Twice now I have had the pleasure of taking a Robert Johnson workshop. Both at the private studio of a wonderful friend of mine in Purcellville, VA. This most recent workshop occurred during the record breaking deluge of rain we received in Northern Virginia. However, despite the rain spirits were bright and the painting “spell” cast by Johnson was magical.
Robert Johnson is a master painter of exceptional skill and technique. His marks are in essence calligraphic–and he admits to having been inspired early on by the Japanese art of Sumi-E painting. This influence is evident in his work and separates his approach to oil painting from his contemporaries. The way he applies paint is a performance all on its own. He delicately controls the lift & pressure of his brush to accurately render the ephemeral quality of his subjects. Any opportunity to study with him is not to be missed.
One of the highlights of this recent workshop for me personally, was meeting an honored participant, the noble Statesman from Virginia–Senator John Warner. Senator Warner stands with other notable Statesmen (such Winston Churchill), who have turned from politics to painting later in their career. I thoroughly enjoyed the Senator’s recollections of his time both as Secretary of the Navy and as a United States Senator as well as his anecdotal stories of celebrities and personalities he has known along the way.
Below are my notes that I took during both of Robert Johnson’s workshops. I have placed them in categories to make them easier to understand and apply:
-Decide which direction the viewer will travel through your painting.
-Concentrate on negative shapes, variety, design. Decide whether your design will go off the canvas–if so, let it go off in several directions or it will look like a shortcoming.
-You want variety in your set – up. Its inherent in nature.
-Seek a feeling of movement. Good proportion: mass of flowers to greenery to container.
-Using the convention of “polarity”-the juxtaposition of opposites, allows both objects to acquire visual impact. i.e. vertical/horizontal, bulky/delicate.
“The function of the background is to support the “prima ballerinas”. It should not detract from the main event. The background should not be as thick, the values not as saturated ed, the edges not as hard, etc.”
-“Strive to get depth, even on a front to back composition.”
-“The eye goes to hard edges, more paint & bright colors. Be aware of this and design accordingly.”
-Works on double primed lead supports.
-Preferred medium mixture: 5 parts stand oil, 5 parts Gamsol (OMS), 1 part damar varnish.
-Lays in an “imprimatura” wash with cobalt, viridian & transparent red oxide. Puts down marks on top in a rhythmic patter which he sometimes allows to show through in the final product.
“What do mediums add to your painting? They loosen up piles of paint, make longer brushstrokes like in the background and can create transparency”
-“You need flat brushes to get at the delicacy of the flowers. Paint them with the thought that if you blew on them they would move.”
-“All brushes should come to a nice sharp edge. Even your filberts.”
-Begins laying in his drawing very loosely-brush held way back, long brushstrokes. Thins down paint with turps (OM).
-Paints with only one glove on his “painting” hand.
–On levels of importance: Values, then Edges, then Colors
-Johnson wipes out the flower masses with paper towels from his initial drawing to set up the structure . He lifts quite often.
-He recommends creating charcoal drawings on toned paper to get used to “lifting out lights. Wipe out like an artist–your touch should have the feel of going over a peony.”
-“Paint the subject as if it is a under single source light. Ignore the ambient light.”
-“Don’t ever leave anything on your canvas that is confusing. Make it clear.”
-Johnson often redesigns as he is painting. He will mutter to himself, “Let’s make this little guy (a yellow peonie bud) white.”
-“The moment you touch your canvas, everything should be done with artistic intention.”
-“Don’t think about sugar bowls and roses-think about shapes and how they relate to one another.”
-“There is no democracy in art. The big forms always win.”
-“Get to your final painting stage quickly so that all you have to do are revisions. Finish the big statement as quick as you can.”
-“Always remember that perpendicular planes reflect the light the most. If you are having problems seeing or drawing try to remember that principle.”
-“Try to put the light down horizontally-it will stand out more. Implies ridges.”
–“The Rembrandt effect”: Horizontal then vertical marks, ending on the vertical.
-THE 5 MIN RULE: “When you make a bold statement there is this instant fear that you have done something wrong. When you have that urge to change it-ignore it. Take a deep breath, recognize what is happening. Give yourself permission to modify it–but only after 5 mins.”
-“Strength and boldness lead to more strength and boldness. This is the purpose to the 5 min rule.”
-“Learn to make good descriptive brushstrokes. As the painting evolves each stroke should be laid down as if it is never getting lifted.”
-“Maximize the utility of the highlight. Give them breathing room in your design.”
-“The light (within a painting) can describe the intensity of the light on the subject, the surface texture, direction of the light, the contour that it is going over.”
–On painting flowers: “Start with the outside shape of the flower, get that accurate. Then strive for the dimensional -the light and dark of it. Only then have you earned the right to paint a petal. Work abstract to detail.”
-“Say the most with the least. Be precise and you can get away with suggestion.”
-On the second day of a painting Johnson begins reworking the canvas by reapplying the background color so he has something to paint into.
–On painting rugs: ” Try to establish a pattern. Don’t be a slave to it. Rugs should have a clear, paintable pattern to them. Use the weave of the canvas to describe the weave of the rug (sometimes scratches the paint away with the side of a palette knife to reveal the weave). Say the most with least. Allow the materials to do the work for you. Go back in and restate the design of the rug but avoid getting mechanical & uniform with your brushstrokes. Use a light touch, get the paint just on the tip of your brush and drag it into place.”
-“Brushwork should be a muscle memory thing. You should be able to render the object just by looking at it with your eyes.”
“Just lay the paint on. No scrubbing. The paint will look better if you just allow it to do what it naturally does.”
-“You need a blend of soft and hard edges. Let the soft edges dominate. Use hard edges sparingly. Especially in the background. ”
-“If you can do it in one stroke it looks better. Start with a very light touch and then apply pressure-the stem will be painted naturally going from thin to thick.”
-Follows thick lights/thin darks rule.
-Gets a highlight on quickly to key in the values.
-“A trick from Sargent’s portraits: Add more light/color to the shadow of a subject–just past its contour. It helps turn form more and gives a sense of air.”
-“Within the dark areas there are accents. The opposite in value of highlights.”
-“We never think “dark” (values) with flowers but we should.”
–On foliage: “Layer light over dark, dark over light–adds dimension. Overlapping planes also give you dimensional”.
“Cast shadows are extremely important. Get them in early. They keep everything honest, related. The main thing I think about here is getting them dark enough and in the right places.”
–On greenery: “Ultramarine blue + Cad yellow pale + something from the red family. Always sneak red into your greens.”
–On painting red roses: “Don’t make lights, lighter- make darks, darker. White only makes red look chalky.”
-“Be careful painting yellow roses. It is the color most easily adulterated. It turns the key way down when other colors are accidentally introduced to it”.
-“Painting Techniques of the Masters”, Hereward Lester Cook
-“Russia, the Land, the People”
-“The Painted Word”, Tom Wolfe