Some artist friends and I decided to enjoy a long weekend of painting together at Robert Johnson's workshop in Leesburg. I enjoy his workshops because he knows how to get artists in the mood to paint, enjoy every brushstroke and try new things.
Bob spent about 30 minutes quietly creating his setup and started painting right on time with a description of the block in and how he likes for each stage to be artistic. In a setup, look for opportunities to include variety (or polarity) in: Texture, Value, Size, Shapes, Intensity of color and even direction. He didn't mention this but I'll just pass along that it's important to emphasize variety if you want you paintings to have an organic quality. You can use less variety to create a colder, more mechanical feeling.
He talked about his canvas preparation as well. He prefers double lead primed linen from New York Central Art Supply (in Soho New York City) mounted onto gatorboard with miracle muck. (For what it's worth, you can also get some awesome triple primed rabbit skin glue portrait linen from the art league store in Alexandria Virginia ... I buy that and have it dry mounted on archival foam core for travel panels) Roll it flat with a brasier to make sure there are no bubbles. Pile the panels on top of each other with a weight and let them dry 24 hours - then trim off the extra canvas that hangs over the edges with a sharp exacto knife. Or ... you can just buy them pre-made from Windriver.
During this block in stage, he used the standard "light touch" method of picking up the lit areas with a cloth. He selected one sharp lit area of particular interest along the top edge of the silver jug and wet his brush with a dab of gambol to erase a nice edge along that area. Notice that he did *not* paint the handle of the silver jug. It turns out that he likes to leave that for later so that he doesn't have to cut in the background around such a specific shape. He simply said - I'll paint the handle in later. (It was almost the last thing he did).
After the block in, he says he lets the painting lead him. He mixed up some background color with Transparent red oxide, ultramarine and a dab of indian yellow (or naples yellow) with white. (I've also seen people do this with white, Thalo blue or green and burnt umber) The idea is to make a warm mid tone grey so that you can easily cut back into finished areas later without feeling like you'll ruin the background. Why didn't I think of that? I've always done it the hard way (lol).
From there, he did something I think was really important to notice but he didn't actually talk about it. He took some of that "atmosphere" color and knocked it into the sides of the silver put where it appeared and he would use it later.
From there he added the light on the silver and enjoyed working on that to get the values and rounded out of the shape.
Leaves: Although everything is important, Bob explained that he is more concerned with value than exact color and temperature at this point. This really shows up in the way his leaves are resolved. He darkened the darkest leaves with cool green and added cool red (like alizeron or quinocridone) in the veins. Then he gave most of his attention to picking out a few, beautiful lit leaves to give them life. He often cautions people not to short change leaves. They should be given as much respect as the flowers. Leaves may seem similar but rather than repeating patterns, look for variations and emphasize those.
At this point I should probably mention that it's MUCH better to actually attend a Robert Johnson demo/workshop than to rely on my random notes. I am only writing the little tiny bit of superficial step by step information that I can remember off the top of my head. The real value in what he teaches is actually something you can only pick up by being there.
An important learning point that I took away was that he paints objects in the direction of the object but he paints planes like the table/rug in the direction of the light. Notice how the brushwork is dragged across the canvas from left to right.
Notice all of the brush angles in the photos of Bob painting. The key to these beautiful paintings is in each persona's own technique of brushwork. Bob holds his brush delicately, often applying paint without the brush (i.e. only the paint) touching the canvas. This creates nice globs of organic looking texture as he changes the angle, direction and pressure on the brush (I think they were almost all long bristle filberts but he also showed us a soft, flat mongoose by rosemary brush company that he likes using).
Normally, I wouldn't add so many "basics" to a blog post but I've been noticing on my blog stats that with over 2500 hits a month, about 1/4 of readers are spending most of your time in these "how to" posts. New students have also been calling me to learn the basics. Because I have cut back my teaching schedule to a couple of workshops a year and teaching private lessons in order to spend time painting ... those calls alerted me that I need to do a better job of explaining not only what I think is unique in these workshops but also some of the basics that we all need to constantly review.
Hope this post was better for you and not too cluttered!
Do me a favor and drop me a line if you found any of this useful. I write these posts for my own use (so that I have electronic notes and photos) but I take time to add details in hopes that other people will benefit. If I know one or two of you are getting value out of them, then I know the extra effort is worthwhile.
Here is a video intro to one of his demo videos:
This weekend, my friends and I were all working on different things in this workshop. I specifically realized my own need to let the quality and texture of the paint reveal the way light trickles across an organic object. I also appreciated what Rob said about learning as much as possible while giving respect to your own personal aesthetic. It's nice to hear this recognition from someone who has such a specific and beautiful style of his own. For example, he prefers things lit naturally from above and to the side which I think gives a calming effect. Sometimes, I like to dramatize things with unusually low lighting, obscured light or even (rarely) I like multiple temperatures of light hitting from different directions.
That said ... for the purpose of getting as much as possible out of any workshop, I try to spend some time practicing within the teachers' aesthetic or approach to make sure I'm getting it. Then, on the second or last day I also like to spend some of time experimenting with things I've been wanting to try ... just to see how to incorporate the new learning with paintings I would probably do on my own later. This experimentation might sometimes seem to the teacher that the student is going off track but in Bob's case, he understood our need to experiment as an essential step in personal learning. The result: The first time I took one of Bob's workshops, a couple of friends saw the paintings I finished in his workshop and immediately said "Robert Johnson". One friend asked assumed I had purchased his demo and the other asked if I copied one of his paintings. Laughing out loud, I explained that I learn best by letting go of earlier ideas whenever I study with someone ... but we all need to let our own voice out too. So this time around, I took that learning a step further. I used his direction for the setups but incorporated different learning points into paintings that were in the direction I am personally going as a painter. I worked on two totally different still life paintings of similar subjects and had a great time!
He has made a number of videos so I'm including short clips here just for fun: