil? I doubt it,” I added, “It’s all about the product, the painting and not the process, but it is the process that I find interesting.”

“That’s because you started out as an artist and not as a critic,” he said.

“Yeah, but to be a good critic I think you really need to know about how something is made, process as well as history.”

brushesWe had spent months talking about art history, both current and past, and the process of painting while Stephen painted my portrait and we both came to the conclusion that you could not separate the two. Perhaps the conversation went the way it did because of our shared backgrounds in being trained as artists, but, more likely because we were interested in the mystery of art, in particular painting, and what drew people to art. The whole idea of painting is queer. You have an object hanging on a wall that people look at and, that if the object interests them, they might be emotionally moved. It seems to have worked for a very long time and I doubt that it will cease to work in the future.

Stephen had stopped working with the small brush and reverted to a much larger one. “William Merritt Chase’s and John Singer Sargent’s approach to art was right. You’ve got to get right from the start,” he said.

“That’s an interesting pair. I know Chase really admired Sargent and they both could do kick ass portraits. Frankly, you’re the first artist I’ve known who’s ever mentioned Chase. There’s lots of really good artists artists who really get lost in art history.”

“Speaking on lost. Let me show you something.” He stopped painting went upstairs and returned with a small paperback book, “Have a look at this.” It was a copy of the 1936 catalogue of the 149th official exhibition of the Société des Artistes Français at Grande Palais des Champs-Elysées that he had picked up in Amsterdam years ago. “See if you can find anybody you know?” he asked.

It was a good question. There were hundreds’ if not thousands, of artists listed and illustrated and I, like Stephen, couldn’t find a single artist that we recognized. I wish I was exaggerating, but every artist in this very large exhibition seems to have slipped into obscurity and I pride myself on knowing about obscure artists. Supply, it seems, far outstrips demand as far as art goes and that certainly includes ‘officially’ sanctioned art.

“Scary isn’t it?” I said referring to the catalogue, “Hopefully you’re dead before you’re forgotten. Being dead sort takes ego out of it.”

“Better you should take the money and run. It’s better than being famous after you’re dead,” he said.

“The trouble is that most artists aren’t famous or rich when they are alive or when they are dead,” I cheerfully added.

“It does make one wonder why one does this stuff,” he said looking at the brush in his hand.

“Well most good artists, and you’re a good artist, can’t do anything else. It’s more a curse than a blessing. How’s the painting coming?”

“OK, I think. Why don’t you have a look? I’ll make us a coffee. This whole process is odd. I’m not sure about asking professionals about my work, especially while I’m doing it. I remember asking Bruno Bobak to my studio and asking him what he thought. You know what he said? ‘Some have it and others don’t’. Sort of made me want to stop.”

“It’s too late for us. We’ve been at this since last July. Look, you’ve made something out of nothing although I don’t like the idea of calling myself nothing.”

We went into the kitchen and made coffee. “Jesus, this a slow process,” he said. “Are you talking about the coffee or the painting?” I said.

“Don’t be an ass. Just go back and look at the painting and I’ll bring you a cup of coffee.”

I actually couldn’t see a lot of change from where we had left off the day before, but it seemed better. Small changes count for a lot. It was not only what he had added, but what he had taken out. The biggest critic of Stephen’s work is Stephen.

“I like it,” I told him, as he was coming back into the studio with my coffee, “Where have you been doing most of the work? The head?”

“Yes, but it’s still a long way from right. I’m afraid of fucking it up.”

“No chance of that. It’s going to be pretty painting. I’m going to sit down, drink my coffee and let you continue.”

“Berlin must have been a hell of place to work before and after World War I and before the Nazi screwed it up for everyone,” he said.

“Yeah, there was a hell of a lot of energy going on. Great goings on. Mind you, Paris was the other side of the coin.”

“I would’ve given anything to be in either place at the time,” he said.

“But here we are in New Brunswick,” I replied, “definitely not Berlin or Paris.”

“I can see that every time I look out the window,” he added.

“There is the school of thought that you can make great art wherever you are.”

“That might be true, Virg, but there’s something to be said for the energy of a place.”

“You have point. Both you and Colville have worked in Berlin and loved it. At least that’s what both of you have told me.”

“I’m not sure why we’ve never had that energy in Canada much less the maritimes.” he asked.

“We’ve never been through the shit that Europe has been through and in the maritimes we just don’t have the population. The kind of people that settled here, like the Loyalist, didn’t give two hoots about the arts. In general they were dull people. Hell, in France they were having a revolution every other year form the end of the 18th century and all through the 19th.”

“Still, people made art here and continue to do so,” he said.

“That’s more to do with people than place. People like you make art because you have to and that says a lot about the human condition. I think that art is within us and artists are different because they let it out.”

“That’s great, but it’s a hell of a way to make a living, at least here.”

“Do you want to stop? I’ve got to go back to Sackville tomorrow morning, but I’ll try to get up here once more before we start working in the Beaverbrook at the end of the month. What do you say?”

“Sure, let’s get Sophie (his wife) and go downtown for dinner.”

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, July 13, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Five

July 8, 2014

9 May 2014

the studio

It was shortly after noon when I sat down and Stephen Scott started to continue to paint his portrait of me at his Nashwaak Village home studio. We had been talking, over breakfast, about his summer plans. Every year he tries to get away from the Fredericton area that is “too fucking hot”, to quote him, and work elsewhere. Last summer he was in Sackville and that resulted in this project. “I have an offer to go to Minister’s Island which would be interesting,” he said.

“Where’s that,” I asked.

“Around St. Andrews. You can only get on and off the island at low tide.”

“You sure? What’s happens when you need a beer? Much less if you need to get to the hospital? There is a health thing, you know.”

“Islands are romantic.”

“So is a dead artist. You could come back to Sackville. It’s pretty nice in the summer as you know.”

“Actually the idea has crossed my mind more than once.”

He was working on the canvas with what looked like a two inch brush. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Covering up yesterday’s mistakes,” he replied.

“Jesus, you spend hours doing details then turn around and cover them. You’ll never finish at this rate.”

“I hate the fussy stuff. Sargent did the same things. He would spend thirty or more sittings on a portrait and then wipe it out and start all over again.”

“And then there’s Freud,” I added, bring up another favourite artist of Stephen’s.

“All my favourite artists are slow—wonder why?”

“Seems pretty obvious to me. You like artists who paint like you. It’s all about paint, isn’t?”

“You got me there. By the way, what do you think of Freud’s portrait of the Queen?”

“I don’t know if we talked about that before, but to me, he made her look like a British housewife from the 50s. He certainly didn’t idealize her.”

“It’s still a good painting.”

“I’m pretty sure that it’s not one of Queen’s favourites, but she had the balls to commission it.”

“I still admire Walter Sickert.”

“Of Jack the Ripper fame?”

“That’s bull shit, but he, like, Freud and Sargent were artists who can control their media,” Stephen said.

“But not without a fight,” I countered.

“Yes, the fight is the good thing and that’s what I’m doing with this painting of you.”

“Now it’s about who’s going to win: the painting or you.”

Stephen and I had talked a lot over the past year, during this project, about painting being a form of combat. Generally a combat that remains invisible to the viewer, but is all too obvious to the artist during the production of an art work. There are exceptions, like in the work of some abstract expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston or William de Kooning where the combat is very visible. The American critic Harold Rosenberg talked of abstract expressionism as action painting. But there is a lot of action in the paintings of Rembrandt, Hals, Sargent, Freud and, indeed, Stephen, only the action, the combat, is covered, brought to a cohesive whole, rather then being left visible on the surface as in a de Kooning or Guston.

“There’s a very delicate balance between skill and control,” Stephen said.

“By skill, I assume you mean technique?”

“Yes. There are certainly artists who have all sorts of skill or technique and still are not good artists.”

“I’m not sure about the reverse,” I replied, “I guess it’s possible to make good art without skill, but not very likely.”

“I would think that it would be more of an accident than anything else,” he said.

“Along the lines of a donkey painting a likeable abstract painting with his tail; the monkeys with typewriters thing.”

“Yeah, I’ve yet to see much high realism painted by donkeys, but anything is possible.”

“And I’m still waiting for the thousand monkeys to produce a really good book, but we’re left with the problem that art, whatever art is, is separate from technique, skill and, for that matter, control,” I said.

“If we can figure out what art, is our fortune will be made and I can stop painting right now. Speaking of stopping. Let’s have a cup of of coffee and you can tell me what you think.”

We went into the kitchen and while Stephen made the coffee, while I paid some attention to Echo, his dog.

“Stephen, I sure hope that we can pull this off and actually finish the painting in the gallery (The Beaverbrook) on schedule,” I said.

“I don’t think that we have much choice, do you?” he replied, “anyway, have a look before we start again.” He handed me a cup of coffee and we went back in the studio.

“Looks pretty good to me,” I said, “but we’re going to have to really figure out the hands. I think they’re sort of key to the painting. They define who I am, a writer.”

“Yeah, in an old fashioned way, since writers today write on computers and not longhand with a pen and paper.”

“True, I’m going to write this shit up on my Mac and publish on my blog, but all of notes are on this notebook. But the point of this whole exercise is a bit of an anachronism. A throw back to a 17th century oil portrait painting of a guy who is a writer. Hell, it’s a classical motif.”

“OK, sit down and we’ll throw ourselves back into the 17th. century.”

Stephen started his creative dance in front of the canvas. A dab here and a dab there. It’s kind of wonderful to watch him work on a large painting. There is a real energy in his movements which is a great thing, considering what he has been through with his illness, the cancer of the jaw, that in general as left him fatigued.

“You’re talking about motifs,” he said, “some change, others don’t. Look at guitar painting: Goya, Manet, Picasso. All made great pictures with the guitar as the central element.”

“Let’s not leave out the nude and women, in general, as an important motif.” I countered.

“You know who I still have a problem with is Balthus,” he relied.

“He is sort of a dirty Fred Ross or, perhaps, historically, Fred Ross is a cleaner version of Balthus.” I said.

“I like naked women as much as the next guy, but I just can’t get my head around the prepubescent little girls.” Stephen said.

“Yeah, the painting of him in the bathrobe is a bit much.”

“It’s hard to get around the nude, but difficult to do these days in our age of political correctness,” he added, “but we still have romantic landscape.”

“Romantic?”

“I’m too jaded to be a romantic,” he said.

“Bull shit, you’re full blown romantic. How about if I call you a post-romantic? No, make that neo-post-romantic as there was a post-romantic school in the 19th. century.

Not a bad name for a new school, Neo Post Romantism.”

“I like it. Let me write it down.”

“Well, Stephen, do you need cancer to go from a romantic to a neo-post-romantic?”

“Yes.”

“In that case, we are both neo-post-romantics. I want to make it clear that we are not rejecting romanticism, but we’re romantics is an age that rejects romanticism which is different from the postmodernists who want to reject all the tenets of modernism. You agree?”

“I think so, but I’ve got to think about it.”

“OK, go right ahead, but on second thought, maybe we should widen our base from only those who have survived cancer to artists who share our antiquated ideas. The good thing about the cancer bit is perhaps we could have our own colour like pink and breast cancer. Then we could all wear green hats or something.”

“Green? It’s not my favourite colour.”

“Most of the good colours have all been taken. Just a thought. I like the hat idea.”

“Where are we going with this conversation anyway?” he asked.

“Look surviving cancer is a big deal and it does give you a whole new focus on life. You always know that it might come back and kick you in the ass and that’s actually true in my case with prostate cancer. I decided after my bout with cancer and a heart attack that I might as well do and say what I want. The hell with convention. You only live once and in our case, perhaps, twice. You agree?”

“Of course, but it can be depressing.”

“Look, I’m further away from my cancer than you, but I was around your age when I was diagnosed and I’m still here and that was twelve years ago. I’m still pissed off, but it’s more about not doing what I should have done with my life. So paint like there’s no tomorrow.”

“I’ve been thinking about that realist tag. I think of myself more as an expressionist than a realist. Intention is the root of all things.”

“Intention is one thing,” I said, “and the result is another thing. To my mind, you’re a romantic and it’s my job to make up tags. Banging away with square pegs and round holes. In the end, it’s the painting that counts not the label.”

“Are you talking about labelling the artist or the art work?”

“Both. I guess an expressionist artist can paint a romantic painting and vice versa, but the art work stands alone despite an artist’s intention.”

“That’s a little hard to swallow. You saying that an artist doesn’t know what he’s doing?”

“Not really. It’s more about intention and labelling. If you call a painting expressionist and the rest of the world calls it romantic, it’s likely romantic, but the painting is the painting.”

“You’re losing me, I think it’s time to stop for the day and have a drink and, in your case, a stiff one,” he said.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Saturday, July 5, 2014.

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Stephen Paints a Picture: Part Twenty Four

June 23, 2014

8 May 2014

It was around two in the afternoon before we got our asses in gear and began working again on the large portrait of me that Stephen Scott was painting in his home studio. “We really shouldn’t be having these leisurely breakfasts if we’re going to get this sucker finished before the show opens,” Stephen said.

stephen painting 24

“Got to remember that I’m getting old and takes me quite awhile to her up to speed, but we do have a couple more days before I have to get back to Sackville,” I replied.

“I’m thinking,” Stephen said, looking at the painting, “that the formal elements are always more important than the narrative ones.”

“I agree,” I said, “I can’t get to the content of a painting until I can get by the formal values of a work. If it’s a crummy painting technically and I just can’t interested in its content.”

“True, but there’s a lot of shit out there that’s content over form and we’re supposed to like it because it has an important message.”

“Look, if art could solve the world’s problems we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now. Art to me is all about catharsis. You’re the art therapist aren’t you?”

“Yeah, but I gave it up to return to painting,” he replied.

“And, I’m glad you did.”

“You know, I think that I’m going to do some drawing before I start painting. I’ve got to do something about your hands.” He got some butcher paper that he had and taped it to his drawing board.

“That paper reminds me of a show I saw in Vienna years ago of Klimt drawings of the nude done on butcher paper. They were drop dead beautiful,” I said.

“Yes, he could do great things with so few lines.”

“I really think that your drawing has really been important to this project.”

“I used to do a lot more drawing because my studio was outside, in my car, but it’s good to be doing some drawing again even if I’m working inside. I’m way out of my comfort zone, however, inventing as I go. Normally, I might take photographs of your hands and play with them when you weren’t here, but we agreed, no photography.”

“And I said no recording. Just notes. We’ve made it hard on ourselves rather like wearing hair shirts and, speaking of shirts, I apologize again for forgetting to bring the yellow shirt.”

“We’ve got plenty to work on without the shirt.” he worked until about an hour on the hand study and then took a short coffee break before he started on the painting. He had put yesterday’s leftover paint on a sheet of glass which he stored under water in glass baking dish which he now transferred to a wooden palette.

hands

“Shall we start?” he said.

“Realism is always in vogue, no matter what. People just like it. It never goes out of fashion,” I said.

“If you try to follow style, the latest trends, you’re always one step behind. You should stick to what you believe in,” Stephen added.

“That’s a good thought, but art is fickle. Art is what people say it is and right now that can be pretty much anything. Duchamp really screwed things up and that was a hundred years ago.”

“Stop, you’re depressing me.”

“What establishes value is the market place and there’s fuck all we can do about it,” I continued.

“Surely there’s a breaking point. Somewhere, sometime there’s got to be a realization that a lot of what is passing for high art is crap.”

“I’m not sure, but one thing is for sure that so much is so poorly made that it’ll self destruct. Dust to dust.”

“A whole lot of Jeff Koons’s stuff will last forever.”

“You’re right. Now you’re depressing me.”

Stephen was looking intently at me as he painted and I attempted to sit still. The studies made at my place last summer were done while he sat. Now he was painting the large painting on a studio easel while he stood. He did a sort of dance while he painted, darting back and forth at the canvas. He looked to me like he was enjoying himself.

“Painting on your feet is a whole different process, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It’s certainly more physical,” he replied, “you can get away from the canvas and see the whole thing.”

“That’s why the long brushes are important. You can stand back and paint at the same time,” I said.

“Yeah, and you just can’t buy them. That’s why I made these extensions.”

“The only time I saw them was at Pearl Paint in New York and that was many years ago.”

“And you gave them away, you shit.”

“I’m sorry about that. You just weren’t in the right place at the right time.”

He was working on the right side of the head. “It’s more about what’s not there than what’s there,” he said.

“Good painting is certainly about making people think that they are seeing something that really isn’t there. The Dutch and British portrait painters of the 17th. and 18th. centuries had that down pat,” I said.

“That’s why I have to use big brushes. Stops me from being too finicky. I pick a brush, then put it down and pick a bigger brush.”

“Another thing you have in common with the Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Hals is a very limited palette.”

“There are contemporary Canadian artists who have masterful technique outside of the usual suspects like Colville, Forrestall and Pratt,” Stephen said.

“Like who?”

“Well, Robert Bateman, Ken Danby and David Blackwood.”

“I certainly wouldn’t put Bateman and Danby in the same ballpark as Blackwood.

Well, neither would I, but I was speaking of technique not if they were interesting artist or not.”
“Bateman, Danby, and to some extent, Pratt, I assume we’re talking talking about Chris and not Mary, are photo realists. I thought you didn’t like photo realists.”

“I don’t really, but they do have technique.”

“Sure, but it’s very different than Rembrandt and Halls. It’s like night and day. You paint nothing like a magic or photo realist.”

“Early in my career, I was much tighter. Like Tom or Alex.”

“I like what you’re doing now and I do like Forrestall and Colville.”

“The maritime realists, Alex, Chris and Tom are individualists and really don’t fit neatly into mainstream Canadian art history,” he added.

“How about Jack Chambers?” I asked.

“I do like him, but he’s an exception. I find a lot of Canadian art of the 60s and 70s crap. A low point.”

“You mean stuff like Bush and Molinari?”

“Exactly. I’m a romantic and they’re not.”

“I’ll give you Molinari, but I’m not sure about Bush. His last paintings, the colour field ones, are pretty. I like them. Anyway, let’s have a look at what you’re doing. We’ve pretty much butchered Canadian art history and I need a cup of coffee.”

The painting, to my eyes, was coming, although slowly, together, but Stephen was still be very critical. “Maybe, I should start over,” he said as we both looked at the painting. “For God’s sake, no. Look at the time we’ve both got invested in this thing.”

It hard to be objective when you’re looking at a painting of yourself, but I was feeling that he was finding faults were there were none. There was still a ways to go before the painting was finished, however, what he had done thus far was pretty damn good. “Look, man, why don’t we stop before you screw it up, have a drink, go into town for dinner and start fresh in the morning?”

“OK, as long as you’re buying.”

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville, NB Canada, Sunday, June 22, 2014.